Complete Streets Coming to RVA?

23 Oct
Cycle track (bike lane with physical separation from car traffic) in Long Beach.  From la.streetsblog.org.

Long Beach, CA: One way to make a street “complete” is to create bicycle lanes in which people of any age or ability can feel safe. From la.streetsblog.org.

Another step toward transforming our streets was taken last week in Richmond city council.  Our representatives unanimously approved a Complete Streets policy.  It didn’t get much if any attention in the mainstream press, but this is yet another measure that signals clearly that we’re moving — if still a bit slowly — in the right direction.

What is a Complete Streets Policy?

As worded in the policy (full text here) adopted on October 13:

Complete Streets are designed and operated to safely accommodate street users of all ages and abilities, including pedestrians, bicyclists, transit passengers, and motorists.

Complete Streets policies serve, in essence, to rebalance the approach taken to street (re)design to give all of those users not in cars a fair shake.  In most U.S. cities for the last few decades the main focus has been accommodating cars.  Prioritizing the efficiency and convenience of car travel did a lot to discourage other forms of transportation — and made a lot of cities less inviting in general.  Suburban areas with multi-lane, highway like arterial roads — without sidewalks or bike lanes — are the epitome of this, but even in downtown Richmond there are plenty of places where it’s just not pleasant or safe to walk or bike.

So now, in technical terms, the manual that Richmond’s traffic engineers and planners use when they are doing anything to a street has to be revised to ensure a better balance.  This is especially important in Richmond because some of the people making decisions about such things have yet to fully embrace the idea of shifting priority away from cars.

Battling Misconceptions and Motorist Privilege 

Changing Richmond’s streets is clearly a long-term process — as is changing the culture that shapes how we see and use our streets.  There can be a good bit of animosity between “us” and “them” — usually car drivers versus people who bicycle.  Some things that bicyclists do contribute to that tension, but a lot of it comes from the fact that motorists are used to being the privileged majority.

That helps explain why Complete Streets policies and bike lanes are sometimes interpreted as anti-car; anything that questions or limits what has otherwise been the overwhelming dominance of cars looks like an attack on driving in general.  If you look at how much money and space is still being allocated to cars, it’s hard not to chuckle (or sigh) at the anger sometimes provoked by giving a bit more priority to others.

That’s why I was so pleased to read Phil Riggan’s retorts to a range of, well, let’s say “somewhat misinformed” responses to a recent “Why, Richmond, Why?” piece dealing with bicyclists’ and motorists’ gripes about each other.  Apparently Riggan got a proverbial ear full in response, and at least a few of them show signs of what I’m calling “motorist privilege.”  In the follow-up he does a very nice job of pointing out some of the skewed reasoning that this engenders.

A lot of it boils down to complaints about bicyclists doing “illegal” things that are actually not illegal (and are in some cases done for the cyclist’s own safety), blaming cyclists for unsafe conditions that they did not create, and — this is my favorite — cluttering up the city with their parked bicycles (!).  Riggan’s response to the latter:

One more complaint, a reader can’t stand all the bikes locked up on sidewalks, blocking pedestrian walkways. Ahem. Cars. Are. Parked. Everywhere. I must ask, where else should the bikes be parked? Dark alleyways?  Richmond needs plenty more places to lock up a bike (yes, we need to lock them to something, not just parked on the side of the street).”

Add to that the fact that you can park about 10 bicycles in the same space required by the average car.  Never mind the incredibly expensive parking decks that also generally create dead space in what could otherwise be a lively street.

Some cyclists in Latvia recently came up with a very creative way to show just how much space cars take up on the road and elsewhere compared to bicycles (see article here):

From designboom.com.

From designboom.com.

Just imagine how much nicer our city would be if we didn’t have to devote so much space for car parking and wide streets.  With the right infrastructure, bicycling, walking, and mass transit could be just as convenient if not more so than driving.  Hopefully we can make sure that the Complete Streets policy translates into streets that truly have space for everyone.

Halloween Bike Parade Sat. 10/25

16 Oct

The response to the last Bike Parade aka Kidical Mass in Bellevue back in May was very positive, so here we go again!  It should go without saying, but you don’t have to live in Northside to come.

Bike Ride

Getting Bikes to People Who Need Them (Updated)

13 Oct

The standard “face” of biking in Richmond is probably a VCU student — at least in the photos that tend to appear alongside stories on the Floyd Avenue bike boulevard.  A big percentage of cyclists and advocates (though certainly not all) are white, middle-class men.  And a lot of what I write here, I admit, is directed toward people who might choose to ride a bicycle instead of driving.

But there are lot of low income Richmonders who do not have many other options: depending on where you want to go and when, walking or biking — possibly combined with a bus ride — can be the only real option for getting to work, to the store, or to visit people.  As I’ve noted here many times, a car is a more significant expense than we often realize: between 7 and 11 thousand dollars a year.

Two things made me think about this recently.  One is this Washington Post story that appeared about a week ago — part of a series about efforts to reduce poverty in Richmond.  The first installment introduced readers to Jarrell Miller, a Richmond man who, with help from the city’s Center for Workforce Innovation, was trying for several months to find a job (see an RTD piece on the Center here).  Jarrell did eventually find a job at a nightclub, but his workday ends at around 4 in the morning, when no GRTC buses are running.  So for a time he spent over an hour walking home from work in the pre-dawn hours.

Local bike advocate Amy George of Ride Richmond saw the article and put out the word: How can we get a bike for this person?  I don’t know the whole story behind it, but within 24 hours Jarrell was equipped with a bike, lock, and lights.*

*Today I got that back story courtesy of Brantley Tyndall of Ride Richmond: Brantley posted the request to the Ride Richmond Facebook page.  Brantley ended up working together with Daniel Pritchett, Whit Brooks of Riverside Outfitters,  city Bike-Ped Coordinator Jake Helmboldt, and Jamison Manion of the Center for Workforce Innovation to get Jarrell connected with a bike.  

Local Co-op Expanding

No doubt there are plenty of other people who could really use a bicycle too.  Besides buying a cheap or used one, the other option is Rag and Bones Bicycle Co-op.  In addition to learning to fix your bicycle and using their tools, you can exchange volunteer hours for a bicycle of your own.  Word is that a relationship between the co-op and the Center for Workforce Innovation might be in the works, which could help connect people who need transportation and those who can provide it.

Added to that is the news that Rag and Bones in opening a second location on Brookland Park Boulevard (their current location is in Scott’s Addition).  To help raise funds for the new location, Rag and Bones is hosting a benefit bike ride this coming Saturday, October 18.  Suggested donation $5-35.  The ride will go from their first location at 3110 W Leigh St to the new one on Brookland Park.  Meet at 2, ride at 3 — free coffee and pastries for riders!

Calling All Women Cyclists

7 Oct
From mattsbikeblog.co.uk.

From mattsbikeblog.co.uk.

Local advocate Amy George is aiming to mobilize women in Richmond — those who use a bicycle to get around already, and those who might consider doing so.  The Richmond Women’s Cycling Summit is coming Thursday, October 23, at 7 pm to the Virginia War Memorial.  Here’s the scoop from the Facebook invite:

Creating strong,inclusive, and empowered cyclists. The joy of riding a bicycle transcends background and can change lives, families, and communities for the better. Join the conversation. Whether you’re riding everyday or want to get started, this is the place to learn, connect, and be inspired!

The agenda will include a moderated discussion to ask questions, solicit support, pose ideas, and start the conversation into how we can encourage and empower more women to cycle in the Richmond area.

We want to build and create connections across the cycling community, and bring new riders into the fold, so there will be a panel of diverse women cyclists who will discuss their insights and experience, as well as conversation between attendees. Bring your questions, bring your ideas, bring your experiences.

This is only the beginning of a movement. We’re not aiming to tell you how to ride your bike. We want you to become a “roll model”, an advocate, and a confident cyclist.

We’re also planning to have a group ride through the arts district to the event, to showcase how much fun it can be to incorporate biking into your daily life!

On the streets and in bike advocacy circles, men tend to outnumber women.  It’s not that men and women cyclists are so fundamentally different, but there are reasons for this disparity.  For most advocates, seeing a good percentage of women among bike commuters is a sign that you’re getting it right in terms of creating safe bikeways that also feel safe.  It’s also been determined that, because of the way childcare and house duties still tend to be divided up, some women find it more difficult to use a bike instead of a car.  All of this is simply to say: more women’s voices in the conversation is a good thing.

Hope this is the beginning of a new and strong movement of women riding bikes in RVA!

Safety (and Danger) in Numbers

26 Sep

logo_new.png

So how safe or not is it to ride a bicycle in traffic in the U.S.?  What kinds of crashes happen most frequently?  It might surprise you to know that it’s not that easy to find out.  Data are not always complete or up to date, and much depends on how officers classify and describe incidents.  Part of the reason for the lack of data is that the federal government does not require states to meet benchmarks for bicyclist and pedestrian deaths, only for car passengers.

Partly for that reason, the League of American Bicyclists worked from 2011 to 2013 to learn as much as they could about bicycling fatalities in the U.S.  The results were recently published under the same title as the project: Every Bicyclist Counts.

So what did they find out?

1) The most common fatal crash involved the cyclist being hit from behind.

The single most surprising and important finding was this: from among the 13 types of collision that the LAB tracked, the one responsible for far and away the most bicyclist fatalities — 40% — resulted from being hit from behind.  That’s about as much as the next five categories of collision combined.  These are usually crashes involving a car attempting to pass, thus the need for enforcement of Virginia’s new 3-foot passing law.  An RTD article a few weeks ago pointed out that the law may need to be supplemented by a change in the rules about crossing a solid yellow line; unless the motorist is going to creep along behind a cyclist for miles, it has to be okay (when safe, of course) to cross that line to give 3 feet of space.

 2) Urban arterial roads are the most dangerous.  

The combination of speed and traffic makes these roads the most dangerous for cyclists.  Think Broad Street, Laburnum, Forest Hill.  These roads are designed mainly with one thing in mind: moving a lot of car traffic.  As noted above, the number of deaths from collisions at intersections and elsewhere is about 50-50.

3) Driver inattention and recklessness are a problem.  

In cases where police reports included an additional factor in the accident for the motorist, 42% noted that the driver was operating their vehicle in a careless or inattentive manner.

All sorts of things can distract you from the road.  A police offer in L.A. recently killed a cyclist by veering into a bike lane while he was typing into his on-board computer and was not charged with any crime because entering information into the computer is considered within his duties (see article here).

So, at the risk of stating the obvious, when you drive a car, minimize distractions.  When you’re traveling the speed that our roads tend to encourage, a lot can happen in the two seconds you took to glance down at your phone or find a radio station.  And remember, texting while driving is now against the law.

As a cyclist it can help to use lights and clothing to be as visible as possible, and to position yourself in the lane so that you’re right in drivers’ field of vision.

4) Riding the wrong way really is dangerous.

For cyclists the most common additional factor was riding the wrong way on a street.  Some people have the idea that riding on the opposite side is safer because you can see cars coming toward you.  But cars turning onto that road are a lot less likely to see you because they’re not expecting someone coming from that direction.

Speed

One thing not mentioned in the LAB report is vehicle speed.  In most cases that’s obviously not something that police reports can include because they arrive after the fact, although it can be implied in the “reckless” category.

But it’s well-established (and fairly intuitive) that the slower a vehicle is traveling, the less likely it is that someone hit by that vehicle will die.  A report from humantransport.org cites two different studies about the chances of death for pedestrians relative to vehicle speed.  Both studies find that the chance of pedestrian death at 20 mph is 5%.   How much would you think it jumps when the vehicle is traveling 30 mph?  10%?  20?  The odds jump to at least 37% according to one study, and to 45% in the other.  At 40 mph it jumps to above 80%.

This is no doubt one factor that makes urban arterials dangerous.  Their design and speed limits encourage 40+ mph driving.  But even local streets in Richmond often have limits of 25, which effectively translates into average speeds closer to 30 in many cases.

So, here’s a radical idea that I will pursue further in the follow-up to this post: within the city, what if we just slowed everyone (in cars) down?  That would help reduce injury and death for motorists as well.  For many this will seem unthinkable, but that attests to a mentality that privileges speed/time over safety.

New Lanes on MLK!

18 Sep
Green markings highlight the emerging bike lane on Leigh Street near VCU Medical Center.

Green markings highlight the merging bike lane on Leigh Street near VCU Medical Center.

Except for the new lane that was installed when 2nd street near the James River was redone, Richmond has not seen much in the way of new bike lanes lately, despite a lot of planning.  The Bicycle Master Plan for the city should be complete and ready to be presented to the relevant commissions and city council before long, and that will help.  There are also some lanes in the works on Brookland Park Boulevard, Leigh, Semmes, and some other places with an eye toward having at least the beginnings of a network on the ground before October 2015.

Bike lane with a roughly four-foot buffer on the south side of the MLK Bridge.

Bike lane with a roughly four-foot buffer on the south side of the MLK Bridge.

 

But unless I’m mistaken, the MLK Bridge aka Leigh Street Viaduct gets the honor of being the first buffered bike lane, and one that was created via a road diet (reduction of travel lanes) at that.  I just road across going east for the first time today, and it felt good!  I do hope they put arrows showing the proper direction one should ride, though: on my first trip across I already had to maneuver around someone riding the wrong direction.

True, it does not connect to lanes on either side (Correction: it does not connect to lanes on the east side, and at present the lanes on the west will not extend for more than a block or two).  But then Leigh Street east and west of the bridge does not have three lanes going in each direction.  Leigh is a good candidate for a major east-west route, but has the down side of varying in width from three, two, or one lane depending on the area.

Certainly the goal should be to have a continuous lane; but it also makes sense to grab an opportunity as it presents itself — the proverbial “low hanging fruit.”  Having lanes in place makes it much easier to make the case for connecting them later — especially when it might involve removing parking or travel lanes where the question of excess capacity is less obvious.

So: here’s to Richmond’s first buffered bike lane, and to many more!

Floyd Passes Commission w/ Changes

16 Sep
Bike boulevard with traffic diverters in San Luis Obispo, CA.  From labikas.com.

Bike boulevard with traffic diverters in San Luis Obispo, CA. From labikas.com.

The RTD reports today that the Floyd Avenue bike/walk street (bike boulevard) project has passed the city Planning Commission with changes recommended by the Urban Design Commission.

Those recommendations include reducing the speed limit to 20 mph, reconsidering speed bumps, and taking another look at the intersections east of Boulevard (which I assume means take another look at the possibility of traffic diverters like the one pictured above).  Commissioner Doug Cole was the sole dissenting vote, but voted this way because, as he put it, the plan had been “watered down.”

It is true, from what I understand, that the plan that received majority approval from the Fan District Association no longer included speed bumps or the equivalent, and no diverters, which at select intersections would direct cars onto adjacent streets.  What remained was traffic circles in place of stops signs for east-west traffic, and some curb bump-outs that would narrow the roadway at some intersections (this slows traffic, creates a shorter distance for pedestrians to cross, and helps keep people from parking too close to the corner).

I was not privy to the discussions that led to these changes, but I have to admit that my first reaction was the same as Cole’s.  It’s not hard to imagine that, lacking diverters and other measures to slow traffic, Floyd might become more attractive to automobile through traffic.  That’s why the recommendations of the Planning Commission are really important.

The Politics of Bike Infrastructure

There’s little doubt that the diverters and speed bumps were removed to reduce opposition from area residents.  And some of the meetings about this project revealed some rather vehement opposition.  I know from some meetings on the north side how intense feelings can get about these things, even when the change looks like a win-win.  In a meeting about reducing Brookland Parkway it was clear, for example, that residents would never give up a rarely-used parking lane to make way for a bike lane.  When the alternative of removing a travel lane in each direction was proposed as an alternative, even residents who said they wanted traffic calming came up with all sorts of reasons why it would supposedly lead to disaster.

Which is to say: we are far from bicycle infrastructure enjoying wide enough popular support that politicians don’t worry about blacklash.  That was and continues to be the case in other cities as well, although the lack of disasters tends to dampen opposition over time once you actually get some lanes on the ground.

But to get those lanes or whatever on the ground initially you need decision-makers who are really behind the effort and willing to confront some grumpy voters.  Although the relevant council members for the Floyd project have generally expressed support, it’s not clear to me that all of them would have supported a robust version of the plan in the face of major opposition, especially from the civic associations.  It’s easy to support bike infrastructure as a general idea; it’s another thing to push for a project in the face of vocal opposition.  And although the mayor deserves credit for getting the ball rolling with bike infrastructure in the first place, he has focused his attention and political capital elsewhere.  So bicycle advocates are left with few fully committed allies in powerful positions, and some fairly powerful enemies.

Good or Bad Compromise?

So what does one do?  My first inclination is to push for the best infrastructure possible — the kind that will make it easy and comfortable for, say, families to use bikes to get around the city.  Then there are the political realities of the city that make the ideal very hard to achieve, especially in the sort term.  The cliché is that politics is about the art of compromise, so the question becomes what compromises are acceptable, especially if you’re thinking long-term?

I really hope that city council passes a robust Floyd Avenue plan.  It will probably not be an ideal bike boulevard.  But it will be a first for the city — a start that could be made better over time.  Taking a strategic and long-term view, I think that is better than waiting, who knows how long, for everything to align in favor of the ideal.

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 273 other followers