Councilman says bike lane can stay, but 'dangerous' portion needs changes

CINCINNATI — One member of city council has softened his stance on the Central Parkway protected bike lane, but not without renewing his view that it’s dangerous and a public safety hazard.

During Monday’s Law and Public Safety Committee meeting, council member and committee chair, Christopher Smitherman, heard testimony from both community members and law enforcement officials regarding a specific stretch of the bike lane, which connects Downtown with the Northside and Clifton neighborhoods.

The specific stretch, between the 1600 and 2000 blocks of Central Parkway, contains a curve which can limit visibility, Smitherman said, looking to the city administration to find “a compromise,” a revision of his original motion in February to remove that portion of the bike lane entirely.

A report from the city’s Department of Transportation and Engineering showed removing the bike lane would cost taxpayers more than $200,000, as opposed to less than $30,000 needed to increase signage and other enhancements to increase understanding of the new lane configurations.

But despite that signage and on-street striping, Smitherman said the bike lane continues to be a hazard because of what he and others described as motorists’ confusion regarding the thoroughfare’s new parking configuration, which changed with the bike lane’s installation.

Former Fraternal Order of Police president, Kathy Harrell, testified at Monday’s meeting, calling on the city to take action “before someone gets killed.”

Harrell said police vehicles parked outside the FOP headquarters, located along the stretch, have been “totalled” on multiple occasions after being struck by cars coming around the curve.

“I’m shocked that no one has been killed, and I think it’s very unsafe,” she said.

As much as public safety, though, Harrell also was concerned about losing parking spaces along the stretch.

“We were told we wouldn’t lose our parking,” she told the committee Monday. “We were lied to.”

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After Harrell and current FOP President Sgt. Dan Hils’ testimony, Smitherman doubled down on his conviction that something about the bike lane’s current configuration needs to change at that location, calling such action a “proactive” move.

“Governments tend to react. This is being proactive,” he said, comparing changing the bike lane to flossing one’s teeth. “I’m not an engineer, but I want to make sure that the bikers and the cars and the pedestrians are all in harmony.”

After the committee heard testimony from police and the community, DOTE Director Michael Moore turned their attention to statistics, which he said indicate Central Parkway is no more dangerous than other similar streets, even with the new lane configuration.

“We’ve dealt with a lot of anecdotes today,” he said. “Let me talk about some numbers.”

In his motion, Smitherman asked city staff to report on crash data along the stretch, with particular attention to crashes involving motorists colliding with cars parked along the roadway. With the new configuration, the bike lane replaced the original parking lane along the curb, moving it to what is now the right-hand lane in each direction. During peak hours, parking along Central Parkway is restricted to provide two moving vehicle lanes.

In that report, released earlier this month, the DOTE found that, during 2015, 62 crashes occurred along the stretch, with four (6 percent) involving a motorist rear-ending a parked vehicle. The crash data, obtained by WCPO, showed one crash involving a bicyclist along the stretch since the lane’s installation in 2014.

Council member Yvette Simpson praised Moore and his department for what she called a “thorough” report, and resisted Smitherman’s motion because, she said, it wasn’t necessary. She said she believed the department was already doing what was necessary to educate motorists and provide a safe roadway for multiple types of vehicles.

“If someone drives illegally on the sidewalk, we don’t talk about getting rid of the sidewalk,” she said. “My perspective is that we need to recondition the drivers,” she said Monday. “If you remove this area from the bike lane, you might as well call this program done,” saying that bike lanes that include gaps become much less effective as a transportation option.

“Bike lanes don’t work if they’re not connected,” Simpson said. “So cutting out a piece of the bike lane means that you get stuck at one point and you can’t get through.”

During his address to the committee, Moore said the numbers indicate drivers are adjusting to the new configuration, but also said his department would cooperate with whatever council decides is necessary.

Census data released last year placed Cincinnati third in the nation for growth in bike commuting.

Avid bicycle commuter and Over-the-Rhine resident Noel Prows also testified before the committee in support of the bike lane.

Smitherman’s motion passed Monday’s committee, with both Smitherman and Charterite Kevin Flynn voting in favor. Simpson's was the only vote against. The motion will go before full council Wednesday.

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Follow Pat LaFleur on Twitter (@pat_laFleur) for all things bicycling and living car-free in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.

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