Bicycling has never been a very practical means of transportation in Akron. Around 5 p.m. every weekday, the city’s workers file out of downtown in automobiles, choosing to drive back to the suburbs.
The University of Akron has always been known as a commuter school, and a chief complaint from students every year is that the campus needs more parking decks. The city was built on a hill, an exhausting inconvenience for those who choose to get around on two wheels. Cars seem like the way to go.
Despite this, a culture for bicycling is sprouting up in the city.
“The number of bicyclists in Akron is growing slowly, but surely,” says Jason Segedy, director of the Akron Metropolitan Area Transportation Study (AMATS) and a bicyclist himself.
This sounds about right. On weekends, cyclists can be seen zipping up and down Akron/Peninsula Road. A battalion of bikers known as the Akron Bike Party leisurely cruise the streets on the third Friday of every month. Bike rack usage on Metro RTA buses has increased by over 50 percent since 2010.
Akron even received a bronze Bicycle Friendly Community award by the League of American Bicyclists, honoring the city’s endeavors to improve conditions for its cyclists.
Working toward a bike-friendly Akron
“These trends are likely to continue, but Akron will reach a natural limit to growth in bicycling unless we take our bike infrastructure and our urban design to the next level,” says Segedy.
AMATS is working toward this by creating “road diets” in Akron, which reshape oversized roads and turn sparsely-used car lanes into bike lanes.
“Akron has too much pavement, and not enough cars and trucks to justify it,” says Segedy. He points out that the city’s roads were left “supersized” when many of its heavy manufacturers were shut down years ago, eliminating the truck traffic that came with it.
Segedy believes Akron should imitate the city of Copenhagen, Denmark, which he recently visited with Andrew Davis, the University of Akron’s Active Transportation Coordinator and University of Akron president Scott Scarborough, to improve Akron’s infrastructure for bikers.
Copenhagen is noted to be the most bike-friendly city in the world.
“One of the biggest ingredients in Copenhagen’s success was providing high-quality, protected and separated bikeways where cyclists have their own right-of-way. This is ultimately the direction that we should be going in,” says Segedy.
Hence the need for road diets.
AMATS has funded road diets on Tallmadge Avenue in North Hill, along one-way portions of West Exchange Street and West Cedar Street downtown and in West Hill. AMATS also has completed a comprehensive road diet analysis, which pinpoints over 60 potential locations the city can improve.
You know who’d be stoked about more bike lanes? The Akron Bike Party. They’re the city’s most prominent bike group and have steadily been gaining in popularity since starting up in April of 2014.
“We have a lot of regulars now and we still see new faces every month,” says Dave Massary, the group’s founder. These riders go for pizzazz, bringing light-up spokes, wildly tricked-out helmets and even a speaker system along for their rides. This year’s Halloween-themed ride featured bikers sporting Viking helmets, a cyclist in a gorilla costume and a dude pedaling in a kilt.
Other similar-minded groups in the area have been meeting up for years. One such group is the Spin Off Cyclists Bicycle Club, a collective of casual cyclists who practice “the social aspect of cycling,” according to Tom Bilcze, one of the group’s organizers.
“A typical Spinoff is the person next door who just wants to get out and ride their bike and enjoy our wonderful parks and trails,” says Bilcze. “Many of our rides include a lunch, dinner or stop at a local pub.”
The group has been meeting since 2010 and puts on midweek and weekend rides on various trails such as the Towpath, Summit Bike and Hike, Freedom Trail and Portage Bike and Hike.
The Towpath Trail
“Many people are unaware of the number of miles of bicycle trails in the greater Akron area,” says Bilcze.
The apex of these trails is the Towpath, which snakes through the center of downtown and was voted Ohio Magazine’s “Best of Ohio” bike trail for 2015.
“More and more people are utilizing the Towpath as a transit resource,” says Dan Rice, president and CEO of the Ohio & Erie Canalway Coalition. “It’s becoming more than just an exercise resource.”
The Canalway Coalition helps put together bicycle-related events on the trail, including the Towpath Trek, Tour du Towpath and Bike and Brew. They are also working on a plan of proposed projects, termed “iTowpath,” to better connect the Towpath with some of Akron’s popular destinations like the Akron Zoo, the Akron Art Museum and the University of Akron, as well as neighborhoods like Highland Square and North Hill.
Akron has no shortage of quality bike shops. A quick Google search for shops in the area gives a list of reputable spots: The Akron Bike Center, Falls Wheel and Wrench, Eddy’s Bike Shop, Blimp City Bike and Hike and Century Cycles. South Street Ministries, a Christian nonprofit organization located near the Summit Lake neighborhood, runs a bike shop from mid-spring to late summer. They encourage local children to work on building their own bikes in the shop, which they can take home once they’ve put in enough hours.
“I love our local bike shops,” says Andrew Davis. “They have been strong supporters for moving the bike culture forward, and they are all very hard workers at providing services for the community.”
One tucked-away shop making things easier for local bikers is the Summit Cycling Center, located in the basement of the old O’Neil’s building on Main Street. The Center is a large storage garage packed with racks of bikes and equipment for repairs. A cadre of the city’s bike enthusiasts, including Davis (the shop’s Executive Director), Bilcze (the shop’s Secretary) and Angelo Coletta (a founding member and a local luminary on all things bicycle-related) get to work on fixing common bicycle malfunctions and educating customers on bike maintenance.
“We are working to make Summit Cycling Center a hub of cycling activities for the Akron area,” says Bilcze.
The shop also refurbishes and resells bikes, builds bikes for the LeBron Family Foundation’s “Wheels for Education Program” and provides bikes to refugees through their NABOR program.
Heading in the right direction
“More and more people are working hard to make our city an easier place to get around for those without cars,” says Segedy, who believes that Akron is headed in the right direction for becoming a more bicycle-friendly place to live.
“I think that creating a bike-friendly city goes hand-in-hand with creating a beautiful city, a welcoming city to people of all ages and incomes and a city that is competitive in an increasingly competitive world,” says Segedy.
There you have it. Now grab your wrenches, lock yourself in the garage and get to work on that old 10-speed you haven’t mounted in years. By next spring, Akron could be bustling even more with bicycles.
Here are some links to learn more about Akron’s bicycle culture: