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Hills, Drivers, Challenge Akron's New Bike Network

By M.L. Schultze, WKSU

Akron officials and civic leaders are trying to figure out how to develop a network of bike paths and make the city more friendly to cyclists. That means taking on the challenges of Akron's hills and, most of all, its 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," said Woodyard.  He said he would not think of taking his 2-year-old son on such a ride. 

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 were the people who already think two-wheels-and-peddle-power are a great way to get around. On the other hand, these were the people, like Woodyard, who know the frustrations.

"Brown Street is a perfect example," said Woodyard.  "It runs from [the University of Akron] 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, Akron is trying to turn that awful experience into a bike network that connects the entire city.

One of those advocating for that change was 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," he said.  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. 

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," said DiFiore about the route.

It led bike 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.

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 one.

"You [would] be able to hang out with your families a little bit more if there [were] more active places and you felt comfortable and secure in going," said the other.

Copenhagen's former mayor Morten 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," he said.

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.

"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," said Kabell.

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.                                                                                                                                                                      .


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