For 14 years, Bud Vye has been lobbying state legislators to support new laws aimed at making Virginia a better place for bicyclists. He says they don’t usually pass.
But last week, Vye leaves the General Assembly building elated and a little surprised. A bill that attempts to make roads a bit safer for bicyclists actually escapes a House subcommittee that’s better known as a killing field for such measures.
“Two Republicans voted for it,” he says after the meeting. “That hasn’t happened before. I’m stunned.”
It’s been six months since Lanie Kruszewski was struck and killed while riding her bike home from work on River Road. The death of a cyclist police say was doing everything right — she was outfitted with bike lights, reflectors and a helmet — has galvanized support for safer bicycling conditions in Richmond.
This week, as the trial of the man accused of taking her life in the hit-and-run crash begins, cycling advocates say the post-Kruszewski momentum for change that manifested itself in memorial rides and community forums is still alive, and in some cases, producing tangible results.
Expensive infrastructure improvements have yet to materialize and bicycle advocacy groups say communication with state agencies is lacking. But the emergence of bipartisan support for bicycling issues in the General Assembly is seen as a positive indicator for future progress, especially as Richmond prepares to play host to the UCI World Cycling Championships in 2015.
“There was a tremendous outpouring of interest and sadness when Lanie Kruszewski went down and that’s brought an awareness that this a problem,” Vye says. “There’s an interest in seeing the situation improve and we’re seeing that in what’s happening [in the Capitol] and what’s happening in Richmond.”
Case in point, Vye says: the unlikely success in the House Transportation Subcommittee on Feb. 6.
The bill introduced by Sen. J. Chapman Petersen, a Fairfax Democrat, requires drivers to check for oncoming cyclists and cars before opening their doors into traffic. Getting doored, as cyclists call it, is a common cause of serious injury in urban areas.
Though Petersen is from Fairfax, the idea for the legislation came from Richmond-area cycling advocates, he says. And though the measure easily passed in the Senate, like Vye, Petersen says he didn’t think it stood much of a chance against House Republicans, who typically oppose such measures with assertions that they are unenforceable or unnecessary. One of the two Republicans to vote against the dooring bill reasoned that the law was unenforceable, after a state police officer present advised that it was.
Another measure cyclists are supporting is expected to come before House committees this week. The legislation attempts to prevent motor vehicles from colliding with cyclists by requiring cars not follow them too closely and by increasing the minimum passing distance of a cyclist from two feet to threefeet.
Champe Burnley, the president of the Virginia Bicycling Federation, says 10 cyclists in Virginia were killed last year, and eight — including Kruszewski — were hit from behind. “Clearly there’s a problem that needs to be addressed,” he says. Burnley has been trying to get the legislation passed since 2004.
Some are holding out hope that this is the year the following-too-close bill advances. Michael Gilbert, a founder of Ride Richmond, says the mobilization that occurred after Kruszewski’s death has made cycling advocacy in the General Assembly stronger.
“Since it did happen in Richmond, we have more access to people who can come to the Capitol for these 10-minute hearings,” he says. “We have a lot more people noticing and fighting for more rights and more safety.”
Of course, there’s still work to be done. Gilbert and others say progress has been slower when it comes to improving bike infrastructure, such as adding dedicated bike lanes on Richmond-area roads. But he doesn’t fault the city and says he sees progress.
“Local government can be like turning the Titanic 90 degrees — it takes forever and it takes miles and miles and miles. And that’s OK,” he says. “The city has been good about putting together a master plan and we don’t want to rush into it and end up with really crappy infrastructure. We’re slowly but surely getting there.”
There is, though, still some tension between cycling advocates and the state. Last month, the Virginia Department of Transportation cancelled a meeting of its statewide Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee with less than a day’s notice. The move didn’t sit well with members, who were already frustrated that a committee meeting hadn’t been held since 2009. Burnley says he met with state leaders to let them know the group isn’t happy. “Canceling statewide meetings with less than a day’s notice isn’t showing a good faith effort in my opinion,” he says.
Jakob Helmboldt, Richmond’s pedestrian, bicycle and trails coordinator, says in an email that Kruszewski’s legacy might not be the immediate proliferation of bike lanes and new laws, but instead the normalization of bicycling as a mode of transit.
Citing stereotypes of “rich, spandex Lance wannabees, hipsters and scofflaws,” he says often bicyclists are viewed with disdain. He says Kruszewski helped change that.
“I think Lanie helped remind people that a lot of cyclists are simply normal people wanting to use a bike as a healthy, low-cost, nonpolluting form of efficient transportation,” he says. “I didn’t know Lanie, but from everything I’ve learned of her, I think we would all be better off if we tried to be a bit more like her.”