Kevin Lynch arrived in Charlottesville from his hometown of Alexandria in 1980 to study at UVA. Twenty years later, he won a seat on City Council as a “Democrat for Change” advocating an alternative-transportation platform. Midway through his first Council term, Lynch is a Council representative to the Metropolitan Planning Organization and a member of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission. An avid biker—cycles and motorcycles—Lynch, who is 40, is self-employed by day as an electrical engineer and software contractor. With the Western Bypass all but extinct now and as Council resumes its consideration of Route 29 interchanges and the construction of the Meadowcreek Parkway, C-VILLE Editor Cathryn Harding met with Lynch to discuss his ideas for transit and growth in the region. An edited transcript of that discussion follows.
C.H. – How did you become interested in transportation issues?
K.L. – It started when I was in the Federation of Neighborhoods. In 1994, the Metropolitan Planning Organization did a southern transportation study and it recommended four-laning a lot of southern neighborhood streets, taking parking off of Avon Street, Monticello Road, Fifth Street and Ridge Street to put more cars through for the development of the southern area of the County. I live on Locust Avenue, and it was right about that time when Locust Avenue was connected with Water Street. We saw a real increase of traffic when that happened. The traffic went from being daily commuter traffic to 24/7 traffic. It really got worse at night. Even though the traffic wasn’t as heavy, it was a lot faster because people were using it as an alternative to Park Street.
I was starting to get involved with other neighborhoods, particularly the neighborhoods around the Mall and realizing how we have this common interest in making sure the central City neighborhoods stay healthy. All of a sudden, the Belmont and Ridge Street neighborhoods were under this threat from the traffic generated by the southern growth of the County. My experience on Locust Avenue told me that if it was bad for the south side of the town, it was going to be bad for the north side of the town. I started to see regional traffic as a real threat to the City neighborhoods.
The discussion about the Meadowcreek Parkway started to kick into gear again right around that time. You were identified pretty early on as somebody who was against the Parkway.
When I saw the Parkway, my first reaction was that I was in favor of it. It would be a straight shot to Route 29 and I thought that it would be nice to jump around the 29 congestion. But, what I realized after going through this with the southern neighborhoods is, it wasn’t going to solve a congestion problem; it was going to create a congestion problem. It wasn’t being built in isolation, it was being built along with a program to intensively develop the northeastern quarter of the County.
It has become clear to me over time that the way the transportation model has developed in this region is something of a hub-and-spoke model. Any neighborhood street that goes out of the City, like Avon Street Extended, Park Street, Monticello Road, Ivy Road, Barracks Road and Old Lynchburg Road, is developed by the County with a bunch of one-way-in, one-way-out subdivisions, all using the City street as their point of access and the City as the intersection. That’s not something that was clear to me until I started working with other neighborhoods on common transportation issues. Then I saw the Meadowcreek Parkway as just another spoke that would create problems for all of us in the hub.
So Charlottesville goes from being a “world-class city” to a world-class intersection. If you are critical of certain kinds of growth patterns, what are you in favor of?
A lot of things. There was a quote that sticks in my mind: Roads aren’t built to relieve congestion; they’re built to create opportunity. That’s very much true. So you have to decide where you want the opportunities to be. To me, that means you focus on 29, focus on making the 250 Bypass East and West more efficient, focus on the corridors that we have in the City that we’ve designated as areas where we want to see more development, like Cherry Avenue, Preston Avenue, Main Street. If you don’t want to see sprawl development, then you don’t want to build a bypass because a bypass generally encourages and subsidizes sprawl development.
On the other hand, I’m as much against building a bypass to the east as I am building one to the west. Part of my issue with the County has been that I think they’ve been hypocritical in how they treat the 29 Bypass, which would go through wealthy neighborhoods. Yet, they are pushing for Phase 2 of the Meadowcreek Parkway, which is essentially the same as the Eastern bypass that VDOT studied and rejected back in the ’80s. Why would we want to create development opportunities in the watershed of the Rivanna and dump all of the traffic in the City?
They say they don’t want a bypass, but really they don’t want a western bypass through their houses. I don’t blame them; I don’t want a bypass that goes through my house, either. But I think if you’re going to use the environment as an argument, then you have to be consistent. You have to acknowledge that Meadowcreek Parkway Phase 2 is as damaging if not more so to the Rivanna watershed. Even though no one in this area drinks that water, we swim in that water, there are three City parks that are downstream of that, we fish there, we eat the fish out of there and people downstream drink it. It’s environmentally irresponsible to say we can’t touch the western side because we drink that water, but to hell with the eastern side because somebody else drinks that water.
I think it makes a lot of sense to look at the 29 corridor and make that work more efficiently.
What would that look like?
There are a lot of forms that it could take and we’re about to do a study of the corridor to get a better understanding of our options. One model that I’ve always thought would be an attractive solution is Highway 101 in Santa Barbara, California. It is probably the most attractive urban expressway that I know of. Twenty years ago, it was just like 29. It was a series of lights and it was a congested mess. Then, the California Transportation Department started the process of eliminating lights there. It carries a large volume of traffic, and it’s not just an expressway. It also has a secondary network that parallels it. And, in Santa Barbara, the business interests along the highway have prospered because they still have good access and much more volume. Highway 101 moves a significant volume of traffic, yet it feels like a parkway running right through the City. Perhaps your readers will know of some other good examples that might work here.
It’s been since 1988 that Charlottesville has done an origin-destination study. So I’d like to see a new origin-destination study. We’ve grown quite a bit in 14 years in patterns that weren’t necessarily expected.
I’m sure you’re familiar with the sentiment that Council expends a great deal of effort on studying stuff.
I feel that way, too. I agree absolutely that we spend too much time studying things. Part of that is because whenever there’s a study and the conclusion is something that some group of people doesn’t like, there will be another study to prove that the first group had some hidden agenda. Sometimes that is the case, but I think the Metropolitan Planning Organization can hold out a neutral position and make it clear that we’re not asking for a study to prove something we already support. The MPO is the most objective group around when it comes to transportation matters. It doesn’t necessarily have an agenda other than that people should move around the region as efficiently as possible and that we want to reduce reliance on the automobile and support sustainable development.
At a recent meeting of the MPO, Meredith Richards had hoped to nail the coffin shut on the 29 Bypass. It was reported that you were not comfortable representing that as City Council’s point of view. You wanted to take it back to Council and not let the MPO take that vote right at that moment. Some people were hinting that there are politics at work there.
Well, certainly individual members have agendas. And no group is free from politics. As I see the function of the MPO, it needs to represent what the regional consensus is. If this doesn’t include the consensus of City Council and the County Board of Supervisors, the MPO will become dysfunctional. Meredith and I weren’t elected to the MPO; we serve as Council representatives. If we’re going to advocate the City position or the County position or our own position or the environmental position or the Western Albemarle County position, we can do that, but we still have to have a buy-in from both jurisdictions.
As you became involved in the neighborhood politics that you mentioned earlier, how did you decide that Council was the best setting for the kind of destination-directed transportation policy you’ve been talking about?
I felt there was this move among the development community to super-size Char-lottesville. That didn’t necessarily fit in with what I wanted to see Charlottesville become and what I think my neighbors want to see Charlottesville becoming.
It was your sense that Council was the place where neglected voices could be best represented?
Yes. Although “politely ignored” is probably a better phrase than “neglected”
And do you find, more than two years into it, that you’re giving voice to these concerns? Is that voice is being heard?
Sometimes. One of the first things that happened that I feel very good about after I joined Council was that I was able to get the trolley going.
That idea had been out there for a while, but it wasn’t happening. So I campaigned on it. It didn’t take too long to make it happen. So I view that as a very positive thing. I think it’s been hugely successful. When I see it jam-packed on a Friday afternoon and people coming Downtown, I feel like we’re making progress. When you ask what am I in favor of, I really do think that trends in alternative transportation are the way to go.
Would you elaborate on that vision?
There are two parts of that vision. First, rather than an eastern or western bypass, I see a network of roads in the urban ring, which allow people to move around the urban ring without having to drive into Charlottesville.
I think that it’s high time that the County acknowledges that it’s becoming an urban area. You’ve got this urban area, which is essentially a city the size of Charlottesville surrounding Charlottesville and using Charlottesville neighborhood streets to get from one part of the County to the other. I think that is wrong. We need some connectivity within the urban ring.
Second, within Charlottesville, I think we can do a lot more to make our own transportation choices more efficient. Very few people are going to ride the bus because it’s the right thing to do. There has to be a reason to do it, and it has to work for them. For different people, alternative transportation means different things. For me, it means getting more bike lanes because there are roads that are dangerous to bike on. It means getting a more efficient bus system.
I’d like to see at one point—and this would be far down the road—I’d really like to see a transit-on-demand model where, if you wanted to go somewhere, it would be like a share taxi. You’d get picked up right at your house and go to where you need to go. It’s like letting someone else do your driving for you.
A lot of people love their cars, but most people would rather not drive if they have to go somewhere in the City. It’s more relaxing to be the passenger. You enjoy the City more as a passenger than you do a driver. So as far as the transit model goes, if it’s really going to be effective, people have to think of it just the same as letting someone else do the driving. In order for that to happen, it has to be competitive in terms of time, and that gets back to the ideas that I’ve been putting forward.
How do we take a system that we have right now, which has really been designed for the captive rider, and move toward a system that makes it work for the discretionary rider?
Is there a model of this that you’ve seen work somewhere?
Yes, Portland is a good model. There’s a high-speed corridor and you can get transit to that corridor.
Certainly, the faster and more reliable you can make this service, the better it’s going to work. If money weren’t an issue, I would say we’d have some sort of light rail system that would go from one end of the Downtown Mall along West Main Street and then go up through 29 maybe as far as the airport. Neighborhood buses would provide door-to-door service to the nearest rail stop. While you’re waiting for that ultimate configuration to take place, I see a series of increments that would ultimately get us to an efficiently functioning system. To start, I think it would be helpful to identify a corridor, and a number of a people are working on that. From the studies that I’ve seen, it makes sense that the corridor would look something like an L. It would start at the east end of the Downtown Mall, go down to the Corner and then head out 29, roughly the same route that the No. 7 bus takes.
The second step would be to reconfigure our current bus system so that we have a backbone bus route, like the trolley, running in the corridor at 10-minute intervals with neighborhood feeder routes taking people to and from the backbone. I think we can provide much better service with our existing busses by going to a backbone/feeder model. Next, we give those buses that ride the backbone some priority in how they move through traffic. Right now a bus could hold a yellow light. I’d like the bus to be able to turn a red light green the same way that the emergency service vehicles can. Or we could synch the lights to the buses. That way, people would see the buses and they know that if you’re on the bus, you get to move and move fast. It’s all about giving transit the competitive advantage.
Would these buses be using the transfer station proposed for the east end of the Mall?
I see the east end transfer station as one of a series of stations. I see a fundamentally different approach to that eastern end. Rather than bringing all the buses there and doing all the transfers there, that would just be the eastern-most stop on the backbone. And there would be, maybe, four to six stations like that along the backbone, with neighborhood feeders going out to the adjacent neighborhoods.
You can coordinate these bus lines up to a point, but that urban ring you described is inhabited by a lot of people who come in and out of Charlottesville. How do you work that out with a County that you’ve characterized, in part, as being difficult to work with?
We do have a lot of similar values, although I’m concerned that many County people who look at an efficient transit system would say, “Well, that’s a really good idea as long as I don’t have to pay for it.” And that’s a fundamental problem I think the County has to grapple with. Suburban development has all of these external costs that aren’t properly accounted for in the tax rate so they show up in other ways, usually in a degradation of quality of life. The County hasn’t come to grips with the fact that it’s not a rural county anymore, although what it has is essentially is a rural tax rate. Seventy-six cents works fine if you’re a rural area, if you’re agricultural. There is this aesthetic that the County has that it wants to believe it’s a rural community, but the reality is that it’s in many ways as urban as Charlottesville is. The County is just a lot stingier about paying for services that improve the urban quality of life.
You sound pretty pessimistic about this.
Not in the long term. I doubt that the County is going to have that sort of shift in its self-perception any time soon, but I think it will happen over time as the County continues to urbanize and cosmopolitan voters assert their priorities. Sooner or later, I think they’ll realize that, compared to all the intangible quality-of-life costs of suburbanization, the real cost of running a decent transit system doesn’t look too bad. I have been encouraged by recent talk about the idea of creating a transportation district that would have auxiliary taxes that would be used to run transit. I would personally like to see us tack a few cents on to the gas tax, especially since Virginia has one of the lowest gas taxes in the Country. I think that fits better with the County model of fee-for-service. Put the tax on the automobile user rather than the property owner. It might sell, I don’t know. I’ll throw it out there and see how many cranky calls I get.
Where does UVA fit into this plan?
UVA is interesting because it causes a lot of transportation problems, but, at the same time, it shows us a solution. All the UVA kids have cars and they’re parking all over the place and they drive them all over the place—except when they go to one place, right? And that’s UVA itself.
You mean that to go to class they take the bus?
Right. The car just doesn’t work on the UVA grounds, and they’ve set it up that way on purpose. They have a bus system that works, and they’ve really discouraged students from parking their cars on Grounds. Even for their employees, UVA parks them all out at U-Hall and brings them in. When you’re on the Grounds, it’s really an attractive place to be because there are no cars.
In some sense, it recreates the same feeling of having the Downtown Mall. The reason people love the Downtown Mall is because there are no cars on it. It’s just this very pedestrian thing. You know, cars have these hard edges all around.
Look at how UVA students use the trolley. After hours, catch it around Second Street. It comes and drops 30 kids on Second Street. It works for them. So then the question is how do we grow on that? If it went to Barracks Road, would they also use it? Would City residents use it?
So, is there optimism about the diversity that can result from bringing different people into the City by different means underlying your ideas?
Yes, that’s probably true. Someone who wants to represent Charlottesville, which I do, has to appreciate that diversity. That’s one of the great things that I like about Charlottesville: It is a diverse place. One of the things that made me very optimistic is when we started our comprehensive process two years ago; we had a real big neighborhood focus and a real big emphasis on getting the community to turn out, which they did. One of the things about that that I was almost a little bit surprised by, but certainly very gratified to see, is that almost unanimously the people who turned out wanted to see more alternative transportation. They wanted to see public transit, they wanted to see transit that worked for them, they wanted to be able to interact with the rest of the community.
I think there is something about Charlottesville that brings those sorts of people here. I consider myself to be an extrovert and, as you say, I have some optimism, a multi-cultural optimism. But I don’t think that is something unique to me as an individual. I think there is something about Charlottesville that projects that feeling. That is what drew me here in the first place, and I see a lot of other people like that expressing the same values.
There is this large untapped willingness and desire to be more of a community and to have more interaction. That is what makes me optimistic about the idea that something like transit could work or that expanding the Mall in either direction could work. I don’t really consider myself a visionary person.
I’m an engineer. What I think I’m good at is seeing what other people want to do and figuring out ways to implement that.