Archive | January, 2015

Imagine Slow(er) City Streets

29 Jan
New speed limit on Atlantic Avenue in New York City.  Image from Streetsblog.

New speed limit on Atlantic Avenue in New York City. Image from Streetsblog.

A couple of months ago I wrote a post about what the statistics tell us about the safety and danger of our streets for bicyclists.  The following is the second of three installments about the still-radical idea of (drum roll) slowing car traffic.     

Richmond is taking small but important steps toward safer streets.  Bigger steps are sorely needed.  In the annual “Dangerous by Design” report from the National Complete Streets Coalition, the Richmond area ranked lower than D.C. and Hampton Roads for pedestrian safety.  See the report here and the RTD article here.

The RTD reported last summer that city council passed a resolution put forward by Parker Agelasto adding an additional $200 to fines for speeding on sections of Cary Street and Semmes Avenue.  On Cary it’s between Addison and Meadow, and between Granby and Cherry (one block was left out because law restricts the increased fine zone to residential areas), and on Semmes between 22nd Street and Dundee.

The current speed limit on these parts of Cary is 25 mph, on Semmes it’s 35, but it’s been determined that at least 85 percent of drivers on these streets are going more than 10 mph over the speed limit.  It’s striking that it has to be that bad to justify doing anything.  And it’s also not that surprising that many drivers go this fast because it’s come to be taken for granted that going faster than the speed limit (up to a point) is acceptable.

I could see taking this effort a lot further.  It’s not easy to slow drivers down, especially if the road still encourages higher speeds.  But at least the problem is being recognized.  Richmond has a number of streets that serve as quasi-highways (another example is Laburnum Ave. in my neighborhood).  These “arterial” streets are dangerous and uninviting for pedestrians and cyclists.  The physical design often sends the message that motorists own the road, and not surprisingly, drivers act accordingly.  They could and should serve other users but are so heavily tilted toward traffic flow that people using other forms of transportation effectively shut out, or at least discouraged from using the space too.

Speeds on other streets downtown and in neighborhoods are also often too fast for an urban environment with bicyclists and pedestrians as part of the mix.  Is there really any reason why anyone should go more than 15 mph on a neighborhood street?  Combined with cultural and psychological factors that make for relative impatience, we’ve made it more dangerous and unpleasant to walk and bike than it should be.

An Emerging Movement?

There has been quite a bit of press in recent months about emerging efforts to reduce deaths and injuries of pedestrians in New York City (see this New York Times piece, for example).  A group called Families for Safe Streets, founded by relatives of individuals killed by motorists, has joined forces with local advocacy organization Transportation Alternatives to lobby city and state leaders.

Recently elected Mayor Deblasio has embraced the movement with his Vision Zero action plan, an effort to bring traffic deaths down to zero.  (In 2013, 286 people, mostly pedestrians and bicyclists, were killed by motorists in New York).

One of the first concrete results of this initiative was unveiled earlier this month: arterial slow zones (see the Streetsblog report here).  Sounds like a contradiction, right?  But that’s the point; like Cary, Semmes, Laburnum, and other similar streets in Richmond, New York has streets that serve as thoroughfares and have traditionally seen heavy and fast traffic.  In the “slow zones” the limit has been reduced from 30 to 25 mph — which probably means that many drivers have been traveling at 40+ mph.  These streets will also be redesigned and see targeted enforcement to encourage slower speeds.

It’s striking in this regard that in Richmond the effort to reduce the speed limit on Floyd Avenue from 25 to 20 as part of the bike-walk street proposal has proven difficult, mostly because the standards, assumptions, formulas etc. used by traffic engineers are so narrowly structured: these decisions are based on current traffic speeds and accident statistics, but no sense of whether the street is actually inviting to cyclists and pedestrians.  The manuals and models and formulas do not tend to take into account this basic and obvious fact: a person walking or on a bicycle is at an incredible disadvantage against 2-tons of metal and plastic.  People walking or on bicycles are by definition (very) vulnerable road users, but our roads and policies do not really reflect that fact.

It’s no wonder, then, that many people will not even consider riding a bicycle to get around and would rather not walk either: it feels too risky because, even on a relatively calm street in the Fan, there are enough cars going fast enough to make it intimidating.  That issue gets missed in the arguments that such streets are already fine for biking and walking; they may be for those who already do, but not for the large number of people who would consider it if the streets were more inviting.

I have heard the concern that the Vision Zero idea, which originated in Sweden and is now being embraced by a number of U.S. cities, that we should be careful about the increased enforcement aspect because of persisting racial disparities in who gets pulled over for traffic violations.  This is an important concern that should be taken into account in the formulation of these strategies.

Keep an eye out for the final installment in this series next week: a case for life in the slow lane, and how it’s not as slow as you might think.



Bike Walk RVA Academy Round 2

26 Jan

bike-walk-rva-newsletter-bannerLast fall Bike Walk RVA held its first academy — an 8-week course for people passionate about making it safer and easier to get around Richmond by foot or bike.  The goal is to help those people make connections with like-minded folks and learn more about how to help get better infrastructure and policies for those kinds of transportation.  Graduates from the first academy have been holding meetings in their neighborhoods over the last couple of months to help build that community further.

They’re now accepting applications for the next round — a new group of Richmonders to go through the academy and join the growing ranks of advocates.  They ask for a commitment of eight two to three-hour sessions, along with passion for these issues and residence in the city (there will be sessions of the academy specifically for residents of individual counties later).

If you’re interested, check the details and submit your application here.  The deadline is January 30.  

What’s Up with Floyd?

24 Jan

Following the deferral of a decision on the Floyd Avenue bike-walk street on Tuesday, BikeWalk RVA has started a petition to the Planning Commission urging its members to pass the Floyd Avenue bike-walk street project.

As Style and the RTD both report, the Planning Commission decided to delay a final vote on Floyd until February.  After the plan was voted down by the Urban Design Committee, Public Works came back with some additions to address issues the UDC had asked them to deal with back in September.  The text below from the Tuesday meeting’s minutes suggests that the commission wants Public Works to address them still more definitively and in more detail:

The Commission stated that they would like to see the following issues raised by the Urban Design Committee included in the plan when it returns at the February 17, 2015 meeting:

(1) Addressing a lower speed limit for the length of the project. This would be in the form of a recommendation to City Council.

(2) Committing to a full planting plan including street trees along the extent of the bike/walk route.

(3) Making the project fully accessible with accessible ramps along the corridor.

(4) Addressing unique signage and pavement markings and identity that celebrates this as a bike/walk trail as part of a larger way finding effort.

(5) That the project be evaluated 12 months after the completion of construction and adjusted as needed, and that that evaluation involves the public and a presentation to the Planning Commission.

(6) That the project address lighting along the length of the corridor.

(7) That the project more fully considers the impact on parking and considers limits on types or permits of parking specifically in Zones 1 and 2 of the project.

The Commission also requested the applicant to include the following issues raised by the Commission in the plan when it returns at the February 17, 2015 meeting:

(1) Explore pedestrian initiated signals at Belmont and Harrison.

(2) School X-ing or Ped-Xing markings replace one of the sharrow markings on each block.

(3) Safety should be the first priority.

 One the one hand I am happy that Public Works is being asked to beef up the design.  I’ve commented before on their tendency to take the minimal route when it comes to bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.

But I’m also worried that DPW (in coordination with the Bike-Ped coordinator Jake Helmboldt and their consultant from the Timmons Group) may not be in a position to fully address all of these in a few weeks.  The first item is pretty easy — they’ve expressed direct support for lowering the speed limit.  And they could commit to prioritizing accessible ramps along Floyd.  Extra markings for crossings should not be too tough.

It’s less clear that the budget and coordination with other departments (Urban Forestry, Public Utilities) are there to incorporate the tree and lighting issues.  Those particular items, if I’m not mistaken, involve a bit of moving the goal posts: I’m pretty sure that those were not mentioned previously.  The additional signage is something I’ve supported, but Public Works’ point was that the city (via Planning and Community Development) is working on a wayfinding system and signage on Floyd should be worked into that plan.

Hopefully with clear expressions of support from us and some more detail on the things that Public Works can deal with in 30 days, we’ll see a vote in favor of the project mid-February.  Thanks to all of you continue to follow this saga and help Richmond get its first bike-walk street.

Floyd Update – Your Help Needed One Last Time (Hopefully)!

14 Jan

If you’ve been following the Floyd Avenue bike-walk street saga you know that the city’s Urban Design Committee voted to not recommend the design last week (see previous post).  Some of the news coverage has suggested that it went that way because committee members were deferring to the concerns of residents.  They could have done that back in September.

What they did instead back then was recommend various additions to the plan to strengthen Floyd’s identity and safety for pedestrians and bicyclists.  The design presented to them last week contained none of them.  It was voted down not because committee members are against the idea, but because the engineers basically ignored them. (See the committee’s report saying as much here).

The Good News

Here’s the good news: according to an email from Max Hepp-Buchanan of BikeWalk RVA, this rejection spurred some soul-searching and the traffic engineers are now including some of those additional design elements:

Over the weekend, Public Works received about 80 emails from people like you asking for an improved design before January 20 so that the project will gain the support of the Planning Commission and we can move on to implementation. Thank you!  What you did worked — I met with the engineers in Public Works yesterday to iron out some of the design details we think would make the project a better bike-walk street for everybody.

Public Works has promised to present a path for getting a posted speed limit of 20 MPH along Floyd Ave, implement unique pavement markings, signage, and branding that signals to drivers that Floyd Ave is a special place for walking and biking, and conduct a speed and volume study after six months to make sure everything is working right (and if it’s not, a plan to fix it).

It’s clear that the engineers at Public Works are feeling the heat — finally.  I’m especially encouraged that there is a clear plan to evaluate how Floyd is doing once everything’s in place and make changes accordingly.

What You Can Do

The immediate issue is to make sure that the improved design gets approved by the Planning Commission at their meeting next Tuesday, 1/20.  Here are two things you can do to help make sure that happens:

1.  Send a letter of support to Jeff Eastman at the City of Richmond. Just a few sentences will do. He’ll pass your comments on to the Planning Commission members.

2.  Show up at the Planning Commission meeting on Tuesday, January 20, 1:30 PM, in the 5th floor conference room of City Hall and tell the commissioners in person that you support the project.

Reasons that I can see for supporting the project include:

• It is an important first step for Richmond to try out a type of bike- and pedestrian-friendly street that, once we determine what works best, could help make all of Richmond a better place to live.

• It will move us further in the direction of establishing a network of bikeways that would allow people to get anywhere they want to go safely.

• It will send a signal to everyone that bicycling and walking have a valued place in the city and that the city is serious about promoting them.

If the Planning Commission passes the plan, we can finally get going on implementing it.  If they vote it down, city council could override them.  We can’t be sure of that.  It would be best to get the plan passed by the commission.



Future of Floyd Project Uncertain

9 Jan

Sorry that my first post of 2015 is a downer: as reported today by the RTD, Richmond’s Urban Design Committee voted yesterday to not recommend the Floyd Avenue bike-walk street project.  It still has to go to the Planning Commission and could end up in city council, but the 7-2 vote against it certainly doesn’t help.

The project has faced a number of challenges from early on.  On one side you have (according to polls) a numerical majority of neighborhood residents supporting the project, but a small number of vehement opponents who not surprisingly make their voices heard at every opportunity (note the number of posts from the same 3 people in response to today’s RTD article).  If that were not enough, you have city traffic engineers in charge of the project — who are neither very experienced with or deeply invested in creating good bicycle infrastructure — finding reasons to not include features that would make it a really good project.

Although the RTD coverage does not make it clear, the latter issue accounts for a good portion of UDC opposition.  In fact, back in September the commission sent traffic engineers back to the drawing board with several recommendations for changes (coverage here), none of which were included in the plans presented to the UDC on yesterday.

Those recommendations included using highlighted shared lane markings, more and clearer signage to “brand” Floyd as a bike-walk street, and lowering the speed limit to 20 mph.  Tom Flynn, the city’s chief traffic engineer, has insisted that he can’t lower the limit, but others have suggested that the city has the power to do so regardless of what the usual formulas would justify.  This is part of the problem we face in Richmond and elsewhere: laws and standards that were not intended or designed to take into account much of anything other than car traffic being used to block good ideas.

Special signage for a bicycle boulevard in Berkeley, CA.  This is one of several recommendations from the city's Urban Design Committee that traffic planners did not include in the final design.  From

Special signage for a bicycle boulevard in Berkeley, CA. This is one of several recommendations from the city’s Urban Design Committee that traffic planners did not include in the final design. From

I and some other advocates have been worried about this project being watered down by the traffic engineers, and that is essentially what has happened.  If there’s a way to force them to make at least some of the called-for changes, I’d love to see it happen.  BUT: what I really don’t want to see happen is that the engineers effectively kill it, and that’s what we’re facing at this point.

Given how hard it is to convince Richmonders to embrace something novel, I’m willing to take a watered-down project for now — with the knowledge that I and others will fight to make changes and make it better down the road.  If the Floyd project dies now, it’s not just that it will not be in place to show off for the 2015 crowds.  It could be many years before we could take it up again.  And all of the struggle and planning over the past couple of years will be down the tube.

I would love — and expect to eventually get — a great bike-walk street on Floyd.  But knowing Richmond, at this point I’m willing to take a far-from-perfect version.  Let’s hope the Planning Commission sees it that way too.