Biking Cincy's bridges: Crossing the Ohio poses certain challenges for Tri-State cyclists

But none are insurmountable, advocates say

COVINGTON, Ky. -- If you're trying to travel between Cincinnati and Covington by bicycle, you might find your options leave something to be desired. You also might find more accessibility than a beginner would think.

"All of our bridge connections present some interesting challenges," said Frank Henson, who heads up Queen City Bike. "But none are insurmountable."

There's no shortage of connections: The Roebling Suspension Bridge. The Clay Wade Bailey Bridge. Going the long way around through Newport via the Ky. 8 Bridge and the Taylor Southgate or Purple People bridges. Or, if you're coming from farther south in Covington, there's the bridge that connects Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Covington with West 11th Street in Newport.

None of these are what one would necessarily consider direct. Nor are some of them for the faint of heart.

Bridges -- especially those built in more recent decades designed mainly with auto traffic in mind -- generally pose challenges to pedaled vehicles. They almost always involve a climb of some degree, at least on the first half across. Also, rivers can create wind tunnels, especially the Ohio.

But there's something unique about the way the bridges connecting Covington, Newport and Cincinnati combine to create a maze when trying to ride legally between cities.

The Clay Wade Bailey

This bridge, built in 1974, carries two major U.S. routes -- U.S. 42 and U.S. 127 -- about 2,300 feet end-to-end, connecting Covington's Mainstrasse neighborhood with Second and Third streets Downtown, just west of Paul Brown Stadium.

According to the Cincinnati Bike Route Guide map, created in 2010 by the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments to point out bike routes, signage, memorable hills and other road riding information, the Clay Wade Bailey is the most preferable ride.

The blue routes are most preferred, then yellow, then red. The Clay Wade Bailey (No. 2) is marked blue. (Provided, OKI Regional Council of Governments)

It's also the most direct for those riding to or from Covington's west side.

"It's the perfect bridge," Henson said, pointing to its wide lanes -- three, all told, although one switches directions depending on time of day.

"If you're a comfortable vehicular cyclist, you shouldn't have an issue," Henson said.

That said, this is not a path for beginners, and does require one's bicycle has certain specifications. Remember that mention of inclines? This bridge doesn't mess around, regardless of direction.

There is also no shoulder to speak of: about a foot-wide lane on either side, but these are often littered with debris.

That's why Henson said it's important that cyclists crossing the Clay Wade Bailey take the right travel lane, and ride along where a car's left tire track would be.

"This will ensure motorists passing will change into the next lane over," Henson said.

Then there's the speeding. Especially during lighter traffic hours, those wide lanes often tempt drivers to breach the posted 35 miles per hour speed limit.

WCPO reached out to both Covington and Cincinnati police regarding speeding enforcement and safety on the Clay Wade Bailey Bridge, but did not immediately hear back.

Even if cyclists were allowed on its walking path, which spans the bridge's east side, it is not wide enough to accommodate a bicycle riding past a pedestrian also using the bridge.

The John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge

The oldest and most iconic of the bunch is probably the most commonly used by cyclists, especially beginners.

The problem is, most cyclists crossing the Roebling do so on one of the bridge's walking paths, which are considerably wider than the Clay Wade Bailey but also -- technically -- designated for pedestrian use, not mixed use.

The Roebling Bridge's hand railings sit only an inch or so higher than this bike seat. (Pat LaFleur/WCPO)

In order for those paths to be re-designated for mixed use, the hand railings would need to be heightened and the path would need to be widened, according to Kentucky Transportation Cabinet spokesperson Nancy Wood. 

"Both would hurt the integrity of the structure," Wood said. "Plus, the cities would have to redesign the sidewalks approaching the bridge, as well."

Henson said that, if a cyclist decides to use the walking path, they must remember, "Pedestrians are supreme. This is not something to be done at top speed with your head down."

Walking one's bike across on the walking path, despite its length and the significant change in pace, would beat crossing on the roadway itself. Its flooring is comprised of grated metal that can be rough on auto tires, let alone road bike tires.

 

Henson said the metal grating is ridable if your tires are hefty enough, mentioning that he feels comfortable riding Roebling's roadway on a Red Bike. Just don't look down if heights make you dizzy.

It can be dizzying to look down through the metal grating that makes up the Roebling Bridge's flooring. Photo taken when bridge was closed to auto traffic for All Star Game activities in 2015. (Pat LaFleur/WCPO)

And may whatever deity they worship help the cyclist crossing the Roebling on a windy day. The open flooring -- which is pretty dizzying to look straight down through -- allows gusts of wind to hit the cyclist not just from the front, rear or side, but also from below.

Ky. 8 Bridge (connects to Newport via Fourth Street)

More commonly known as the Fourth Street Bridge, the span poses challenges to bicycles no matter which direction you go.

Covington-bound -- Henson's preferred direction -- offers two lanes, but also a moderate incline. That incline is doable even with a single-speed bike (although, you'll be huffing a bit at the top).

 

Newport-bound, on the other hand, is downhill but also only offers one lane for traffic.

"Drivers can be impatient there (headed into Newport)," Henson said.

Another factor that will impact how cyclists experience this bridge: upgrades to the northern terminus of Ky. 9, which falls right at the foot of the bridge. Once completed, crossing the bridge will include a roundabout configuration both Newport- and Covington-bound.

A bicycle rests on the wall dividing pedestrians from cars on the KY 8/Fourth Street Bridge. (Pat LaFleur/WCPO)

As for the sidewalks: forget it.

"Those sidewalks are not sufficient to bicycle in any manner," Henson said, citing their narrow width and handrail height.

From Covington, crossing the Ky. 8 Bridge opens a couple options for winding your way across the Ohio.

Taylor Southgate Bridge

The newest of the bunch, the Taylor Southgate Bridge is only a few hundred yards from the foot of the Ky. 8 Bridge in Newport. Completed in 1995, it spans about 900 feet from Third Street in Newport to Pete Rose Way in Cincinnati, at the foot of U.S. Bank Arena.

Henson prefers this bridge over Newport's other crossing into Cincinnati, the Purple People Bridge (see below).

The Taylor Southgate Bridge, on the approach from Newport's Third Street near Newport on the Levee. Orange barrels indicate work done at the time of this photograph at the bridge's terminus, as part of the reconfiguration of KY 9. (WCPO via Google Maps)

"The lanes are really wide, and there's hardly any traffic," he said. "And I don't find cars speed as much as on the Clay Wade Bailey."

Like on the CWB, Henson recommends taking the right traffic lane and sticking to the would-be left wheel track.

Purple People Bridge

The riverfront's only local car-free bridge, the Newport Southbank Bridge -- colloquially known as the Purple People Bridge -- used to convey railcars for the L&N Railroad Co., then called the L&N Railroad Bridge.

 

The bridge closed to rail traffic in the late 1980s, then closed to auto traffic a little more than a decade later. In 2001, the city of Newport partnered with economic developers Southbank Partners to restore the bridge as a pedestrian and bicycle bridge.

Because it is used by mostly pedestrians, Henson said cyclists need to be on their A-game.

"You kind of have to look at riding that bridge like an open-field football player, always looking up and around the field," he said.

"The thing to do is to ride predictably."

For beginners and slow riders -- or those who do not yet feel comfortable in the road -- the Purple People Bridge is a low-pressure option.

11th/12th Street Bridge

Depending on which direction you're crossing, this bridge connects 11th Street in Newport with 12th Street in Covington.

It's also probably one of the least frequently used by bicyclists. For some that might have to do with the long incline -- long relative to other area bridges -- and for others it could simply be a matter of wanting to ride through Covington up to Fourth Street, and cross into Newport there.

Despite this, though, Henson said this bridge has all the makings of bike-friendliness.

"If you're comfortable riding in the street, the right lanes are perfect," he said. 

Henson suggested, also, that the lanes -- four across the entire span -- could be narrowed to accommodate five-foot bike lanes along either side, while keep the travel lanes wide enough for auto traffic.

Bridging the gap

To surmount these challenges, Henson said the answer is continued education.

"As cyclists using the bridges, we have some education to do," he said. That includes practicing certain bicycling principles specific to bridge use:

  • When using any bridge's sidewalks, remembering that pedestrians always have the right-of-way
  • When using any bridge's roadway, get in the right-hand lane and control that lane -- that is, ride in the left wheel track

"Ultimately, we have to be situationally aware at all times," Henson said, "but probably to an even higher intensity when crossing bridges."

Pat LaFleur reports on transportation for WCPO. Connect with him on Twitter (@pat_laFleur).

Disclaimer: Pat LaFleur is a bike commuter living in Covington and working in Cincinnati.

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