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Akron has the Pieces, but it Takes a Network to Build a Bike-Friendly City

Photo of Kabell presentation
WKSU public radio
Morten Kabell says returning streets to bicycles is, in a way, returning them to democracy.

Akron is trying to figure out how to become a bike-friendly city. As WKSU’s M.L. Schultze reports, that means taking on the challenges of weather, hills and -- most-daunting-of-all -- drivers.

Matthew Woodyard loves cycling so much he’s taken up something called cyclocross – think of it as a biking form of cross-country-running with a few laps around the track mixed in. He also rides his bike to work up and down the steep hills of the Merriman Valley.

“The topography scares me but I know what I’m getting into. It’s the cars that you have to be aware of, and you just have to ride like nobody sees you.”

And he’s sure not taking his 2-year-old son on such a ride.

Photo of bikes
Credit M.L. SCHULTZE / WKSU public radio
The presentation at the Akron Civic, located in one of the bike zones downtown, drew true believers.

Woodyard was among about a hundred people gathered at the Akron Civic Theatre last week for a session on ways urban cycling can connect Akron. On one hand, it was an easy sell. These are the people who already think two-wheels-and-peddle-power are a great way to get around. On the other hand, these are the people, like Woodyard, who know the frustrations.

'The topography scares me but I know what I'm getting into. It's the cars that you have to be aware of, and you just have to ride like nobody sees you.'

“Brown Street is a perfect example -- it runs from campus to Portage Lakes -- and there’s a bike lane printed right there as far as you go. And people are honking at you, yelling at you. You can’t even handle it. It’s just awful.”

With the help of a Knight Foundation grant, and consultants Copenhagenize and 8 80 Cities, Akron is trying to turn that awful experience into a bike network that connects the entire city.

Connecting the pieces
One of those advocating for that change is Morten Kabell. He was a mayor of Copenhagen, Denmark. He told the crowd at the civic that while he was born to cycling, his city was not.

“If you asked most people where I come from, they would not say they were cyclists. They are just people trying to get to work.”

'I think it is a matter of creating those separated bike lanes. People kind of dip their toe in the water, so to speak. Try it, kind of build some confidence.'

Kabell said the change grew in part from escalating gas prices and in part from city leaders who became believers. But mostly, he said, it happened because of the clamor of hundreds of thousands of people who wanted back what he calls the most democratic of public spaces – streets.

But in the U.S., biking is not necessarily democratic. A 2016 study from the University of Vermont found bike-share programs in seven cities are often placed closer to neighborhoods of white, college-educated and higher-earning people.

Input from other neighborhoods
Recognizing that, Akron ensured places like the Lawton Street Community Center  -- in a working-class neighborhood in West Akron -- were included when it gathered community input last week on how to make biking safer. About a dozen cyclists, escorted by police on their own bikes, set off on a 3-mile route outlined by Akron Environmental Engineer Michelle DiFiore:  

“So this bike-your-neighborhood event is a demonstration with the community to experience on-road bike lanes, no bike lanes, residential streets and then a busy road without bike lanes again -- and then get the thoughts on how those different infrastructure aspects feel.”

Road diets
That route took riders along Copley Road. It’s one of the streets Akron has put on a “diet,” slimming it down from four lanes designed to move cars in and out of town fast – to three lanes for cars and one for bikes, all moving at a slower pace.

Photo of Derek Foster and Aristotle Hubbard
Credit M.L. SCHULTZE / WKSU public radio
Derek Foster and Aristotle Hubbard stayed behind to finish a chess game but see merit in the bike lanes.

Watching from the community center parking lot were Derek Foster and Aristotle Hubbard, pondering the next move on the chess board Foster brought along.

They hadn’t known about the biking event. But they see merit in the idea.

“By them having the bike lanes now, I think it’s making a big change for families. I see a lot of them riding in the bike lanes and it’s safe," said Foster.

"You'd be able to hang out with your families a little bit more if there was more active places and you felt comfortable and secure in going," finished Hubbard.

Safety, safety and more safety
Copenhagen’s Kabell listed safety as all three of the top three concerns that have to be addressed for any city to become bike friendly. Akron Planning Director Jason Segedy says in this case, perception absolutely is reality.

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

Building that confidence on city streets means building at least some protected bike lanes separated from cars by street design, barriers, planters or even rows of parked cars. Segedy acknowledges those will take money in a city that doesn’t have a lot of extra cash.

Kabell maintains the payoff on that investment in many-fold, coming in the form of everything from public health to road maintenance. But it takes a strategy.

Photo of Copenhagen work transportation.
Credit M.L. SCHULTZE / WKSU public radio
The goal of urban biking advocates goes beyond recreation.

“Basically you need to know where you’re going, also as a city, and to have that strategy to know where you are going to invest in new kinds of infrastructure, in having an efficient infrastructure a safe infrastructure.”

That strategy could include ways around, under or over some of Akron’s topographical challenges, including the steep climb north of downtown. But a whole lot of strategizing won’t do much about one final hurdle – winter weather. Akron planner Segedy says he’d be happy for even eight months of the year when Akronites choose bikes.