Sunday Train: A Cycle Track In Downtown Akron

This past Thursday, thanks to twitter, I learned that just one county to my west, a Cycle Track was being opened: Akron opens new bike trail through downtown:

The path is part of the city’s effort to become more bicycle friendly and to encourage people to leave the Towpath Trail and experience downtown.
“Downtowns that are attractive centers, especially for a young workforce, have amenities like cycle tracks and bike trails,” said Suzie Graham, president and chief executive officer of the Downtown Akron Partnership. “It positions us more as a forward-thinking community.”

The path is part of the larger iTowpath effort funded by the Knight Foundation. It is one of more than 20 projects attempting to connect the Towpath to local attractions.

{Picture: Karen Schiely/Akron Beacon Journal, follow link for slideshow}

Stumbling onto a project “next door” via Twitter

As I mentioned, I found out about this project when I saw a tweet about it:

Then I saw a “the roads subsidized by cyclists are mine! all mine! troll … who was also one of the many holders of a Google PhD on transport policy … which prompted me to look around for more information about the project.

Ouch! It must sting so much to be a holder of a “Google PhD” and then run into someone with actual knowledge from the actual city in question. I know that it stung, because the troll followed up with a whinge that it was the City of Akron’s fault that he assumed that originally planned opening had occurred, despite the current information already tweeted that the inaugural ride was being held that Thursday.

Why are cycle tracks popping up in Akron?

So, why the South Main cycle track? This is part of a collection of projects on improving use of and connections with the Towpath Bike and Hike Trail which runs through downtown Akron.

The Ohio & Erie Canal is, of course, a large part of how the city of Akron got its start. It connected to freight on the Ohio River via Portsmouth, Ohio, and directly offering transport for the harvest of produce from Eastern Ohio, to Lake Erie at Cleveland, where it could reach the Atlantic via the Erie Canal through New York.

In the middle of the 1800’s, Akron leveraged its position on the Ohio and Erie canal into a position as a railway center, which it leveraged in the early 1900’s into a position as a manufacturing center.

Now, after US trade, exchange rate and industrial policies to de-industrialize, many of those manufacturing jobs are gone. But some of that infrastructure still exists. And that includes the old Canalway running through the city of Akron, with the Towpath that has been converted into an 85-mile long linear park and recreation facility running from Cleveland, through Akron and Canton, to New Philadelphia.

As the Ohio Bikeways page on the O&E Canal Towpath reports:

Summit County has become the first county to complete their portion of the towpath by closing two gaps in the trail. Those being the Bartges Street bridge project in Akron and the segment around the PPG facility in Barberton. Both sections were completed in 2011.

Completing the Towpath Trail did not, however, complete the work of Akron in connecting to the Towpath Trail. As the Next City Blog reported in January:

Thanks largely to the OECC’s efforts, the Towpath is now an 85-mile biking and hiking trail from Cleveland to Portsmouth, with two miles of trail running through Akron’s downtown. Now, with more than $750,000 of support from the Knight Foundation, the OECC, city of Akron, and Downtown Akron Partnership are working to improve the trail by better integrating it into the downtown fabric. Dubbed the iTowpath project, the process began with a three-day public hearing last March, facilitated by Chicago’s Alta Planning and Design. OECC held meetings and utilized WikiMaps to source feedback about where the trail could be improved or better maintained. Six enhancements identified in those meetings were implemented in 2015, and 16 more are slated for this year.

One thing that the community engagement revealed was that the Towpath is not just a recreational amenity: the section through the City of Akron is working Active Transport infrastructure:

The OECC and partners, say Freil and Rice, want the trail to be a valuable resource for all of Akron’s residents — not just the young, professional crowd. The section of trail being improved in iTowpath ends at Summit Lake, one of Akron’s lowest-income neighborhoods.

“We’ve had people, through this process, tell us how they use the Towpath trail to ride to work, they use this to go to the school, go to their libraries. We really need to make this accessible to everybody, regardless of income, regardless of where you’re located around the area,” says Rice.

And so this one-mile section of separated, protected, cycle track on South Main, running a block east of the Canalway itself and about two blocks west of the University of Akron, past the front of the Canal Park AA Minor League Baseball stadium, is part of a two mile loop connecting to the Towpath trail.

So the South Main cycle track is not the first step toward supporting Active Transport in downtown Akron, but one of a series of projects to cost-effectively leverage the Active Transport use of what was originally developed as a recreational cycleway.

As the “Executive Summary Map”{+} of the iTowPath project says

Everyone loves a great trail. One of the reasons the Towpath Trail is unique is because it provides the beauty of nature within the heart of a major city. While cycling or walking along a trail is comfortable for most people, locations where the trail crosses Akron’s streets can be a problem. Wide crossings with fast cars are not conducive to a calm experience for Towpath Trail users.

At the same time, connections along nearby streets that improve the cycling and walking environment can allow more users of all ages and abilities to be able to access the trail without needing a car. By improving trail crossings and accommodating bicyclists and pedestrians along Akron’s streets, the study team sought to make every home a trailhead. On top of that, the team wanted to allow everyone ages 8 to 80, from children to grandparents, the ability to safely and comfortably access the trail from downtown and adjacent neighborhoods. Proven methods for achieving these goals include several infrastructure enhancements
which are shown on the map on the back.

{+pdf: note that this is designed to be a folded brochure, so gets a little confusing reading on the computer}

Giving every place in downtown and surrounding neighborhoods a safe and secure cycling path to the Towpath trail also means connecting these homes to employers, schools, and libraries of downtown Akron.

Connecting to the Towpath Trail Active Transport District

Forming the the Akron downtown precinct into an Active Transport district connecting to the Towpath through downtown also means that the downtown precinct connects into the multimodal links to the Towpath.

Some of these links are still under development. Recreational Hike and Bike trails fall into a “halfway” space in Ohio politics. Because of their real recreational benefits to suburban areas that they pass through, they attract some suburban champions. However, on the one hand, often those suburban champions drive to “their” section of the trail, and so do not put a high priority on extending trails to offer wide bike-only access. And on the other hand, for suburban right wingers, the fact that cyclists use the trails put the Hike and Bike trails in a suspect category … not as automatically and self-evidently bad as something like a protected cycle track in a downtown area, but still suspect.

So funding for extending recreational bikeways tends to rise and fall with changes in government in Columbus. With the massive Republican gerrymander at the state level in Ohio, we have been in an extended down phase in funding.

So the Summit County “Freedom Trail” will eventually extend from the Towpath, near the north end of the South Main cycle track, through the University of Akron campus, through the suburban town of Tallmadge to the east, and then to the Portage County border. But right now, the part from the Portage County Border through Tallmadge has been finished, and there are two more phases to be finished until it links up to the developing Downtown Akron “Active Transport” district.

When it does link up, though, the connection will extend beyond Summit County through the center of Portage County to the east, home of both Kent State University and your humble correspondent. The Portage County Hike and Bike trail is a largely paved trail that connects the county seat of Ravenna to Kent, home of Kent State. It also connects from Kent through to Summit County border and phase 1 of the Freedom Trail. There is still a missing section of the Hike and Bike trail in Kent, but it is already possible to transit between the two completed sections on the streets of downtown Kent.

The South Main cycle track loop runs south to Bartges Street, then west back to the Towpath. A few blocks east on Bartges Street is the Akron Metro Transit Center (MTC), which provides multi-modal connections by bus. This includes the (somewhat sketchy) Summit County Metro bus system, the PARTA express bus to the Kent Gateway bus terminal and the PARTA bus system, and the Greyhound station for connections to Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Youngstown, Pittsburgh, and points east, south, and west. There is even an express AKron/Canton Metro bus that connects the MTC to the Akron Canton airport … but don’t fly in on a Sunday, since the Akron Metro bus system does not run on Sundays.

No multimodal train connections, though, other than catching the Greyhound up to Cleveland and catching an Amtrak Capital Ltd. or Lakeshore Ltd there. The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad provides scenic excursions (including a $3 “Bike Aboard” to allow people to ride the Towpath by bike in one direction then take the train back the other way), but a commuter rail service from Canton and Akron to Cleveland would require state subsidies which the current state government deems should only be received by suburban motorists.

Extending the Main Street Promenade

What makes a particularly exciting time in the development of Active Transport in Akron is that the opening of this project comes just about a month after the announcement of a $5m in “TIGER” grant federal funding for a $14.5m project by the City of Akron which will, among other things, extend the reach of this downtown cycle track even further:

Akron, Ohio, July 27, 2016 – The U.S. Department of Transportation has awarded the City of Akron a $5 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant supporting the completion of the Downtown Akron Promenade. This fiscal year marks the eighth round of the highly successful and extremely competitive nationwide program.

“This is amazing news for Akron. The TIGER grant is a way for us to make transformational change downtown, creating a welcoming, beautiful Main St that will set a new standard for how we design streets and sidewalks in our city. Residents, businesses and visitors will benefit from this investment to create an excellent public space for Akron’s people,” added Suzie Graham, President and CEO, Downtown Akron Partnership.

The scope of the Akron project includes the construction of a green, complete streets corridor on Main Street in downtown Akron. Specific improvements include roadway and sidewalk repairs, the addition of on-street parking and dedicated bike lanes, transit enhancements, a roundabout, traffic enhancements, way-finding signage and green infrastructure. The local match contribution is estimated at 44%.

So the South Main “Towpath Loop” cycle track that opened last Thursday is not the last time Akron is going to see the opening of a protected downtown cycle track. There are more of them to come.

This is yet one more example of why gimmietarians, dedicated to the proposition that all transport subsidies should go directly to supporting suburban motorists, would like to shut down the TIGER grant program. A capital subsidy that helps people living in an urban area to use bicycles as a low-cost means to get to work, school, and leisure threatens to undermine the idea that we must only subsidize cars because cars are essential to get where we need to go because we only subsidize cars.

Conclusions & Conversations

So, while I was indeed happy to see an anti-Active-Transport troll getting shot down, I’m happier to know that Akron is investing in Active Transport infrastructure as part of a Complete Streets development program that will continue to be extended.

What do you think about this project, and what Active Transport projects would you like to see where you live and work?

Remember, the Sunday Train post is just the departure of the train from the station … the journey is whatever conversation it may spark. Any contribution about Sustainable Transport or Sustainable Energy is “on topic”, even if not directly connected to the topic of the current week’s post. If it is not directly connected to the topic of this week’s post, and you are nervous about cries of “off topic!” from the various self-appointed discussion relevance police, simply prefix your post with “Energy:” or “Transport:” to flag that you are raising a new topic for discussion.