Soapdish: Why can't Cincinnati have nice things like bike lanes?

Recent rumblings out of Mayor John Cranley’s office at City Hall have bloviated in blustery fashion that Central Parkway’s protected bike lane is a “disaster.”

The 2.2-mile dedicated bike lane — built with $500,000 in federal funds plus an additional $100,000 in city funds — was the first of its kind in Ohio, the kind of thing that represents a step forward by “same old Cincinnati” into the 21st Century. It’s a sign of progress that tends to attract millennials and talented entrepreneurs to relocate to a former sleepy, insular, Midwestern flyover city that seems to have generated some momentum as a progressive, thriving, innovative city.

Then again, this is the same city that eschewed the railroads of the 19th Century in favor of the trusty riverboats. “Eh, leave those iron horses to Chicago. We’ve got steamboats!”

But that’s all in the past now … or so we thought.

The Mayor’s one-man “disaster” declaration culminated in hyperbolic reporting by Channel 12’s Rich Jaffe peppered with references to “confusion,” “damage” and “outrage!” His story comes across like a piece of auto-industry-fueled agitprop from the 1960s, extending an argument by a few intransigent business-owners who have been inconvenienced by the very notion that a protected bike lane could ever work in this city.

While I can understand that those business owners have gotten used to using a wide open street lane as their own personal business loading zone and customer parking lot, you sometimes need to accommodate and compromise a bit in order to advance collectively as a community.

In full disclosure, I ride the Central Parkway bike lane an average of four-plus miles every day. I think it’s a fantastic way to facilitate bicycle commuting in the city. It makes my commute easier and stress-free and often allows me to hold a cup of hot Coffee Emporium coffee for the duration of my ride.

I bike the protected lanes during rush hour, and I bike them on the weekends.

What I witness during my daily experiences is an assemblage of committed motorists who view this untoward intrusion as a threat to truth, justice and the American way (of driving). Entitled and aggressive automobile drivers recklessly speed and swerve with complete disregard to applicable traffic laws.

Better enforcement is sorely needed. God forbid we ask cars to stick to 10 miles over the speed limit and not their usual 20. Any delays to a car driver are infinitesimal — e.g., a few seconds waiting for someone to make a left to Findlay Market — but when you’re accustomed to speeding and slaloming through the streets I guess that’s a real problem for some.

We as a city need to evolve and adapt in order to progress. We can’t just keep things “like they always were.” To believe otherwise is to get left behind, to stagnate or, worse, to regress.

We as motorists also need to evolve and adapt. If you can’t follow basic traffic rules, you should get off the road. Turn in your license.

I mean, if we’re going to scrap the Central Parkway protected bike lane because speeding drivers are crashing into legally parked cars, what does that portend for the future safety of bicyclists and pedestrians?

Are we so devoted to the almighty automobile that they’re simply forgiven for their inability to follow the basic rules of the road? Can traffic patterns never change? Should we simply cede ground to the reckless speeders who can’t be inconvenienced in the slightest by the concept of sharing the roads with velocipedes?

Is it really too much for our city leaders to ask an underutilized urban roadway to share a few lanes? That’s a patronizing view of our car-driving citizenry, not to mention a derogatory view of our bicycling community.

And I trust that it’s incorrect.

Then again, what are we to expect from a Mayor who believes bikes belong on trails and is photographed riding on sidewalks — illegally, I might add — as opposed to sharing the “major arteries” with motorists? What are we to expect when the perspective is that a bike ride is something you do by attaching bikes to the roof of a car and driving to a bike trail?

We all understand that there is a difference between the Wasson Way/Oasis lines, recreational bike riding and actual bike commuting, don’t we? Sometimes, when I hear the rhetoric out of City Hall, I’m not so sure.

Seattle, Boulder, San Francisco and Portland all have a plethora of bike lanes. Washington, D.C. is rife with them. Austin has been “right-sizing” roadways — typically by reducing four lanes to two with a center turn lane and bike lanes on each side — for the past 15 years.

Why wouldn’t we want to emulate these highly successful cities? Why is it that so many people think progressive concepts working in so many other cities — a streetcar, for instance — just won’t work in Cincinnati? Why is it that we as a city need to be dragged clutching and screaming from the river depths of our antiquated, set-in-our-ways “we’ll always have the steamboats” past?

Back on July 14, 2009, I wrote a two-part piece in Soapbox addressing the urban planning concept of Complete Streets and its possibilities in Cincinnati. In that column I observed the following:

“For the curious and/or uninitiated, the Complete Streets ethos, as it were, evokes the concept that the streets of our cities and towns are an important part of the livability of our communities. The goal is to open up the streets for everyone, whether young or old, motorist or bicyclist, brisk, arms-akimbo walker or rolling wheelchair user, dedicated bus rider, streetcar jumper or humble shopkeeper.

“Unfortunately, however, many of our streets are designed for a single purpose, a dedicated throughway for the glorious and almighty automobile … and, more specifically, the wholesale evacuation of downtown in the most expeditious manner possible, quickly funneling you to your desired interstate of choice with nary a second to spare.

“In order to provide a bit of balance to the auto-heavy equation, communities across the country have joined a burgeoning movement to ‘complete’ the streets. States, cities and towns are asking their planners and engineers to build road networks that are safer, more livable and welcoming to everyone.

“Twenty-two jurisdictions nationwide adopted policies in 2008, and 17 have done so in 2009. In total, there are 96 jurisdictions committed to Complete Streets. More locally, Lexington, Kentucky recently won accolades for its 2008 Streetscape Master Plan, which established guidelines and strategies for the transformation of downtown Lexington in a manner consistent with the Complete Streets ethos, including the conversion of almost all of the downtown streets from one way to two way traffic.

“By instituting a complete streets policy, transportation planners and engineers seek to design and operate the entire roadway with all users in mind — including bicyclists, public transportation vehicles and riders, and pedestrians of all ages and abilities, as well as the venerated horseless carriage.”

So here we are now, six years later, and we want to turn back the clocks once again. To stagnate. To regress. Cancel the modest progress that’s been made. “Scrap,” in the Mayor’s words, the Central Parkway protected bike lane.

We should keep in mind that this project’s federal grant would have to be paid back if we scrap the bike lane, while the city’s $100,000 would be thrown away. That seems like a high price to pay in order to tolerate reckless scofflaws who can’t follow basic traffic rules.

On March 18, 2015, the Business Courier surveyed the detritus of our winter’s discontent on the protected bike lane, pondering its future and noting that somewhere in the range of 60 percent of the protective bollards were decapitated (no doubt in large part due to reckless snowplows). In that article, Vice Mayor David Mann shone through yet again as a voice of reason, observing, “One thing that didn’t happen is that the change in the lanes didn’t create traffic problems. I find the protected lanes a great comfort. What I do agree with you on is drivers don’t expect to have a car stopped.”

As Councilman Wendell Young observed in the same article, “We don’t have to do away with what I think is a very good program. We need to tweak it. Cincinnati is relatively new to dedicated bike lanes anywhere. There are significant numbers of Cincinnati drivers who don’t want to see bicycles anywhere on the roads.”

So that begs the question: How long do we wait for drivers to learn that cars will be stopped along Central Parkway? Have we waited long enough? Do we wait longer?

Will drivers ever adjust to seeing bicycles near the roads? Or do we simply shrug our shoulders, wave our hands and declare the bike lane an unmitigated “disaster,” as the Mayor seems to think?

Regress, not progress.

I find myself more on the side of optimism. That Cincinnati can, in fact, have nice things. But let’s do it right.

As a daily rider on the protected bike lanes, I’ve noticed that maintenance seems to be lax, basically leaving downed branches and signposts to bicyclists for removal. And when the long, grassy savannahs between sidewalk and bike lane were chopped last week by city workers, the resulting yard waste was basically left in the path, yet another slippery obstacle for the biking brigade.

In fact, on Sunday afternoon I rode out to see if it had been blown off — it hadn’t — and ran into three other bicyclists who bemoaned how much broken glass was littered about the bike lane further up to the north. We can only hope this poor city maintenance doesn’t indicate a “demolition by neglect” type of downward spiral.

It should also be made clear that not all business owners on Central Parkway are opposed to the bike lanes. Quite the contrary.

Sean Mullaney owns a building that he renovated at 1415 Central Parkway, with 10,000 square feet of usable space and a 26-car parking lot. Its tenants include startup companies Petbrosia and CompleteSet. Mullaney also recently erected a sculpture out front to bring attention to and support the Central Parkway protected bike lane.

In speaking with Mullaney, he emphasized his support for a multi-modal Cincinnati: “I bought the building because it was near OTR (technically the West End) and I wanted to be a part of the excitement there. I believe that our city needs many ways for people to get around — bicycle, streetcar, walking, car, etc.

“The Central Parkway bike lane is an asset for my building and my neighbors. The addition of the bike lane has calmed the traffic in front of my building considerably. You can stand in front of my building and carry on a conversation without having cars racing by.”

Mullaney says his sculpture, titled “Bike Love,” is a totem to help people consider bikes and the bicyclists while they traverse Central Parkway.

“I think that Cincinnatians need to think about bikes and their riders differently,” he says. “I have noticed that roughly half of the cyclists I see on the Central Parkway bike lane are not young hipsters or lycra-clad racers, they’re people in regular street clothes with bags of provisions hanging off their handlebars. They’re people who look as if they can’t afford a car. For them, a bicycle is the best way to get from point A to point B.”

The Central Parkway bike lanes were the the first protected bikeway in the state of Ohio, says Frank Henson of Queen City Bike, and catapulted Cincinnati to national recognition as the 35th most bicycle friendly city by Bicycling Magazine.

“The protected bike lanes are making it safer for bicyclists and are attracting more riders,” Henson says.

Yet here we are now, one year into this project, and city leaders are ready to wave the white flag, throw away $600,000, reverse the national recognition and acknowledge that we’re unable to simply evolve, adapt and advance as a progressive city.

We’re better than that, Cincinnati. Let’s prove it. Progress, not regress.
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Read more articles by Casey Coston.

Soapbox columnist Casey Coston, a former corporate bankruptcy and restructuring attorney, is now involved in real estate development and construction in and around Over-the-Rhine and Pendleton as Vice President at Urban Expansion. He's also a civic activist and founder of a number of local groups, including the Urban Basin Bicycle Club, the Cincinnati Stolen Bike Network, the World Famous OTR Ping Pong League and LosantiTours: An Urban Exploration Company.