Wasson Way is a proposed 6.5 mile mixed-use trail along an right-of-way belonging to the Norfolk Southern Railroad. The proposed $7.1 million project would stretch from Xavier University in Evanston through Hyde Park and Oakley, past Madisonville and Mariemont to the Little Miami Scenic Trail in Newtown. As many as 120,000 people live within a mile of the proposed trail and many more live along various connecting trails. For example, plans are moving forward for a Little Duck Creek Scenic Trail in Madisonville that would connect with Wasson Way. On its western end, Wasson Way will connect to the bike lanes along Victory Parkway and hence provide a reasonably good connection to downtown. Wasson Way will thus link many parts of the city and region, improve circulation and access, encourage a healthier citizenry, and help Cincinnati fulfill its pledge to reduce carbon emissions and become a greener city.
Some hurdles remain in front of the project, including negotiations to purchase the right-of-way, finding the necessary funding, and addressing the concerns of all stakeholders. There is some concern that the bike trail might preclude eventual use of the right-to-way for a light rail system, but trail supporters argue that the project will preserve the right-of-way (a central purpose of federal rail to trails regulations) and that the trail can be maintained alongside a light-rail system. Studies from around the country show that local property values and small businesses benefit from such mixed-use trails and that public safety increases as well. Not only are bikers and walkers alert, conscientious citizens but a public right-of-way can be policed while the existing private right-of-way cannot. Cincinnati City Council has passed two resolutions in the past year, calling on city administrators to push the project to completion. Possible funding sources include monies from the proposed parking deal and the Focus 52 neighborhood fund as well as foundation and federal grants.
Many Cincinnatians, including myself, have walked portions of the trail. One highlight is the spectacular trestle that skirts Ault Park (here’s a look at the trestle with Jay Andress, who is spearheading the effort to build the trail). Passing through several lovely neighborhoods and lively commercial districts, the trail is more than a recreational asset, though it surely is that. It is also a much-needed transportation corridor in an area where both the railroad right-of-way and the sprawling grounds of Ault Park and the Hyde Park Country Club often make roundabout routes necessary. A walk or ride through the area will turn up multiple dead ends and cul-de-sacs. Wasson Way will therefore improve circulation in the area and increase access to important resources and amenities. It will also enable many residents to commute to work or school – or run errands or have an evening out – using their bikes or simply their legs.
Speaking of dead ends, here’s one along Old Red Bank Road. You can reach it along a short bike path from the intersection of Madison and Red Bank that can connect with Wasson Way. I’m obviously confused in this video. The road I’m looking at isn’t Beechmont Levee, as I’m sure my viewers will know. Beechmont Levee probably wouldn’t be raised so that water could go under it! Beechmont Levee is actually off to the right (southwest) a mile or so in this video. Nor is the road it Route 32, which is a ways back behind, to the south . It’s Columbia Parkway, US 50. Despite my confusion, I’m including the video, well, just because I like videos. But also to suggest how a bike trail might improve circulation, increase access, and save us from having to spend money, fight traffic, and burn fossil fuels to take the heaviest thing we own (our cars) a mile down the road to buy a gallon of milk. (The trestle I mention isn’t the one skirting Ault Park but a second trestle, spanning Red Bank Road).
Wasson Way will connect a host of organizations, institutions, attractions, and commercial developments, including Walnut Hills High School, Xavier University, the new University Station development on Xavier’s campus, Burwood Playground, Withrow High School, Rookwood Commons, the Hyde Park Plaza, Ault Park, historic downtown Mariemont, Bass Island Park, and the Little Miami Golf Center, and dozens of professional services, office parks and small industries, as well as many restaurants and bars. It even goes by a branch of the Department of Motor Vehicles. You could ride your bike to renew your driver’s license!
Think of Wasson Way as a low build alternative to the much more expensive and disruptive Eastern Corridor Project. Planners use the term “low build” to describe solutions that improve conditions with a minimum of expensive infrastructure. That’s what Wasson Way could do. The Eastern Corridor Project’s proposed relocation and improvement of Ohio State Route 32 is a particular concern to neighborhoods and townships, where residents worry about the disruptive damage that will be done to thriving business and residential districts as well as parks and the beautiful Little Miami Valley. In a world increasingly concerned about the use of fossil fuels and the environmental costs of the car culture in general, Wasson Way should be given every opportunity to help improve our transit options, our physical health, and the health of our communities. Although much of the push for the project has come from the Hamilton County Transportation Improvement District, County Commissioner Greg Hartman has recently questioned the wisdom of spending scarce resources on the $300 million project.
In conjunction with other trail projects (the Ohio River Trail, the Little Duck Creek Scenic Trail, the Murray Road Trail, the bike lanes on Victory Parkway, the proposed bike lanes on Central Parkway, etc.), Wasson Way might be the beginning of a different and better city, one that is more walkable, green, and lively. These trails nicely complement form-based codes, a new form of zoning that the city is experimenting with. In place of the old zoning logic of segregating retail and commerce from residence, form-based codes encourage mixed-use, walkable development. The new codes establish guidelines for the forms of private buildings in order to create humanly-scaled and attractive public spaces. Good trails and form-based codes can get us out of our cars and encourage us to enjoy the variety and diversity the city has to offer, while getting to know our neighbors, shedding pounds, and improving our health.
Wasson Way promises to be the most successful urban bike trail in the nation. It might be a catalyst for even bolder changes. In Ecocities: Building Cities In Balance With Nature, Richard Register urges local activists to establish alternative, ecological zoning maps that concentrate activity and preserve open space. I’ve often wondered what kind of walkable community might be possible in the three square mile radius around the intersection of Montgomery and Dana Avenues.. Consider the range of opportunities, assets, and amenities within that circle. In addition to many of the places described above in reference to Wasson Way, there are Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, the Cincinnati Zoo, the Civic Garden Center, the Mill Creek Greenway, Spring Grove Cemetery, Avon Field, and (barely within the three-mile limit) the University of Cincinnati. That is a formidable city within a city with employment, education, retail, recreation, culture, and beauty all within easy reach, without the use of an automobile.
Metro Plus service is already linking many of these places by rapid transit bus. And public transit will be crucial for those unable or unwilling to walk or ride, just as it is now an essential service for those (particularly the very young and the very old) either unable or unwilling to drive. New and better trails can build on Metro Plus and change our experience of the city. “To walk or take transit is a public act,” Jane Holtz Kay writes in Asphalt Nation, while the automobile tends to turn all space into private space. Is there anything more disconnected from the life of the city than the motorist speeding through the streets? Is there anything more connected to the life of the city than the pedestrian, the bicyclist, or the user of public transit? These alternative forms of transit bring us all into closer contact and equalize access to all the city has to offer.
This vision of a less auto-centric city is not a pipe dream;even the staid Cincinnati Enquirer has seen the future and is promoting greater use of bicycles in the city. But we can and should think more boldly. As I look back at Register’s suggestions, I’m surprised to see how many elements are already happening in our city. Try to recover something of the natural history of your place, he recommends, discovering where creeks, ponds, outcroppings are. How many people are like me and now have a much better understanding of where the Little Miami River is and where it goes, not to mention that there is something, right under our feet, called Duck Creek. Find out about the cultural history of your place, Register adds, those forgotten neighborhoods and buildings, and the story of how the natural setting was transformed. The discussions surrounding the Eastern Corridor project have encouraged just this. Establish walkable centers, Register continues, and locate railroad rights-of-way, essential for bikes and public transit. We are well on our way to doing all these things.
We can do more. Register urges activists to use eco-zoning maps to identify existing centers. Draw a series of concentric circles around them. Establish high densities on one-fifth to one-third of the land, closest to these centers. Establish low densities on the rest of the land, especially land furthest from the centers. As we rely less on the automobile and increase density in already existing centers, we can devote less used parts of the city to agriculture and green spaces. And don’t let density scare you. These are places people are already drawn too, not least to see – and be seen by – other people. Density also reduces the cost of urban infrastructure and makes public transit financial feasible. Draw in locations for nature corridors and agriculture, Register advises, and then adjust the concentric circles accordingly, making room for plants and animals to migrate. Creeks are one such corridor – give them wide berth in less dense areas, narrow berth in centers where land has a high social and economic value. We can make Cincinnati a much greener city, one that works with natural processes not against them. The city might even promote biodiversity instead of endangering it.
For more information on these issues, you might start with the Wasson Way organization website and the website for the Eastern Corridor project. On the Eastern Corridor project, WVXU recently had an excellent program, including an overview and questions and comments from callers. You might also find the form based code institute’s webpage useful: . Finally, see the City of Cincinnati’s page on form based codes.