Can Bikes and Cars Co-Exist in Akron?

Akron, Ohio’s efforts to “right size” its streets have gotten a lot of attention, not only on Strong Towns, but in the local newspaper, on social media, and even at the family dinner table. For every happy bike rider and walkable streets enthusiast, you can find a corresponding number of older residents who complain about inconvenience and the strategy’s inherent effects on traffic flow.

Akron has lost a third of its residents since the early 1960s, so it’s clear that the city’s streets no longer need to manage the traffic levels of 50+ years ago. Returning pedestrian traffic to primary and secondary arteries is a laudable goal that can help boost economic development. But one of the main drivers of the "right-sizing" approach is the desire to make streets safer for all types of transportation—especially bicycle traffic.

Yet it's clear that these efforts have sparked a cultural clash locally. Of all the controversies surrounding Akron’s road diets, it’s not the narrowing of automobile lanes or modifications in on-street parking that inspires the most ire; it’s the sacrifice of car lanes to bike lanes that has most people taking sides. What side you’re on often depends on how old you are, how you get around, and the neighborhood where you live.

The city of Akron has taken a measured approach to phasing in a bicycle network, including reversible, low-risk experiments in altering street layouts. If unsuccessful, they can be removed. If successful, they can serve as an object lesson: proof that Akron's wide streets can accommodate cyclists without unduly inconveniencing motorists. But can this piece-by-piece approach help nurture a broad bicycling culture in a place without a deep history of one, and where many residents seem to look on bike lanes with suspicion?

Bike Lanes: Scourge or Amenity?

As road diets and bike lanes have been introduced to various streets in Akron, the grumbling from motorists has mostly been at low-but-constant levels. Where traffic levels were moderate, and on mostly-residential streets, the bike lanes usually required only a minor adjustment by other users—especially where on-street parking in the lanes was prohibited.

A protected bike lane on South Main Street has become an accepted feature of the streetscape. (Image: Google)

As bike lanes were added to other areas, the effects became more noticeable and questions began to be raised. When protected bike lanes were added to part of South Main Street a couple of years ago, there was some initial confusion on traffic controls, and some commercial businesses had concerns about the effect on parking. As time has passed, however, the lanes have been successfully integrated into the streetscape, and even some former critics agree that they make sense.

Likewise, bike lanes were a highly-visible addition to East Market Street, near the former Goodyear Headquarters that is now known as East End. Part of a recent project that was designed to enhance the streetscape at this huge mixed residential/office development, the lanes initially met with some complaints—especially with congestion caused by nearby construction. Now that the construction has ceased and daily commuters have adjusted their habits, the traffic levels have returned to normal and few if any complaints about the bike lanes are heard.

Encouraged, the city began planning additional bike-only lanes on other commercial streets, like Kenmore Boulevard in Southwest Akron and East Exchange Street, near the University of Akron. Once again, the theory of promoting bicycle transport ran into the reality of public opinion, this time with messier results.

Exchange Street became the first battleground where the altered traffic patterns and bike lanes lost out to a growing wave of negative feedback. The bike lanes and traffic alterations were designed by Miami-based Street Plans Collaborative, and an evaluation period of 6-7 months was originally planned. After spending $40,000 of grant money to test the new layout—which included bike lanes that were either painted or outlined with plastic pylons—the city went back to the original street configuration after little more than a month of complaints from residents, commuters and even students. Though slightly surprised, city leaders said the experiment was valuable.

“It’s better to make a $40,000 mistake with private funding than a $7 million mistake with public funding,” noted James Hardy, Mayor Dan Horrigan’s chief of staff. “For now, it’s back to the drawing board.”

Kyle Kutuchief, Akron director of programming for the Knight Foundation, which funded the project, hasn’t been dissuaded from trying further experiments in the future. [Full disclosure: Strong Towns receives funding from the Knight Foundation for its engagement with the Akron community.]

“The cool thing about this is it didn’t work this time, but it can be put back the way it was with little expense,” he says. City and University officials agree with Kutuchief that the real purpose of the reconfiguration was to gather information and test ideas, helping the city develop practical plans for a total reconstruction of Exchange Street, which is set to take place in three years.

Kenmore Boulevard after its recent reconfiguration. (Source: Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance)

The next highly-visible addition of bike lanes came to Kenmore Boulevard, an older neighborhood commercial district that was laid out along an old streetcar line. Four lanes went to two, with bike lanes inserted at the curb, protected by a separate parking lane of cars. At this location, the reaction has been slightly more mixed; while there are plenty of nay-sayers who find the new configuration confusing, most of the people promoting change and improvements on the Boulevard are encouraged by the new look.

“The street only handles about 6,000 cars a day,” explains Akron planning director Jason Segedy. “It can certainly manage the new configuration.”

While most of the businesses in Kenmore are happy that the Boulevard is getting more attention and understand that the changes are designed to help bring more people into the area, everyone accepts that there will be tweaking in the future.

“There are always bumps and bruises along the way,” said Tina Boyes, president of the Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance. She’s already asked the city to make some adjustments, like adding bollards to keep cars out of the bike lane.

Whose Idea is This, Anyway?

The controversy over bike lanes may have come to a head in late October, when local Beacon Journal columnist Bob Dyer took “Bike Fanatics” to task. Dyer questioned whether the City’s long-term strategy of accommodating and encouraging more bike ridership was practical or even feasible.

            “If you make the entirely reasonable assertion that thousands of    Akron-area residents are not suddenly going to start riding bicycles
            to work if the city adds dedicated bike lanes, you will be bombarded by a      small but zealous group of people who believe the world should revolve       around bicycles.”

Besides laying out the controversy for all to see, Dyer’s column also brought into focus the wide divide between different groups—local residents reaching out to him using phone, email or Facebook—and the Twittersphere, which tends to be younger, and in many cases, from out of town. While a strong core of bike riders exists in Akron, it’s also clear that ridership is nothing like you’ll find in many other metropolitan areas—or in Europe, which is the example often mentioned.

This is one reason why the city hosted an event at the Civic Theatre last June on ways urban cycling can connect Akron. With the help of a Knight Foundation grant and utilizing the services of consultants like Copenhagenize and 8 80 Cities, Akron is trying to improve connections throughout the city to create a safer, more integrated and more useful bike network. To that end, it has become a strong advocate for encouraging and promoting greater bicycle use.

The question may be: How much in terms of money, resources and road surface can we reasonably devote to making that happen, and making bicycle use more prevalent? What Bob Dyer’s column made clear is that the job will not be easy, especially in a town like Akron, where the hilly topography can present some challenges.

“If you asked most people where I come from, they would not say they were cyclists,” says Morten Kabell, the former Mayor of Copenhagen, who spoke to the crowd at the Civic Theatre. “They are just people trying to get to work.”

In the case of his city, bicycle use grew due to higher gas prices and his city’s leadership, who bought into the benefits of greater bike use. Another factor was the idea that it offered another way for the city’s residents to “take their streets back” from the automobile. To make it a reality, he believes the absolute focus must be on safety. Planning director Jason Segedy agrees.

“I think it is a matter of creating those separated bike lanes,” he says. “People kind of dip their toe in the water, so to speak. They try it and build some confidence.”

Separating Bikes from Cars

Today, while the effort to integrate cars and bikes on the public roadways continues to be a challenge, there’s a lot of enthusiasm for the dedicated off-road bike trails that exist throughout the area, as well as all-new trails being planned in Akron.

A trail map being installed on Akron’s Towpath Trail. (Photo credit: Shane Wynn)

While the popular Towpath Trail—following the old Ohio Canal route—has been widely used by hikers and bikers for many years, several connector trails are either underway or planned for construction. The most exciting of these is the proposed Rubber City Heritage Trail, with a route that would originate in Middlebury and merge with the Towpath Trail across town in Kenmore. The city funded a $20,000 feasibility study for the trail, and the Ohio & Erie Canalway Coalition has held a series of meetings to get public input. Using abandoned land, right-of-ways and railroad property owned by the city, the Heritage Trail would travel near the former Goodyear and Firestone factories as well as through old industrial areas. Connecting with other trails, it would allow bicycle riders to travel across many parts of the city with few worries about car traffic. Akron city councilman Jeff Fusco, an early proponent of the trail, sees a lot of merit in the project.

“In terms of linking the old Firestone and Goodyear properties, it’s a unique idea, with a lot of creative potential,” he says. With part of the proposed trail passing across old railroad viaducts near the former Goodyear plant, he envisions a number of exciting possibilities. “In a spot like that, we could even create a small-scale version of New York’s High Line.”

“A tree is not a tree unless you have branches to the tree,” says Dan Rice, president and CEO of Ohio & Erie Canalway Coalition, in recognizing the need for more connecting points. “The same is true of the Towpath Trail. It is not really effective as a network until you have those connector trails.”

In the end, balancing progress on curb-side bike lanes with more dedicated bike or bike/hike trails might offer an alternative—though more expensive—way to encourage bicycle use in Akron. During the Exchange Street controversy, some suggested that moving bike traffic off the street and onto separate campus bike paths could offer a partial solution.  Enhancement of the city’s existing trails and further development of planned off-road connectors could provide safe, exciting and attractive options for the city’s bike enthusiasts.

 This essay is part of an ongoing engagement with Akron, Ohio, supported by the Knight Foundation. Learn more about it here.

About the Author

Mark Schweitzer is a creative writer, book publisher and lifelong resident of Akron, Ohio. His passion for architecture and historic preservation has led him to research the development of urban planning, historic neighborhoods, and today’s best practices in city renewal. Currently a member of Akron’s Urban Design and Historic Preservation Commission, he is guiding the effort to have Akron’s Goodyear Heights neighborhood listed on the National Register of Historic Places.