On Dec. 6, Mary O’Connor rode her electric-powered bicycle from her home in Summit Lake to the University of Akron campus through falling snow, big soft clumps rushing down with the fervor of a shaken snowglobe. She wore a thick brown coat over a handsome purple sweater, faded blue jeans and black boots with a furry grey material protruding from the top. Her bike, the Evo Eco, was purchased at Electric Pete’s E-Bikes, a shop specializing in motorized bicycles on Main Street. It has a black travel bag attached to one side. This is where O’Connor stores her books, or whatever else she might need this evening.
Although she has her license, O’Connor has willingly never owned a car, so this jaunt to a graduate school class was another typical commute.
“When I moved to Akron six years ago, I wondered how long I could last without a car,” she says. But having traversed New York City via bike for 36 years, the 63 year-old architect found a way to commute Akron on two wheels without any serious setbacks.
O’Connor is one of several Akronites who regularly commute the city on bicycle, even in the winter.
“I’ve met a lot of people in Akron who not only ride a lot, but commute too,” says Ben Brosius, an employee at Dirty River Bicycle Works. Ben bikes to and from Highland Square to the shop at Northside Marketplace on Furnace Street, where he works as a mechanic and teaches people how to bike safely and comfortably throughout the winter.
“It seems like more and more people are biking since I’ve lived in Akron, which is going on 10 years now,” he says. “When I first moved out here, I was riding solo, and then eventually met some people, a little group. That group became bigger, and then through that group I met other groups of people doing it.”
With more shops like Dirty River and Electric Pete’s popping up, and as the city of Akron installs bike lanes, cycling culture has become increasingly visible.
Visible enough that, in the last week of December, longtime Akron Beacon Journal columnist Bob Dyer gave bike lanes a parody “Seinfeld Shrinkage award.” He wrote: “Those of us who believe a lack of traffic congestion is a good thing were in for a jolt in 2018. Akron’s traffic designers insisted our streets are too big for the amount of traffic, so in numerous locations, they shrunk the number of lanes, added parking and bike lanes. Most of the public greeted this development with the same amount of enthusiasm they’d show for a flu pandemic.”
Akron Director of Planning and Urban Development Jason Segedy is one of those people who supports road diets, which intentionally slow down traffic. He believes “the number of cyclists [in Akron] is growing, slowly but surely,” and he has been looking into which streets are ripe for bike infrastructure.
The same report counted 339 crashes involving bicycles between 2012 and 2014. More than a third of those crashes involved cyclists under 18. Two of them were fatal.
“It’s not so much to get more people to commute [on bicycle], but to make it safer,” Segedy says. “Once you get enough bike lanes, people start thinking, ‘Well, maybe I could bike to work.’ That’s how it happens in most cities: incrementally.”
One of the city’s recent road diet projects was the redesign of Kenmore Boulevard, completed in September. About a mile of roadway was altered from two wide car lanes to a single car lane, a bike lane and spaces for curbside parking.
Tina Boyes of the Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance believes the bike lanes have had a positive impact on neighborhood commuters.
“I’ve seen milk carton crates attached to the backs of bikes around here,” she said. “I’ve seen big backpacks. That tells me these are not people that are passing through. These are people who do their business here or are trying to get from here to there. From that group, I’m hearing great things, and they’re using them.”
Boyes hopes the redesign will spur people to hang out on the Boulevard and spend more time traversing and spending money at its businesses whether on bike or foot.
Although she has heard plenty of complaints about the bike lanes from non-cyclists, she believes the change will be better accepted as the neighborhood adapts.
Bike lanes have not necessarily been well received, however. After just six weeks, the city reversed its decision to install bike lanes on Exchange Street in Downtown Akron because there was so much public outcry. (It’s important to note that the new road design on Exchange Street was meant to be temporary anyway, to see how people reacted. Kenmore Boulevard’s redesign is not temporary.)
Mike Reese relies on the Freedom Trail, which isn’t open to cars at all, to commute from his home in Tallmadge to work in downtown Akron. He bikes the 9-mile route two to four times a week in the winter.
“I love getting some exercise in before work,” Mike says. “Seems to make me more alert and energized for the day. The commute home is a nice way to de-stress.”
Casey Wiley bikes from Kenmore to his job on Steels Corners Road in Cuyahoga Falls.
“My knees used to hurt from years spent working on concrete floors,” he said. “I picked up cycling about 4 years ago and they don’t bother me anymore.”
For those just starting to bike in the winter, Ryan Adams, owner of Dirty River Bicycle Works, suggests, “If you want to do it cheaply… wear a light hat, bandana or scarf for your face, two long sleeve shirts, a light jacket, long underwear, any pants, wool socks, one-size-too-big insulated boots, then mittens or any slightly big gloves with a light glove underneath.”
Ben Brosius recommends studded tires. Studs are tiny metal pins resembling track spikes and are embedded into the rubber. He says, “they make a world of difference.”
Deltrece Daniels commutes by bike from Twinsburg to Akron year-round.
“For me, cycling for transportation is important,” Deltrece says, “and I try to use that form of transportation to commute to work, or anywhere, really, as much as possible. When winter comes here in Northeast Ohio, I still need to get to work, and for me, I still ride my bike.”
Maybe commuters like Daniels seem overcommitted. But there’s something admirable about their refusal to let the cold weather stop them from getting to work the way they want to, no matter the weather.
Kyle Cochrun is a writer from Akron, Ohio who is currently enrolled in the NEOMFA program for creative writing.