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Guest Opinion: Ride with me through Biketopia

Thomas Bowden July 23, 2010 14

The views expressed in Guest Opinions represent only those of the author and are in no way endorsed by Richmond BizSense or any BizSense staff member.

Wouldn’t it be cool to live in an urban bike paradise? Bear with me while I daydream about the ideal ultra-cool cycling city. Cool cycling cities are natural tourist destinations, drawing families and bike enthusiasts from across the country to ride on long, safe bike trails that pass through and connect major tourist attractions such as battlegrounds and colonial-era historic sites.

Energetic and committed advocates help bring these facilities into existence, funded by enlightened local governments and major corporations who maintain headquarters there. In those cities, almost everyone knows that opportunities for safe cycling of all types raise property values and quality of life for everyone, not just the cyclists.

In my Biketopia, you would ride to work down wide, straight, two-lane, one-way streets through neighborhoods of quaint turn-of-the-century homes, shielded by a canopy of trees. Or you could ride to work on trails or quiet roads along a beautiful scenic river. Not bad, eh?

What if your morning commute took you through the campuses of two major universities? What if one university’s nationally ranked sculpture department viewed bicycles as a form of art and created a bike frame workshop, fully equipped and stocked with esoteric tools and materials? You might even expect such a city to be the natural location for national exhibitions of handcrafted bicycles as the epitome of functional art.

And it would be doubly cool if your city was the subject of a pilot project for sustainable transportation funded by a major corporation, with the goal of integrating electric cars, bicycles (including electric bikes), Segways or other transportation modes into its smoothly functioning conventional transportation infrastructure. And for those who would choose not to drive, ride their bikes or walk, there would have to be a really good public transit system. It would be really extra cool if it were the top-ranked transit system in the country.

That would mean that all of its buses would need to have bike racks on the front, thanks to tireless efforts of local cycling advocates. You might find these factors in a forward-looking city that, for example, boasted one of the first public light rail systems, powered by locally generated renewable hydroelectric energy. The perfectly cool cycling city would have to be on a major national bike route, of course.

Still, a city would not be truly cool for cyclists without at least one local pro racing team and weekly training races in the city parks for competitive club cyclists. And ideally it should have at least one Olympic cyclist with more gold medals than Eric Heiden who would make his home in your urban cycling paradise. An Olympic Training Center with a world-class velodrome would take the cool factor up a few notches for sure. International level bike races running through the downtown streets like a human-powered Grand Prix would be essential annual events to maintain cool status.

Inevitably, there would be bike couriers buzzing around the downtown business district, flagrantly violating traffic laws, yet unexplainably never being seen to crash or cause accidents. Any really cool cycling city is bound to have its share of those – it’s a small price to pay, and some even find them entertaining. Plus, think of the cars they would otherwise be driving and double parking all over town.

All truly cool cycling cities offer great opportunities for other sports year-round, such as whitewater kayaking, skiing and snowboarding. And it would be beyond cool to have an island in the middle of the city, crisscrossed with hiking trails and mountain bike trails, surrounded by world-class whitewater.

But you can’t have a world-class-cool cycling city without bike shops. You need shops catering to the high-end with carbon fiber time trial and triathlon bikes for super athletes, and you also need those little neighborhood shops that will fix your bike while you wait and offer everything from brand-new city bikes and custom-built wheels to classic recycled transportation bikes with fat tires and fenders. These are essential coolness factors.

There actually are a few cities in this world that can lay claim to some of these cool attributes. You typically find them on the West Coast, in the Rocky Mountains, or in Europe, where cycling is a major form of everyday transportation, not just a sport for hard-core enthusiasts with unlimited Lycra budgets. They get lots of press, tourists and international status, and they promote themselves as cycling friendly destinations and great places to live. Their citizens are generally happier and healthier than average.

But can you imagine what it would be like to actually live in such a city that had all of the elements of a cycling paradise?

I can, because I live in Richmond, where all of these factors are either present or within reach.

But please, let’s keep it quiet. I mean, what if the whole world knew? Cyclists everywhere, from Portland to Boulder to Copenhagen and Amsterdam, would be up in arms, demanding equality. I suggest instead we just quietly paint some bike lanes on existing streets, maybe designate a few suitable roads as preferred bike routes and finish what we have started. That would be cool indeed.

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  1. john m July 23, 2010 at 9:07 am - Reply

    Great post. As an avid recreational cyclist and a walking/riding commuter, I would love to see Richmond embrace a vision of itself as a more bike friendly city.

    I do question in P3 the notion of “wide, straight, two-lane, one-way streets” as the ideal. It is my understanding (and experience) that the one-way streets in Richmond are faster for cars and thus less bike and pedestrian friendly. Wasn’t this one of the reasons that the Downtown Master Plan recommended converting many one-way streets to become two-way streets?

  2. Alan Slabaugh July 23, 2010 at 9:26 am - Reply

    I loved reading this. I was waiting for the punch line the whole time because “all of these factors are either present or within reach.” My hope is that more Richmond residents will get outside are realize this. It is truly a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts. While Boulder, CO is a wonderful place, they have nothing on what Richmond could be, the difference is that they didn’t have quite as many distractions and made it their primary focus in branding themselves as such.

    Lets do it!

  3. Beth Weisbrod July 23, 2010 at 9:51 am - Reply

    Yay Tom Bowden! Great article!

  4. Tom Bowden July 23, 2010 at 10:41 am - Reply

    John M – You may be right – I don’t purport to be an expert on the advantages of one way vs. two way streets. I like one ways because they are simpler, but then again I love Groove Avenue because of the virtual Bike Highway created by the wide parking lanes – or whatever they are. In the morning, they are almost totally empty. there is some oncoming traffic in the form of runners and dog-walkers, but the visibility is excellent and there is plenty of time and room to pass safely. What’s more, the relatively heavy use of Grove by cyclists leads drivers to expect and RESPECT cyclists – in my experience.

  5. Doug B. July 23, 2010 at 1:11 pm - Reply

    Biketopia would be great. I’d be happy with just a bike lane on Nuckols road from Innsbrook to Ashland road out to Route 1. Tons of cyclists on that route every day. There are lots of great rural roads just west of Innsbrook in Hanover and Goochland that could be a real attraction with a bike lane. Even better, a bike lane from Nuckols road area to downtown as well as west to Hanover would allow people from the suburbs to commute downtown during the week, and downtown people to ride to Hanover on the weekends.

  6. Kevin Anderson July 23, 2010 at 5:19 pm - Reply

    Much can be done to increase the safety of cyclists in this city without even spending a dime. From my experience in the Fan cyclists are: constantly blowing through stoplights, driving in the wrong lane, and generally disregarding traffic laws. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve came within a foot of killing someone because they blew through a red light at full speed.

    Don’t get me wrong, I highly encourage cycling in the city, it creates less traffic, its better for the environment, it makes parking easier and keeps you in shape–I just think something needs to be done about the recklessness before people start getting killed.

  7. Pete H. July 23, 2010 at 7:48 pm - Reply

    Congrats! Great article. There are many people in Richmond with similar thoughts. Keep expressing yours!!

  8. Stuart S July 24, 2010 at 7:06 pm - Reply

    Kevin Anderson, you can say all those same horrible things about motorists. Blowings stoplights, driving in the “wrong” lane, SPEEDING, and generally disregarding traffic laws. It’s safe to say that every motorist breaks at least two laws every time they get behind the wheel.

  9. Stuart S July 24, 2010 at 7:11 pm - Reply

    And I agree with the other poster who said that one-way streets are dangerous to cyclists. Wide, straight, and one-way describes an urban freeway, that sounds like a horrible place to ride a bicycle.

  10. Tom Bowden July 25, 2010 at 10:27 am - Reply

    Kevin – I wholeheartedly agree – I ride through the fan most nights on my way home, and running lights and stop signs seems to be the rule, not the exception. It’s VCU students, professors, kids on BMX bikes – you name it – it’s rampant. I prefer to use red lights as opportunities to practice my trackstand technique. At stop signs, I’ll admit, i don’t always come to a complete stop, but neither do most cars. I ‘hesitate” (mini-trackstand), look both ways, and go. I’m noticing more and more intersections with the countdown to yellow indicators. These are great because if you know you/renot going to make the light, just ease off and roll up to the line – no need to rush it.

  11. Robert July 25, 2010 at 7:51 pm - Reply

    New to the cycling seen I think it would be great to have this type of city.What should be added to the story here should be the electric cars are at fair prices so everyone could enjoy. The city that is depicted is fully race free and road rules respected without need of the police for enforcment. Where you could let a person try your Canondale out for a test drive and expect it to return. Where you can drop off your road bike and trade for an hour for a mountain bike. The perfect city for cycling must meet that perfect off road experience also. I was in CaryTown Cycles today drooling over a Canondale Synapse. By the way! They were willing to let me test drive this bike for a mile or two. I think I will get nobbies back on my mountain bike and get a road bike for both pleasures!

  12. Ken R. July 26, 2010 at 12:18 am - Reply

    Quite an article. It presents a lot of information about Richmond. Sounds almost like Philadelphia without potholes. (To what extent is that true, BTW?) I see some cyclists in Philly but not as many as you apparently have in Richmond. We do have Ben Franklin Parkway and both River Drives. We have the Manayunk Wall as the core of our annual international bike race. (The one time I was in part of Richmond, it seems you may have some good hills too.) But for actual bike commuting, sadly, there are the potholes everywhere to discourage the idea. (Not speaking from personal experience as a bike commuter, though.)

    Sounds like you sure love Richmond. You could make Lincoln want to fight to get it back all over again.

  13. Tom Bowden July 26, 2010 at 11:12 am - Reply

    In the spirit of my column, I am posting the following flyer I received from the Virginia Capital Trail Foundation. The point is that 7 miles of the trail run through Eastern Henrico County. The County is resisting the construction of a dedicated trail, offering instead to widen the shoulders of Route 5. Not only is this not in keeping with the concept and design of the trail, it will also not qualify for use of the federal funds already allocated. It makes no sense to me, but you should form your own opinion. If you support the Trail, and you agree with the points set forth below, please do your best to show up Thursday Night at Varina High School from 6-8 and let Henrico County know how you feel.

    What follows is the test I received from Virginia Capital Trail Foundation”

    This is a reminder about a very important public input meeting regarding a study on the Rt. 5 corridor through Varina into Richmond—a critical phase of the Virginia Capital Trail. We strongly urge you to attend this meeting to show your support for the Trail as completely separate from Rt. 5. We want our public officials to know we can pack a room and be a powerful voice.

    When: Thursday, July 29, 6-8 pm
    Where: Varina High School,
    7053 Messer Rd.
    Henrico Va. 23231
    If you can’t make the meeting, your comments are still very important. Go to: http://www.route5corridor.com to be heard on this critical issue.

    What’s at Stake?
    This process will determine the shape of over seven miles of our Trail. If you currently enjoy–or plan to enjoy–the Trail for jogging, walking, riding bikes with your children, getting to school, bird watching, taking field trips into history, then think about these activities as cars and trucks go past you at 55mph. Would you plan these activities on Parham Rd., or Laburnum Ave.?

    The Foundation’s Stance
    • The 50-mile Virginia Capital Trail, once complete, will be a regional asset of statewide significance.
    • There has already been a substantial public investment in building a separate and dedicated trail. Currently 16 miles are complete.
    • Having 6% of the Trail be part of a busy road, would significantly reduce the tourism potential and broad appeal of the entire Trail, and diminish its viability as a regional economic engine.
    • This Trail needs to be available and safe for all users: families, children traveling to and from school, senior citizens, handicapped individuals, tourists, anyone commuting to and from work, among other groups who enjoy outdoor recreation.

    It is Important to Note:
    • The funds used to build this trail cannot be used for building roads, filling potholes or adding to existing roads. They come from a federal program, and must be spent on dedicated trails and similar amenities.
    • If we don’t use them to enhance our own community, another location in Virginia will use them to make trails to enhance theirs.

    Thank you for supporting the Virginia Capital Trail, and being an active voice in making our region a better place to live!

  14. anonymous July 27, 2010 at 10:54 am - Reply

    Congrats to City Council and National Guard for getting behind the Cannon Creek greenway.

    The East Coast Greenway (greenway.org) is coming to Richmond!

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