A grassroots movement is growing on the Ohio River's south banks to make Northern Kentucky safer for people walking and riding bikes, and it's a movement that couldn't come soon enough.
"We wanted to try to dispel some of the misinformation that was out there about bicyclists and how they're 'bad' for communities," said Wade Johnston, director of the local active transportation nonprofit Tri-State Trails. Johnston and his team this week unveiled Connect NKY, a contest for people in Northern Kentucky communities to propose "easy-to-implement, low-cost solutions" for making the Commonwealth's northernmost counties more accessible to people traveling by foot or by bike.
The project grew out of an uncomfortable moment for Johnston and Greater Cincinnati's cycling community when last fall a Facebook group called "NKY Hates Bicyclists" surfaced, with members sharing posts that seemed to wish violence and injury on cyclists using Northern Kentucky roads.
"When you have a group of individuals bashing another group of individuals for an activity like bicycling, to live a healthy lifestyle, and live in a community that's focused on people, it's really disappointing," Johnston said. "We think that bicyclists are great for communities because it shows that your community is safe and accessible to people to not have to drive everywhere, to be able to bike and walk to get around."
Facebook quickly shut down the group last September, but Johnston and his team saw the stir as an opportunity to engage what they described as an active but underserved community.
"A large number of riders brave the current conditions (in Northern Kentucky)," Tri-State trails wrote in a news release last week. "They ride both known and hidden routes on streets with cars, through alleyways, across parking lots, and along sidewalks."
Johnston hopes the $30,000 grant Tri-State Trails is offering will help encourage walkers and cyclists, local business owners and government officials to bring ideas to the table that cities can test before making them permanent.
"The whole premise is that we'll test a project that will be a temporary installation of a bike or pedestrian connection, and we'll see how it works for a few days," Johnston said.
When it comes to investing in Northern Kentucky's bike infrastructure, few outpace Richard Hunt. Hunt owns Roebling Point Books and Coffee on Greenup Street in Covington -- a stone's throw from the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge. The bookstore and coffee shop operates in what used to be Roebling's offices while he built the bridge in the mid-19th Century.
Hunt said his business -- open for going on eight years now -- would not be what it is today without Northern Kentucky's cycling community.
"We have found this to be a really active community," Hunt said. "There's certainly people walking all the time. There's a lot of bicyclists, and access to Downtown is fantastic. So the combination of all those things made it a great place to be."
Hunt is an avid cyclist himself, who typically rides to work from his Hyde Park home three or four times a week. His shop frequently hosts cycling group events, and right outside their front door sits one of Northern Kentucky's first Red Bike stations, three bike racks and a frequented Southbank Shuttle bus stop. The in-progress, 11-mile Riverfront Commons trail project will connect just two blocks away, and most of his staff walk or bike to work.
"We have seen here, more than anywhere else in the Greater Cincinnati area, that multitude of different ways that people transport themselves, whether it's commuting to work or recreation," he said.
While Hunt didn't directly finance the Red Bike station on his doorstep, he did sacrifice three premium parking spaces. To him, the decision was a no-brainer.
"We can fit 25 bikes out front. We can fit three cars," he said. "So in terms of having people have a way to be able to get over here on their own, feel safe at the same time in doing it, and being able to negotiate the streets, that’s a great way to do it."
But Hunt agrees Northern Kentucky is still wanting when it comes to practical, everyday bike facilities.
"Certainly, I think, we are in need of real infrastructure here," he said. "There's no bike lanes aside from the stand-alone trails. Trails are great, but they're a lot more costly than if, when a street is being repaved, if a bike lane would be striped onto it.
"There's a way I think we could get a lot more people on the street."
Johnston is hoping to engage more people in Northern Kentucky like Hunt, and -- with tight budgets and disparate city governments across the region -- he's relying on the grassroots, bottom-up approach to make it happen.
It's a model with which Dave Huff, founder of the cycling nonprofit Riding Forward, has seen success.
"I think Connect NKY, they're doing something really progressive," Huff said. "Something that they know has worked in other states, cities, countries even."
Riding Forward made its biggest mark on Northern Kentucky's bicycling community in 2015, when they recruited volunteers of all ages to donate hundreds of hours to build the region's first bike park at England-Idlewild Park in Burlington, Kentucky.
"It was a joint-effort of about four months of volunteer work," Huff said, in partnership with Boone County Parks. Now the Boone County native has been commissioned to work on similar projects in other cities across the country.
Soliciting the community's input takes a lot of the guess work out of planning future projects, Huff said.
"They're allowing the citizens and the local community to start by organizing their thoughts and submitting them, as to where they think the paths should be, where do they ride daily, those kinds of things," Huff said.
It doesn't just take out the guess work, but it could actually speed up the process. And the fact that Connect NKY will only test the proposed idea initially means they can make a stronger case toward making permanent changes later down the road.
"Historically, the way that infrastructure is planned and implemented is through a planning process where you have public meetings and people weighing in, and then you try to secure funding for a project, which sometimes can take multiple years before you can actually see what it looks like in the real world," Johnston said. "This process takes the reverse approach. Hopefully that will build support to make that type of project permanent."
Connect NKY is accepting proposals for bike and pedestrian projects through March 1 and hopes to begin implementation by the summer.