We’ve all heard that Virginia is for lovers. Well, word on the street is the commonwealth’s capitol, Richmond, is for bike lovers! So we were delighted to welcome Richmond as a Bronze-level Bicycle Friendly Community in our latest round of BFC awards last month.
To better understand how Richmond has become bike-friendly, we interviewed Champe Burnley of Virginia Bicycle Federation and Jakob Helmboldt, Richmond’s Pedestrian, Bicycles and Trails Coordinator. Here’s what they told us…
Describe bicycle culture in Richmond and how it has developed.
Richmond has long had a strong competitive cycling community with some notable riders coming out of the city. It has been the home of nationally recognized races like the Tour of America, Tour du Pont and Tour de Trump. There’s also a large and engaged mountain biking community, due in large part to the tremendous amount of public open space and natural areas, especially along the James River. In the past decade, the formal organization of mountain bike advocates and official trail building crews on city staff has resulted in the building of a network of sustainable singletrack in the heart of the city, drawing cyclists from around the state, and playing host to Xterra and other competitive events. The presence of Virginia Commonwealth University, with a very eclectic student body, in the heart of the city has resulted in explosive growth in student bicycle use. As a result, Richmond has a very strong bike culture that has grown organically, as demonstrated by our 2.2 percent commuter mode split; the highest in the state despite minimal bike infrastructure.
How has the broader community responded?
As more emphasis is being placed on making Richmond truly bike-friendly, the community has responded with overwhelmingly positive support from across all demographics. The Richmond Times Dispatch, the paper of record in Richmond, has run numerous articles in support of these initiatives and hosted a Public Square forum on the topic, which was widely attended by a very diverse cross section of the city and regional residents.
Why did Richmond think it important to apply for Bicycle Friendly Community designation?
In May 2010, Mayor Dwight Jones convened the Pedestrian, Bicycle and Trails Planning Commission, a largely citizen-led group, to develop recommendations on how the city could become more bike-friendly and use bicycling as a means to address issues of sustainability, economic development, transportation options, safety, and healthy lifestyles. As a result, Richmond has been working toward those goals ever since. BFC status provides two key things: recognition of the city’s efforts, both internally and externally, to create a community that is recognized in the U.S. as one that is embracing bicycling for it myriad benefits, and, more importantly, developing a baseline to work diligently to advance bike-related initiatives. The BFC program gives us feedback on what is deficient, and though we, the stakeholders, are already well aware of those issues, it validates and advocates for our initiatives. The BFC program also prompts further discussion and consideration of specific initiatives or improvements so we are continually giving consideration to what we should shoot for and prioritize in our efforts.
What makes cycling valuable to Richmond?
Mayor Jones got on board with this initiative because he recognized the myriad benefits; sustainable transportation; improved safety; quality of life; health; congestion mitigation; economic development and tourism; transportation equity and affordable transportation; transportation choice and improved access/mobility throughout the city. What community wouldn’t value that? In Richmond, 18 percent of our citizens do not own a car. Approximately 24 percent are at or below the poverty level. Cycling serves a broad and diverse constituency in Richmond and in many other communities which can benefit from bicycling.
What is Richmond’s eventual goal?
Currently we have set the goal of becoming a Gold-level BFC in time for the 2015 World Road Cycling Championships. Beyond that, we would ultimately like to be recognized as being among the best bicycling cities in the U.S.
Have any challenges arisen in becoming more bike friendly?
Absolutely! Even Mia Birk points out that Portland, Oregon, still battles daily over their continued efforts. The biggest challenge is changing the status quo. People are resistant to change, and much of that comes from traditional approaches to traffic engineering. Additionally, Richmond is an old city and has very few streets where we can easily install bike lanes or other infrastructure without impacting parking or travel lanes, so “NIMBY[Not In My Back Yard]-ism” arises at times. Additionally, road diets result in a loss of state maintenance funding since we are impacting the “moving lane miles,” which is the basis for the state calculating maintenance funding for cities. That serves as a barrier to implementing road diets in these harsh economic times.
How did the city overcome such barriers?
It is a slow and often tedious process. Bringing public and political pressures to bear helps move things along at times. We have to be very deliberative in our process when impacting parking or travel lanes. We are working with other localities and advocates to get the funding formula changed administratively such that road diets are not penalized financially. Based on the recommendations of the Mayor’s Commission, Richmond created a full-time Bike-Ped Coordinator, who was hired in August 2011. This position reports directly to the Chief Administrative Officer, allowing him to cross departmental boundaries rather than being in the Traffic Engineering or Parks and Recreation departments.
Do you have advice for other cities looking to advocate for better cycling in their communities?
Build strong alliances with as many stakeholders as possible to continue to develop support for initiatives. Seek out the easy victories to gain momentum, but don’t overreach, lose focus or dilute the effort too much. Get organized and approach improvements in a well-planned manner and aim for realistic solutions that can begin to happen quickly, setting the stage for the bigger challenges. Build broad coalitions, both within the cycling community as well as with other groups such as the business community, outdoor recreation enthusiasts, and friends groups.
What is next on the horizon for bike-friendly Richmond?
Getting improved infrastructure on the ground. We are working through some challenges to go beyond just the basics of sharrows. We have a long list of desired projects that we can begin working towards implementation. This summer we have installed nearly 60 bike racks and will have nearly a hundred more installed this fall. We are working with others to develop some exciting creative bike racks that will make our efforts even more visible while making bicycling more convenient, and creating community engagement and buy-in to our efforts. The 2015 World Cycling Championships are a major driver of our efforts to improve bicycling conditions as well, so September 2015 is a major target date for us to achieve considerable improvements. But it isn’t our end goal, just a mile marker along the way, albeit a very significant one.
Any helping hands along the way you’d like to shout-out?
- Richmond Area Mid-Atlantic Offroad Enthusiasts has been more than integral to the city becoming a center of urban mountain bike activity. RA-MORE also has an MOU with the City’s Department of Parks and Recreation to provide maintenance support, which ensures that our fantastic singletrack stays that way.
- Richmond 2015, the organization behind the World Road Cycling Championships, has increased awareness and helped create a new level of interest in cycling and the impact it can have on communities.
- Ride Richmond has also helped bridge the gap between the young “hipsters” and those of us that have been around a little longer (but are still young at heart).
- The Richmond Area Bicycling Association has represented the interests of cyclists on the Richmond MPO’s Citizen Transportation Advisory Committee for many years.
- VBF, the statewide advocacy organization engages the cycling community right here in the capital of the Commonwealth and has been central in advancing issues of statewide significance.
- The competitive cycling community has recognized the importance of working with other stakeholders to advance cycling issues, especially as many of them start families and branch out into more utility cycling.
- Virginia Commonwealth University: Being a large urban college with two campuses in downtown and a big “hipster” population means there are thousands of young cyclists on the streets of Richmond. VCU’s administration seems to recognize the importance of cycling as a part of their university culture and has embraced cycling as an opportunity to differentiate themselves from other urban universities. VCU just opened, “RamBikes” a facility designed to educate their students on bike safety, awareness, repair and general knowledge which shows their level of commitment.
- Richmond Sports Backers, have formed, BikeWalk RVA: “a regional program of the Sports Backers to support bike and pedestrian friendly policies, programs and infrastructure projects.” Sports Backers has become a key ally in pressing for more regional development of recreational and transportation facilities for bicyclists and pedestrians.
With so many helping hands, a commitment to strike gold as a BFC and hosting the World Road Cycling Championships in 2015 we can see why Richmond is quickly becoming a hub for cyclists in the area. Now if we can just get the General Assembly to add “bike” to the official state slogan.
Hamzat SaniHamzat joined the League in September 2012 after working with the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition. Before working in biking, Hamzat worked with Martin Luther King Jr.’s son as a Program Associate at The King Center in Atlanta. A founder of the Red, Bike and Green chapter in Atlanta, Hamzat sees biking as a hub for change on the communal level.
Equity and Outreach Fellow