Richmond Leaders Learn from DC

3 Jul
Richmond visitors enjoy the innovative 2-way buffered bike lane on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Richmond visitors enjoy the buffered bike lane on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Maybe it’s just me, but everything in Richmond slows down a bit when we get into the later summer months — at least that’s one of my excuses for the recent dearth of posts.

Another excuse is that I was fortunate to be out of town last Tuesday for a great educational excursion organized by Bike Walk RVA and Sports Backers, and funded by the Community Foundation and Richmond Memorial Health Foundation.

Nothing can beat actually walking around a pedestrian-oriented urban center and actually riding a bike on a separated path or urban cycle track to convince people that such infrastructure is worth the investment.  So about 50 decision-makers and advocates of various stripes from Richmond City, Henrico, Chesterfield, and Hanover counties visited Arlington and DC to get a direct taste of what great pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure is like.

The afternoon was spent on a tour of DC bike infrastructure.  Especially when it came to the buffered bike lane on Pennsylvania Avenue (see photo above), most were amazed at how easy, safe, and even fun it felt to ride right down the middle of a major thoroughfare.  For some it may have been the first time (or the first time recently) that they rode a bicycle in an urban environment, and I think it was pretty clear that good infrastructure can make it an appealing option for people who don’t think of themselves as “cyclists.”

The group also got a very detailed introduction to the Capital Bike Share, the very successful bike share system that covers the district, Arlington, and Alexandria.  Although it seems really obvious once you think about it, a big take-away for me was that a bike share system can do a lot to improve perceptions of bicycling and bicyclists.  According to the CBS folks, it helps to displace the stereotypes of lycra-clad speedsters and bicycles as purely recreational in favor of bicycling as a practical way to get around for anyone.

The morning was spent on a walking tour of the thriving Clarendon section of Arlington.  From what the tour guides and others said, what is now “downtown” Clarendon used to look quite a bit like Broad Street in Richmond just west of the 195: car lots, parking lots, anything but urban.  Now Clarendon is a lively and attractive, thriving area with quite a bit of housing density and office space, but also wide sidewalks, bike lanes, retail shops, and outdoor cafes.  It’s a place people want to live and work.

Visitors gather in front of the Capitol to be addressed by Rep. Eric Cantor.

Visitors gather in front of the Capitol to be addressed by Rep. Eric Cantor.

This kind of transformation doesn’t happen overnight, but it’s possible if leaders commit to making a vibrant, walkable, bikeable environment.  As some pointed out, Richmond is not Arlington, especially when it comes to public transit (there’s a Metro stop in the middle of the revitalized area).  But even if Richmond never has a streetcar again (much less a subway), better public transit, combined with good infrastructure for biking and walking, could make Richmond just as vibrant.

This is partly about recognizing and anticipating emerging trends — trends associated with the kind of people cities are competing to attract.  Overall miles driven and car registration is declining in the U.S., and it’s not just because of the recession.  Young people in particular are biking and walking more, and they want to live in places conducive to that (see this StreetFacts video and this article from Bloomberg Businessweek).

The group was addressed at various points by Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine as well as Representative Eric Cantor.  They all expressed support for expanding transportation options, which is encouraging — especially if they follow through with policy and funding!  Even more crucial is that the inspiration taken from this visit will translate locally into heightened interest and concrete action toward expanding bikeability and walkability in the Richmond region.

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