Opinion: Removing Central Parkway Bikeway Is a Bad Idea

Efforts to improve safety — if that's really a problem — should focus on motorists, not cyclists

Check out this safe, worry free cyclist on Dana Ave.!
Check out this safe, worry free cyclist on Dana Ave.!

Today, Cincinnati City Councilman Christopher Smitherman will introduce a motion to remove part of the Central Parkway Bikeway, citing safety concerns caused by confusion about parking along the route.

But removing the lane doesn’t make any fiscal or safety sense.

The city constructed those bike lanes mostly with a $500,000 federal grant. Removing them would cost money, money that city taxpayers would have to pay. There’s no federal grant for reversing things you did with another federal grant. Making taxpayers cough up money to remove safety infrastructure designed to protect cyclists from drivers because drivers aren’t paying attention to signage seems perverse to me.

But there are more profound reasons to oppose removal of the lane, including the fact that doing so shifts responsibility for safety further away from drivers and onto cyclists.

We hear fiscal conservatives like Smitherman telling folks they should live within their means because of the sacred conservative principle of personal responsibility. I don’t own a car, because I take my fiscal responsibility seriously and I’m not exactly swimming in cash. Because I don’t want to spend the money it takes to purchase and maintain a reliable car and I’m trying to be conservative about my debt load, I walk or take a bus when I can afford to be leisurely. But when I need to get somewhere quickly, I absolutely rely on a bicycle.

I’m not the only one, and statistics show plenty of bike riders are even more dependent on their two-wheeled modes of transportation than I am. Those stats show that most bikers aren’t fixed-gear hipster dorks or spandex-clad weekend cyclists. They’re low-income folks riding to work, to family or wherever else they need to go, exercising that good old American personal responsibility.

Across the country, according to Census data, about half of the people who commute to work by bike make below $25,000 a year. Now, that category (bizarrely) also includes motorcycle riders and those who rely on taxis, but it’s clear bicycles are the most cost-effective (and probably most widespread) of those options.

I ride alongside folks in this situation every time I go anywhere on a bike, but to most people — including some city officials, it seems — they’re invisible.

Despite advice from our honorable mayor, city laws don't allow the non-car owning public to ride bikes on sidewalks, and with good reason. Most pedestrian walkways are too narrow, and having a person on a metal object going up to 30 miles an hour isn’t a good mix with pedestrians.

So I, and other bikers, stay off the sidewalks because personal responsibility. That means I need bike lanes. So do other bike commuters.

For me, and for other cyclists, it’s personal, and it's a matter of life and limb.

I was forced off the road on Highland Avenue last summer by a driver who pulled right up behind me honking, then pulled up to my left and edged me off the road. I wrecked. It was scary as shit. I won’t show you a picture of the crazy, purple-brown bruise that adorned most of my right leg because that would involve me posting a picture of myself without pants on, but wanna see the big hole in my hand I got because some road-raging jerk wanted to make a point? It's gross!

Other cyclists, including Michael Prater, who was struck by a motorist and killed in Anderson Township, have faced far worse fates at the hands of irresponsible drivers. There are more stories, with varying degrees of severity, about cyclists injured by reckless motorists. You'd be hard-pressed to find the opposite.

Someone in those scenarios lacked some personal responsibility, and it wasn’t the people on bikes.

If cars are posing a safety issue on Central Parkway due to the fact that parking spaces have been moved out to the right lanes of the road, as Smitherman and others have suggested, perhaps the city should work on making sure drivers take some personal responsibility and watch out for other parked cars. Increased enforcement of traffic laws would be a good start.

If a driver is too preoccupied or confused to see a parked car and the accompanying signs warning them about those parked cars, how likely are they going to be to see us riding (legally) in the right lane? Further, if someone is too preoccupied to see an enormous metal vehicle ahead of them, should they be operating a motor vehicle at all?

We shouldn’t waste taxpayer dollars removing beneficial infrastructure to subsidize drivers’ lack of personal responsibility while making things less safe for folks who are exercising their own responsibility by commuting to work by bicycle on the street.

There are reams of statistics showing that bike lanes make streets safer and communities more economically viable. In-depth studies show that cyclists spend as much or more than drivers do in the communities they pass through and that bike lanes increase the number of cyclists passing through communities.

And the number of cyclists commuting to work is growing fast in Cincinnati. We’re still not a huge biking city, but we moved from 46th out of 70 major cities in 2013 when it comes to the proportion of cyclists riding to work to 39th in 2014 — a huge jump. Plus, the city’s fast-growing bike-share program, RedBike, means more newby cyclists are on the streets than ever before. All the more reason to increase cycling safety on our streets.

All the data shows bike lanes increase safety, economic activity and attractiveness to potential residents. What do bike lane opponents have? A few alarmist news stories like this one — which cites 33 accidents since the lane was completed but which provides no baseline number from before the lane was completed for comparison — and a letter from one community member who cites an accident that happened before the lanes were even put in.

Meanwhile, community councils — those bodies closest to, uh, the community — along the bike route aren’t asking city officials to remove the lanes. They’re clamoring for an expansion, citing studies that show increased economic activity along bike lane routes.

There are ways to do this without burdening the city’s rank-and-file taxpayers. If the city could negotiate just a little harder with big developers on a few deals in white-hot Over-the-Rhine, the money it usually gives out in rich tax abatements could instead over time be plowed into bike infrastructure that would probably attract tenants for those new apartments or customers to that new retail space anyway. Instead of big tax breaks, maybe the city could create tax increment financing districts in quickly redeveloping neighborhoods like OTR where the TIF funds are used to improve nearby bicycle infrastructure.

Other cities in Ohio and beyond, including Chicago, use TIF funds for projects with bike lanes, after all. Just spitballing here.

So let’s stop with this anti-bike-lane political nonsense and learn from other cities that have successfully implemented a comprehensive system for bike commuters. Requiring a little more personal responsibility on drivers’ part is a small price to pay when lives are at stake.

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