Making the Case for Bicycle Infrastructure

10 Jan

Yesterday’s RTD includes an piece on the concerns of a Varina man who lives near Dorey Park about the Virginia Capital Trail passing close to his property.  If his version of events is correct, the communication (or lack thereof) from VDOT about a change in the route that puts the path along the back of his property makes his anger somewhat explicable.  At the same time, if indeed VDOT did not give advance notice to this individual, it is worth pointing out that they have held a number of information sessions.  This particular change was made recently in response to the complaints of other property owners along the earlier intended route.

Why one person’s concerns about the route of the trail counts as worthy of an entire RTD story is puzzling to me, especially since the paper has come out very much in favor of bicycling infrastructure.  But the comments in response to the article are encouraging: they suggest that a good number of people in the area are well-informed about these issues and willing to speak up in response to ill-founded attacks on bicycle infrastructure projects.

The property owner’s other reasons for opposing the path are really misguided, if also quite typical of property owners affected by such projects.  The trail is portrayed as the pet project of a “special interest group,” and as an invitation to noise and crime.  Lots of data that indicate that the noise and crime concern is just wrong.  If anything such trails have been shown to increase property values and bring tourists.

Members of the Williamsburg Bicycling Association riding on the Virginia Capital Trail.

Members of the Williamsburg Bicycling Association on the Virginia Capital Trail.

The “special interest group” argument is more worrisome to me, though, because it probably will be leveled against efforts to expand bike infrastructure in the city when it goes beyond sharrows to include, say, a bike lane that replaces a seldom-used parking lane.  The “special interest group” argument perpetuates an image of people who ride bicycles as a tiny fringe group demanding special accommodations.  In that spirit, it’s probably better to speak of “people who ride bicycles” rather than “cyclists” when making the case for bike infrastructure, even if the former is a bit of a mouthful.

I would bet you that some of the most frequent users of the trail near Dorey Park will be local residents who are not ready to brave Henrico roads and have no sidewalks.  Those who fit the stereotypical “cyclist” image, on the other hand, rarely use this kind of trail.  The point is that most of the people who ride bicycles for fun or transportation — or might be encouraged to do so by paths, bike lanes, etc. — are this person’s neighbors, work colleagues, and family members.

People who ride bicycles on paths are no more “special interest” than people who walk on sidewalks.  It only seems that way because we are only now starting to put bicycle infrastructure in place.  And when it comes to infrastructure in the city (the Capital Trail could also play a role in this), even people who do not use bicycles will benefit from it — from traffic calming effects, cleaner air, less car traffic, and a more prosperous and attractive city, among other things.

There is an additional lesson here, however: people who see themselves as negatively affected by a new path or lane or whatever want to feel that they’ve been heard.  A recent profile of Jackie Douglas, a bicycle advocate in Boston, suggests that kindness and listening, combined with sheer persistence, can produce significant results.

There is a tricky balance involved here.  If planners seek everyone’s input it can take forever to actually get a project started, and this may actually invite opposition.  But if those in charge plow on ahead, it may create even more opposition and ultimately undermine the project (unless you have political leaders like the mayors of New York City and Chicago who are willing to really get behind it and stand up to the pressure).

The key in my view is to get a broad spectrum of leaders and citizens on board for the general effort of encouraging bicycling and improving infrastructure — before you get into battles over specific projects.  That’s been happening in Richmond, but it’s an ongoing effort.  Every single one of us can play a vital role in this: talking to friends, family, and colleagues about how you use your bicycle to get around and how excited you are about Richmond becoming more bike-friendly — especially if you’re not showing off your new lycra shorts while doing it — could be the most important lobbying we do.

That said, there will be an opportunity to rally and lobby in favor of bicycling-friendly legislation and funding on 1/29 with Bicycle Action Day.  See Ride Richmond for more details.  I hope to see lots and lots of bikes there!!

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One Response to “Making the Case for Bicycle Infrastructure”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Updates « Bikeable Richmond - January 16, 2013

    […] update focuses on the Virginia Capital Trail.  In a recent post I discussed the concerns of a Varina man whose property is right next to a proposed realignment of […]

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