Commuting by bike in Cincinnati shifts into gear

Bicycle commuting isn’t inherently something you think about in hilly Cincinnati, but the topic got a huge awareness boost recently when the city’s Park Board announced a bicycle center as part of its new Riverfront Park. It would allow for secure parking, showers, clothes-changing and storage.

And now, the possibilities of commuting are being pursued with renewed enthusiasm on several fronts, helped by rising gas prices and increasing green consciousness.

Ideas are emerging or being reenergized about commuting routes – shared roadway lanes as well as dedicated trails – along rivers in Ohio and Northern Kentucky, down relatively flat city parkways, even through the woods of Ault Park to an existing trail along Red Bank Expressway.
There are also new ideas for programs in support of commuting – putting secure bike storage in office buildings and city parking garages; getting employers to pay a mileage reimbursement to commuting cyclists.

This comes at a time when a count by Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments of bicyclists during peak commuting hours – at two locations on single day in May – showed a marked increase from 2007. There were 40% more in O’Bryonville and a 15% increase at Pete Rose Way downtown. (A third count, in Clifton, was at an intersection not surveyed in 2007.) “We’re observing a lot more people cycling,” says Don Burrell, OKI’s bicycle/pedestrian coordinator.

Some of the new ideas are “blue sky” stuff, true. But until very recently so was the idea of a downtown bike center for commuters (and recreational users) in Cincinnati.

But the Park Board is now planning to break ground at 10 a.m. on Sept. 29th for the first phase of its ambitious Riverfront Park, the 40-acre “front yard” of the city being built in tandem with The Banks. And the bike center will be part of it, tucked into space under and near the Walnut Street Fountain and Grand Stairway and the East Event Lawn & Stage. It is tentatively scheduled for 2010 completion. (Riverfront Park, itself, will have a dedicated bike trail running its length and connecting to an in-the-works Ohio River Trail.)

“Our goal is to be one of the first in the area to have a bike center, because there are a lot of people who ride bikes to work,” says Marijane Klug, manager, financial services, for the Cincinnati Park Board.

The decision to build it resulted from trips that Klug, Director of Parks Willie F. Carden Jr., and Steven Schuckman, superintendent of planning & design, took in 2006 to Manhattan’s new shoreline bike trails and Chicago’s Millennium Park. In Chicago, they were delighted to see the park’s Bike Station, built to encourage commuting to downtown from along the Lake Michigan shore. The heated indoor center has 300 bike parking spaces plus lockers, showers, a snack bar, repair shop and rental area.

“That’s when we said we have to build a bike center,” Schuckman says.

Actually, many other cities want or have bike stations, too. Washington, D.C. plans to open a 150-bike facility by spring next year at its Union Station commuter hub. Denver has one for 150 bikes, plus showers and storage, near a trail connecting downtown with suburbs. And a Long Beach company called Bikestation has facilities in five California cities and Seattle.

Cincinnati’s bike center, as it is now envisioned, will have two desks – one for general information about the park, the other for rentals of bikes and Segways. (Borrowing an idea from Louisville, the Park Board may also put bike-rental racks in various parks, accessible by swiping credit cards, so visitors can get around without driving.

Two subsequent rooms would have half-size lockers, toilets, three shower stalls each, and storage space for bikes. This could change, as the Park Board gauges demand. Regular commuters will be able to buy memberships to use the center. The Park Board already is planning a second, much-larger bike center by the Vine Street Fountain and Grand Stairway, planned for a later phase of Riverfront Park development.

If the enthusiasm of one bike commuter is any indication, demand will be keen. “I think it will be huge,” says Rob Currens, 52, who rides from near Ault Park to his job at Longworth Hall, just west of the Brent Spence Bridge near downtown. He travels mostly along Eastern Avenue/Riverside Drive, along the river, and passes near the future site of the bike center. “That’s the kind of thing that makes a world-class city – having progressive ideas about bicycling as a viable form of commuting,” he says.

While various problems still are being thrashed out with the unbuilt portions of the projected 16-mile Ohio River Trail, from Theodore M. Berry International Friendship Park east along Eastern Avenue/Riverside Drive, some real progress is being made further out. 

The city is set to accept bids for a ½-mile connector from the five-mile Lunken Playfield Loop Trail to Kellogg Avenue at Carrel Street in Columbia-Tusculum, where it eventually will connect with the Ohio River Trail. Construction will start after some sewer-line work, says Jim Coppock, of Cincinnati Transportation and Engineering Department’s Bicycle Transportation Program.

The city also has earmarked $2.2 million to design for bikes a bridge over the Little Miami River at Kellogg Avenue to take bikes from Lunken to the future southern terminus of the Little Miami Trail being planned by Hamilton County Parks District.

Meanwhile, Anderson Township has received funding to build a 3.1-mile extension of the well-used Little Miami Trail from its current Newtown terminus south to Clough Pike. It plans to start construction in 2012.

Anderson also will start construction next year on a 1½-mile spur of the Ohio River Trail – which is ultimately planned to connect Cincinnati with New Richmond – along Kellogg between Sutton and Five Mile roads.

Linking the Little Miami, Lunken and Ohio River trails is believed crucial for cycling’s future in Cincinnati, which is why various agencies are trying so hard to get it done.

“We have 100 people right now who commute by bike from Anderson Township to the city,” says Tom Caruso, the township’s trails coordinator, who says they mostly ride on streets along the river. “We anticipate when all this is built as an off-road corridor, a lot more people will commute.

“And we also believe people will come here to ride the bicycle corridor. So there’s a lot of economic benefit, environmental benefit and just physical well-being at stake in this.”

Steven Rosen is a Cincinnati freelance writer who contributes regularly to CityBeat, and also to The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Variety.

Photography by Scott Beseler

Reser Bicycle shop in Newport

Lunken bike path

Little Miami bike path photo by  Don Burrell

Rob Currens racing by Jeff Ford

Elizabeth Hamilton and Tyrone Williams at Lunken

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