Wheels keep on turning

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Want to make things easier for local bike commuters? You might have to get behind the Meadow Creek Parkway. At least on paper, the controversial, 40-plus-year Charlottesville-Albemarle connector is a biker’s dream: designated bike paths, pedestrian trails and lush, green scenery. For Caroline Laco, who commutes from her home behind Fashion Square Mall to Harris Street near Circa three to four times a week, the Meadow Creek Parkway would cut her 45-minute bike ride in half.

 

“I’m totally psyched that they have that,” she says. Yet, Laco’s celebration will have to wait. Although already planned, the Meadow Creek Parkway, like other area bike improvements and transportation projects, is a long-term plan that still requires governmental permits, environmental impact reports, and litigation resolution. Most other transportation plans lack funding, too. The good news, in the year since cyclist Matthew King died on the corner of West Main and Fourth streets after colliding with a city public utility truck, is that the City of Charlottesville has made improvements to its network of bike infrastructure. The bad news: To be like Portland, Oregon, the gold standard for urban bike commuting, Charlottesville needs to change more than just bike lanes and signage. According to some bike activists, a shift in mentality locally and statewide needs to occur.

Caroline Laco gets on her bike around 8:30am to begin her five-mile commute. She takes the bike lanes on Rio Road all the way to Greenbrier.

“From there, there is a little cut-through that I usually take that gets me up to the [Greenbrier] neighborhood, but since they are doing the construction on the Meadow Creek Parkway connector, I have to ride up that horrible hill on Brandywine Drive and then to Yorktown Drive and then Yorktown to Kenwood Lane,” she says. From Kenwood Lane, she cuts through Charlottesville High School and McIntire Park, then takes McIntire Road to Rugby Road, Rugby Road to Rose Hill, Rose Hill to Concord and finally Concord to Harris Street, where she often parks and locks her bike to a light pole. While recounting her commute, she laughs and shakes her head. It would be funny if I didn’t need to ride it many times a week, she says. It says something about the place bikes and bikers have in society. “Because I need to take such a roundabout way, it’s really indicative,” she says.

Still, for Laco and her husband, the bicycle is a prime mode of transportation. “We realized that where we live we can do all of our errands by bike, and we noticed that we were in better shape, we were feeling good about ourselves, saving tons of money,” she says. That includes grocery shopping, taking the cat to the vet, heading to Lowe’s for all their gardening supplies and going to Chandler’s Bakery to pick up a birthday cake. Sure, it’s not as easy as getting in a car, parking, shopping, loading the trunk and driving away, but it is a whole lot more satisfying. “It’s therapeutic,” says Laco. She recognizes, however, that it is uncommon. “Not everyone is wanting to put on five layers, take all their clothes to work with them, like I have to,” she says. “I carry about 30 pounds of gear on my bike just to get to work and back.” It’s worth it, she immediately adds.

The biggest challenge in her commute is, unsurprisingly, drivers. “There is a lot of aggression, people yell stuff, people throw things, people try to make you fall over,” she says. “I got run off the road once so far. I try not to let it stop me, because I really like [bicycling].” Laco was hit once and called the police to report it. “This guy just cut around me and stopped and I couldn’t get around him and I had to crash, either crash into them or crash on the side of the road. I was pretty bad. I looked like I had been fighting five rounds with a boxer,” she says.

According to the Charlottesville Police Department, 22 bike-related accidents were reported to police in 2010, an increase from 12 in the previous year. Between January 1, 2009 and March 6, 2011, a total of 36 accidents were reported in the city. In two years, six of those were on West Main Street. Somewhat unbelievably, in Albemarle County, only one crash has been reported to police since 2009. It happened on Carter’s Mountain Road.

What has changed

After King died on April 19 of last year, area bicycle activists focused on the status of the local infrastructure. The conversation about alternative modes of transportation intensified. And, one year later, some things have changed. With the help of Bike Charlottesville members who joined the Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety Committee, the City of Charlottesville has rolled out safety improvements on major corridors and heavily trafficked routes. According to Jeanie Alexander, city traffic engineer, the city has installed new bicycle lane signs around the town; a bike lane on Cherry Avenue between Cleveland Avenue and Shamrock Road; and signal detectors for bikers at 11th Street and West Main, 14th Street and University Avenue, and McIntire Road and Preston Avenue. Alexander says that by year’s end, the city hopes to have introduced even more bike-related upgrades.

The Meadow Creek Parkway would cut Caroline Laco’s 45-minute commute in half. She rides from behind Fashion Square Mall to Harris Street in the city up to four times a week. “The fact that they have it closed it off even to pedestrians and cyclists is kind of ridiculous,” she says.

“We hope to have improved the primary east/west corridor or Ivy Road, University Avenue, West Main Street, Water Street and East Market Street,” with new bike lanes filling the gaps where currently there are none, and new pavement signs and markings to illustrate “share the road” concepts, she says.

Alexander says that this spring, the City is planning a pilot program for “shared lane marking” for both bicyclists and motorists on Water Street from Ridge to 10th streets. “Shared lane markings are typically used where adding bicycle lanes is not possible and the posted speed limit is 35 miles per hour or less. The purpose of the marking is to alert motorists to the potential location of cyclists, assist bicyclists with positioning in cases where on-street parking exists, travel lanes are too narrow for vehicles and bicycles to ride side by side, and encourage safe passing of cyclists,” she says in an e-mail.

The anticipated cost of the markings is $5,000.

“We are very lucky and appreciative to have such a strong relationship with the City of Charlottesville,” says Heather Higgins, spokesperson for Bike Charlottesville, a group that champions a bike-friendlier city. “By their words and deeds they have demonstrated that they share our goal of becoming a more bike-friendly community where more people bike more places, more often, more safely.” The feeling is mutual. “They have been invaluable. Not only has the group identified specific challenges, they have also proposed solutions and even taken measurements in the field,” Alexander says in an e-mail.

“Most importantly they have helped to prioritize which improvements, corridors, and efforts are most significant to bicyclists.” Higgins says that some of the more practical improvements have also helped their cause. She credits “our Bike Mayor” Dave Norris with expanding the Pedestrian Safety Committee to include bikers and representatives from Bike Charlottesville, the Alliance for Community Choice in Transportation (ACCT), the University of Virginia and Albemarle County, among others. City Council also passed a Complete Streets Resolution last November 15 “officially marking a paradigm shift in the way we design City streets so as to better and more safely accommodate all modes of transportation,” Norris wrote on his blog.

“For Charlottesville to realize its full potential of being a world class city, we need safe, accessible transportation for all users,” says Higgins. “As each transportation project makes our street network better and safer for drivers, transit users, pedestrians and bicyclists, Charlottesville will become a better place to live for all of us.”

In addition to collaborating with the city, local bikers have set their own milestones. “Our priority objective is for Charlottesville to achieve the American League of Bicyclists’ silver award for being a Bicycle Friendly Community,” says Higgins.

In 2008, the city was awarded the bronze medal for its creation of a full-time position dedicated to bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. Now, Bike Charlottesville wants to focus on “improving, expanding, better connecting our network of cycling infrastructure” with on-and-off-road trails. In addition to “ensuring adequate Bike Plans,” Higgins says that the group is involved in many aspects of local and state government. “There is a great deal of enthusiasm, creativity, and dedication being channeled into cycling for transportation, recreation, and sport in the Charlottesville region,” she says in an e-mail. “Our ranks are swelling. Maybe it’s the economy and fuel costs. Maybe it’s the ever-more-mainstream environmental movement. Maybe it’s having a Bike Mayor who has been a champion for cycling. Maybe it’s the desire for a healthy lifestyle, or perhaps just the sheer enjoyment of cycling and the positive energy it creates. For all of those reasons and more, the Charlottesville cycling community is invigorated and expanding. Could we be at a tipping point? Perhaps so.”

And future bike-related improvements in the city are on the books.

“Now that a plan has been developed for the primary east/west corridor, we will consider and prioritize other corridors for improvements,” says Alexander. “Also, the City will be working with the [Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission] and the County to develop a regional bicycle and pedestrian plan through the [Metropolitan Planning Organization]’s long range planning process.”

Long-range plans

Laco hopes to ride to work in less than 20 minutes one day soon. She knows it’s possible. The county portion of the Meadow Creek Parkway, which opened last fall briefly to allow the Virginia Department of Transportation to make improvements to Rio Road, would be a direct shot from her home to her office. “The fact that they closed it off to pedestrians and cyclists is kind of ridiculous,” she says. However, if Laco is willing to wait as much as four years, the perpetual transportation interconnectivity issue between city and county might be improved. There are long term plans in the works, though unfortunately, there isn’t much money to back them up.

Bike Charlottesville was recently awarded the Citizen Planner of the Year by the city Planning Commission for its efforts to educate the public and to bring awareness of the safety concerns that face bikers. “Not only is their recognition an honor for our coalition, it also speaks to the impact we have been able to make in our first year of operation,” says Heather Higgins, spokesperson for Bike Charlottesville.

The Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission (TJPDC) is required to update its long-range, regional transportation plan every five years; the deadline is approaching. The work will take up to three-and-half years to complete, making 2014 the year the new plan could be adopted.

“The region is in need of a bike and pedestrian update,” says Sarah Rhodes, transportation planner for TJPDC. The last one was done in 2004 and it will be 10 years by the time the new, updated transportation plan is approved and adopted. Many things have changed during that time. Rhodes has been working on planning the Northtown Trail Project, a network of bike and pedestrian trails that would improve neighborhood connectivity and access to local facilities. It was approved by the MPO board last November. On paper, the Northtown Trail plan looks perfect.

“This commuter trail will extend from Lewis and Clark Drive in Northern Albemarle County into the City of Charlottesville’s Downtown,” running parallel to Route 29 North, according to the project’s report. That’s 14.1 miles of dedicated, non-stop bike and pedestrian infrastructure.

“This facility will provide a viable alternative travel mode for communities along the Route 29 North corridor, particularly Downtown and the Hollymead commercial area,” it reads. Yet, upon a closer look at the plan, Northtown Trail is connected to and contingent upon the completion of some major, and controversial, transportation projects. They include the Meadow Creek Parkway (MCP), Berkmar Drive Extended, the Belvedere development, North Pointe and the Places29 Master Plan. Most of the projects are currently unfunded.

In the city, the trail will utilize the planned bike and pedestrian facilities of the 250 Interchange, McIntire Road Extended and the already-underway county portion of the Meadow Creek Parkway. It would also connect to developments such as Dunlora and Belvedere, thus creating “the most significant alternative-modes transportation route in the urbanized area.”

In Febraury, MCP opponents filed a lawsuit against the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to prevent the construction of the U.S. 250 Bypass and McIntire Road Interchange. The group has already filed for an injunction against the county portion of the project, but to no avail. This latest lawsuit might not be the last for the Coalition to Preserve McIntire Park. “It’s possible that we could also take legal action to prevent the construction of the McIntire Road Extended,” said John Cruickshank at the press conference.

Considering the pending legal challenge on the Interchange and the lack of a memorandum of agreement between governmental agencies for McIntire Road Extended, bikers itching for a Northtown Trail best not hold their breath.

“Sure, it would be fantastic if the Northtown Trail could be achieved much sooner than is projected,” says Higgins. “A lot of people in Charlottesville and Albemarle would be able to bike to work and their other destinations far more easily and safely. However, we’re realistic. We understand that large, multi-phased projects take time, money and dedication. We’re committed to monitoring this project and helping wherever we can for as long as it takes. It’s a critical piece of the region’s overall transportation plan. In the interim, there are alternative routes that can be promoted for cycling to these points in the City and County.”

Peter Kleeman, MCP opponent, says independent bicycle facilities, not connected or alongside automobile lanes, have been a success in other cities and countries. “Somehow we in Charlottesville/Albemarle have the idea that the only way to provide bicycle facilities is to link them to roadways,” he says in an e-mail. “Even now, the bicycle facilities could easily be made available along the Meadow Creek Parkway north of Melbourne Road. I think an extension of a bicycle facility, not necessarily on the same alignment as the McIntire Road Extended, could be constructed independent of the road.”

Fellow MCP opponent and bike commuter Daniel Bluestone says he is looking forward to using the county portion of the parkway without any cars, but with a much greater attention paid to maintenance.

“The one time I did use the Meadow Creek Parkway bike lanes I double flatted my tires, both of them, when I ran over sand with construction debris underneath. VDOT does not take bicycle safety or accommodation seriously. The conditions in the bike lanes during the brief opening were appalling and helped underscore VDOT’s disingenuous advocacy of bike lanes. We should expand bike and pedestrian trails to and through McIntire Park,” he says.

And his staunch opposition to MCP stands even when bikers like Laco say it would improve their commute.

“You really think that a slightly easier bike commute is worth 24,000 cars a day through the main park in Charlottesville, and a highway project costing in excess of $60 million. What else did you drink for lunch besides VDOT Kool-Aid?” asks Bluestone.

Challenges notwithstanding, Northtown Trail will become a reality, says Stephen Williams, TJPDC executive director. In regards to MCP, “I can tell you that in my experience as a transportation professional, legal issues like that very, very rarely stop a project,” he says. “They might result in modifications to the project, they might delay the project and in many cases they make the project more expensive. But at the end of the day, if the decision makers have adequately considered the information and made a responsible decision, the project is going to go forward.”

To the question of the time it will take for the project to be completed, Williams says it has to do with money. “If someday in the future these types of bike and pedestrian facilities become a high enough priority that they merit an independent stream of funding, than we will be able to move with it much more quickly,” he says.

What needs to change

Regardless of when these comprehensive transportation projects might be completed, local cycling advocates took the initiative and trekked to Richmond to hear the fate of proposed legislation focused on making roads safer for both bikers and motorists.

However, in this year’s General Assembly session, most bike-related legislation that was introduced by Senator Creigh Deeds and Delegate David Toscano failed to garner consensus and was ultimately tabled by the House’s Transportation Subcommittee. Senate Bill 905, the Reckless Cycling bill, patroned by Deeds and supported by the City of Charlottesville, would have allowed police officers to issue citations—with a penalty less than a reckless driving charge—for cyclists who ride “in willful or wanton disregard of the safety of persons or property.”

“There was no consensus about this, so I struck that bill pretty early in the process,” Deeds tells C-VILLE. The Contra Flow bill, also introduced by Deeds, would have allowed cyclists to ride in the opposite direction of cars on one-way streets. SB 1234 passed the Senate unanimously, but was tabled by the same transportation subcommittee in the House.

“This [bill] made perfect sense,” says Deeds. “We couldn’t convince them enough that this would be thoroughly vetted by the police department and that it wouldn’t be allowed to take place on busy streets and places where safety would be compromised.”

A vocal opponent of the Meadowcreek Parkway and a biker himself, Daniel Bluestone rejects the idea that bikers will have an easier way to get around if the parkway gets built. “We can accommodate bicyclists without blighting the entire east side of the park with automobiles or trading in Paul Goodloe McIntire’s gift to the city for a mess of pottage,” he says.

And, the bill that held the greatest probability of being signed into law also failed in the house subcommittee. For the second consecutive year, the passing bill, introduced in the House by Toscano, met with much resistance from legislators who questioned its enforceability. The bill would have extended the passing distance from 2′ to 3′ for cars moving around bicycles.

“I have been around Virginia in all parts, and it’s just an unenforceable law. It’s not enforceable at 3′, and it’s not enforceable at 2′,” says Jim Carrico Sr., chair of the House Transportation Subcommittee. “I just think it kind of creates more confusion and that was a lot of the basis of the conversations. How much confusion are we adding to this issue by adding another foot to it. Is it going to prevent people from passing too closely that are already doing so? Is it going to help prevent accidents that are occurring now? Or is it just going to create confusion?”

In the end, Carrico argues, “the only way—if you are talking about the safety of it—to make it safe is to separate the bikes from the vehicles. The areas that are chosen to do the bike lanes and whenever they are investing in highway construction and they are doing separate bike lanes, I think they are addressing the fact that you [mix] bike and cars there is always the chance of an accident.”

For Toscano, certain legislators do not completely understand the importance of bike-related bills. “I think that rural legislators have a difficult time with this whole bike issue because they don’t see it as much in their communities, as we do,” he says.

Instead, they rely on their personal experiences with cyclists, particularly aggressive cyclists. Higgins says that the biggest misconception about cyclists is that they are reckless and disregard the rules of the road.

“Yes, there are some cyclists whom I watch break the rules of the road, offending or even jeopardizing those around them, and as a cyclist, I cringe in embarrassment. More often than not ignorance, not willful disregard, is the cause of their seeming recklessness,” she says, and offers a solution. “If we want to improve cyclist behavior on the roads and trails, offering cyclist education in the school system K-12 and on college campuses will get us 80 percent of the way there. Making it cool to ride smart and safely will put us over the top.”

And that kind of shift in mentality is exactly why Ian Ayers created Double the Wheels, an initiative that will link experienced bikers with friends and other residents who want to start enjoying the city by bike. “Double the Wheels grew out of my involvement with meeting with Bike Charlottesville, and everything they were doing involves relying on the government,” says Ayers, a Darden graduate and founder of Happy Rickshaw. “There has to be a better way to get people on bicycles other than having a couple of bike lanes.” Ayers hopes to gather hundreds of bikers in front of City Hall on June 4 to show that buddying with a biker friend can increase the number of bikes on the road. Sheer number will change the status quo, Ayers argues. He dismisses those who believe that more bikers will take to the road the moment a bike lane is built.

“Show me data that show that people decide not to get into riding because of the lack of infrastructure,” he says. “Riding is something that you do when you are a kid and then, all of a sudden, it becomes uncool because you get a car.”

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