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Episode 125 guests Andy Aiello and Wade Johnston

Providing mobility options in the Cincinnati metro area that has over 200 different jurisdictions requires Andy Aiello of the Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky and Wade Johnston of Green Umbrella to show how all those communities benefit both from working together and connection to each other.


Hear more from Josh Cohen in this blog post on how we can build this community to truly create the equitable, accessible, and verdant mobility future we all deserve?


Cohen: Josh Cohen
Aiello: Andy Aiello
Johnston: Wade Johnston

Cohen: After more than a year The Movement podcast is back and in person. I hope you enjoy this special episode on the scene in the Cincinnati area that I recorded last month. No L’erin this week, but I’ll try to make up for it by giving you two guests. First up, Andy Aiello, general manager of the Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky. Let’s go.

F: The freedom of movement to access jobs, education, and social activities is a fundamental human right, but that freedom is not distributed equitably, undermining our ability to create vibrant and sustainable communities for all. Welcome to The Movement where we talk with the leaders who are reshaping their communities with brave decisions, inspired advocacy, and a stubborn unwillingness to accept the status quo all in an effort to inspire the next generation of leaders. Here are your hosts Josh Cohen and L’erin Jensen.

Cohen: This is Andy Aiello, general manager of the Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky. We’ve known each other for a long time. Welcome to The Movement podcast.

Aiello: It’s good to be here.

Cohen: Thank you. Thank you; thank you. Well, I’ve been to TANK before. I’ve come out to your headquarters here, your bus yard in Northern Kentucky, but maybe give us the lay of the land. You’re serving the greater Cincinnati area. Kind of share a little bit about the role of the Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky.

Aiello: Yeah. So we are a midsized bus system. Right? So we have about 100 fixed-route buses that operate seven days a week. We have a paratransit division as well. When you think about the area of Cincinnati, the metropolitan statistical area, the urban area, if you think about it as a bicycle wheel, it’s a very hub-and-spoke type of community because of the rivers and the hills. And that creates a dendritic type of transportation network. TANK, the Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky, is really the bottom third of that wheel, if you will.

Cohen: Okay.

Aiello: We serve the downtown, river-city core areas of Northern Kentucky just across the river from Downtown Cincinnati. We serve the suburban areas along the beltway south of town and then even some of the more rural and exurban areas south of the beltway and some of those communities as well. So we carry, prior to the pandemic, about three to four million trips a year, depending upon the year.

Cohen: Wow. And I imagine that—you mention having to serve, you know, kind of the urban core and then also some of the suburban and more rural service areas.

Aiello: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: Probably somewhat challenging from an operational perspective as far as, like, what you actually need to provide or what the—

Aiello: Yeah, our customers are so wildly different, and we have really four main types of customers, and we’re trying to adjust the system to serve all of them. One of those customers is, you mentioned, the folks that live in the urban core and use transit every day. And we’ve been working on through our redesign process, you know, increased frequency in those core urban corridors, folks that get to work, to school, to groceries, to doctors, all that. And that’s really, I’d say, half of our business. Another 15 to 20% of our business are those commuters that commute into Downtown Cincinnati. So these are your park-and-ride folks that work 9:00 to 5:00 in professional capacities in Downtown Cincinnati, and that’s a different customer altogether.

Cohen: Yeah.

Aiello: The third are the folks that use our Southbank Shuttle, which is a riverfront, urban circulator route that serves Downtown Cincinnati and the hotels and the entertainment areas along the riverfront, and those folks who don’t even think they’re taking transit.

Cohen: Right, right.

Aiello: They say, “Well, I take the Southbank Shuttle, but I don’t use public transit.” Right? It’s a different market altogether. And then our forth and probably fastest growing market are what we call the reverse commute segment. So across the river, Cincinnati, Hamilton County, a lot of folks board the metro system, Southwest Ohio Transit Authority, SORTA, they board that system, take the bus downtown, and then they got on TANK to be expressed out to the growing employment centers in suburban Northern Kentucky, the biggest of which is CVG Airport.

CVG International Airport is home to the North American hub for DHL, and just recently Amazon Prime Air located their North American air hub at CVG. So they’re hiring, and we’re trying to provide a workforce from all over the region to get to CVG Airport. So that’s an interesting dynamic as well, but that’s one of our four focus areas in terms of customers.

Cohen: So let me ask the question that jumps out to me just from the standpoint of operational kind of perspective, which is, having four different types of customers who each have very different needs—

Aiello: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: Right? The urban core, that first group, is going to need much higher frequency than, say, those commuters or the reverse commuters in groups two and four.

Aiello: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: Like, is that too much for one agency to try and, like, serve those quite different types of groups?

Aiello: Well, I think, what we’ve seen over the last five years is that the answer is yes. We have to focus on the areas where we’re going to get the most return for the investment. We’re in a community that doesn’t have limitless resources, and we have to make sure that we’re putting the resources where we can move the most people. And ideally when your service is frequent enough you solve for all of the problems. When we have industrial and suburban employers who have shift times that change frequently—there’s mandatory overtime; the holiday has a different schedule than the rest of the year—and you have bus service that is really tailored to shift times, it becomes obsolete overnight.

Cohen: Sure.

Aiello: Whereas if you have consistent, reliable, frequent service you solve for all problems. So what we’ve learned is even in the riverfront, you know, the customer that uses the shuttle in the riverfront for entertainment purposes, if we run that system frequently from early morning to late evening we also get the commuters that don’t want to walk that last mile to their job. We also get the folks that work at the baseball stadium. So what we’ve learned is if we can choose to prioritize the areas that have the most propensity for ridership and put good transit there, we invest in good frequency, and then you have the hard conversation with the rest of the community that says, “You might not have transit.”

Cohen: Yeah.

Aiello: And that’s a hard conversation to have. And our board and the counties that fund our system were very willing to have that conversation with this community. And, I think, what we’d like to see in the long run is that we move more people and we meet more needs with maybe a smaller footprint.

Cohen: Yeah. You alluded to the system redesign. And, I think, you know, certainly, kind of doing a transformation of how you provide service, which you’ve kind of alluded to a little bit, as well as some of the other really interesting things you’ve done with this collaborative with 13 other agencies that you’re now rolling out as far as mobile ticketing and integrated payments, I think, is really, really interesting, especially for a system your size. So I’m curious to see kind of, like, from your standpoint what has really driven or, like, what’s the philosophy that has really driven some of these significant what I call policy or decisions around what you’re going to invest in. Right?

Aiello: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: Like, “We’re going to invest in the system redesign; we’re going to invest in this collaborative to make it easier for people to use transit.”

Aiello: Right. So I’ll start with the redesign. I think, the redesign was a function of overall trends in transit. And I mentioned our community, again, in terms of their resources; they’re willing to invest in transit but not at unlimited cost. And when they saw the trends that were impacting our industry over the last five years, which were things like declining ridership that we’re all aware of in the industry and then also the increased cost to run a labor-based business and a human-based business, that really what the community said was, “Are we maximizing our benefit? We’re okay to invest in transit, but we want to make sure that we’re putting it in the right places to the most people we can possibly move and meet the most needs.” It’s a very practical and pragmatic way to go about it, and we are fortunate, I think, in this community with our board that they allow us to focus on the numbers and to think, I guess, theoretically and then also move forward with ideas that we know aren’t going to please everybody.

Cohen: Yeah.

Aiello: So I think that’s our charge, is to get the most out of what we have. So with the redesign, that was a long community process, lots of engagement, lots of folks. And through that kind of six-month community engagement process people started to understand what we were doing and why we were doing it. And at the same time where you’re telling certain areas, “We might not be able to afford to continue transit service,” the second half of your question, we’re investing in technology.

Cohen: Right.

Aiello: Right? And those are the pieces that are going to be required. And what we’ve learned, whether folks are transit dependent or whether they aren’t, the expectation of information to be in their hand at all times is the new normal, and that’s not going to change. So that’s why we pushed forward with mobile ticketing and trip planning and working with all of the partners. And I can talk more about that, but I think it’s just a spirit here of creating a business plan and a strategic plan and our really—community supports us in moving forward with that. So it’s fun. It’s fun work. It’s difficult work, but it’s a good community to work in.

Cohen: One of the things I think is interesting about both the system redesign and that investment in technology is that, especially on the mobile ticketing side, is that those are tangible things that riders can see.

Aiello: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: I think a lot of the challenge that sometimes transit has is that the work you do can be somewhat invisible.

Aiello: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: Right? Even a bus, which obviously you can hardly miss a bus, but, like, you know, a bus that if you’ve got 25 people on that going to Downtown Cincinnati that is taking 25 potential cars of the road.

Aiello: Right.

Cohen: And, again, you kind of don’t see what you don’t see. Right?

Aiello: Right.

Cohen: So I think that’s what’s so neat about the system redesign and the technology, is that those are tangible things that everyone can see that the community is investing in in the transit.

Aiello: Yeah. And the collaborative piece when it comes to the mobile ticketing, this was a really interesting, I guess, way to develop a project. We knew that we wanted to get into the space; we wanted to do mobile ticketing, but we’re also one of four transit systems in a large metropolitan area. And a lot of folks use more than one system every single day, so we had to reach out to our partners in Cincinnati and talk to them about their, you know, process moving forward. And it was really through our relationship with them that we learned about NEORide. And NEORide is this council of governments; it’s about 13 or 14 transit systems, and this group basically works together to do things like joint procurement. And, you know, with lots of smaller agencies, why do we all need to reinvent the wheel?

Cohen: Yeah, totally.

Aiello: And I think the thing that was most attractive for us is the fact that we now have one platform that folks that live in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky or in some of the suburban Ohio counties can access, plan their trip, pay their fare, and use all systems seamlessly, which only happens because we have partners that are willing to collaborate. So, I think, when you’re in a large jurisdiction like this, partnership collaboration is huge. It’s huge if you’re going to get anything done.

Cohen: Yeah. I can only imagine. I can imagine there might have been some, before you got to that place there—maybe even along that, I’m curious if there was any political battles that had to be fought. Because, again, in plenty of situations you don’t have that collaboration.

Aiello: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: I know in, you know, certainly Northern California you’ve got in the Bay Area I think you’ve got 27 separate transit agencies.

Aiello: Right. Right.

Cohen: It’s like, wow.

Aiello: Right.

Cohen: And they all have different fare structures.

Aiello: Right.

Cohen: And, you know, you can pay for them all with one Clipper Card, which is now, I think, also—you can also do it with Apple Pay and so forth, but 27 different fare structures.

Aiello: Yeah.

Cohen: Just think about how hard that must be.

Aiello: Yeah.

Cohen: Especially, again, a very balkanized kind of way of moving around the community.

Aiello: Right. Well, and our region is—we serve three counties in Northern Kentucky, and within those three counties there are 35 different jurisdictions, cities. And then across the river in Hamilton County, I think, there are 50 jurisdictions within that county. So finding the center of gravity in terms of who is leading—

Cohen: Yeah.

Aiello: —we take turns. You know, we’ll lead on a bus procurement, you know, process, and we’ll get the whole region behind where we think we might go in terms of vehicles. And then maybe another agency will lead on some of the technology pieces. And we’re working right now with our partners across the region on analysis of, you know, alternative fuel vehicles and what’s the most practical and effective path for organizations in this part of the country. So, I think, once people see the benefit of collaboration, it feeds itself because you realize how much more you can get done when you build those partnerships. And we’re super lucky to have them.

Cohen: You mentioned kind of this earlier when you were talking about the system redesign. And I’m thinking about—all right, so you’re starting right now and you’re looking to the future; you’re looking about where does TANK go in the future. And we kind of—you know, I kind of pushed a little bit on those four different kind of service folks that you serve but and also with the system redesign how, you know, some groups are not getting service in the same way they did in the past.

Aiello: Right.

Cohen: How are you ensuring that the folks that need transit the most actually get it? Because it’s certainly great that, again, we can ensure that folks can get downtown, we can get cars off the road. That’s certainly valuable.

Aiello: Sure.

Cohen: But at the same time also getting people to jobs too, especially folks that they don’t have a car.

Aiello: Absolutely. Right.

Cohen: So how are you ensuring kind of that equity component of a fundamental access to mobility that transit provides?

Aiello: Right.

Cohen: How do you ensure that that still stays there?

Aiello: Well, the timing of this has a lot to do with us asking these questions again through our process. We started down the road of a redesign prior to the pandemic. We did all the public involvement prior to the pandemic, and we had actually set the date of implementation prior to the pandemic hitting. The pandemic hit; it forced us to look at these recommendations through the lens of two things. One, how are people going to commute in the future? Which is huge. And, two, there is the question of social justice and equity and empowering those communities that could sometimes be overlooked in planning processes. Right?

Cohen: Yeah.

Aiello: And so we reevaluated our recommendations, and it’s amazing how they lined up. Our recommendations because of some of the trends we had seen before with telework and, you know, people’s schedules not being so routine as they used to be, we consolidated a lot of our express service for those nine-to-fivers.

Cohen: Oh, interesting. Oh, wow.

Aiello: So we went from seven or eight kind of express route park-and-ride situations down to three or four, and we’re condensing that into a more focused and less expensive and less investment for those types of commuters because those trends were already kind of out there. And then we just doubled down on frequency in the most densely populated, lowest-income parts of our community and then doubled down on frequency to job centers to try to get all of those connections more reliable, knowing that we can’t serve everybody.

Cohen: Yeah.

Aiello: So there may be somebody who says, you know, “I can no longer reach this job. It’s 25 miles south of the urban core,” and we don’t have bus service any more, but what we’ve done instead of having one or two trips a day that go 25 miles south, we have high frequency to all the job centers that are close to the core. And that’s a hard discussion to have with folks, but it results in more access. And the way we measure this in terms of access is it’s not who has transit; who has access to good transit? And those metrics changed very significantly through the redesign process.

And then once the pandemic hit and a lot of discussions about social equity hit, we reviewed those numbers in terms of now not only who has good access but how has access to good transit changed for our low-income and minority communities. And what we saw was huge increases in terms of—when we add frequency transit in the most densely populated parts of our community, access to high quality transit for those groups increase dramatically.

Cohen: Yeah.

Aiello: So it was just amazing to go through this process and kind of making a lot of decisions before the pandemic hit and then seeing that they were almost validated after the fact was good, but the works not done.

Cohen: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Aiello: I think that communities are changing, where people live are changing, and then also a lot of new folks moving into regions and trying—and I think that what was struggle with is knowing where low-income, minority, non-English-speaking communities are growing in our community and knowing about that ahead of time and planning for those, that’s where I think our next kind of piece is, is how to have better antennas and how to know how are communities changing before people establish travel patterns and, you know, are served or underserved.

Cohen: Well, and I imagine that’s where, you know, working with those different jurisdictions really comes into play, because where some of the policy decisions around where we’re encouraging new job growth to go, where we’re encouraging new housing, so forth, will impact some of those things that you just talked about.

Aiello: Yeah.

Cohen: It’s like where are people when—if you’re moving into the community and you have a certain level of income, there’s only so many different places you can possibly live now based on how things have gone.

Aiello: Right. Absolutely. Absolutely. And I think that it’ll really be interesting to see post-pandemic how those trends change, because we’ve just seen so much change. And a lot of people have asked us about the redesign and how effective has it been, and we have anecdotal feedback. And when you look at ridership trends, you’re trying to assess—the way I’ve described it before is you’re trying to gauge the change in the direction of the wind in the middle of a hurricane. You know?

Cohen: Oh, yeah.

Aiello: And so we have so much to learn every week about what are we seeing in terms of trends, who is being served better, who could be served better. So it’s going to be a fascinating year ahead as things start to return to quote-unquote “normal.”

Cohen: Wow. Wow. And how long have you been general manager here at TANK?

Aiello: I’ve been general manager for 11 years at TANK.

Cohen: Wow.

Aiello: And I’ve been in the organization for 17.

Cohen: Wow. Okay.

Aiello: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: So you’ve been in the hot seat long enough.

Aiello: Uh-huh.

Cohen: You mentioned partnership collaboration as kind of a key lesson that you’ve learned—

Aiello: Yep.

Cohen: —that I’ll kind of highlight to say that is something that you would kind of ensure that folks pull away or a lesson that you’ve learned as general manager. Is there anything else that kind of jumps out to you as far as things that you’ve learned in your role that have helped you be successful or that other people could pull from in order to help ensure they’re successful in a similar role?

Aiello: Yeah. I think, one of the biggest is trust-building.

Cohen: Mm-hmm.

Aiello: And we are funded by three different agencies, three different counties, jurisdictions who might have different goals and aspirations. And, I think, we’ve built trust through transparency and consistency. And, I think, when we have new employees that start at TANK—and I always give a class, a welcome class and kind of talk about why we’re here—I think, from a philosophical perspective we have to realize that we serve the public and every decision that we make is everybody’s business.

Cohen: Mm-hmm.

Aiello: And we have to feel that we have been transparent about how we reach decision, that we have to know that everybody has a stake in our system whether they ride the bus or not, and we have to admit our mistakes, and we have to put all of our information in a consumable way in front of our board and in front of our elected officials and in front of our passengers as much as we can. So, I think, transparency builds trust, I would say, is maybe the thing especially when we’re in a very, we talked about, area that has so many different jurisdictions and so many different leaders. How do we maintain a position in the community where people trust that we’re doing what we should be doing? And, I think, that’s through transparency.

Cohen: Awesome. Awesome; awesome. Thank you so much for giving me a little bit of this introduction. It’s so exciting to see some of the changes that are going on here with the technology and with the system redesign and to see how you’ve been able to maybe validate some of those decisions you were already making even with some of the changes over the course of the last year with the pandemic and social justice and so forth to really ensure that the work you’re doing is really kind of hitting the needs of the community and aligning very well with that. So thank you so much for sharing that.

Aiello: Yeah. Hey, thanks for the opportunity. It’s been great to chat with you.

Cohen: My next guest and I are in a beautiful downtown park in Cincinnati, and we’ve got all the city noises around us. Enjoy getting to know Wade Johnston, the director of the Tri-State Trails with Green Umbrella. Here we go. I am here with Wade Johnston. We are in a beautiful Downtown Cincinnati—I guess the neighborhood is actually Over-the-Rhine. Is that correct?

Johnston: That’s correct.

Cohen: Okay, Over-the-Rhine, the neighborhood, just north of Downtown Cincinnati. It’s called Washington Park. You can hear the sprayground, I guess they call it, behind us. Some kids just were playing in it even though it’s kind of an overcast day here in Cincinnati, but some kids were just playing in that. So you may hear some joyful laughter from the sprayground and also the bark park next door as well, but Wade Johnston is here. He is the director of the Tri-State Trails program as part of Green Umbrella. Welcome to The Movement podcast.

Johnston: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Cohen: Well, so let’s get started by just maybe introducing us to Tri-State Trails and what you’re trying to accomplish, what’s the organizational mission and where you’re going with it.

Johnston: Yeah, so Tri-State Trails is an initiative of Green Umbrella. Green Umbrella is a nonprofit regional sustainability alliance based out of Greater Cincinnati. We serve a 10-county region in the tri-state, and the work that we’re doing with Tri-State Trails is really aiming to connect and expand our trail and bike lane network so that folks can use the network for more than just recreation but also for transportation.

Cohen: Yeah, and I think that transportation piece is a key thing, and I keep hearing over and over again it’s like the more we can look at bikes and ped as not just something you do to get exercise but as like a foundational element of transportation, it will really change the dynamic around how we look at it, how it’s funded, and so forth. Right?

Johnston: Absolutely, yeah. We’ve been very successful in securing transportation-type funding streams to build out our trail network, and there’s just smaller pots of money available for recreation. And for us, you know, we really see that value in making the connection and using that to inspire or cultivate behavior change, specifically just the way that people get around. Right now we have some really great destination trails in Southwest Ohio. We’re home to the southern end of the Little Miami Scenic Trail, which is the southern leg of the 326-mile Ohio to Erie Trail, which runs all the way from Cincinnati to Cleveland.

Cohen: Wow.

Johnston: And so many people use that trail on a regular basis. But right now, for example, it doesn’t connect to downtown, and one of our partners, Great Parks of Hamilton County, as an example, is building a bridge that’s going to connect it to the City of Cincinnati, then there’ll be a much safer way to get to downtown because it would be closing a treacherous gap. And, you know, that’s the type of barrier that we’re trying to overcome, that if we connect to that activity center, the downtown, our employment center, we think more people will choose to ride a bike.

Cohen: That’s fantastic, and I think if it works for transportation it will work for recreation as well. Right?

Johnston: Absolutely, absolutely.

Cohen: Now, was there a precipitating event? Or what kind of, like, led to this investment? Because it obviously—it seems like this is kind of a coalition here to kind of make this happen; and Tri-State Trails and Green Umbrella, what kind of was the origin story there?

Johnston: Yeah, so back in 2012 a ton of organizations came together through Green Umbrella, and they identified the need to put together a regional trails plan for Greater Cincinnati. You know, Green Umbrella, at the heart of our organization we are a collaborator, a convener, and a catalyst. And the whole point of this project was to identify where all the trails are, what plans exist to build new trails, and how could we think big about building even more plans to connect.

So in 2014 we developed the first regional trails plan for Greater Cincinnati, and 2015 my position was created, the first full-time staff position for this role. And over the years we’ve really zoomed into the urban core. We still focus on the whole tri-state, but a lot of the work that we prioritize is in the urban core, again, with that aim to link up the trail and bike lane network so that people can use it for functional purposes in addition to the fun purposes.

Cohen: Yeah. No, I like that. I like that. So you mentioned that your position was created in 2015, so you’ve been at this for now six-plus years.

Johnston: Yeah.

Cohen: What have been some of the biggest lessons that you’ve learned that would be applicable to others who are trying to kind of bring about some of the change that we like to talk about on The Movement podcast?

Johnston: Yeah, I think, in many ways one of the unique roles that we have played has been building consensus beyond jurisdictional boundaries, trying to foster multi-jurisdictional, cross-sector collaboration. Being a regional organization, you know, I think we’re pretty unique for the country because we’re at a tri-state. You know, we’ve got Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana right here and got a lot of political fragmentation in this part of the state and the country. For example, in our 10-county region there’s about 220-plus local governments. You know, we don’t have a metro government like some regions have, and as a result, you know, we see a lot of things that are Cincinnati focused or Hamilton County focused, but articulating and accomplishing a vision is not always politically advantageous.

Cohen: Yeah.

Johnston: And so we have stepped up into that role of leadership, aiming to show the benefits for why communities should plan to connect each other. We’re also trying to repair damage from the highways.

Cohen: Yeah.

Johnston: You know, when I-75, I-71, I-74 were built, if you look at the before and after photos just of the downtown area, you know, pretty catastrophic to the urban fabric. Specifically Black communities have been negatively impacted by this back in the ’60s. And the trail network in Cincinnati that we’ve been working on—it’s called the CROWN, the Cincinnati Riding or Walking Network—we’re trying to build a 34-mile loop around the city and link up four major trail corridors that are in different stages of development. Several of those are what were former rail lines, and these corridors present a unique opportunity to reconnect neighborhoods that have been bisected by the highways. So, you know, it’s a multifaceted type approach, really trying to get our regional leaders to come together and push for positive change.

Cohen: Yeah. And, I mean, I guess I want to drill down on that a little bit. So the tactically what’s necessary in order to kind of manage those relationships across all those different jurisdictions and all those different political landscapes there? How exactly have you been able to kind of have that collaborative working relationship that you have to do in order to kind of make progress there? Are there any tactical things that you can recommend to others that might have similar balkanization of the political landscape?

Johnston: Yeah. I think, one of our favorite tools is peer pressure. [LAUGHS]

Cohen: Okay, go on.

Johnston: You know, so with so many local governments and a state line, county lines, you know, everyone is always trying to be the most competitive—

Cohen: Right.

Johnston: —to have the best thing. And so, you know, we’re able to use that to our advantage, where if Northern Kentucky is doing something that Cincinnati is not doing, that kind of puts some pressure on Cincinnati to, you know, work in the same direction.

Cohen: Ah.

Johnston: And then, I think, you know, another example is a lot of times and especially in the urban areas it comes down to a tough choice or, you know, a pinch point, and we often will, you know, very tactically build the trail to either side of the pinch point. And maybe that’s a really expensive pinch point, but creating the critical mass of people to use it and see it and visualize it has been really helpful to build that public support to build more projects, build more trails.

Cohen: So you were not being metaphorical when you were saying pinch point; you were actually talking about, you know, you have a trail and maybe you have maybe a, let’s say, a quarter-mile gap between that and another trail, and you’ll say, “Hey, look. We’ve got this trail that goes 10 miles and this trail that goes 10 miles, but in between we’ve got this quarter mile. And, yeah, it’d be a new project, and we’d have to go find funding, but, hey, we’ve got to get this done.”

Johnston: That’s right.

Cohen: Okay.

Johnston: That’s right. Yeah, an example, again, going back to Great Parks of Hamilton County, the Little Miami Scenic Trail comes down right to the edge of the eastern side of Cincinnati, and it ends on the east side of the Little Miami River. So in 2016 Great Parks extended the trail all the way down to that point knowing that we’d have to cross a state and national scenic river that currently it’s a four-lane road, 45 miles an hour. It is enough to turn off most people on a bike. I myself, I don’t even like to do it as a confident rider just because of the way that drivers drive on it. But in creating that pinch point it got people to ride their bike down to the end of the trail and say, “Hey, why doesn’t it connect?” And when enough people start saying that or asking that, you know, it gets the attention of the decision makers and the leaders to create that will to get creative with the funding strategy.

It ended up being about an $8-million project, which, you know, is pretty expensive for about a half a mile of trail, but the benefit that it’s going to provide is going to be transformative, we believe, not just for mobility but also for economic development and tourism. And then obviously connecting one of our best trails, most highly used trails to our downtown, we think a lot of people are going to use it.

Cohen: Yeah. I like that. I mean, one thing that is said, that, you know, politicians don’t want to be alone. Right? They don’t want to be the only one kind of advocating for something. They don’t want to turn around and see that nobody is back there, like, got their back. And so I like the fact that when you build that trail and even acknowledge that there’s that gap, that creates more supporters, if you will.

Johnston: Absolutely.

Cohen: Because they can then see that gap, and it makes it a little bit more real than it might otherwise be.

Johnston: Right.

Cohen: The flipside being, then you have an $8-million project to go half a mile.

Johnston: Right. Right.

Cohen: But it sounds like that was somewhat complex. You had to cross a river?

Johnston: Yeah.

Cohen: Okay.

Johnston: Yeah, yeah. And then, you know, the answer really was just lining up the funding streams, being really intentional, leveraging money as much as we can. Another example that we’ve recently been leading is a fundraising campaign for the CROWN to create a private funding stream that will be leveraged with state and federal grants, minimizing the expense to the local taxpayers, leveraging funding sources that are already available, and creating a bigger pot of money to be able to build these projects.

Cohen: Hmm. I also imagine that, you know, what’s going on at a larger national level right now—we’re recording this in May 2021—is the conversation about the infrastructure bill in Congress. And I imagine that bike and ped infrastructure from a maintenance standpoint, it doesn’t require as much, like, because you’re just not putting 2,000- to 10,000-pound vehicles over it on a regular basis.

Johnston: Right. Yeah.

Cohen: So it’s just—it stays longer. Is that a fair assumption?

Johnston: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. I think the lifespan of these projects is longer because, like you said, the lower wear and tear. And, I think, we’re kind of at a different point than our road and bridge network where, you know, we look at the five bridges we have over the Ohio River right now. The one bike-ped bridge is closed because of a structural issue; the historic Roebling Bridge is closed because of repairs; the Brent Spence Bridge just reopened after a huge issue that they had to fix, and even though it has 3% of GDP for the country going over it, they can’t find a way to finance it. So, you know, whereas most of our road and bridge network is looking for repair money, we’re trying to get build money. You know, we’re trying to create the network so that folks have an alternative.

And, you know, we have a very car-dominant city and region, and I think part of the barrier for people to see themselves biking more is if the trail doesn’t connect to where they need to go then that’s enough to discourage people. Or if there is a pinch point that makes folks feel unsafe by having to bike with cars, you know, that’s enough of a barrier. So we’re really trying to build those connections, build that network, and make it easier for folks to make that choice.

Cohen: It makes me realize—I’m sure I’ve thought of this before, but just hearing you say this is that, you know, when you build car roads, or roads used mostly for cars maybe, it never stops and just, like, ends. It doesn’t have those—I mean, I guess you could have a pinch point where it kind of goes down to a smaller lane. But the point being, like, you can still get from point A to point B—

Johnston: Right.

Cohen: —whereas with bike networks that’s not the case. Right? Sometimes it just ends, or certainly true with sidewalks—

Johnston: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.

Cohen: —where it’s like you have sidewalks to nowhere. And it’s like, “Why?” Right?

Johnston: Yeah. Yeah.

Cohen: Like, it just doesn’t make any sense. But, I guess, what will it take to get the bike and ped communication in such a way that, like, that issue can be overcome, this, like, “Well, of course you’d never build a road that just ended half a mile shy of a destination. Like, why would you do that for a bike trail?” or whatever?

Johnston: Yeah.

Cohen: Like, what will it take to, like, get over that hump, do you think?

Johnston: Yeah, I think for our region at least, you know, having an organization like ours pushing for that charge to get the connections built, you know, we’re in this for the long game. A lot of times the way the funding is structured and programmed out, you get a grant, you’ve got to wait three to four years for the money to come in, you know, a year or so for construction, so it does take a while. And we do get that feedback; “Why doesn’t the trail connect?” And the answer is, “We’re working on it.” You know? And trying to be the constant through all the political change that happens, try to be seen as the leader for who elected officials can go to, to educate them and help them articulate the ideas that so much of the public wants. And, you know, one of the ways that we do that is getting elected officials on bikes.

Cohen: Yeah.

Johnston: We show them through experiential learning what good bike infrastructure looks and feels like and what lacking bike infrastructure looks like. And, you know, we intentionally make them feel uncomfortable on the bike ride, and they come away with it saying, “Why doesn’t this connect?” You know? So we get them to go on their own learning journey to really understand the issue.

Cohen: Yeah. I love that. It’s one of my favorite things, is getting people on bikes, getting people on transit. It’s a good way to really ensure those political leaders have a good sense on what it actually takes to have good transit, good infrastructure, so forth.

Johnston: Yeah.

Cohen: I love that example too you talk about with the what good looks like and what bad looks like, because it always amazes me—in our area we have a Rails-to-Trails project that goes pretty near my house into Downtown Durham, and people absolutely love it.

Johnston: Yeah.

Cohen: And it never ceases to amaze me how people love it so much. And the reason why you love it so much, you don’t have to worry about getting hit my cars. Right?

Johnston: Right.

Cohen: And so I’m just still so surprised that we don’t then take that lesson—right—and then say, “Well, great. We’re doing a roadway. You know? Like, let’s make some protected bike infrastructure and give people that same feeling.” It just boggles my mind that it’s like they can’t quite make that jump there. You know, and maybe it’s because they have to deal with the tradeoff.

Johnston: Right.

Cohen: Right? The tradeoff on Rails-to-Trails project is pretty easy in the sense that it’s—hey—it’s an overgrown rail bed.

Johnston: Right. Right, right.

Cohen: You know? Here it’s like, “Oh, yeah. We’ve got to take away a bike or parking lane.”

Johnston: Right.

Cohen: And so maybe the tradeoff just feels a little bit too big. That, to me, is an ongoing, like, burr in my saddle, if you will.

Johnston: Yeah, that’s definitely something we see here. You know, we’re a very historic downtown built at the time of horse and buggy and pedestrians that, you know, has since become retrofitted for cars. And so with limited lanes going through our urban core, you know, that choice feels tougher, that, you know, to remove a lane of traffic or remove a lane of parking seems insurmountable, but there’s plenty of examples even during, like, a construction project. Right now we’ve got a hillside that’s fallen down, and one of the main thoroughfares from the east side to downtown, Columbia Parkway, has been closed for—gosh—probably a year now. Or not closed but down to one lane. And surprise, surprise; the world did not end; cars are still moving through there; traffic is not that terrible. So, you know, overcoming that perception of the setback is challenging, I think. Again, not insurmountable.

Cohen: Yeah. Well, let’s wrap up with this; what’s the next big goal for Tri-State Trails? And kind of related to that, what do you really have going for you that will allow you to achieve that? And maybe on the flipside, what’s the real big barrier that you’re worried about that’s going to get in the way of you maybe potentially achieving that?

Johnston: Yeah, the big project that I mentioned before, the CROWN, trying to build a 34-mile loop around the City of Cincinnati. And about 17 miles of that exists. We’ve secured about five miles more in funding, and we’ve got a campaign right now where we are raising private money to build out 10 critical miles in that network that’s going to link up 24 of the 34 miles. It’ll be the whole eastern half of the loop will be done. And I would say that there’s not a whole lot of major obstacles in the course that we’re on right now, but as we look towards finishing the last 10 miles of the 34-mile loop, you know, it hinges on a rail acquisition and, you know, some complicated land property owner situations.

And so, you know, that’s, again, the long game where you’ve got to be patient and build the support, find the money, create the momentum to get it done. But, you know, that next piece of the loop really touches an underserved population in Cincinnati. Right now where the trails are are, you know, pretty affluent, mostly White communities, and we’re trying to improve that; we’re trying to connect the trails to more diverse communities, lower-income communities, and it’s built.

We’ve tried to explore best practices from around the country like the Atlanta Beltline, where even though they had a housing trust fund and a TIF district funding that, they still couldn’t beat the pace of market development. And so, you know, we’re trying to be a step out in front of that. Time will tell if we’re successful, but, you know, we’re trying to build an equitable trail network; we’re trying to build a network that connects, that touches 356,000 people within a mile of the trail.

Cohen: Yeah, that’s huge.

Johnston: That will make it easier for folks to make that choice and not have to drive to the trail head.

Cohen: No, I love it; I love it. So where can folks learn more about Tri-State Trails and Green Umbrella?

Johnston: Yeah, is our website. is where you can learn more about the CROWN. And we’re on social media, so that’s another way to stay in touch.

Cohen: Awesome. Thank you so much, Wade. I really appreciate this introduction to Tri-State Trails and some of the work you’re doing, and keep up the great work.

Johnston: Thanks a lot.

F: Thanks for listening. If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. You can find out more at or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP. Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.