Logan Jones-Wilkins

The underbelly of I-95 through Richmond, Virginia

Cycling in the USA: The case of Richmond, Virginia

How Richmond, Virginia’s cycling development explains the challenge facing American cycling infrastructure

Clock13:00, Saturday 2nd September 2023

It was a bright late summer day in 2016 and Andrew Kenny was headed to some place his broke 24-year-old self needed to go. From his house on the Northside of Richmond, Virginia, Kenny was aboard a blue, steel-welded commuter bike. He pedalled his way down Brook Rd towards the city centre. On the street — two lanes divided by a grassy median — Kenny followed the theoretical safety of the bike lane running alongside the road. With gauges in his ears and a cross-country cycling trip in his legs, Kenny’s life was simple, it was good.

Then he was hit by a news van.

“The van came up behind me, crossed over the bike lane and smacked me,” Kenny recalled, sounding bemused from his own luck. “I went flying, me and my bike. I got hit so hard I flew over the sidewalk and onto the grass. I guess I didn’t think I would get hit while riding a bike in a bike lane.”

The van was, presumably, pulling up to cover the football game at Virginia Union, a local University, that afternoon. To meet that end, the driver pulled the van across the painted line and into the grass field with little warning.

“I ended up not being hurt,” Kenny said, with a small chuckle. “But I was young and a bit hot headed, so I started yelling when he came out. All he said to me was, ‘Oh my god, I didn’t even see you.’”

Kenny was — if it is possible for a hit cyclist to be — lucky. There are many stories where there is no grass to land on. All too often, the narrator of those stories isn’t around anymore.

Eleven years ago, Lanie Kruszewski was biking home along River Road from her restaurant job at a local Japanese restaurant. River Road heading towards the city is narrow and twisty. It is also busy. About halfway up the climb to Three Notch Road, Kruszewski was hit from behind by a SUV, driven by Elias Webb. Webb drove away, thinking he had hit a deer. Lanie Kruszewski died fifteen minutes later.

Cycling in Richmond has come a long way since Lanie Kruszewski was struck and killed in 2012. From the capital trail, to numerous bike lanes and shared-use roads, to the UCI World Championships remembered by many cycling fans in 2015, Richmond seems to be moving towards a more cycling centric future. With cheap and innovative electric assisted bikes and cargo bikes, cycling is more accessible and effective than ever.

Nonetheless, it does not take a lot of digging to find countless stories of people, since 2012, who have been hit by cars. Most of them, like Kenny, are still alive to tell their story But, for many it is the very real threat from the memory of Lanie Kruszewski that defeats the benefits that cycling provides.  With Richmond growing at a rapid rate, both in size and in stature, infrastructure development will soon follow. What the infrastructure looks like is now the question.

As shown in the recent rankings from People for Bikes, the southeast, which includes Virginia, is lagging behind the rest of the country in terms of bike infrastructure. While in some cities, there is little movement. In a place like Richmond, there is a palpable impetus to create better bike safety and infrastructure. With that juxtaposition, Richmond is a fantastic example to take a look at the larger challenges of cycle-safe infrastructure in the United States.

Furthermore, with its mid size, at 226,000 people, and score of 23/100 being equal to the average for a medium sized city, Richmond is not exceptional in either direction. It is comparable to other cities across the region and across the country. It just might have a brighter upside if certain things go in certain directions.

Read more: How to ride in a city: Cycling tips for busy streets

The impetus

Sweeping off of the bluffs of the James River, like a meandering black snake, runs the Virginia Capital Trail. At 50 miles in length, the Capital Trail is a continuous celebration of car-less cycling freedom — cutting and flowing through the entirety of Virginia’s tidewater plain. It is the fruition of a monumental effort of advocacy, funding and dedication.

The Capital Trail deposits users at the Shiplock Park in the Shockoe Bottom district of Richmond’s downtown. For a cyclist living in many of Richmond’s neighbourhoods, when the Capital Trail ends, so does their security. Right beyond the trail’s terminus is a concrete jungle — chaotic, savage and dangerous for the two-wheeled travellers who dare.

Three miles and a couple of traffic jams away sits the Sports Backers Stadium. While the athletic complex is not far from the city centre, the odd desolation of the crumbing tarmac parking lots and empty grassy lots belies a sense of isolation. Within the network of empty lots is a cinder-block office building overlooking the VCU outdoor track. On the third floor of the curious little building, tucked in behind the press box and announcer's office on top of the stands, is the office of Bike Walk RVA.

Resplendent in a blue flannel underneath a blue puffer vest, Brantley Tyndall’s bespeckled blue eyes finished his outfit as he sat looking over the track below. Last week was the Monument 10k, a running race the group's affiliate, Sports Backers, puts on annually. Tomorrow was the launch of ‘Bike Month,’ the group's monthly fundraising drive. It is a busy time of year for the director of Bike Walk RVA, and a slight ease hit his shoulders as he cracked open a Le Croix, before talking about building on the legacy the Capital Trail started.

“The Virginia Capital Trail played a big role in my career in advocacy because I saw it in its infancy when I started riding,” Tyndall recalled, chuckling to himself. “I would ride, on Rt. 5, a fast, unprotected road, all the way to Charles County, just to ride the parts of the trail that were finished. To be able to watch that completed in a ten-year time was incredible.”

While Tyndall, and Bike Walk RVA, were not the driving force behind the Capital Trail, as infrastructure first advocates the trail was a massive moment for bigger plans. With the success and publicity of the trail came demand for something more — something that did not end in the city centre, but instead cut through and tied the cities around the capital. “Once the trail was built, everyone wanted their own Capital Trail.”

Enter: The Fall Line Trail, Bike Walk RVA’s effort to do just that.

Like the Capital Trail, the Fall Line is a proposed stand-alone paved path that runs from Ashland to Petersburg. The trail, which has $220 million in public funds behind it, is building on the concept of the Capital Trail, yet could have much more utility. Unlike the Capital Trail, with its meandering countryside surroundings, the Fall Line contiguously connects numerous schools, localities and stores. Like 1-95, the route is intended to be a thoroughfare, anchoring all the places where cycling on roads seems like a losing proposition. For Tyndall, this is a new frontier.

“The Fall Line is literally the very first time the region has worked together on a transportation project like this before.”

In Virginia, traffic infrastructure is often dictated at county and city level. Cycling infrastructure, within those separate jurisdictions, often becomes disjointed. Without multilateral projects between counties and cities, there are bound to be gaps in the safe streets. With the work over the last ten years, Richmond has seen progress. But, especially between lines of jurisdiction, places remain — critical, unavoidable places — where cars dominate. For some, like Andrew Kenny, those unavoidable places seem baffling.

“My house is on Patterson Ave. and they built a bike lane on it, which I thought at the beginning was a great idea. But the thing that upsets me is it stops right by my house near Commonwealth Ave.”

On Patterson Ave., like Kenny described, there is a protected bike lane. Through the neighbourhood directly across from the I-195 bypass, the lane runs between towering trees and the parked cars of the homeowners of the adjacent bungalows, cottages and homes. Then, it stops. Instead of a safe tree-covered bike route, the street is open with two-lanes of 35mph speed limits and a concrete median.

“That's how I feel like the city thinks about cycling, ‘let's put in a half mile so it looks like we're doing something for cyclists, but where it really matters, it's too much of a heavy lift for us to do any real changes.’”

Kenny took a second, a pause, then continued, as if speaking to a different audience. “I'm sure that there's people like Brantley who could explain to me why, but I don’t know if there is a way to change it.”

Sure enough, Brantley Tyndall can explain why.

“Ten years ago, we just wanted to get anything that we could get — it didn't matter where, it didn't matter what it looked like. Since then, we have made sure that they're built progressively better — in terms of better protection, better separation, better visibility, better places. Now, we need to make sure they connect, so you're not just on a bike lane one mile and then thrown into the meat grinder the next.”

The Fall Line is one of the central attempts at a more cohesive future — where gaps are plugged, places are connected and “meat grinders” are minimised. To help achieve that end, Sports Backers and Bike Walk RVA supported a new policy apparatus designed for more cohesive transportation.

The Central Virginia Transportation Authority was created in 2020, with help from Bike Walk RVA, to secure new funding for transportation projects that span beyond the confines of local authority and budgets.  Conveniently, 35% of the funds that the CTA allocates must be spent on regionally significant projects, dictating that localities have to work together to get it. All of a sudden Tyndall had, as of late last year, $104 million in available funding and no other projects to compete with.

Nevertheless, Tyndall knows that even in the grand designs of paths crisscrossing the city, unreasonable danger is always one turn away. Without managing that danger, the paths are limited in their reach.

“Like when you drive, eventually you are going to have to turn. When you get to an urban area it's much less practical to make dedicated lanes. But those urban streets can be adapted.”

The question then is what is the threshold for a shared road’s viability? Or, as Tyndall reframed it, at what point will people choose to forgo the car and bike to work.

“There was a VCU paper a few years ago that surveyed the general population, somewhere between 50 and 70% said they were interested in biking to work, but they needed changes in safety before they would choose to do it. It's not the bike, it's not the weather, it's not distance, it's just cars.”

The truth is, as Tyndall points out, bikes and cars are currently at odds with each other on busy roads. In the battles between a car and cyclists on those roads, the cyclist never wins. Hence the impetus for separation.

To find that model of separation, the temptress of bike advocates globally calls out from across the pond.

The Dutch example

“You know it is a holiday today,” Professor Henk-Jan Dekker said with a smile. “But it is just the King’s birthday, and I don’t care much about those things.”

So, if not the royal family, what does the bearded Dutch historian care about?

Sitting in front of his webcam on that Dutch holiday, Dekker had on a headset in front of a blurred-out background — signs of a true virtual professional. Zoom, for the professor of the history of Dutch policy, is a friendly habitat. In the global pandemic and following publishing his work on the history of Dutch cycling governance, Zoom offers a chance for Dekker to spread the lessons of the Dutch cycling model well beyond the shores of the North Sea. After all, it is rare to find a historian anywhere else with a deep understanding of the inner workings of cycling infrastructure.

When it comes down to his job, the professor had a pretty simple answer: “Essentially, my job is to reconstruct what kind of ideas they had to make cycling what it is today.”

While the practice of designing policy and evaluating infrastructure in the United States may not seem a likely task for a historian, for the Dutch important policy proceeds cars. Any contemporary assessment relies on the historical understanding of the previous hundred years of public infrastructure.

“The Netherlands started separating cyclists and drivers very early,” Dekker explained about those hundred-year-old foundations. “In a century, you can build quite a big network.”

Nonetheless, the Netherlands was not immune to the global appeal of the automobile. The same car revolution that brought the United States freeways and suburbs encroached on the standing policies of shared and separate infrastructure in Dutch cities. Policy and the culture of the two nations, however, split from there.

“Until the 1960s, most urban traffic was mixed, car numbers were not high. By the 1970s there were about as many cars as elsewhere in the world. With that, the issue of cyclists and cars crashing with each other grew, and started social movements, all about pushing cars from the city centre.”

All of those movements were, like other policy actions in the Netherlands, dominated by grass roots campaigning and strong cycling advocacy groups. With those strong social campaigns came strong policies. In the places where separation was not possible, Dekker found that neighbourhoods and towns manipulated their streets construction to protect cyclists and pedestrians through speed management. Even with the proliferation of the car, the Netherlands rarely ceded full control of the street to car expediency.

“The striking thing about the Netherlands is that our car levels are as high as many other countries in the world, but we also found a way to combine cycling at a very high rate. It's not a case that we are an exclusively cycling country — we are also a car country — but, you know, there's always been this double attention to cycling and driving.”

Dekker, who has a driver’s licence but does not own a car, emphasised that cycling policy in the Netherlands was fundamentally different than other countries because it was, through pre-existing traffic separation, seen as useful to more people.

“When it comes down to it, cycling in the Netherlands is not so much a political as it is a practical. Most everyone is both a cyclist and a driver. For work, people may drive or take the train. But at home, to go to shops or the local football match, it makes sense to bike.”

Netherlands, with its separated lanes, robust train systems and cycling-supported culture norms, only can guide Richmond so far. The city is bound by forces the Netherlands does not face. Nonetheless, there is reason to believe for many Richmonders, cycling could be as practical as it is in Rotterdam, or Amsterdam, or Eindhoven. The key is the right prospectus.

What's next?

Andrew Kenny is not broke anymore. Instead of his retail job and some punk-rock gauges in his ears, Kenny is a professional. He is in his 30s. Life is less simple, but he is happy. And Kenny is still riding.

Astride his neon-yellow Giant road bike and sleek spandex kit, Kenny is a part of a cluster of fellow cyclists on a Wednesday evening, gathering at the start of the Capital Trail to ride a 35-mile mock race around Richmond’s civil war battlefields. While downtown is in the throes of rush-hour, the Capital Trail offers safe passage to the country roads outside of town.

In the group of cyclists gathered around Kenny, there are countless members with stories of collisions, crashes and confrontations. But, in acts of daily defiance, they have bounced back and keep doing what they love. However, do not mistake their perseverance for ambivalence.

“The fact that I'm not valued or protected as much whenever I'm pushing pedals rather than when I sit in my car bothers me tremendously,” Kenny said. “It bothers me because I am a driver and a cyclist, and yet I only have that one safe mode of transportation in a city where the vast majority of area is under 25 miles per hour.”

“I know that Brantley has done a lot of work and there have been changes — and it almost upsets me to say this — but anything that they do as far as cycling projects is clearly a political token program that doesn't have any great impact as far as safety.”

Alas, as the proverb says, Rome was not built in a day. Turns out, bike paths aren’t either.

“It takes time of course. Cycle paths start as just a couple of kilometres or miles,” Dekker reflected on the Netherland’s own infrastructure journey.

Comparing his understanding of the Dutch model, Dekker stressed that it was, even within a strong cycling population and culture, the urban transformation of the last 60 years was a slow, intentional, organic process, built by the cyclists themselves.

“It is a feedback loop that gives cycling a positive status in the Netherlands, or at least makes it not seem as problematic as in the UK or US,” Dekker said of the applicability of the Dutch model abroad. “If you have that sort of status for cycling then there's more government investment in it and support for it. In turn that makes it easier to keep cycling and that culture lives on as well.”

For Tyndall and the folks at Bike Walk RVA, the quest to see cycling in a positive status is following a similar loop. They just need more people.

“Every time we build a bike lane it is like the snowball gets bigger, and we want to keep growing that snowball,” Tyndall said of the advocacy in Richmond. “We go to these meetings where everything is decided. When eight or ten people show up to support something in a room that's otherwise empty, those eight or ten people will more or less get what they want.”

Herein lies the importance of Kenny’s story. While Kenny was not killed like Lanie Kruszewski — his accident matters. While Kenny is not an advocate like Brantley Tyndall— his perception of progress and agency matters. While Kenny is not a professor like Henk-Jan Dekker— his appreciation for what can be done matters.

Kenny’s thoughts, opinions and criticism matters since he is one member of the network that will ultimately decide where Richmond goes on its infrastructure path. It is the community of cyclists and the shared experience that will enable change.

While the Netherlands is far from Richmond, and the infrastructure projects are no silver bullet, the policy changes that would prevent crashes like Kenny’s or Lanie Kruszewski are achievable. Maybe, for Richmond to be a lane apart in promoting cycling, it could be as simple as showing up to a meeting. But beyond Richmond, maybe a lot could change anywhere if people made their voices louder.

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