The Political Economy of Utility Bicycling

No lack of bicycles in the Bacon household — 1.7 bikes per person. But there’s nowhere in Henrico County to ride them. Provide connectivity between subdivisions and there would be.

by James A. Bacon

Last week Richmond Times-Dispatch Publisher Tom Silvestri asked in a commentary what plans local governments had to make their communities more bicycle friendly. The City of Richmond and County of Henrico responded. Here’s the bottom line: By the year 2015 Richmond plans to have 140 miles of dedicated bike lanes and “sharrows” (bike lanes sharing streets with cars). Henrico County will have only 16 miles of “multi-use trails paralleling major roadways,” of which 15 miles will consist of Henrico’s portion of the Virginia Capital Trail linking Richmond and Williamsburg, a statewide initiative. Otherwise, the county will have one mile on North Gayton Road.

I am embarrassed for my home county, which otherwise tends to be a desirable place to live. When Chesterfield County is more progressive on the subject of bike lanes than we are, that’s quite an indictment.

It would oversimplify grotesquely to attribute Henrico’s inhospitality toward  self-propelled transportation simply to retrograde thinking. Peruse the comments in response to Henrico’s 2025 Comprehensive Plan and you’ll find many Henrico residents demanding more attention be paid to the bicycling alternative. “The County is too far behind in the development of bicycle paths and bike lanes,” said one George Talley in a fairly typical response. “Bicycling needs to be considered as a mode of transportation as an alternative to motor vehicles.”

However, there is no organized constituency in Henrico County for bicycles because very few Henricans (or whatever we call ourselves) use bicycles for utility travel, which includes commuting and running errands. The reason seldom use bicycles for utility travel is that Henrico’s development pattern of segregated and low-density land uses pushes destinations far apart. Thus, it would be impractical than in Richmond to choose bicycle travel as a means of conveyance even if bike paths ran along every major road.

Functionally, bikes and bicycle trails are regarded in Henrico as a form of “recreation,” hence a lower priority in the competition for county investment than “transportation.” If Henrico plowed significant dollars into building traditional bicycle trails, there are legitimate reasons to question whether people would use them for utility trips. The return on dollar invested would be terrible.

The county already has dozens (perhaps hundreds) of miles of mostly empty sidewalks. Judging by their attire, the only people who use them are recreational walkers. Why would bicycle trails be any different? In dire fiscal times, we cannot afford the luxury of building bike trails that no one uses.

Contrast the situation in Henrico with the City of Richmond. Virginia Commonwealth University, situated just on the edge of downtown, estimates that there are 14,000 bikers on campus, according to Richmond BizSense. In recognition of the widespread bicycle use, VCU is spending $100,000 on a bike-maintenance and education building, which it will call the RamBikes stand. The service will include a program in which students can check out a bike for a day just like they would a library book.

Richmond land use patterns are compact. Travelers can reach for more destinations within the same amount of biking time than they could in Henrico. Urban streets have much lower speed limits, making it less intimidating to ride in the city. Moreover, bikable streets in the city create a functional network. Building a few miles of scattered, unconnected bike trails in Henrico county would not create a viable transportation alternative. Perhaps most important, those 14,000 VCU students represent a large and coherent constituency for pro-bicycle policies in the city, for which there is no counterpart in the county.

Bacon’s brilliant solution. Henrico County does have one advantage over the city: untold miles of lightly traveled subdivision roads and streets. Subdivision streets are broad and mostly empty — ideal for bicycle travel. The problem is, they go nowhere. Due to Henrico’s penchant for developing sub divisions in disconnected pods, a cyclist could not travel far without hitting a heavily traveled and bicycle-hostile arterial road. (Try riding on Patterson Ave. with cars whooshing by at 45 to 50 m.p.h. I have tried it once. I won’t again!)

A possible solution is to connect pod subdivisions with bicycle rights of way. Expenditures would be minimal — acquisition of perhaps 10-foot-wide right-of-way across a single piece of property (most likely between two pieces of property), and construction of a short path linking subdivision streets. Suburbanites like their cul de sacs because they prevent cars from cutting through, creating a danger for children. It’s hard to imagine that bicycles would inspire the same objection.

For a  very modest price, Henrico could connect ten or twelve subdivisions per year in most compactly settled areas of the county (bordering the city, for the most part) and start creating a bicycle network for a fraction of the cost of building parallel bike paths or re-engineering existing roads as sharrows. As a practical matter, destinations would remain distant and scattered. But at least they would be connected, and some destinations would be within cycling distance. The price tag would be so low that there would be little to lose. It’s worth a try.

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  1. […] more: The Political Economy of Utility Bicycling | Bacon's Rebellion This entry was posted in Blog Search and tagged alternative, bicycle, bicycling, county, […]

  2. Tom Bowden Avatar
    Tom Bowden

    Jim – I too am embarrassed at the disparity, both between Richmond and Henrico, and between our region and other more forward thinking regions. I like your plan, but I question whether property owners will easily consent to having their property used in this way (linking cul de sacs and neighborhoods). As I point out here,, the cul de sac development model is deeply flawed, perhaps too flawed to correct. In any event, I would rather try “Field of Dreams” approach “Build it and they will ride.” There is ample room on many roads in Henrico for good safe bike lanes, and ironically, the fastest roads have the most room. Increasing bicycle mode share would reduce traffic, making the risk of collisions much lower. There is room for separate bike lanes on almost any road, including the main arteries, if designed properly.

  3. I don’t know if Henrico roads could be adapted to bicycles or not. But I think it’s worth experimenting with to see if it can be done safely. Once it’s demonstrated that cars and bicycles can safely coexist on one road, it becomes easier to justify doing the same thing to other roads.

  4. VDOT tried new rules requiring subdivisions to be “connected” and ran into a firestorm of opposition because people want to live in subdivision enclaves where strangers are quickly recognized and usually asked to leave.

    but people might tolerate bike “connections” although here is Spotsy, nacent plans to connect neighborhoods with a county-wide trail system co-located on water/sewer easements ran into serious, significant opposition and our current BOS frowns on the use of the govt to impose things that the populace does not want.

    I strongly suspect Henrico is similar.

    People do not recognize nor understand the concept of “utility” biking and they are fearful of any ideas that would make it easy and legal for strangers to be in their neighborhoods on a daily/regular basis.

    My view about this is that if we really want to move forward, we must recognize the obstacles not ignore them and the biggest obstacle to more bike infrastructure is – people. For every bike lover, there are 5-10 people who are not bike-haters but vigilant against things that would bring strangers to their neighborhoods. I know it sounds bad..and it is bad but it is the reality and it must be dealt with if progress is to be made.

  5. DJRippert Avatar

    I think Jim is underestimating the psychology of those who live on cul de sacs. They don’t want traffic in front of their houses, that’s true. But it’s also true that they don’t want strangers on their property either. There is a natural gas line that runs through Northern Fairfax County and (I suspect) into Loudoun County. Nobody needs to get rights of way, the gas company already has rights of way. Nobody needs to clear the land, the land is already cleared. So, you would think this would be a perfect venue for biking trails. Not so. Endless opposition by the landowners through whose land the right of way traverses and no good reason for the gas company to agree to bike trails.

    I am not surprised to hear that bike trails are few and far between in Henrico County. People move to the suburbs to get away from the crowds, not to invite them into their back yards. However, oddly, these same people will tell you again and again how much they would value a walkable community. I guess its valuable as long as the walkers walk across somebody else’s land.

  6. Tom, Larry and Don all agree that subdivision residents probably would reject bike link connections between cul de sacs on the grounds that they don’t want “strangers” coming through the neighborhoods. And they are probably right… in most cases.

    But not necessarily in all cases. Under my plan, Henrico would fund only 10 or 12 subdivision links per year. Neighborhood associations could voluntarily opt in to the program. Only those who wanted the bicycle links would get them. Those who didn’t want them would not get them. Early on, there probably wouldn’t be a demand for more than nine or 10 connections.

    Over time, we would see how the early adopters worked out. We’d compile anecdotal evidence. Did anyone actually use the links? If so, who? Was there a discernible increase in the number of undesirables on bikes roaming through the neighborhoods? If the experience was generally positive, the word would spread. If there were enough negative anecdotes, the program would die on the vine.

    The main point is this: We won’t know if we don’t try. The beauty of small-scale experimentation is that it allows us to test theories that could be argued endlessly in the absence of real-world evidence. In this case, the experiment would be inexpensive. But, if successful, it could lead eventually to a large-scale transformation of Henrico County… and other counties.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      Do neighborhood associations in Henrico County have sufficient authority to force “rights of way” over private land even if the landowners object?

      In Fairfax, you would generally have to legislate the rights of way rules and allow some kind of local vote.

      I live on a private street maintained by a homeowners’ association. The rights and responsibilities of the homeowners to the homeowners’ association are clearly enunciated. I don’t think that demanding new rights of way would be within the powers of the homeowners’ association – even if a majority of homeowners agreed. In the end, the people who own the land with the bike paths would have to agree to the right of way – in total.

      Do you propose legislating powers for homeowners associations to demand bike path rights of way with a majority vote even if the homeowner with the land in question does not want the right of way through his or her property.

      1. Good questions. I don’t know the answers. But clearly the idea needs more thought before it can be translated into concrete policy. In an ideal world, the county would work with willing sellers of the right-of-way in neighborhoods where a majority of residents were OK with the decision. Start small only in those neighborhoods that would welcome the bike connectors.

  7. re: Neighborhood associations could voluntarily opt in to the program.

    re: good questions, don’t know answers

    if you are going to advocate for bike infrastructure, you not only have to know the answers, you have to anticipate the opposition AND you have to have a proposal that will incentivize those who you target for your proposal.

    that’s the big problem with bike advocates. They tend to think that they have “right” on their side and that they can just advocate their way to more bike infrastructure and that is a recipe for failure IMHO and if you look at the experience… so far.. it’s a PROVEN recipe for failure.

    For those who really want more bike infrastructure, you have to approach it KNOWING that there ARE objections and those objections are POTENT and can and will derail most pure advocacy proposals.

    You have to deal with the objections and you have to offer something that makes it a choice that comes with benefits to balance the perceived disadvantages.

    It has to be something that is beneficial to those who would have to give up something…to get it built.

  8. Tom Bowden Avatar
    Tom Bowden

    The big answer underlying the principal question is that virtually everywhere that well planned bike accommodations are provided, they succeed. Much as Henrico and many of its residents might want to claim that we are different, special, one of a kind, etc., it’s all BS. yes, distances are greater than in town, but there are still many many trips that people could easily make by bike. I bet if you looked at a map you would find that in West Henrico, almost everyone is within 2 miles of a Martin’s, Kroger or Food Lion, and clustered around those are usually a couple of drug stores, laundries, etc. (I’m going to look and report back) The myth that we are too spread out for utility cycling is just that, total myth.

  9. Tom Bowden Avatar
    Tom Bowden

    Here is the map.

    Virtually everyone in Henrico is within 2 miles of a grocery store.

  10. Darrell Avatar

    Utility biking? We can’t even get sidewalks down here. There are miles of bike lanes along major roads. The biker groups want to spend millions for more, even though never have I seen anyone using them. Not even the prissy suit crowd. Those lanes are ‘beneath’ them and they prefer to gang up on busy country lanes with deep ditches and lots of cars. I don’t know how it is up there but the neighborhoods down here are pretty much linked up. I seldom see anyone riding there either. I own three bikes that mostly sit in the garage. Until you get those bikes and all the others out onto the street there is no such thing as utility. Cutting into people’s property rights isn’t going to do anything positive.

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