Two-Wheel Dreams

When it comes to sharing the road with bikes, Cincinnati is not Amsterdam. Yet.
Paving the way for cyclists.
Paving the way for cyclists.

Illustration by Patrick George

Picture this: Out of the glare of the rising sun, a line of bicycles barrels toward downtown, their riders appropriately attired, though not in suit coats, ties, and skirts (those are tucked into the knapsacks strapped to their backs). They get five miles in before they have a bagel and get ready for work in the company fitness center. At lunch, downtown is alive with Red Bikes, their hungry riders pushing north for lunch at The Eagle or south to Yard House. And as the day ends, bike commuters working at Xavier University, Rookwood Exchange, and Hyde Park flock like bees seeking nectar to the Wasson Way Trail, where they leave the bustle of the city behind for a quiet ride home to Mariemont or Terrace Park.

That picture represents the vision of Frank Henson, president of Queen City Bike and as enthusiastic a cyclist as you’ll find. In his bicycle-friendly city of the future, he sees Cincinnati connected by a network of designated bicycle lanes and paved trails that lead to the suburbs, complemented by an ever-growing and financially viable Red Bike system that encourages anyone to jump on a bike anytime they feel like it. His ultimate dream? “A truly integrated system that makes it possible to live without a car.”

Used to be that bicycling was something you only did as a kid or on vacation. Not today. Look out on the trails and it’s a sea of families, retirees, serious riders, and daytrippers swaddled in spandex and riding everything from reliable old Schwinns to shiny new $3,500 Cannondale SuperX Carbon Ultegras. Bicycling has become so mainstream that whole towns—think Loveland—have built an economy around the pastime.

According to Darren Flusche, former policy director for the Washington, D.C.-based League of American Bicyclists and author of a 2012 study that examined how bicycling can increase business, the vision that Henson has conjured is not only feasible but wise; the economy can thrive in a two-wheeled environment, he believes. “Our [study] defied the conventional wisdom at the time which said if you had a car and drove to the store, you’d buy more because you could carry more home,” Flusche explains. In fact, a survey of several geographically diverse U.S. cities showed bicycle riders actually spent more per week than their counterparts in a Ford minivan. “Bicycle riders went to these places multiple times a week where a car driver might only go once,” he says. This was particularly true of restaurants, bars, corner groceries, and pharmacies.

Bicycles, Flusche says, “slow down life” and allow the rider to see what she misses traveling in a car at 35 miles per hour, eyes on the road, the radio blaring. Maybe you never noticed that cute tennis outfit in the woman’s clothing store you never knew existed. Or never saw the small sign that pointed down the block to an old-fashioned soda shop. And if there are no parking spaces, who cares? You don’t need one. Just stop, hop off, and pull out your wallet.

You might call that the utopian view of what a smart urban bicycling plan could render in a city like Cincinnati. But as numerous business owners, politicians, activists, and enthusiasts can attest, utopia wasn’t built in a day.

In Europe and parts of Asia, the bike has been an integral method of transportation for decades, so much so that many cities around the globe not only account for bicycle use by the citizenry but plan for it. In North America, people love their bikes even if city planners don’t. Still, there are two decidedly bike-friendly cities—Portland, Oregon, and Toronto—where the preponderance of cyclists has actually changed business districts. Sidewalks were widened and street parking spaces were replaced with bike “corrals”—two or more racks welded together to accommodate a dozen bikes. (Fans of Portlandia can be excused for chuckling over the care and maintenance of corrals.) And then there are the “protected bike lanes” which are designed to separate both pedestrians and cyclists from moving traffic. But we’ll get to them later.

It’s that kind of positive civic juju that Henson and a raft of pro-bike enthusiasts are actively trying to inculcate in Cincinnati. The good news (for them) is that a number of businesses located in the urban center agree. Dave Palm, senior vice president of operations for 84.51º (formerly dunnhumbyUSA), looks at the growth in bicycling as just another entry in his growing list of positives to promote to potential new employees. Palm recruits 15 to 25 college graduates every year to a public relations and marketing company that screams “excitement,” and getting them to come to Cincinnati means selling the city’s amenities. “Young people tend to want to settle in the downtown area where they can enjoy the Banks, OTR, the theaters, parks, and restaurants,” he said. “Being able to do so without hassling with a car and having the option of getting around by foot or on a bike—that’s attractive to them.”

As they were designing their new downtown HQ, Palm said 84.51° was sensitive to its employees’ growing interest in commuting via bicycle. Their new garage has room for over 100 bikes (compared to just 12 in their old riverfront offices) and the fitness center now has six shower stalls each for men and women (compared to just two in the old building). “We anticipate being downtown will encourage more [bicycle] commuters,” Palm said. “I can see some jumping on their bikes during the day if they have a meeting up at Kroger, for example.”

The view is much the same over at Epipheo, a cutting-edge digital marketing company chock full of twenty- and thirtysomethings, many of them recent emigrants from bike-crazed cities like Portland and Seattle. More than a dozen of the 60 employees at their Longworth Hall headquarters commute via bicycle during the spring through autumn months. Four or five of them even brave snow and wind chill in the winter. As Ford Knowlton, a member of the business development team, told me: “Bicycling is not just a part of our culture, it is a part of our philosophy.” Epipheo employees embrace the bicycle as a unifying tool, sponsoring after-work pub crawls to OTR and downtown, and even a weekend known as the “Tour de Friends,” which involves a 50-mile ride, camping, and a canoe trip on the Little Miami River. “The Tour is a family event,” Knowlton explains. “Cincinnati is both family-friendly and a beautiful place to ride, so a lot of us pull our kids along in wagons and it’s just a great weekend.”

It’s hard to find people who are against bikes, but they do exist. Frank Henson has met a few who equate riding a bicycle with going back in time and a few others who worry that the image it projects is I’m on a bike because I can’t afford a car. 

This subtle, anti-two-wheeler mentality accounts for the headwinds that bike advocates still encounter. Less subtle is the fight over the Oasis Bike Trail. The 4.75-mile proposed route, part of Ohio River Way’s bike trail project, would run from Lunken Airport to downtown alongside a twin set of Genesee & Wyoming train tracks. At the moment, it stands approved by the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority and has strong support from Mayor John Cranley, but the railroad is less than enthused about the idea of bicyclists comingling with one of their freight trains. There are plenty of examples around the country of so-called Rails to Trails projects but this is a Rails and Trails project, and one can easily imagine the lawyers urging the railroad to lower the crossing gate.

While bicycle commuters will use the Oasis and Wasson Way trails, it’s likely both will be busier on weekends with recreational riders. The 7.6-mile Wasson Way trail would be the bicycle version of the Norwood Lateral, running crosstown from Evanston, near Xavier University, and through Hyde Park, Oakley, Mt. Lookout, and Mariemont to Newtown. Supporters point out that more than 100,000 people live within a mile of the proposed trail.

In the future, Andress visualizes an urban east-west paved bike trial system that would run from downtown and Uptown to Coney Island.

Jay Andress, president of the Wasson Way board, points to a study conducted by two University of Cincinnati professors, Rainer vom Hofe and Olivier Parent, which showed that homes within a thousand feet of the Little Miami Scenic Trail had a property value nearly $9,000 higher than similar homes further away. Another recent study by UC’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning shows Wasson Way could have the same effect.

In June the city made two significant moves that could bring Wasson Way closer to reality. First, it struck a deal with Norfolk Southern to purchase the right-of-way for $11.8 million; it has until July 2016 to pay up. Second, to come up with the cash to help purchase the right-of-way and construct the trail, the city applied for a TIGER Grant through the U.S. Department of Transportation. Supporters believe there could be enough funding to build four spurs that would branch off the trail, including one that would lead to Uptown and UC and another that would connect to the Ault Park Valley Trail. In the not-too-distant future, Andress visualizes an urban east-west paved bike trail system that would run from downtown and Uptown to Coney Island with multiple interconnections. “This,” he says, “would be a major commuter route.”

The idea is for the Wasson Way Trail to eventually connect at its easternmost point with the Little Miami Bike Trail—a 75-mile paved gem that winds north through Milford, Loveland, and Ft. Ancient to Springfield. The master plan—the dream—is for an interconnected trail system that will allow a rider to pedal from the banks of the Ohio River to the shores of Lake Erie without sharing the road with a car.

It’s a different story when it comes to bicycles sharing the road with the driving public. By now, most urban motorists have noticed the bike lanes on Delta Avenue, Riverside Drive, Madison Road, Gest Street, and other routes around the city. Some of the streets have a dedicated bike lane along the curb, others are painted with a bicycle crowned by two directional arrows (meaning the lane is to be shared by both cars and bikes).

And then there is the so-called “protected bike lane” on Central Parkway. Starting just south of Music Hall, it hugs the curb intermittently from Over-the-Rhine to Clifton Heights. On the stretch between Liberty Street and Brighton Place, cars are allowed to park in the lane adjacent to the bike lane all day, except during rush hour (7 to 9 a.m. for the southbound lanes and 4 to 6 p.m. for the northbound lanes). Bollards—short plastic safety posts—have been placed between the bike lane and parking lane to protect cyclists.

But never mind the bollards, it’s the sudden on-street role reversal of bikes and cars—bikes cruising up a narrow dedicated lane next to the curb while parked cars now clog a formerly fluid lane—that has caused confusion, to say nothing of consternation.

“I sell antiques. I’m not a traffic engineer,” says Michael Williams, owner of Wooden Nickel Antiques, which fronts Central Parkway a block north of Music Hall. “But I know what’s not safe—and this isn’t.” As he speaks, a customer pulls up, parks, and then strides, head down, into his store. “See that?” he says. “People aren’t used to having to cross a bike lane after they park. She didn’t even look up.”

Williams bemoans the fact that he now has to unload some very large, very heavy architectural pieces, such as a massive mahogany bar the length of a first down, in a car travel lane and maneuver it across the bike lane. He claims that someone at City Hall even told him he needed to put a flagger in the lane when his deliveries blocked it. (He did not appear willing to do that.) Williams says bicyclists have been hit since the protected bike lane went in, but perhaps the more common safety risk is that motorists aren’t used to street parking that doesn’t hug the curb. Deborah Johnson, who along with her husband Bill owns Robin Imaging Services a little less than a mile north of the Wooden Nickel, saw her vehicle smashed from behind by a motorist who didn’t realize she was parked, legally, in the lane.

Bill Johnson has tried to persuade city council to abandon the protected bike lane, and as he puts it, “restore some sanity and safety” to the on-street bicycle system. An avid biker himself, he appeared before the council’s transportation committee in March looking for relief but councilmembers said they wanted more time to assess the Central Parkway plan. Vice Mayor David Mann thinks that, in time, motorists will become accustomed to the protected bike lanes. Noting the growing interest in bicycle commuting, he sees his role as providing a constituent service. “I think people, especially young people, want [bicycling] options downtown,” he says, “and we need to find a way to accommodate that with safety in mind.”

Clearly, there are bugs to be worked out. In just 30 minutes of observation on a chilly spring morning, I spied two motorists coming up quickly on a parked car in their travel lane on Central Parkway. Both swerved left to avoid impact. Another driver slammed on his brakes and laid on the horn because the man in front of him stopped to legally park in front of Cincinnati State’s job center. And at Music Hall, school bus drivers pulled their vehicles right onto the bike lanes to discharge their student passengers.

Signage doesn’t seem to help. The red and white parking signs are small, confusing, and mounted on posts along the sidewalk. It’s likely no one sees them and, if they do, no one understands them at 30 miles per hour. In May, the city installed new six-foot long pavement markings that state “PARKED CARS CAUTION.” Maybe that will get drivers’ attention.

The protected bike lanes, however, have already done something remarkable. Last fall, Bicycling named Cincinnati the 35th most bicycle-friendly city in the nation. Certainly the success of the Red Bike program also helped, but the magazine specifically cited the protected bike lanes in pushing the Queen City into the Top 50 for the first time. “Your bicycling community is very active and engaged and they seem to have the ear of your local officials,” Bill Nesper, vice president of programs for the League of American Bicyclists, told me. The League moved Cincinnati up from honorable mention to bronze status in 2012 and Nesper thinks there’s a good chance the city will move up again when the League presents its new rankings in 2016.

Nesper talked about “creating a legible bike system,” one that connects trails with on-street bike lanes and facilitates education with cyclists and drivers. “Safety is paramount,” he said. “But it’s not just safety, it’s the perception of safety. You need to clearly demonstrate that to get people out on their bikes.” The trick, he added, is for Cincinnati to work on “right-sizing its streets” through engineering studies and traffic counts that show where bike lanes can fit in well with cars. “And then link them up. Sharing the road can be a good thing for both cars and bicycles if it’s done right.”

Sharing the road isn’t an insurmountable challenge. Cincinnati is not Amsterdam or Hanoi. The League of American Bicyclists say only one-half of one percent of Cincinnatians commute to work by bicycle—and that’s a 146 percent increase from 2000 to 2012. Many more cyclists hit the trails than the streets, especially on the weekends, and that’s where you’re more apt to find sharing issues.

But the city is cognizant of both the increase in urban bicycle traffic and the frustrations of motorists. The city’s website is an excellent source for bicycling and motor vehicle rules and regulations, and Queen City Bike offers safety and skills classes for cyclists in conjunction with the Cincinnati Bike Center. The ever-optimistic Frank Henson knows there are physical barriers to overcome, as well as institutional ones, but he counts the recent success and smiles.

“I’d say we just finished coasting down a long hill and getting up to a good speed,” he reflected. “And now we’re seeing there are a few more hills up ahead that will challenge us. But you know what? That’s just a bike ride.”

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