Tag Archives: Bicycles

Bicycling in Paradise


One of California’s greatest assets is its climate, and San Francisco, though foggier than nearby locales, is no exception. Climatically speaking, the city is as close to paradise as any location on the planet, which makes it a great place to spend outdoors and a great place to bicycle. As one would expect, San Francisco has an advanced bicycle infrastructure, with some dedicated bike lanes and lots of sharrows. Also bicycling is embedded deeply enough in the transportation system that you don’t feel like you’re taking your life into your hands when you share the roads with cars.

Quite possibly the bike lane with the most awesome views in the world.

Quite possibly the bike lane with the most awesome views in the world.

Having spent only a couple of days here, I cannot profess any expertise on the biking scene, but it seems pretty clear that with all the mass transit — between buses, light rail, trolley cars and cable cars, San Francisco may have more different types of mass transit than any other city in the world — not to mention ZipCar and Uber, anyone can get around perfectly well owning a bicycle instead of a car. The main drawback to establishing a strong bicycling culture here is the hills — they’re not for the weak.

One of the things I like about San Francisco is that, although it is very dense (the second densest city after New York City, as I recall), it is as not automobile-hostile as Manhattan. Owning your own car is not an act of folly, as it would be for most Gothamites. Thus, the city offers the widest possible array of transportation choices. (The way the city handles parking is particularly interesting. I’ll have more to say about that in a later post.)

Clearly, the end product is something that people value highly. Between the superior economic opportunities afforded by the technology- and innovation-economy in the San Francisco Bay region, the divine climate and the quality of human settlement patterns, people have bid up the price of real estate to astronomical levels.


Bacon Bits: Bicycles and Baseball Stadiums

bacon_bitsThe Easy Out. Writing in Henrico Monthly John Gerner, a Richmond-based leisure industry consultant, takes Richmond City Hall’s assumption that building a new baseball stadium requires public funding. Ballparks are often built with little or no public funding, he writes:

Greensboro’s privately financed ballpark that was built to accommodate a AA minor league baseball team, just like the Richmond Flying Squirrels. There are other ballparks currently being planned elsewhere in Virginia, but only Richmond’s would be publicly funded. Often, the development costs are lower when stadiums are privately financed. The developer takes the risks. If it doesn’t work, the private developer takes the hit financially. If it does work, the developer keeps the cost savings.

A privately financed ballpark in Richmond would likely return its location back to the Boulevard, where the region wants it. For the long-term viability of baseball in Richmond, it needs regional support. Most of the fans come from outside the city, primarily from Chesterfield and Henrico. Political leaders in the suburbs know this. If the location were shifted back to the Boulevard, there would likely be another opportunity to forge a regional effort there through shared incentives for this privately financed ballpark.

Huh? Life-Cycle Costs? Meanwhile, in his WTVR blog, Paul Goldman points out a flaw in City Hall’s proposed financing for the proposed Shockoe Bottom location of the stadium. The city’s bond financing will stretch 30 years. That makes sense, if you believe the city’s assertion that the stadium will have a useful life of 35 years. Just one problem, Goldman points out: No stadium has a useful life of 35 years.

The Diamond opened in 1985. Twenty-nine years later, it’s supposedly obsolete. Writes Goldman:

“After 20 years, technology advances, changing fan demands, local business needs, and more makes a Stadium obsolete. This is why we have seen all those new stadiums around the country in the last 20 years!

Within the 30-year lease signed by the Squirrels, the “new” stadium is going to be in need of hugely expensive renovations unless Mayor Jones’ secret plan is to build a new one back on the Boulevard!

Won’t it be fun 20 years from now if the Richmond Flying Squirrels proclaim the “new” Shockoe stadium to be obsolete and asks the city to make millions of dollars in renovations…. or else. Just one problem — Richmond still will have 10 years to run on its bonds for the old ballpark!

You’re Busting my Bikes! Writing on his blog, “Mapping the Commonwealth,” Luke Juday is all fired up by the large fines and penalties his Charlottesville friends are paying for traffic infractions. He offers four reasons why the system is a bad one:

1. The cost of a ticket is disproportionate to the cost of owning and riding a bicycle.

2. Bicycles are not 2-ton hunks of metal that go 70 m.p.h. and kill thousands of people a year. It is often difficult or impossible for bicyclists to follow the rules safely.

4. Motorists are rarely held responsible for collisions with bicycles, making it awfully hypocritical to charge them as if they are equals on the road.

I’m all in favor of making our streets “complete streets” shared by cars, pedestrians and bicycles. We need to shift the “rules of the road” in city streets back in favor of bikes and pedestrians. But in fairness, automobiles do not normally travel 70 m.p.h. in 25 m.p.h. speed zones. And many bicyclists often do behave recklessly (not Luke’s friends, of course, but other cyclists). I suspect we’re facing years of trench warfare between drivers and cyclists before we reach a new equilibrium.


Enough With “Floydgracht”

Cyclists near VCU. Photo credit: Style Weekly.

Cyclists near VCU. Photo credit: Style Weekly.

It seems that cyclists and their supporters are getting a lot of press and a vocal, if not large, group of supporters.  As I have written previously on this blog, I spent a year in grad school at the University of Amsterdam and often biked through the Rijksmuseum to classes on one of the famous canals — the Herengracht. I don’t believe bikes are a wave of the future in Richmond or anywhere else in the United States. Pete Jordan, an American who moved to Amsterdam and stayed to open a bike shop, examines some of the historical, cultural, and geographic reasons for the popularity of cycles in Holland in his book, “In the City of Bikes.”

The Dutch never developed a domestic auto industry. The Netherlands never had anyone comparable to Henry Ford who had as his goal, “cars for everyone at affordable prices.” Autos were expensive and, as Jordan points out, credit to finance consumer goods was not readily available .

Gasoline has always been significantly more expensive in Europe than it is here. It is not unusual for gas prices to be two to be three times as high as in the US.

The availability of parking favors bikes. The center city was mostly constructed in the 17th century,  and the fact that much of the it is built on reclaimed land that is sandy,  making  it expensive to build, retards the building of garages in the business district. In fact, until the 1930′s, it was illegal to curbside park.

The old Dutch saying that God created the earth, but the Netherlanders created Holland indicates that having fought nature for centuries  to claim the land, most loath giving up space to to store autos. Holland is a small country, very densely populated with distances between cities very short by American standards. With a well developed inter-city train system, commuters tend to ride bikes to the suburban train stations  and use the tram system to take them to their place of business. Dutch cities, even the largest Amsterdam and Rotterdam, do not compare in population or square miles to a New York or Boston much less Los Angeles.

As the land was hard to acquire and building costly, most streets in the older central business districts are narrow, making it difficult for bikes and strollers to share space. The addition of cars makes things difficult. Several times a week I would see a car being raised out of a canal as a driver failed to negotiate the ancient street effectively (often under the influence of a bit too much Genever).

In his book Jordan highlights another interesting point. The tradition of Calvinism causes the Dutch to downplay outward displays of status. Autos in the U.S. are often sold as status symbols and many Americans drive to impress.  As they say in LA , “You are what you drive.”

History and culture are not the only drivers of public policy but they cannot be ignored. I doubt that the current emphasis on bikes will add significantly to urban development in the U.S. and certainly not in Richmond’s historic Fan District.

– D. Leslie Schreiber

Bicycle Wars

Alexandria street scene. (Image credit: Wall Street Journal.)

Alexandria street scene. (Image credit: Wall Street Journal.)

by James A. Bacon

The bicycle wars are coming to Virginia as cyclists literally fight to take back the streets.

For decades the issue was settled — the streets belonged to automobiles, with pedestrians confined to sidewalks as second-class citizens. Bicycles didn’t figure into street design at all. But those days are over as increasingly assertive cyclists agitate to carve out space for bicycle lanes and bicycle parking.

In an op-ed piece in today’s Wall Street Journal, F.H. Buckley conveys a flavor of the struggle for King Street in Alexandria. The City of Alexandria has proposed taking away the street’s parking spaces to make way for a bike lane. Buckley portrays his neighbors and himself as victims of politically organized biking activists who utilize blogs and Twitter to mobilize for public protests and City Council hearings. 

Homeowners feel aggrieved because they are accustomed to having free parking on their streets. “We’re really attached to our parking spot,” Buckley writes. “We like to tell our friends to drop by anytime. We don’t want to send out plumbers to park a few blocks over, on streets that are already congested.” The city’s response — get visitors a special parking permit from city hall, or hire valet parking — is not geared to sooth homeowners’ distress.

Buckley sees this local controversy, not inaccurately, a part of a “growing national movement that pits local homeowners and businesses against cyclists and their trendy allies on city councils.”

The cyclist retort is that American streets once were open to all comers — cars, pedestrians, cyclists… even horses and buggies. But in the pre-World War II era, access was increasingly restricted to cars. Over time, urban transportation arteries took on an entirely new look as street widths, lane widths, turning radii and parking spaces were configured for the exclusive care and feeding automobiles. In a highly political process, local boards and councils advanced the automobile agenda street by street. Now the wheel (so to speak) is turning.

Sad to say, the King Street bicycle controversy seems destined to get emotional because the struggle over public space is a zero-sum game — space for bicycles comes from space formerly dedicated to cars. There seems to be little room for compromise.

Personally, I am a big proponent of making urban communities more bicycle friendly. But having been an urban homeowner in a neighborhood with a parking shortage, I am also sympathetic to homeowners distraught at the prospect of losing parking spaces. Homeowners feel that they have a “right” to parking in their neighborhoods — perhaps not always directly in front of their houses, but at least within a reasonable distance. No one likes parking a block or more away and carrying home grocery bags in the rain. (My wife cited precisely that reason as justification for moving to the suburbs to a house with an attached garage.) Likewise, bicyclists don’t want to pay for access to public streets. Cars drive for free (unless you count the taxes drivers pay), why shouldn’t they?

Here is the root problem: If an asset, such as space on a public street, is publicly owned, people will fight over that space in the political arena. One group’s gain means another group loses. There is no win-win here, only win-lose.

I’m not sure what the answer is, but there has to be something than better than one side triumphing over the other through raw political power. Perhaps there is some way to convert parking spaces into a form of property that can be bought, sold, traded, bartered and even condemned through eminent domain. In an ideal world, the space would evolve to its highest and greatest use as measured by how much people are willing to pay to use it. Of course, that won’t satisfy either homeowners or cyclists who think they have a right to access that valuable urban space for free.

If we don’t find a better way, neighborhood battles over cylists’ rights to the road will get ugly and bitter, and the ill feelings engendered actually could impede what cyclists desire, which is the integration of bikes into the fabric of urban transportation. Cyclists need to remember — there are a lot  more homeowners and motorists than cyclists. If the bicycle wars get too polarized, the homeowners and motorists likely will win.

Update: Tanya Snyder over at D.C. Streets Blog blasts the Buckley op-ed. “When there are too many cars for the roads in your town, the problem is that there are too many cars — not that there are too few roads. Eliminating the one sliver of roadway where people are riding bikes is not going to solve motorists’ problems.”

More Awesomeness in Richmond

Another reason I love my home town: Richmond has 40 miles of world-class single-track bicycle trails. I’ve been on a few of them, although, I do confess, I don’t ride nearly as fast as the two guys in this short video! (Nor can I do the neat wheelie tricks up and down stairs.)

What I find especially cool is that the biking enthusiasts — trail gnomes, in their own parlance — help maintain the trails for everyone’s benefit. They clear routes of fallen trees and debris (as shown in the clip), prune vegetation and repair sections worn away by run-off. It’s an all-volunteer effort.

Biking trails in wild public spaces in the center of the city are a rarity and a gem.


Building a Culture of Cycling

Arlington County has set the goal of becoming the most bicycle-friendly community on the East Coast, and it has devoted serious resources to make it happen. The task takes more than building bike lanes and painting sharrows — it takes changing the culture of transportation, as explained in this video produced by the county.

The hoped-for payoff: Arlington will be able to absorb tens of thousands of new residents and employee without impairing the ability of citizens to get around. The county is vulnerable charges of wasting money on frivolities like million-dollar bus stops but it has done a brilliant job of proving that density need not cause congestion.


Bicycle Commuting up Nine Percent

bike_commutersI was driving through one of Henrico County’s most heavily traveled intersections at Parham Road and Patterson Avenue a few days ago when I encountered a remarkable sight: two bicyclists waiting at the stoplight. They weren’t riding together. One was traveling north on Parham and the other heading east on Patterson.

That location is the last spot I’d expect to find anyone riding a bicycle — the suburban roads are totally engineered for the movement of automobiles. But there they were. That’s when it dawned on me: utility cycling isn’t just for downtown Richmond. It’s spreading everywhere.

No questions, change is afoot, or perhaps I should say, apedal. The U.S Census’s American Community Survey has just released data showing that bicycle commuting in the United States increased 9 percent last year, bringing it to an all-time high.

Cycling still remains a tiny transportation-mode niche, accounting for only six-tenths of one percent of the commuting public. But it looms increasingly important in transportation policy. Those 865,000 cyclists are not driving cars, taking up parking spaces and generating pollution.

Moreover, as the D.C. Streets Blog notes, “the growth in bicycling isn’t taking place in a vacuum.” Large cities like New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., are competing to add the most bike lanes. Even Indianapolis and Memphis are expanding bicycle infrastructure. “Any wagers on how much bike commuting will increase in next year’s Census?”

Meanwhile, the bicycle industry is continually innovating, offering cool new designs and hybrid products like electric bicycles, which makes cycling attractive to new categories of riders.

The bad news is that walking to work is shrinking as a share of commutes, surely a disappointment to those (like me) who hoped that the resurgence of downtown living and building of more walkable, mixed-use communities would lessen dependence upon the automobile. It will take decades to entice a majority of Americans out of their cars — indeed, given continued automotive innovations that make driving cars more attractive, that goal may never be achieved.


Dogs and Bikes Welcome


I had a business meeting this morning at the Lamp Lighter in the fan. The coffee house is located on the gritty side of Cary Street but it draws a steady flow of customers — a disproportionate number of whom sport tattoos. What I loved most was this scene captured out front. Park your bikes, park your dogs — we take all comers.

I’ve never seen a scene like this outside a Starbucks. As an aside, if you like your chai tea latte prepared from genuine brewed chai tea, not a flavored powder, then check out the Lamp Lighter. It’s authentic.


Floyd, a Street Cyclists Can Call their Own

Design options for the Floyd Bicycle Boulevard include car diverters like this...

Design options for the Floyd Bicycle Boulevard include car diverters like this…

by James A. Bacon

The City of Richmond doesn’t have many tangible results to show for its bicycle-friendly policies so far. Painting white bicycle symbols on a few streets to designate sharrows — lanes where cars should be on the look-out for bicycles — contributes only marginally to making streets safer for cyclists. But the city soon could create a street corridor that prioritizes bicycles over cars.

City Council voted last month to ask the Commonwealth Transportation Board to approve the Floyd Avenue Bike Boulevard project to improve bicycle and pedestrian mobility on Floyd Avenue in the city’s Fan and Museum districts.

As described in Richmond Connects, the city’s strategic multimodal transportation plan, a bicycle boulevard is a low volume, low-speed street that is “redesigned with features to further reduce the speed and volume of traffic and give priority to bicycles.”

speed lumps like this...

…speed lumps like this…

The plan would convert Floyd to a bicycle boulevard for 27 blocks between Dooley Avenue and Laurel Street. The details remain to be seen. But traffic “diverters” could be installed at intersections to force local car traffic from Floyd onto other streets after a block or two. The diverters would be designed so that bicycles could ride through them. Another technique for slowing speeds might be to install speed lumps — like speed bumps but with cutouts for bicycles. Traffic islands at intersections are another option. Good signage and lane markings are critical.

“Residents and businesses would still retain access [to Floyd Avenue] but in some cases that access may be less direct than before the conversion,” states the transportation plan.

...and traffic signals like this.

…and traffic signals like this.

Floyd Avenue is  well suited for such a project. The mainly residential street has a low volume of automobile traffic at present, and is little used by commuters driving into and out of Richmond’s central business district. The bicycle boulevard would terminate at Virginia Commonwealth University, where it would plug into the bicycle-friendly VCU campus. Moreover, it would run 27 blocks through the Fan and Museum districts, two of the most densely settled  neighborhoods in Richmond, where cyclists can access a wide range of amenities.

The Richmond Metropolitan Planning Organization has recommended approval of $50,000 to pay for preliminary engineering. Assuming the scope and cost of the project stays on target, the MPO will recommend approval for the balance of the project cost, an additional $300,000. Eighty percent of the street makeover will be funded through the federal Transportation Alternative program; the city will pay the rest.

The Fan and Museum districts have a fair volume of bicycle traffic already, but streets are not designed to accommodate bicycles. Cyclists blowing through intersections are a frequent irritant to drivers. It is hoped that many cyclists will divert to the Floyd Bike Boulevard, where they will come into less conflict with cars.

Some residents of Floyd Avenue likely will complain that tilting the rules of the road in favor of bicycles and against cars will inconvenience them and diminish their property values. But the bother to motorists is marginal. And it is entirely possible that enhancing bicycle accessibility could bolster property values. This project will make an interesting experiment. I hope that city officials track property valuations over the next several years. Floyd Avenue could well prove to be the template for other bicycle boulevards.

What Virginians Can Learn from Bicycle Nirvana

Americans, it is commonly said, have had a love affair with the automobile. By the same token, it is fair to say that the Dutch have had a love affair with the bicycle. A 1938 newspaper article declared the bicycle to be “the most Dutch of all vehicles.” Some 32 years later, when some friends and I spent a summer bicycling through Europe, we found the Netherlands the easiest of all European countries to navigate. All major roads were paralleled by bicycle paths — it was nice not competing with automobiles for space on the road. But it is only since then that the Dutch have gotten truly serious about bicycles.

The Netherlands has proven that a transportation system that relies heavily upon bicycles is fully compatible with a modern, urban economy with a high standard of living. Between 2005 and 2007, Amsterdam residents took more trips by bicycle than by car. Nationally, almost 30% of Dutch commuters almost always travel by bike; another 40% sometimes commute by bike.

The 14-minute video above records what a delegation from several American cities experienced recently when touring the Netherlands to see first-hand how its cities are organized for bicycle transportation. It is remarkable to see how many Dutchmen ride bicycles — the streets of Groningen look like a never-ending bike festival.

I recommend the video not with the thought that U.S. regions should aspire to the same levels of bicycle ridership as the Netherlands. After all Holland is flatter than the U.S., so cycling is easier. The country has fewer temperature extremes, so cycling is more pleasant. Netherlanders are well behaved and more inclined than many Americans to obey traffic laws, so cycling is safer. Perhaps most  important, Dutch settlement patterns are more compact, so riding to work isn’t like completing the Tour de France, as it would be, say, in the U.S. suburbs.

Rather, I recommend the video to show what is possible. In the U.S., only one to two percent of all commutes take place on bicycles. If the Dutch can push that figure higher than 30%, surely some U.S. regions — or, at least, the urban cores of some regions — can realistically aspire to a third that number. Imagine how a shift of that magnitude would clear the streets of congestion! Imagine how much more fit people would be!

One last thought inspired by a comment from one of the people quoted in the video: “Dollar for dollar, euro for euro, bicycle transportation is the best value there is.” That’s something for Virginians to consider as we decide how to unleash hundreds of millions of dollars in new transportation spending.