A plan to link Cincinnati’s scattered cycling infrastructure could empower low-income riders

The proposed network of trails could one day connect nearly every Cincinnati neighborhood.

click to enlarge Rick Perryman - Photo: Nick Swartsell
Photo: Nick Swartsell
Rick Perryman
Rick Perryman is a bike mechanic, bike infrastructure advocate and hardcore cyclist.

That description might make you picture a guy of a certain income, maybe even of a certain race, in spandex, advocating for a trail in Hyde Park, or a fixie-riding Millennial pushing bike lanes in Over-the-Rhine. 

That’s not Perryman. But he is definitely a cyclist. 

“It’s the best way to get around,” says Perryman, who lives in Winton Hills and goes by the nickname Yo. “I didn’t start driving until I was 29, but I’ve always had a bike.”

For years, he rode back and forth 10 miles between Winton Hills and his job at Bakery Craft, a cake decoration factory in Glendale. Bakery Craft shut down last year, and Perryman, in his late 50s, doesn’t ride as much these days because of asthma and other breathing issues. But he has found other ways to stay involved in cycling. 

Perryman and others — like Winton Hills Community Council President Nikki Steele and community engagement coordinator Dazree Boyd — are working to get a bike and walking trail built in their neighborhood. They’ve gotten help from the Cincinnati Health Department and nonprofits Interact for Health and Groundwork Cincinnati, which has done extensive work to bring trails to the Mill Creek Valley.

The segment of trail would fill a 1.3-mile gap between bike lanes on busy Este Avenue and the Mill Creek Greenway Trail near Spring Grove Cemetery, giving Winton Hills residents better connection to groceries, jobs and recreation.

“I see a group of riders riding down Este all the time,” Perryman says. “The bike lane just kind of ends. Where could we go from there?”

For groups like Groundwork advocating for the trail, that question is part of a larger, more ambitious plan called Cincinnati Connects that could give residents in low-income neighborhoods better access to the city as a whole.

Discussion around bike paths and lanes usually centers around the idea they’re amenities for recreational cyclists or drivers of urban revitalization designed to lure young professionals who want to commute to their downtown jobs. But those aren’t the only people using bicycles in Cincinnati and other cities across the country.

click to enlarge Bike Lane passing industry on Este Avenue - Photo: Nick Swartsell
Photo: Nick Swartsell
Bike Lane passing industry on Este Avenue
According to 2015 Census data, about half of the people who commute to work by bike make below $25,000 a year. Granular data for Cincinnati isn’t readily available, but cyclists like Perryman will tell you low-income riders are more common than most people realize, especially in places like Winton Hills where levels of car ownership are far lower than average.

Adding cruel irony to the hurt of economic disadvantage, neighborhoods where people would be most likely to need to rely on bicycles are often the least likely to be served by bike infrastructure. 

“Walking or biking to work for some people is something extra, but for others, it’s a necessity,” Megan Folkerth of Interact for Health says about her organization’s interest in bike paths in the Mill Creek Valley and Cincinnati Connects generally. “Our focus and real interest is in making sure that, for people for whom that is their main form of transportation, we make it safe and accessible for them.”

A grant from Interact, the Health Department and Groundwork created Boyd’s position as project manager for the bike path last year. She hit the ground running, organizing planning sessions and trips to scout out possible trail routes last summer. 

“It almost feels unfair,” Boyd says of the disconnect Winton Hills faces. “People want to get out into other neighborhoods, go to parks and trails, see other parts of the city.”

Working with Perryman and other Winton Hills residents, including a number of bike-obsessed neighborhood youth, Boyd and her crew plotted an ideal path and worked with experts to design the trail. Now they’re waiting for a final report from Groundwork and funding to fall into place. 

“Basically, we wanted to see how best to connect our neighborhood with trails to make the grocery store and other places our neighbors need to go more accessible,” Steele says. “We want to connect our neighborhood the way every other neighborhood connects, and we want it to look as nice as any other neighborhood.”

To fully grasp Winton Hills’ need for a bike path, you have to understand the neighborhood itself. Sitting at the northern crown of Cincinnati between Carthage and College Hill, the neighborhood is mostly made up of Winton Terrace and Findlater Gardens, both Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority developments. Those developments were first built in 1940s as white-only subsidized housing. By the 1960s, however, those racial separations were lifted and Winton Terrace quickly became majority black. 

Today, the neighborhood is a prime example of Cincinnati’s pervasive racial and economic segregation. It is 90 percent black with a median household income of less than $11,000, Census data shows. It’s also an illustration of the environmental and transportation barriers low-income people often face. 

Just 15 percent of Winton Hills’ 4,787 residents own their own cars, according to a report by the Cincinnati Health Department. On an average weekday, residents must make a 45 minute to one-hour bus ride to get to downtown, just six-and-a-half miles away. 

The feeling of isolation residents can face is compounded by the neighborhood’s surroundings. A heavy fence of smoke stacks and industry, including chemical plants, auto salvage yards and fuel refineries, line the southern border of the neighborhood along with the clipped, unnatural hills of a shuttered landfill. 

The Mill Creek itself has been something of an environmental hazard due to the industry around it. In 1997, the waterway was named the most endangered urban river in America by national conservation organization American Rivers.

“Winton Hills is high-density public housing,” Groundwork Cincinnati’s Tanner Yess says. “It’s isolated geographically, it’s isolated by its physical environment. It’s right across the street from a landfill, right across the street from two or three chemical companies that are spewing whatever odorous gasses into the community.”

But it’s not all gloom in Winton Hills. The neighborhood’s community center buzzed on a recent weekday as Perryman sat out in the sun talking about bicycles. He has become something of a community hub for all things two wheels. Steele, the community council president, would like to start a bicycle club with Perryman at the helm — but in many ways, he’s already there.

Perryman is Winton Hills’ resident bike mechanic, working from his apartment to fix flat tires, change out seats and work free of charge on anyone’s bike who might happen to come by. He has a big bin of extra parts and a couple bikes of his own he tinkers with.

He’s “old school,” he says, and brags that he can fix three or four flats with a single inner tube patch.

His role as community bike doctor started seven years ago, he says. At the time, he was between homes, riding everywhere and carrying everything he needed, including bike tools, in his backpack. 

“One day I caught a flat down the street at a friend’s house, and next thing I knew, here come five kids with their bikes. So I had five bikes plus mine sitting upside down waiting to be fixed,” he says, laughing. “Then I ended up getting a place here, and they come through to my house to get their bikes fixed now. It makes me feel good to see them riding. As long as they’re riding, I feel good.” 

Perryman says he likes to pass along his excitement for biking to younger generations. He leads youth rides at nearby Spring Grove Cemetery and sees the potential trail as a way to extend healthy, safe recreation options for kids in a neighborhood without very many.

He found his passion for bike trails a few years ago when he rode from Warren County to Yellow Springs with a friend. He says the trip opened his eyes to the possibilities of bike trails.

“I really enjoyed that ride,” Perryman says. “It feels disconnected here because of how far we have to go to connect to other trails, like the Lunken Trail. Every community needs a trail, I think. I see a lot of older people riding their bikes, and we need to be connected.” ”

Winton Hills’ disconnected, often-industrial landscape typifies Cincinnati’s Mill Creek Valley from north of the neighborhood south through Millvale, North and South Fairmount to Lower Price Hill near the Ohio River. The area’s health, economic and connection challenges are something Groundwork has been working to address.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the National Park Service founded the organization as an urban-centered community engagement effort. Cincinnati’s Groundwork branch started in 1994, and the program is now in 23 mostly post-industrial cities. 

Groundwork Cincinnati started focusing on bike trails in 2004, Yess says, building a small section of trail northeast of Winton Hills at Caldwell Park in Carthage. 

Another portion, the Mill Creek Greenway Trail, was created in 2008 and 2009. That trail now runs in segments — including a portion north of Winton Hills and a southern portion near Spring Grove Cemetery. The latter segment of trail runs all the way down to Ethel Taylor Middle School in Millvale. Much of the funding for those portions was provided by state grants associated with the Ohio Clean Trail fund, with Interact for Health or the city providing local matches. 

Now, Groundwork, Interact, the Cincinnati Health Department and other groups are working on filling in the gaps in the trail, including the one going through Winton Hills. Eventually, they envision a 14-mile continuous path along the Mill Creek. 

Neighborhood activists in Northside are working to fill another gap in bike lanes between that neighborhood and the southern part of the trail along Spring Grove Ave., an effort that has picked up momentum in recent months as the city works on redesigning the segements of the road near the I-74 overpass.

click to enlarge A portion of the Mill Creek Greenway Trail North of WInton Hills - Photo: Nick Swartsell
Photo: Nick Swartsell
A portion of the Mill Creek Greenway Trail North of WInton Hills
But beyond filling the gaps in the Mill Creek Trail is an even bigger vision that will take years to attain. 

In 2015, the organizations involved in the Mill Creek Trail, plus other local trail initiatives, Queen City Bike, the city and county parks departments and other groups released a blueprint for a comprehensive bike trail system called Cincinnati Connects. The plan would eventually create a 42-mile loop around Cincinnati, passing through 33 of the city’s neighborhoods and putting 81 percent of the city’s population within a mile of a bike path. 

The plan looks to link together major bike trails underway or in the planning stages across the city. Those include the Mill Creek Trail, the Ohio River Trail and Wasson Way, an effort to eventually build a 7.6-mile trail from Avondale to Newtown. 

That proposal is a good example of what can happen when cyclists advocate for bike paths— and also the need to link that infrastructure.

The city of Cincinnati recently paid $12 million for a 4.1-mile stretch of railroad right of way between Montgomery Road and Wooster Pike and plans to start construction on that portion of the trail this fall. As much as another $11 million in construction costs are expected for that project. 

Wasson Way, which will run through several affluent suburbs and Cincinnati neighborhoods like Hyde Park, has momentum behind it, a fact that illustrates both the potential for trails and the challenges they present. 

“We notice the difference between amenities in neighborhoods where people are living until 80 versus neighborhoods where people are living to 66,” Folkerth, from Interact for Health, says. “It’s our responsibility as a community to do something about that. Wasson Way’s a great project. I think it’s fantastic. But what we as a community have spent on the Wasson Way, versus what we’ve spent on the Mill Creek — it’s been a struggle. Those communities that have higher incomes have money to advocate.”

Wade Johnston, director of Tri-State Trails, an advocacy organization run by nonprofit Green Umbrella, agrees. Johnston hosted a session on equity and bicycle infrastructure June 9 during Green Umbrella’s Midwest Regional Sustainability Summit at Xavier University. He says lower-income communities often don’t get as much of a say in decisions around cycling infrastructure because their opinions aren’t sought out enough — even though that infrastructure could help those communities the most.

“A safe, strong biking and walking community produces significant social gains, reducing health disparities, lowering household transportation expenses, creating jobs, lowering air pollution, reducing mental health problems and reducing violence by increasing community cohesion,” he says. “But often, communities that could most benefit from those kinds of projects and infrastructure are the communities being neglected in the planning process.”

Beyond the equity questions, Wasson Way illustrates the difficulties facing bike paths. Securing land rights from the myriad property owners along a trail’s path can be challenging, and trails are much more expensive to build than on-street bike lanes — between $500,000 and $1 million per mile, as opposed to just a few thousand dollars a mile for on-street bike lanes. Johnston says both are necessary to really create an efficient, sustainable cycling system that can allow riders access to the whole city.

Advocates admit that linking up four major city trails — which themselves need more work — with six smaller connectors to create their 42-mile loop is a major lift. They’re looking toward federal grants, perhaps Transit Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, funds administered by the Federal Department of Transportation, as a possible way to provide much of the more than $21 million needed to complete the connector trails alone. 

The federal government has turned down applications by the city for TIGER funds for Wasson Way twice — but, advocates point out, it isn’t a city-spanning, comprehensive project, which the feds usually prioritize. 

Linking the paths will allow the trails to go from recreational amenities to truly transformational opportunities for city residents, Folkerth says.

“It’s great that we have these amenities, but if the Wasson Way has four miles that doesn’t connect to anything, and the Ohio River Trail doesn’t connect to anything and the Mill Creek Trail doesn’t connect to anything, how are people going to get around our city?”

Other cities have completed similar comprehensive loops. One of the most notable is Portland, Ore. That city’s greater metropolitan area has more than 550 miles of off-street bike trails, and the city itself has more than 90 miles of on-street bike lanes and bike-friendly streets, according to Oregon Metro, the area’s regional government.

But cities closer to home might be better comparisons, Groundwork’s Yess says. 

“I think it’s more effective to look at places more like us that do this well. We can all look at Portland, but that’s not really realistic for Cincinnati.” 

Yess cites Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and Minneapolis as cities that have taken big strides in their bicycle infrastructure. 

Indianapolis is a good example of the kind of connectivity Cincinnati Connects advocates are striving for. Its widely acclaimed Cultural Trail isn’t huge — just an eight-mile loop through the city’s downtown — but it connects to other trails that run farther out as well as the city’s 75 miles of bike lanes. The trail took six years and a $20.5 million TIGER grant secured in 2008 to complete.

Minneapolis, Bicycling Magazine’s sixth-best city for bicycling last year, is on track to complete a 30-mile network of protected bike lanes throughout the city by 2020 and already has 40 miles of bike trails it began constructing in the 1990s. Despite harsh winters, the city has among the highest percentage of cyclists commuting to work in the country. 

Even if Cincinnati were to get to the level of Minneapolis or Indianapolis in the near future, it wouldn’t solve all of the problems in neighborhoods along the Mill Creek, Yess says. But it would help empower residents there.

“I think it’s useful to say that trails aren’t the answer, necessarily,” Yess says of inequities facing places like Winton Hills and Millvale. “Trails aren’t going to put food on your table. But they’re part of a system that can improve your quality of life. When you’re able to let people take the lead in these communities, then they can see the value in that and decide if it’s something they want to support. It’s always helpful to say, ‘Don’t you deserve that?’”

For cyclists like Perryman, the answer is a resounding “yes.”

“If we could have our own trails, quick access to where we need to go, we wouldn’t even need to be on the main roads,” he says. “I think we need it. I don’t know how long it will take, but I think it’s really worth it.” ©

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