As the Bicycle Turns 

A new bike-share system is going to provide 300 bikes for rent across the city. But is Richmond’s infrastructure prepared to move into high gear?

click to enlarge The Floyd Avenue bike boulevard plan remains controversial. But another bike proposal is speeding along.

Scott Elmquist

The Floyd Avenue bike boulevard plan remains controversial. But another bike proposal is speeding along.

A proposal to turn Floyd Avenue into a bicycle boulevard has turned hopelessly contentious. One city councilman has pulled his support, calling the proposal too watered-down. So has the city’s Urban Design Committee. The city’s Planning Commission is taking another month to try to sort the whole thing out.

All the while, a handful of outspoken neighbors have loudly complained that the project might cannibalize a handful of illegal parking spaces. City planners insist that it won’t.

At a recent meeting, resident David Robinson described sitting on his porch and yelling at cyclists who run stop signs: “And they respond with that great Southern colloquialism, ‘F-you!’” Relations between bike riders and drivers aren’t great. And the fight has shown that the business of building bike infrastructure can be a politically involved and challenging prospect.

The city is struggling to expand its bike infrastructure beyond the 15 miles of dedicated bike lanes scattered across Richmond. Yet it’s moving forward with a plan to install a $1.34 million bike-share system.

Such a system allows users to pick up and drop off bikes at designated racks across the city. Typically riders pay an annual subscriber fee or use a day pass. The idea is to encourage short trips and make it more convenient for people who may not otherwise use a bike.

The proposal sailed through City Council hearings with zero opposition, paid for by the federal government and without endangering precious parking space. In short, it’s a politically expedient way to enhance the city’s bike-friendly status before September’s much-trumpeted UCI Road World Championships.

But given the dearth of bike paths and lanes, is Richmond ready to drop 300 community bikes across the city and encourage novice cyclers to hop on?

As one bike advocate recently put it, it’s like saying: “Welcome to the Thunderdome. Here’s your bike — good luck.”

The city’s bike coordinator, Jakob Helmboldt, acknowledges the challenge.

“When you’re targeting your average person to hop on a bike and run an errand or go to a meeting,” he says, “they do have to feel like they have that comfort and are not jumping in that mix of heavy, chaotic traffic.”

Studies on bike-share use support that statement. In Washington, researchers found that the city’s bike-share stations located near streets with dedicated bike lanes saw higher use.

“Ideally, you’d have a bike-lane network, then you’d put in the bike share,” says Ralph Buehler, who conducted the research and is an assistant professor in urban planning at Virginia Tech’s Alexandria Center.

But that’s not to say a city can’t start with a bike share and then build up a bike network. “The bike lanes can attract cyclists,” Buehler says, “but the bike-share system can attract cyclists who will demand more bike lanes.”

That’s the effect Helmboldt says he hopes for. “There is, I think, the opportunity to have that demand driver by having something in place,” he says. “It makes a little more compelling reason to build out your infrastructure.”

Washington’s bike-share system — the city’s second attempt — generally is regarded as successful, Buehler says. The city launched it in the 2000s while undergoing an effort to install bike-friendly infrastructure.

Richmond is in the final stages of finishing its bicycle master plan, which lays out a network of bike lanes, bike paths and bicycle boulevards.
But in light of the controversy surrounding the Floyd Avenue proposal, the question is how much of it will get implemented.

Helmboldt says the Floyd project has been unusually contentious. “I wouldn’t allow that one project to characterize the general sentiment,” he says.

The city will have a better idea what kind of response it can expect on bike projects when it takes up a second high-profile project in the coming months. The city has federal funding and seeks approval for protected bike lanes on Franklin and Main streets between Monroe Park and the State Capitol.

The city’s Planning Commission, which is in the throes of the Floyd Avenue debate, is scheduled to take up the project at its next meeting. S

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