I love riding my bike on the Towpath Trail. Not so fond of riding a bike in the middle of a city, so I have not personally used the fancy new bike path that runs along part of South Main Street in downtown Akron.
And I’m not sure how many other people have, either.
On Tuesday, a hot, sunny day, I sat on the patio at Bricco from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. and counted the number of bicyclists who passed. I didn’t exactly need a clicker. In 90 minutes: five riders.
This is not a casual bike path. Called a “cycling track” by the city, it includes big planters to protect the bikers from cars, vivid green pavement paint to draw attention at the intersections and little stoplights specifically for the bikers.
The two-way path, which opened last August, runs for about half a mile between Spaghetti Warehouse and Canal Park, where it curves onto the boardwalk alongside the south edge of the stadium and eventually merges back onto the Towpath.
Here’s my scorecard.
•?11:42: A group of three northbound bike-riders, all middle-age men, stop at a red light at Exchange Street. Their special bike-lane traffic light stays red forever, through multiple cycles of regular traffic lights and pedestrian walk lights. The bikers finally run out of patience and run their red light, watching closely for approaching cars.
What they didn’t notice — nor did I until I had been sitting at Bricco for almost 45 minutes — is that you have to hit a button positioned on the street side of a pole to make the bike light turn green.
The signal changes fairly quickly (about 30 seconds), but it stays green for a grand total of six seconds. Literally. I timed it three times. And after those six seconds of green, you get only two more seconds of yellow before it slams red again.
Yes, you can ride a bike across a street much faster than you can walk. But if you’re in a group of three or four bikers, good luck getting everyone across in eight seconds from a standing start.
•?12:25: A young guy on a very small bike passes southbound.
•?12:53: An old guy with a white beard rides by on an odd-looking craft with a big basket in the front. It is either the world’s slowest motor scooter or the world’s fastest shopping cart.
Granted, lots of downtown workers don’t want to get sweaty over their lunch hour, or just don’t have enough time to go biking. But lots of others slip in a workout, running or playing basketball. So I figured a worthwhile bike path should draw far more than five people in 90 minutes.
A worker at Bricco said the bike traffic picks up considerably on weekends. But even if the traffic quadruples, is this a good investment, particularly in view of the parking spaces that were lost to create it?
“We’ve heard, overall, positive feedback,” says Suzie Graham, president and CEO of the Downtown Akron Partnership, one of four groups that pushed the project through. (The others: the Knight Foundation, the Ohio & Erie Canalway Coalition and the city.)
She says no studies have been done of the amount of traffic on the cycle track and no targets have been set, but the volume of pedestrians has been growing.
Judging by the mixed feedback I got after asking for input from Facebook readers about the value of the path, the jury is still out.
April Costantino says she uses it in the evenings. “I really enjoy riding in the bike lane! We even stopped at the Barley House for dinner a few times. I think the bike lane makes it feel like you are part of the action that happens downtown!”
By contrast, Tony and Nancy Richiutti summed it up this way: “Potholes, [manhole] covers, confusing lights. Short distance. Not impressed.”
Bob Curran enjoys it and says it’s a boon to downtown businesses.
“I guarantee [Friday] night you’ll probably see 150 -200 bicycles traveling to Lock 3 and surrounding restaurants. Rain or shine.”
Tim Fitzwater uses the path but isn’t impressed. “It doesn’t go anywhere yet, and the whole thing is being redone with [a federal] grant. Don’t waste your time.”
He’s right about the future.
Lots of motion
The overall bike route in downtown Akron is very much a work in progress. So many unrelated projects are underway, or soon will be, that nobody knows exactly how all of this stuff will fit together.
Among the major undertakings:
•?Implementation of a TIGER grant, $5 million in federal money that will include a roundabout at the intersection of Mill and Main streets and an extension of the bike path.
•?Construction of the enormous Ohio Canal Interceptor Tunnel, which has forced the closing of sections of the Towpath.
•?Conversion of Cedar and Exchange to two-way streets.
•?Transforming the vacated part of the Innerbelt to whatever it is going to become.
All of this activity is “exciting and wonderful,” says the Downtown Partnership’s Graham, “but the challenge right now is, ‘How do you accurately measure the impact of some of these things when so many other things are changing at the same time?’?”
Graham has not heard any complaints about light-timing in the bike lane, but says she will ask the city’s traffic engineers to take a look.
Maybe they should consult Elaine Wages.
“A group of us rode it a couple weeks back,” she wrote on Facebook. “The green light doesn’t stay on long enough for even ONE bike to cross! By the time you’re just getting to the center of the lane, it’s already changed back to red. This needs to be changed so the green light will last at least a minute.”
When I told her one minute would be far too long because that would hold up vehicular and pedestrian traffic, which is infinitely heavier, she said, “A bicyclist has one foot down and the other foot on one pedal. Once the light turns green, they have to either click their loose foot back on or in the pedal, gain control of the bike and go. …
“It took over 10 minutes waiting for everyone [in her group] to make it across.
“Twenty seconds and you got a deal.”
I don’t know what the right amount of time is, but the city must perform a balancing act involving cars, pedestrians and bikers. And that ain’t easy.
Beyond that, some riders aren’t enthralled with the two-direction design.
“This lane forces northbound bicyclists to ride against traffic,” says Zach Sterba. “This greatly magnifies the risk from turning cars, since bikes are traveling where motorists don’t expect to see them. I recommend only using this lane when riding southbound, and to ride with traffic per normal when northbound.”
Ronald Monroe has a similar take.
“I’m not a big fan of having both directions on the same side of the street. The northbound direction should have its own lane on the right side of Main. Car drivers are confused by the bicycle traffic at the intersections.”
But, Monroe adds, “It’s a good start.”
Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or firstname.lastname@example.org. He also is on Facebook at www.facebook.com/bob.dyer.31