Guest Opinion: Actually, sweat the small stuff

Every year, Richmond becomes a better place to live, and the pace of improvement seems to be picking up, too. Despite the lousy economy, developers keep turning shuttered factories into sleek apartment buildings, and restaurateurs keep opening in new places, despite the odds against them.

The city has debated lots of big investments, such as a new arena or baseball stadium. But a handful of much smaller changes could pay off big time and piggy-back on the dreams and gumption of all the entrepreneurs working in downtown Richmond.

In a recent article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Publisher Tom Silvestri recommended changes around the convention center that would make the city more appealing to conference attendees. The word “sidewalk” appeared multiple times throughout the article. Stadiums and fast trains move a city forward, and those plans keep hope alive for the long term. But why not start small, with inexpensive projects proven to generate big returns? That’s the kind of low-hanging fruit business people love to pick, right?

Sidewalks, bike lanes and separated trails are the best small investments a city can make. And in Richmond, they would add oomph to the existing momentum. Of course, I am involved in promoting just such an amenity. For the past three years, I’ve been involved with the Virginia Capital Trail, which now has a paved section in Shockoe Bottom that will eventually connect Richmond to Jamestown.

Here’s why I am so bullish on the value of our trail and the overall mindset of making small but powerful upgrades: Give a city a couple of amenities that make it fun to linger somewhere, and you’ve started improving the community. New York found that when they placed bike racks around the city, people used them whether or not the location was on a bike route. Just having a place to park encouraged riding, which in Richmond means more people downtown. So let’s install some bike racks. The Project for Public Spaces, an agency that is transforming cities all over the world, studies what happens when tables and chairs are located on sidewalks or plazas. They found that people sit in them. And when more tables and chairs are made available, more people sit there. Instant vitality for a few thousand dollars.

Richmond has plenty to draw people to the region. But finding ways to gain more economic benefit from their visit requires making them want to stay and play for a while. Again, it doesn’t require tens of millions of dollars.

Portland, Ore., discovered their entire network of 300 miles of bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure equaled the cost of building one mile of a six lane urban interstate. It’s hard to say whether one mile of interstate can generate $63 million annually in economic activity like Portland’s bike and pedestrian infrastructure does. It’s not a stretch, however, to think they would need a few more miles of it for drivers to have somewhere to spend their money.

Virginia has its own success stories. The W&OD trail in Northern Virginia, a 45-mile trail from Arlington to Purcellville, attracted 1.7 million visitors in 2004, with locals spending an average of $10 a day and non-locals spending $17 a day. The math is easy. The same study found that the Virginia Creeper Trail attracted 130,000 annual visitors to Damascus, Va., with average spending for day trippers at $17.16 per person per trip. Overnight users spent $82.10 per person per trip. In analyzing where this money was spent, 40 percent went into accommodation and food services, 20 percent went to entertainment and recreation. Again, millions of dollars a year and new jobs because people found it fun to move around Damascus without their cars.

Yes, let’s hang onto our 10- and 20-year plans and make sure we stay the course on the big things that will help Richmond reach its potential as a thriving, high quality place to live. But let’s go ahead and move some small efforts to the top of the priorities, little amenities that have proven to be safe investments, so we can start seeing big improvements in the short term. Even if you will never use a bike rack or walk on the Virginia Capital Trail, as a resident of the area, you will benefit from those who do.
Beth Weisbrod is the executive director of the Virginia Capital Trail Foundation.

Every year, Richmond becomes a better place to live, and the pace of improvement seems to be picking up, too. Despite the lousy economy, developers keep turning shuttered factories into sleek apartment buildings, and restaurateurs keep opening in new places, despite the odds against them.

The city has debated lots of big investments, such as a new arena or baseball stadium. But a handful of much smaller changes could pay off big time and piggy-back on the dreams and gumption of all the entrepreneurs working in downtown Richmond.

In a recent article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Publisher Tom Silvestri recommended changes around the convention center that would make the city more appealing to conference attendees. The word “sidewalk” appeared multiple times throughout the article. Stadiums and fast trains move a city forward, and those plans keep hope alive for the long term. But why not start small, with inexpensive projects proven to generate big returns? That’s the kind of low-hanging fruit business people love to pick, right?

Sidewalks, bike lanes and separated trails are the best small investments a city can make. And in Richmond, they would add oomph to the existing momentum. Of course, I am involved in promoting just such an amenity. For the past three years, I’ve been involved with the Virginia Capital Trail, which now has a paved section in Shockoe Bottom that will eventually connect Richmond to Jamestown.

Here’s why I am so bullish on the value of our trail and the overall mindset of making small but powerful upgrades: Give a city a couple of amenities that make it fun to linger somewhere, and you’ve started improving the community. New York found that when they placed bike racks around the city, people used them whether or not the location was on a bike route. Just having a place to park encouraged riding, which in Richmond means more people downtown. So let’s install some bike racks. The Project for Public Spaces, an agency that is transforming cities all over the world, studies what happens when tables and chairs are located on sidewalks or plazas. They found that people sit in them. And when more tables and chairs are made available, more people sit there. Instant vitality for a few thousand dollars.

Richmond has plenty to draw people to the region. But finding ways to gain more economic benefit from their visit requires making them want to stay and play for a while. Again, it doesn’t require tens of millions of dollars.

Portland, Ore., discovered their entire network of 300 miles of bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure equaled the cost of building one mile of a six lane urban interstate. It’s hard to say whether one mile of interstate can generate $63 million annually in economic activity like Portland’s bike and pedestrian infrastructure does. It’s not a stretch, however, to think they would need a few more miles of it for drivers to have somewhere to spend their money.

Virginia has its own success stories. The W&OD trail in Northern Virginia, a 45-mile trail from Arlington to Purcellville, attracted 1.7 million visitors in 2004, with locals spending an average of $10 a day and non-locals spending $17 a day. The math is easy. The same study found that the Virginia Creeper Trail attracted 130,000 annual visitors to Damascus, Va., with average spending for day trippers at $17.16 per person per trip. Overnight users spent $82.10 per person per trip. In analyzing where this money was spent, 40 percent went into accommodation and food services, 20 percent went to entertainment and recreation. Again, millions of dollars a year and new jobs because people found it fun to move around Damascus without their cars.

Yes, let’s hang onto our 10- and 20-year plans and make sure we stay the course on the big things that will help Richmond reach its potential as a thriving, high quality place to live. But let’s go ahead and move some small efforts to the top of the priorities, little amenities that have proven to be safe investments, so we can start seeing big improvements in the short term. Even if you will never use a bike rack or walk on the Virginia Capital Trail, as a resident of the area, you will benefit from those who do.
Beth Weisbrod is the executive director of the Virginia Capital Trail Foundation.

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Jeff Sadler
Jeff Sadler
11 years ago

Beth is 100% correct. There are lots of “small stuff” projects that Richmond can do that will have a more effecient impact than the huge projects that seem to garner most of the focus and often have terrible, long term, unforeseen consequences. Growing up in Arlington, we used the W&OD trail regularly, along with the other bike trails and public transportation. By age 14 my friends and I were able to ride cross county or inter-county to go to several parks or catch the bus to the subway and go to museums on our own. The Creeper Trail is one… Read more »

Casey Quinlan
Casey Quinlan
11 years ago

Sidewalks and bike trails throughout the metro area would be outstanding.

Every time I’m in Fairfax County I turn green with envy as I see cyclists biking alongside the highways on safe, well-maintained bike trails. I used to ride my bike from the East Village to the Upper West Side in NYC, dodging taxis all the way, with less trepidation than I feel when riding on the roads of Henrico County. I swear they aim at cyclists, thinking they have to kill us before we breed and encourage peeps to look beyond the SUV.

Leah Dempsey
Leah Dempsey
11 years ago

What a great piece on the importance of bike/walk facilities in a community. I live in Smithfield, Virginia – rural compared to Richmond- yet there is no way to walk or bike anywhere outside of developed communities. My family takes the ferry to Jamestown to ride the portion of the Virginia Capital Trail that is completed there. You don’t understand what an off road bike/ped path can do until you see whole neighborhoods connected – old and young – fit and not so fit – using the path. We are working hard here in Isle of Wight County to get… Read more »

Mason Hearn
Mason Hearn
11 years ago

Bravo, Beth! Refreshing insight and great publicity for a project that is not well-enough known YET. The Capital Trail is destinated to be one of our region’s the most fabulous amenities, leveraging the natural and urban beauty of our slice of the Commonwealth, as well as our interest in healthy enjoyment of the outdoors. I, too, lived in Northern VA for some time, and – for all of the world-class amenities available in the DC region – riding the Mount Vernon / W&OD Trails is one of my fondest memories. Besides offering a safe place to ride, it was sort-of… Read more »

Tom Bowden
Tom Bowden
11 years ago

Beth – excellent points. There is a lot of low hanging fruit. Some bike lanes on appropriate routes will encourage more riders and commuters, and all it takes is some paint! Bike racks can be works of art, as demonstrated by Talking Heads lead singer and longtime cyclist David Byrne, who started a contest in NYC for the most creative bike rack. “Sharrows” – those stick figure bike symbols coupled with arrows are even easier. Keep up the good work!

Ry
Ry
11 years ago

I’m curious what folks think some other low hanging fruit in Richmond might be? Beth mentioned table and chairs in public spaces… I wonder why there aren’t any in the grassy area behind CenterStage/in front of the National. I came out a concert at the National earlier this year (before it was blazing hot) and there were a ton of people just hanging out on the sidewalk looking for somewhere to be.

dw
dw
11 years ago

Recommended reading: Pedaling Revolution by Jeff Mapes.

Let’s stop treating the Canal Walk as the formal, all white living room you weren’t allowed to use as a kid. Where are the tables and chairs? What about ice cream peddlars? Art exhibits?Tourists get off the canal boat and look around for those kinds of amenities. So simple–somewhere to sit and something to eat.

Donna
Donna
11 years ago

I vote for Grace Street being turned into a bike boulevard.

boise st
boise st
11 years ago

I’m a biker as well and eager to ride every saturday to williamsburg and back .

Here are some small projects…………..fix side walks in the city, have more police on the river banks and don’t allow coolers, homeless people are making a huge mess behind the condos at black fin ( you would think they would clean up while waiting for their next free meal).

Richmonds biggest problem is the fact that it is ghetto in many places. We need to get rid of the ghettos and send those people down to petersburg.

Common Sense
Common Sense
11 years ago

It would help if Richmond would take efforts to make it feel safer – like police that actually walk a beat and are seen….. just an idea….. and while you’re at it – Visit Burlington, Vermont to see what Richmond could be – there’s a great pedestrian mall with lots of people shopping, sitting around, eating (Ben & Jerry’s) ice cream and hot dogs, sipping on their espressos, enjoying art, and just people watching – along with spending lots of money at all the shops – yeah, real places to shop at…. Throw in some street performers, musicians, etc., along… Read more »

Kelli Meadows
Kelli Meadows
11 years ago

One of the best vacations we have taken in a long time was this summer to Corrolla, North Carolina. The main reason our family (kids ages 6 and 7) loved it so much was because the family rode our bike everywhere! Shopping, to the market, even to get our nails done! I would love to see more opportunities in Richmond to bike with small children.

Benny
Benny
11 years ago

Great article Beth! I can’t believe that there are still people in Charles City that are opposed to the Capital to Capital Trail. Don’t they realize what an economic boost this is going to give their county?
I guess they are just opposed to any kind of change. Reminds me of a joke:
Q: How many Virginians does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Three- one to actually change it and two to talk about how great the old bulb was!

Leslie Haas Clanton
Leslie Haas Clanton
11 years ago

Yes, fantastic article Beth plus so many great ideas shared in these comments as well. Casey and others are correct that so many other communities have it ‘together’ … so what is the magic needed for RVA to take advantage of all the possibilities? Kelli’s comment reminded me of my enjoyable biking around Sanibel Island. I sure spent more money there as a result! Also my sister in SC has been very successful in safe routes to schools programs as well as bike paths in and around Bluffton and Hilton Head and they’re so rural compared to here. We’d have… Read more »

Andrew Moore
Andrew Moore
11 years ago

Thanks for the reminder that all of the controversy around macro-scale projects tends to obscure the obtainable, high impact opportunities near at hand. Yes, we need to think globally, but the local bike rack or trail needs our immediate attention!

frank
frank
11 years ago

don’t be cheapskates… pony up some money for bike lanes …

in fact every time a road improvement project is put forward there should be every effort to put in bike lanes or ensure there is a wide paved shoulder for both motorist emergencies and for normal bicycle commuting and exercise.

richmond make that a city/county policy!