It's difficult to ride a bicycle in Cincinnati, and not just because it's hilly and the weather sucks and our neighborhoods sprawl 30 miles away into another counties and states.
It's not because there are few bike racks and even fewer bike lanes. It's not because each neighborhood presents its own set of problems for planners and engineers or the fact that Cincinnati hasn't had a planning department since 2002.
It's not because the newest map of the city's bike routes is from 1998 or that you're just as likely to get a biggie-size Coke thrown at you while riding along Central Parkway than you are to receive a friendly wave.
It's a combination of all of these things.
But for every obstacle facing city leaders and engineers, there are numerous reasons for investing in bike- and pedestrian-safe infrastructure. Studies have shown that more cyclists and pedestrians on the streets means slower-moving cars, more aware drivers and fewer automobile deaths. Science has proven that driving fewer cars is good for the planet and that exercising is good for the heart. Cycling is fun, costs nothing and makes your muscles bigger and your ass smaller.
But a lack of consideration for bikes as a legitimate form of transportation — and a consequent lack of funding and planning — has left Cincinnati way behind one of the most simple and important movements of the 21st century. Today's economic realities are forcing American society to consider alternatives to a car-based lifestyle, and cities that long ago took the lead on bike safety and transportation planning are benefiting from it in numerous ways.
Cities with high rates of bicycle commuting have lower rates of obesity, fewer deaths per year due to pollution and more vibrant urban cores. Cycling and pedestrian friendliness appeal to the much-desired "young professional" demographic that Cincinnati wants its Chamber of Commerce to attract and retain.
The cycling movement is well underway in nearby cities like Columbus and Louisville, and they've done it by investing in long-term plans that view cycling as an important and necessary form of transit. Cincinnati's lack of investment in such contemporary forms of urban planning and transportation engineering have, for a long time, caused problems for everyone from planners and engineers to pedestrians, bike riders and drivers.
Cincinnati has recently publicized its investment in the completion of a riverfront commuter bike trail and the construction of a major downtown bike facility, but its inability to provide the basic on-street forms of bike and pedestrian-safe infrastructure — pioneered and proven during the last 20 years — leaves us in a familiar situation: behind most cities our size and unprepared for changing times ahead.
(See how biking measures up in accompanying "By the Numbers" chart.)
Past plans not implemented
Cincinnati's history of bicycle planning goes back nearly 40 years and amounts to a disconnected suburban trail system and a nearly unusable series of urban cycling infrastructure.
A glance at the 1998 Cincinnati Bike Route Guide (the most recent one created) presents an extensive range of preferred bike routes all over the city. But the map's key shows that most roadways marked on the map actually have no signs or bike-friendly designations on the road, which is a partial explanation for why most local cyclists have a story about being yelled at by a freaked-out motorist or having a take-out cup whiz by their head.
Other routes, like the official "Signed Bike Route" going from Hamilton Avenue along Central Parkway toward downtown, are the types of routes actually avoided by many cyclists because of heavy traffic, high speeds and freeway ramps entering the shared road.
According to a document titled Bicycle Transportation Program and Ohio River Trail Update, presented to Mayor Mark Mallory and city council in November 2006, the city of Cincinnati began consideration of bicycle transportation in the 1970s. The update offers a timeline of key events in the bicycling program, including the creation of a Riverfront Hike and Bike Plan for recreation in 1972, construction of a five-mile Lunken Airport Loop Trail in 1973 and completion of the 1976 Cincinnati Bikeway Plan — a conceptual planning document focusing on the use of a bicycle as transportation.
The Cincinnati Bikeway Plan still exists, but has never been implemented. The update states: "While the cost of executing the recommendations prohibited its implementation, it is still used as a reference and as support for grant requests."
Few changes occurred during the 1980s and early '90s, until a federal program offered grants to support bike use in cities. Cincinnati secured funds for on-street bicycle infrastructure and created a Bicycle Transportation Program in 1997, but by 1998 the city was again planning trails, extending the Lunken Trail north along the Little Miami River. From 1999 to 2001 the city focused on connecting the Lunken Airport Trail to the city, a process that still isn't completed.
The 1997 Bicycle Transportation Program still exists and helps guide the addition of safety improvements like signage or bike lanes when engineers have the opportunity — normally as part of new construction or improvements to existing roadways or intersections. But the program is underfunded and understaffed.
According to the 2006 program update: "In the past, the Bicycle Transportation Program has received $75,000 to $150,000 per year from the City's capital budget, with identified needs far outweighing available funds."
The most recent news regarding bike facilities by the Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana Regional Council of Governments (OKI) is the completion of the Ohio River Trail, which will run from New Richmond through Pierce Township, Clermont County, Anderson Township and into the east side of downtown Cincinnati. The trail will be connected to the Purple People Bridge and go into Newport, and another section will connect to the Little Miami Scenic Trail near the Lunken Airport.
Cincinnati Parks has recently revised the plans for the Central Riverfront Park, to be built as part of The Banks project, to include a bike station offering bike storage, rentals, showers and information desks. The facility will be located south of the Freedom Center with easy access to the East Side commuter trails.
Due to limited infrastructure in the central core and north and western neighborhoods, however, these extensive projects will only serve a fraction of the community.
Falling even further behind
It takes time and energy to build a functional, safe bicycling infrastructure in a city as large as Cincinnati.
Building a bike friendly community takes organized advocacy, an enthusiastic governmental presence and a plan. Cincinnati has had very little of each during the last 10 years and last year found itself on a bicycle advocacy group's list of "Not So Bicyclist Friendly" cities. The poor rating, by the League of American Bicyclists, is based on an evaluation of bicycle commuting statistics, levels of physical activity and deaths attributed to air pollution.
The organization examined 11 "Bike Friendly" cities and 11 "Not So Bike Friendly" cities and found that on average, residents of bike friendly cities have four times the rate of bike commutes to work, rank 6 percentage points higher for "doing any physical activity," 8 percentage points higher for doing 30 minutes of exercise five days per week and 11 percentage points lower on deaths due to air pollution.
The League of American Bicyclists, which publishes American Bicyclist Magazine, grades cities on what it calls the "5 E's" — engineering, education, encouragement, enforcement and evaluation and planning. The magazine recently named Louisville as one of the country's most improved cities for cycling after it released plans for increased attention to bike infrastructure within the city and 100 miles of interconnected suburban trails. Dirk Gowan, Louisville's Transportation Planning Administrator, says the city believes in the difference bike-friendliness can make beyond safety and traffic issues.
"The mayor has strategic initiatives and one of those is making Louisville a bike-friendly community," Gowan says. "But I think it's bigger than that. The mayor is interested in bringing young professionals to Louisville and it's that livability that he believes encourages the young professionals to move here, and I think he's right."
Columbus' newly-created 20-year plan includes 31 miles of trails and 58 miles of bike lanes to be added during the next four years alone and has an estimated total cost of $167.6 million that's coming out of the capital fund once approved as part of the city's bond measure this November. The city will invest $20 million for implementation of the plan between now and 2012, according to Urban Ventures Coordinator Mike Brown.
Brown says that Columbus' traffic engineers were mostly focused on automobiles — getting them in and out of the city faster and more efficiently — when Mayor Michael Coleman was elected in 1999. Coleman's administration determined that traffic counts were one reason the city was losing visitors, and it decided to invest in pedestrian-friendly and user-friendly facilities, according to Brown.
"Mayor Coleman was frustrated by engineering ideas," he says. "Over time he was just like, 'Listen, that's not what we were elected for.' The people want us to make our neighborhoods safer for people walking, people riding bikes and making it safe for pedestrians, not just cars. You have to change the way people think about it at a very basic level."
Planning is key
This country's leader when it comes to bike-friendly transportation planning and engineering is Portland, Ore. The city combines a variety of bikeways to create a system that's safe for cyclists and pedestrians and intuitive for a wide variety of users — from children and elderly walkers to bike commuters and recreational users.
Portland continues to innovate urban infrastructure, combining the simplest of devices — the shared street — with wide bike lanes, bike paths and bike boulevards (roads completely closed to cars) to create a system that is functional and safe for both bikes and cars. Each device has its pros and cons, and many — like the bike boulevard — need additional planning to ensure that signals and signs create safe and usable intersections for cars and pedestrians too.
"We look at bikes as part of our transportation system," says Greg Raisman, a Portland traffic safety specialist. "We look at a variety of system types. We have a network of residential streets that parallel larger routes, pavement markings and signs. We want to slow traffic down for cars, reduce the amount of cut-through traffic through the neighborhoods so that it becomes a much more pleasant place to ride your bike or walk or play in your front yards."
Raisman says that since 2002 Portland has doubled its bike use and that while the numbers of people riding increases, the number of crashes and automobile accidents is going down.
In 1996 41 people died in Portland as either a driver or passenger of a motor vehicle, according to Raisman. In 2007 that number was 15.
Portland invests 1.7 percent of its capital budget on bicycling planning and infrastructure, which produces 6 percent of the city's trips. The decreasing number of cars on the road also helps preserve the roads themselves, which are becoming increasingly expensive to maintain.
Many of the innovative methods that Portland uses for traffic calming and making drivers aware of cyclists are available here, but Cincinnati's layout makes the process of planning an entire interconnected series of bike routes more difficult. Portland was built on a grid system that Cincinnati couldn't fully employ because of its more complex topography.
A bike boulevard would work along Euclid Street in Corryville, but only for a certain distance and then another piece of infrastructure would have to guide cyclists through a different type of car-bike obstacle. But even if Cincinnati's master plan would need to involve significant research and creativity, it's becoming more necessary with every new bike on the road.
"Right now I see the increase in cycling as creating more tension," says Jim Coppock, a senior engineer in Cincinnati's department of transportation and an avid cyclist. "When I'm riding in a 10-foot lane I'm forcing somebody to change lanes, which is a safety issue, and the more of us that are riding in that 10-foot lane the more people have to juggle around us. Even if they're patient and driving the speed limit and so forth they're still changing lanes, which is risky, and sometimes there's cars sitting behind me that have been delayed.
"Does that help pollution? You can argue it both ways that having cyclists on the road will help some — reduce congestion, reduce pollution — but if you don't provide the facilities for them to get out of the way of buses you're also creating some other offset issues."
Coppock has included bike lanes and street-widening techniques in many new developments over the past few years. But he admits the results are "piecemeal" as he notes the progress made during the past few years in small stretches of streets and individual neighborhoods, like adding a 14-foot curb lane to Mehring Way along the riverfront downtown, a bike boulevard through Burnet Woods and bike lanes along a strip of Goodman Drive near University Hospital.
Coppock says that, in addition to the problems associated with re-striping old streets that have little room for widening, there's a political element that traffic engineers have to deal with. Without an overriding plan to justify taking away off-street parking or otherwise altering a community's sidewalk or walkway, engineers can face resistance to the addition of bike-friendly infrastructure.
"Removing on-street parking is one of the real hot button issues," Coppock says. "We tried to do bike lanes on Central Parkway just north of Western Hills viaduct because there's three lanes going north and two south. I thought, 'We can re-stripe this.' It's one of our early attempts — it's an assigned bike route, it was easy pickings. But the on-street parking was not negotiable.
"The property owners came into city council with lawyers and said, 'No, we're not going to go quietly.' The same thing happened on Erie Avenue (in Hyde Park). We had to move a little bit of the bike lane on one side because of a property owner. We took away a parking space and they came in and protested. I don't know how Portland deals with that."
Portland doesn't really have to deal with that — at least not in as volatile an environment. Portland's Office of Transportation has an official plan called the "Bicycle Master Plan" (backed by 1.7 percent of the capital budget) that justifies the removal of parking spaces and other traffic obstructions in the name of the public good.
This year's OKI 2030 Regional Transportation Plan Update — which describes itself as a guide for policy boards and information agencies — recommends roadway and transportation projects for eight Tristate counties. Included in the region's $9.75 billion plan is only $28 million for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, which amounts to .29 percent. Hamilton County is allotted most of this amount for the $23.8 million completion of the Ohio River Trail.
The only other funds directly dedicated to bicycle/pedestrian facilities in Hamilton County are $5.7 million for improving intersections and facilities on Short Vine at Jefferson Avenue, which is coming out of the $6.3 billion Roadway Improvement Projects budget. Most of this budget is dedicated to street rehabilitation and widening.
Cincinnati included a directive in this year's capital budget for council to support the creation of a citywide bike plan, and the city's newest Climate Protection Action Plan advises the promotion of bicycle transportation as a safe, accepted alternative form of transportation. Neither proposal is a direct order, and neither offers additional funding to implement.
It's dangerous to ride a bike in Cincinnati. It would be less dangerous if more people rode bikes. The cycling movement would have more power if more people rode bikes. But it's dangerous to ride a bike in Cincinnati.
Local bicycling advocates and government officials realize this conundrum.
"I find myself talking about that with people a lot," says Gabe Freeman, a co-founder of the MoBo Bicycle Co-op in Northside. "They'll say, 'Oh, I would ride if it wasn't so dangerous here or if cars weren't so aggressive,' and I do catch myself sometimes saying, 'Well, if you just rode that would happen.' If everybody who said that rode their bike the cars would get used to it and they wouldn't be so aggressive, but it's a tough thing to say to somebody who might think, 'It's not really worth getting my legs broken for bicycle advocacy.' "
Cincinnati needs dedication to the cycling movement from a number of different directions. Without a voter base that believes in cycling as a legitimate form of transportation, it's difficult for politicians to justify a large investment in something that will seem on the surface to benefit the few.
And even if it's the responsibility of our elected leaders to be more visionary and make decisions that will allow the city to thrive and prepare it for the changing times ahead, a lot of responsibility also falls on those who understand and believe in the cause.
Some of Cincinnati's best-known bicycling advocates admit that the movement has been hindered by the many different interests of local cyclists — from commuters and bike messengers to racers and weekend riders.
Dan Korman, owner of Park Vine green general store in Over-the-Rhine, spent eight years working for a bicycle advocacy organization in Chicago called the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation. Founded in 1985, the organization has been integral to Chicago's rise as a bike-friendly city by promoting cycling and working with local officials.
Cincinnati's main bike advocacy comes from an organization in the Transportation and Engineering Department called the Cincinnati Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Committee (Bike/PAC), which local cyclists respect as an interested and useful party. But Korman says the cyclists themselves have to show the initiative before government officials are going to make the kinds of major investments necessary.
"There are different pieces in the bicycling community," Korman says. "There's more than the racers. It's more than the daily commuters. It's more than the recreational rider. It's all of those things together. And there has to be a public-private partnership in order for it to work. And that's why it works in Chicago — it works from the top down and the bottom up, and the two tend to come together pretty well."
Korman is part of a group of cycling advocates currently in the process of creating a nonprofit organization solely dedicated to bicycle advocacy. Queen City Bike, which exists today as a Web site (queencitybike.blogspot.com), is expected to receive its nonprofit status within the next two months and is working together with numerous cycling organizations in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.
Co-founder Gary Wright says Queen City Bike, like Chicago's advocacy group, will look at issues from a broader perspective than the individual organizations it represents.
"It's not just about bicycling," Wright says. "It's about how we can retrofit our neighborhoods and our region to be a more interesting and dynamic place, and that's a larger agenda and that's where we're at right now. I think individual groups were responding before only when they saw something that affected their own constituency."
A quick look at the Queen City Bike blog and message board will demonstrate how much local interest exists. A bike event calendar lists 35 scheduled rides in September alone.
Elizabeth Kiker, of League of American Bicyclists, says that cyclists have a responsibility to be dedicated and respectful advocates, but that local government leaders have to share the vision. Kiker says a dedicated mayor (like Louisville's Jerry Abramson) and influential civic leaders (like Papa John's founder John Schnatter and Humana co-founder David Jones, also in Louisville) are often crucial in creating the political will necessary to build the facilities correctly and change the way a community lives, works and plays.
But regardless of who starts the movement, most arguments against a city's long-term investment in cycling have been proven false, and the necessity of using bikes more and cars less is becoming ever more clear.
"We have found that people will bike if the facilities are there," says Kiker, "no matter the weather or the terrain — San Francisco is a gold-level community and they have just phenomenal bicycling resources across the city. And Portland is rainy and what many might say dreary much of the year.
"If the encouragement is there and the dedication is there, both in the local advocate level and the government level, it will happen."