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Richmond wants to double its miles of bike lanes this year. Is that enough to keep cyclists safe? 

click to enlarge A cyclist crosses Broad Street at Shafer in front of ongoing bus-line construction. Richmond’s bike infrastructure is supposed to double this year, if neighborhoods don’t fight the changes.

Scott Elmquist

A cyclist crosses Broad Street at Shafer in front of ongoing bus-line construction. Richmond’s bike infrastructure is supposed to double this year, if neighborhoods don’t fight the changes.

You can find William Harden Sr. using the complimentary bike tools on Brown's Island.

On a recent weekday morning the 62-year-old retiree has dropped his wife off at work on Broad Street and taken his foldable bike to the river for a ride. He loves the new Tyler Potterfield Bridge and Belle Isle, he says, taking photographs everywhere he goes.

But Harden isn't a recent convert to the bike scene. He started riding in his 20s, taking the Richmond-Henrico Turnpike to his Philip Morris job at Dock and 15th streets, an early morning coast down the hill, he recalls.

Now Harden lives in Henrico County's Highland Springs and can't bike all the way in — "Nine Mile Road is just not bike friendly," he laments. But he's enthusiastic about Richmond's recent bike upgrades.
"It's becoming a bike culture," Harden says.

Richmond-Henrico Turnpike now parallels the Cannon Creek Greenway, a separated bike and pedestrian trail that Harden says he wishes existed 40 years ago. "I've been on it. It's nice," he says, but notes it always seems empty.

Richmond's momentum to become bike-friendly seemed to pick up after the city hired a bicycle, pedestrian and trails coordinator in 2011 and served as host to an international bike race in 2015.

click to enlarge The path under the train tracks along Dock Street now marks the beginning — or end, depending where you start — of a 52-mile bike and pedestrian path to Williamsburg. The trail is one of many bike infrastructure projects completed in Richmond in recent years. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • The path under the train tracks along Dock Street now marks the beginning — or end, depending where you start — of a 52-mile bike and pedestrian path to Williamsburg. The trail is one of many bike infrastructure projects completed in Richmond in recent years.

Measured gains include adopting policies like complete streets, where road improvements are required to accommodate bikes and pedestrians, and Vision Zero, a goal of eliminating traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2030.

Infrastructure has increased, too, with almost 25 miles of bike lanes now, nine of which are buffered from car traffic. That doesn't include such trails as Cannon Creek, the Virginia Capital Trail, the Potterfield Bridge and the changes to Floyd Avenue.

Bike lanes are set to double in length this year, with $1.5 million from the state in the capital budget for what are called road diets, the conversion of excess road width into bike lanes. Coordinator Jakob Helmboldt says that includes projects on Franklin Street, Semmes Avenue, Westover Hills Boulevard and Brook Road.

There's almost a million dollars — 80 percent of which is federal — for two projects in Church Hill and Jackson Ward, a small Bank Street project, $1.9 million for a bike share, $25,000 a year for bike racks, and funding for larger infrastructure projects, like East Riverfront, that, because of the complete streets policy, will include bike lanes.

But with 1,860 lane miles of roads in Richmond, that leaves a lot of miles where bikes and cars are left to contend with each other — fatally, in the case of John Shelton Jr., the grandfather cyclist killed by a driver on Hopkins Road in April.

Helmboldt cites pinch points in the grid as the biggest challenge, after funding. "The biggest frustration is where you get a fragmented network where you're trying to build out contiguous and connected network and then you end up with these gaps," he says.

The gaps make for an unwelcoming environment for bikes, which keeps them away. Car drivers see finite infrastructure space going to nonexistent bikers. "So it becomes self-perpetuating," he says.

Therein lies the other missing link: the cultural divide between people who only drive cars and the multimodal residents of Richmond.

About a quarter of residents don't own cars, but you wouldn't know that from some public meetings. "The city of Richmond is a vehicular city," said a resident of Jackson Ward at a March meeting on proposed bike lanes.

It's meant as a definitive argument — cause and effect, context and precedent. Of course, Richmond was around long before cars, and the decision to prioritize the commute of single-occupancy vehicles in and out of the city physically destroyed several Richmond neighborhoods.

But you'll rarely hear administrators or elected officials counter this argument at a meeting. Or confront misconceptions about traffic calming and narrowing roads, cyclist-law breaking, or what bike lanes bring.

It's an "iterative process," Helmboldt likes to say — one mathematical procedure applied to the last, each a bit closer to the approximation of a solution. In other words, it's piecemeal — a sharrow here, a stripped lane there and a theoretical bike boulevard.

Will the pieces eventually come together in a meaningful way?

click to enlarge Caleb Johnson has logged hundreds of miles on Richmond’s roads as a bicycle courier for Quickness RVA. Johnson suffered a broken elbow after a hit-and-run last year. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Caleb Johnson has logged hundreds of miles on Richmond’s roads as a bicycle courier for Quickness RVA. Johnson suffered a broken elbow after a hit-and-run last year.

Keith Pleasants sits on the stoop of his Green Park house on a warm Sunday near the empty Cannon Creek Greenway. He's lived there for seven years and was intrigued to see the trail being completed a few yards from his house in 2015.

It's full of walkers, joggers and bikers on weekdays, he says, and everyone he knows likes it: "The whole community uses the trail."

People used to walk to bus stops and bike on the shoulderless Richmond-Henrico Turnpike, like William Harden long ago. "You'd get run off the road," Pleasants says. "The trail made access a lot easier for people."

But at the trail's southern terminus, bikers are released onto Valley Road in a part of the city that can only be described as in-between neighborhoods. It's an overgrown industrial area beneath two bridges where Southern Barton Heights and the southern tip of Highland Park merge into a valley of industrial lots, razor wire and abandoned warehouses.

The smooth, protected cycling ends, and bikers must contend with cars, trucks and ragged roadways most of the rest of their route. It's a typical Richmond bike commute: conditions that run from blissful to terrifying.

"Cars are incredibly aggressive," says Caleb Johnson, 22, a bike courier for delivery service Quickness RVA. "They don't really respect bikers to any degree."

The Thomas Jefferson High School graduate, who's logged thousands of miles as a courier, doesn't see Richmond as a bike town. Johnson rides between two jobs and a Church Hill apartment — significantly more efficient than the bus.

Johnson can't afford a car right now, partly because of accumulated fees on a suspended learner's permit that stemmed from ignoring tickets. There was a ticket four years ago for trying to merge onto Interstate 195 while biking east on Monument Avenue near the ramp, which Johnson disputes.

Johnson realizes now that a court appearance and simple explanation of staying to the right likely would have solved the issue.

Many will delight in the thought of a biker getting a ticket. A common argument against bike infrastructure is that scofflaw cyclists don't follow existing rules.

"There's something called confirmation bias," Helmboldt says. "[In cars] people are tailgating. People speed and roll stop signs. But because it's your cohort, you don't necessarily view it in the same way. You see something being done by a minority within a population, and it annoys you. You get this notion in your head and every time you see that, it reinforces."

Bikes have different implications in crashes, he adds.

Last year, a car ran a stop sign on Parkwood Avenue, and Johnson couldn't stop in time, running into the side of the car. "They stopped halfway in the middle of the road when they saw," Johnson says. "Then they just kept going, like, 'Oh snap, I'm not dealing with that.'"

Medical bills for the broken elbow ran around $4,000, putting Johnson out of work for two months. Filing a police report was difficult because memory was fuzzy. "I'm really desensitized to the violence these days because I deal with it on a regular basis," Johnson says. "You just don't trust cars."

In the case of John Shelton Jr., killed on Hopkins Road in April, the driver stopped, and police determined the car had the right-of-way. No charges were filed.

click to enlarge Richmond has about 25 miles of bike lanes, like this one along Brookland Parkway. The city wants to double that amount this year. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Richmond has about 25 miles of bike lanes, like this one along Brookland Parkway. The city wants to double that amount this year.

Helmboldt says that countries known as particularly bike friendly, in addition to infrastructure and more bikecentric education, have strict liability for drivers.

"Even if the bicyclist is technically at fault, as a driver, you're still held to account," Helmboldt says. He acknowledges arguments that some people see that as extreme. "But it recognizes the fact that, if you're in a big metal box that weighs a couple thousand pounds," he says, "there's a big disparity between the risk and the exposure."

The Richmond Police Department couldn't comply with requests for data on tickets given to cyclists by press time.

A right on Valley Road at the end of the Cannon Creek Greenway takes cyclists toward Gilpin Court, Jackson Ward and downtown. Valley Road briefly narrows, and cars must cross the double yellow lines to pass a bike safely. Then it widens across the train tracks and turns up Second Street.

Now cyclists are close to the proposed First and Second street bike lanes meant to run from the Interstate 95 overpass to the Virginia War Memorial. The plan called for the streets to lose a car lane in favor of a bike lane, connecting North Side to downtown and the riverfront.

Brian Gittens, riding his bike down First Street recently, was headed to Abner Clay Park. Upon hearing the plan, he became an immediate fan. "We need bike lanes," he says. "North Avenue needs a bike lane, too. We don't have a good north-south connector."

Gittens, who doesn't own a car, has been hit once, broadsided and knocked off his bike. A cousin was hit so badly he was in the hospital for days. "It's scary sometimes," he says. "The cars take over the road and they don't give you a chance."

The First and Second streets plan has met with opposition from some Jackson Ward residents. A meeting in March about the lanes, organized by Mama J's owner Lester Johnson and City Councilwoman Kim Gray, focused on concerns about parking and access to businesses.

"I would not want to impact someone's livelihood for my recreational activities," Johnson said.

click to enlarge In early discussions of the Floyd Avenue infrastructure changes, city officials proposed diverters, which would reroute cars off the road in favor of bicycles. Curb extensions and miniroundabouts like this one emerged from the public debate. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • In early discussions of the Floyd Avenue infrastructure changes, city officials proposed diverters, which would reroute cars off the road in favor of bicycles. Curb extensions and miniroundabouts like this one emerged from the public debate.

Caleb Johnson, no relation, was disappointed to hear of opposition that characterized cycling as recreation. "People generally think of individuals that are white, higher income, riding in full spandex in their touring frames for their weekend ride," Johnson says. "Or 'I'm going to bike to work today because it's nice out.' But that's not your huge demographic of people riding bikes in the city."

At the meeting, Helmboldt stressed the indefinite nature of the plans, that other options could be entertained. But in an interview later, he seemed more willing to counter neighborhood concerns about commercial activity, parking and gentrification.

"Carytown gets tons of traffic," he says. "It's not a very convenient street to drive through, but in some ways congestion is your friend. People that are moving slower, they engage more with businesses there."

As to cyclists as a harbinger of higher rent and white neighbors, "there's definitely a perception of that," Helmboldt says. "Then there's the other side of this conversation that says communities of color are neglected when it comes to providing better bike infrastructure. It's a little bit of a weird push-pull at times."

First Street connects North Side and Gilpin Court to downtown, lower-income areas and majority black communities.

Community dissent about the project put funding at risk. Councilman Parker Agelasto proposed cutting the $300,000 item — $240,000 of which comes from a federal grant — from the capital budget this month, but withdrew it under city assurances that the state was willing to entertain a Third Street option.

That plan is in the works now.

click to enlarge Among other funds in its 2018 budget, the city has set aside $25,000 a year for the next several years for bike rack construction. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Among other funds in its 2018 budget, the city has set aside $25,000 a year for the next several years for bike rack construction.

Blaine Carter sits on his porch at Floyd and Stafford, a man of another era. He's reading a print version of the daily paper, weighted down from the wind by a heavy ashtray. Carter bought the house in 1975, and since retiring nine years ago he says he spends as much as six hours a day on his porch.

"I do informal surveys of how many bikes versus vehicles I'll see and I'm convinced that the number of bikes has increased," Carter says.

The Floyd Avenue bike boulevard project prompted a number of raucous public meetings in 2014 and 2015, with residents concerned about parking and car mobility.

"It was just amazing. I never knew there were so many traffic engineers who lived on this street until this thing was proposed," Carter says, laughing. "Self-proclaimed traffic engineers."

Carter was in favor of it — "anything to cut the noise down," but he's not sure the road has any fewer cars.

In early discussions of the project, city officials suggested diverters redirecting cars to other streets at the end of blocks, allowing only bikes to pass through. By the time the ribbon was cut on May 20, 2016, the project had moved far away from that.

There's no branding of the street as a bike boulevard. A few speed humps are placed at intersections, rather than midblock. The mini-roundabouts and bump-outs squeeze cars and bikes into the same space.

The speed limit was lowered to 20 mph last year, but only two signs on the 2-mile eastbound side note that limitation. "No, I don't think cars have slowed down," Carter says. "Probably because they never enforce the speed limit."

Helmboldt says there are lessons from the Floyd experience, which was different from a straight bike-lane project. Floyd was meant to calm traffic and "retain a lower level of car traffic on the street" through curb extensions and circles, he says.

click to enlarge The Cannon Creek Greenway, a separate bike and pedestrian path completed in 2015, starts at Valley Road. It joins the Richmond-Henrico Turnpike near Craigie Avenue. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • The Cannon Creek Greenway, a separate bike and pedestrian path completed in 2015, starts at Valley Road. It joins the Richmond-Henrico Turnpike near Craigie Avenue.

"One of the challenges there is you get into a design by committee because you're looking at what to do at each specific location," he says. "It's that fine line between making sure everyone's voice is heard but also needing to make an executive decision at some point."

The approach toward public input was "just a little too conservative," he acknowledges. Former Councilman Charles Samuels deemed 60 percent support for the original diverter plan "not a strong enough mandate," in a 2014 Style article.

Carter thinks the changes are a success and enjoys the many bikes that cruise west starting around 4:30 p.m. on weekdays. Despite the watered-down version, he says, "I don't know anyone whose mind has changed about it," he says.

Next up is 29th Street in Church Hill. There's $650,000 in the 2018 budget for the next bike boulevard from Libby Hill Park to Fairfield Court and Armstrong High School in a neighborhood well known for its resistance to some development projects.

The $1.9 million federally funded bike share on the docket for construction this year will bring 20 stations of 220 bikes to downtown — and untold new riders.

Bike advocates are cautiously optimistic. "One thing worries me about it in Richmond: bike share should not get too far ahead of the bike infrastructure," says Stewart Schwartz of the Partnership for Smarter Growth, citing Washington's failed first attempt.

It's the chicken-and-egg scenario, Helmboldt says. You have to make the case to spend infrastructure money to service a population that some drivers can't or don't see.

Harriet Tregoning was the planning director in the nation's capital from 2007-2014 and oversaw a massive increase in bike infrastructure there. It started with a broad overall message focused on getting people in the city around the city, she says, no longer focusing on one-way channels to get people in and out of the district in single-occupancy cars.

With bike lanes, the city started with the easy ones, where parking wouldn't be taken. But it also employed a tactic of saying a painted bike lane would be temporary, Tregoning admits — and then it would sit back and watch drivers adapt "until the level of screaming was kind of a dull roar," she says. "Sometimes what you have to do is say, 'This is just to see.'"

Coupled with a successful bike share program on their second attempt, changes to parking requirements for developers, and a recession that Tregoning says saw "hundreds of cars dropping off DMV rolls," Washington has become a bike capital. Residents downsized their vehicular footprint and liked what it brought them, she says.

Then again, the district has a traffic problem on a massive national scale: Richmond's pales in comparison. But there are lessons in Tregoning's method.

"In a place that's contentious, say 'We're going to put this in temporarily, take feedback after two years, and see how it goes,'" she says. While some lanes were ultimately edited, Tregoning couldn't think of an example of one being removed.

click to enlarge Jakob Helmboldt was hired in 2011 as the city’s pedestrian, bicycle and trails coordinator. He’s overseen a steady increase in Richmond’s bike infrastructure, which was nearly nonexistent. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott ELmquist
  • Jakob Helmboldt was hired in 2011 as the city’s pedestrian, bicycle and trails coordinator. He’s overseen a steady increase in Richmond’s bike infrastructure, which was nearly nonexistent.

And Tregoning says she didn't shy from being upfront about wanting to undo the car-centric infrastructure that landed Washington in its hot traffic mess. She made the idea of re-balancing a theme of her appeal.

In Richmond, driver adaptation is evident on Franklin Street at Monroe Park, where Helmboldt says the planned bike lane was intended to start. Community feedback cut the lane against the park, beginning it instead at Belvidere, in favor of continued car parking.

But since the beginning of Monroe Park renovations in November, a fence has denied cars their parking spaces on that side of Franklin. "People find their new pattern of activity after a few weeks," Helmboldt says. "Whether it's parking or traffic."

For younger residents such as Caleb Johnson, waiting for cars to adapt means waiting longer to feel safe. When Johnson thinks about leaving Richmond, it's a transportation-related consideration. Johnson mentions biking in New York, where cars are more familiar with cyclists, and Washington's bike lanes.

"It's not only about the people who are biking currently," Johnson says. "It's who would feel more comfortable getting into biking because it's now more accessible." S

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