Do cyclists in low-income areas have the same opportunities as bike commuters in wealthier neighborhoods?

It's not every day that Columbus mayors past and present get together for a bike ride through the Hilltop. But Mayor Andrew Ginther, along with former mayors Michael Coleman and Greg Lashutka, will do just that as they join West Side civic leaders and residents in dedicating the Camp Chase Trail on Saturday, Aug. 13 at the Hilltop YMCA. The city's newest bike trail runs from Big Darby Creek on the far West Side through some of the city's highest-poverty neighborhoods, which also happen to have some of the most daunting roadways for Columbus bike commuters.

"It's a great trail that will absolutely connect the neighborhoods together," said Chris Haydocy, president of Haydocy Automotive group and Weston Vision, a West Side economic and community development organization. "This trail really cuts across the heart of the West Side. It should have a direct and powerful impact on all these communities."

Haydocy, whose family has been in business on the West Side for 61 years, championed the development of the Camp Chase Trail. Weston Vision cobbled together support and funding for the trail from the state, city, Metro Parks and private partners, including the West Side's Hollywood Casino.

The Camp Chase Trail is a notable development for Columbus because it reflects the city's progress on an issue that metro areas across the nation are grappling with: transit equity. In a city with transit equity, citizens can access work, education and health-related opportunities using affordable, safe, dependable transportation.

In the United States, 33 percent of poor African-Americans, 25 percent of poor Latinos and 12 percent of poor whites lack automobile access, according to the Healthy, Equitable Transportation Policy report published in 2009 by the Prevention Institute and PolicyLink. "Affected by high unemployment rates and lack of services, these populations rely on walking, bicycling and public transportation to achieve economic stability," the report concludes.

Camp Chase is a connector long missing from what, for years, has been seen as a left-behind area of Columbus while Downtown has improved and neighborhoods of opportunity have thrived. The 15-mile trail will provide West Side residents with safer bike commuting and public recreation space, and it also comprises a key stretch of the 330-mile Ohio-to-Erie Trail that runs from Cincinnati through Columbus and up to Cleveland's shores. With the opening of the Camp Chase Trail, 85 percent of the statewide route will be made up of dedicated, off-road trails.

"I'm not a big advocate of biking down West Broad Street or Sullivant Avenue," said Haydocy. "As much as you want to make it safe, there is a lot of traffic." Camp Chase, he said, provides a "viable alternative" for West Siders who walk or bike to jobs or use public transit. As a "last mile" transit connection, i.e. a short, safe connecting path between a bus stop or major roadway and a traveler's final destination, the trail provides greater alternate transportation access to the city's employment clusters in the Downtown business district, Dublin, Polaris and Easton.

Bike and walking trails have a number of positive effects on the communities they traverse: Trails measurably improve property values; they provide safe, free public spaces for citizens to exercise, and they provide critical modes of transit for people who, by choice or by hardship, don't own cars.

The Camp Chase Trail begins at Battelle Darby Creek Metro Park in Galloway. There, it connects to the north-south Darby Creek Trail, which is being developed to connect to Plain City and trails under development leading to Dublin. Heading east, the trail intersects Georgesville Road and Sullivant Avenue, winding through the new 47-acre Wilson Road Parkland (behind Hollywood Casino) on its way through the Hilltop and Franklinton.

The newly completed Camp Chase Trail will feed into the Scioto Greenway Trail and its connecting routes, including the Olentangy Trail and Downtown's new protected lanes.

"The potential impact is the ability to be on a Greenways trail and bike Downtown, from living in the Westgate area - or anywhere on the West Side," said Haydocy. He estimates the trail has 11 entrances connecting bike commuters to primary West Side roadways from Eureka to Sullivant avenues.

"The city of Columbus is working hard to make sure there are veins" connecting West Side residents to the city's wider transit infrastructure, Haydocy said.

Access for all?

In Franklin County, one in two whites and seven in 10 Asians live in areas rated as having a "high opportunity index." Comparatively, only three in 10 Hispanics or Latinos, and less than one in five African-Americans live in Columbus' areas of "high" opportunity, as measured by the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and the Moritz College of Law at the Ohio State University. (Their joint research was published in the 2012 Neighborhoods & Community Development in Franklin County report, commissioned by the Community Development Collaborative of Greater Columbus.)

Franklin County's opportunity index mapping was based on data compiled using key socio-economic indicators including: housing, home ownership and neighborhood factors; transit, mean commute time, unemployment rates and job access; incarceration rates and access to healthcare, and school performance, student poverty and educational attainment levels.

"Transportation is always one of the key components of those maps and indexes. It's a critical aspect of accessing opportunity," said Matt Martin, senior researcher at the Kirwan Institute. "Columbus is a very car-centric city. People talk about, 'You can get anywhere in Columbus in 20 minutes.' Well, you can get anywhere in Columbus in 20 minutes by car, but it takes a lot longer to get around if you don't have one."

The fundamental challenge Columbus faces that many of its peer cities don't is its scale. Martin pointed out that Columbus is roughly 225 square miles in area while Cleveland covers fewer than 80 square miles. "The challenge is covering that terrain," he said. "With Columbus being as big as it is, it's hard to connect everything by transit."

Every western neighborhood the Camp Chase Trail services - Westgate, Hilltop, Franklinton and essentially every patch of land between the I-70, I-71 and I-270 boundaries - has been rated as having a "very low" or "low" opportunity index.

"The big need in those communities is for sidewalks, bike lanes and public transit infrastructure to be integrated more effectively, because if you don't have a car, you need to piece together your transportation resources," said Martin, who also noted the Kirwan Institute hasn't studied the number of bike riders in the city's lower-income neighborhoods.

Contrast the low-opportunity communities touched by the Camp Chase Trail with those affected by the city's first two-way dedicated on-road bike route, which opened on Summit and Fourth streets in late 2015. Though the lanes run along the edge of Weinland Park and abut Milo-Grogan (both "very low" opportunity neighborhoods in the urban core), the lanes on Fourth Street in Victorian Village through Ohio State and up to Hudson Street (and south along the same route from Hudson to 11th Avenue) run primarily through neighborhoods rated as "very high," "high" and "moderate" opportunity areas.

"When you look at that bike path, it really does reflect socio-economic characteristics in the city," said Martin. "But as they've been creating those bike lanes, it is getting to more of those neighborhoods that are bike and transit dependent."

The placement of the Fourth/Summit bike lane makes sense for a number of reasons, given that it's the first dedicated roadway lane built into Columbus' car-centric infrastructure. "Like many of the bikeways around town, it was placed along a main corridor with heavy bike use," said Jeff Ortega, assistant director of public service for the city.

Cities look first for major roadways in areas where residents commute by bike, foot or bus when planning transit development, said Ortega. COTA's new CMAX Bus Rapid Transit Line, for example, is scheduled to begin servicing 62 dedicated stations along Cleveland Avenue from Downtown to Polaris Parkway. It runs through a number of "very low" and "low" opportunity neighborhoods like Milo-Grogan and North Linden.

"The city looks for opportunities in many areas to establish initiatives that will help promote multiple ways of getting people around," said Ortega. The dedicated bike lane on Fourth, like the city's other bike investments, was created as a result of various studies (including the 2008 Bicentennial Bikeways Plan and the 2010 Downtown Columbus Strategic Plan) and public input, Ortega said.

The city is obligated to use the tax and grant dollars allocated for transportation infrastructure in a way that "balances the needs of residents across the city," Ortega said. The $33 million road resurfacing project currently underway touches underserved neighborhoods across greater Columbus, as well as the Downtown core.

"The goal and intent is to ensure that every part of the city sees a part of the repavement program," said Ortega.

The resurfacing project has significance for bikers because the best piece of infrastructure for cyclists is always a smooth road surface, said Catherine Girves, executive director of bicycling advocacy group Yay Bikes. Smooth roads "raise mobility for people who are biking for economic necessity," she said.

There are some streets in Columbus on which the surface is difficult to ride. Sometimes curbs are disintegrated. The resurfacing program, along with bike trails and dedicated lanes, address these problems, said Girves. Yay Bikes began riding Columbus roads and bike trails with city engineers as they were developing the dedicated Fourth Street lane. Now, said Girves, biking on Columbus roadways is a central part of the city's engineering and design process.

Now that bike transit has become a priority for the city, Yay Bikes sees the city's next challenge as guaranteeing equitable access to bike transit. "How do we advocate for people who are not just choosing to replace car trips with bike trips, but people who are using a bike out of necessity, knowing that they are riding bikes in all sorts of conditions as they ride to work?" said Girves.

Achieving transit equity means Columbus has to provide a variety of alternate public transit options for people who don't have cars, said Kirwan researcher Martin. Ongoing bike-focused projects, COTA's rapid transit line and new last-mile initiatives (to be funded through the city's recent $50 million Smart Cities grant) show Columbus is moving in the right direction.

"With the Smart Columbus grant, [the city is] really going to be thinking about that last mile and making transit practical in Columbus," said Martin. "Think about where you can get on a bus versus where you can bike practically. If we can combine them more, it opens up the shed for people who don't have cars."