Full circle: City seeks to improve bike access in Charlottesville

File photo. File photo.

Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator Amanda Poncy was shocked when she received double the amount she requested for her budget this year. The money will allow her to collaborate with Park and Trail Planner Chris Gensic to connect trails and urban passageways to create a city-wide corridor that’s easy and safe to access.

“We really just want to provide multiple ways for people to get into the city,” Poncy said. “It’s about understanding where people ride, and building facilities to accommodate them.”

Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator Amanda Poncy and Park and Trail Planner Chris Gensic are joining forces to make the city’s trail system more cohesive for cyclists and walkers. Photo: Christian Hommel.

Poncy’s agenda includes adding buffers and bike lanes to Rose Hill Drive, connecting Monticello Avenue to the county trail system under 64, improving intersections to make left-hand turns safer for bicyclists, and putting corrals and fix-it stations in key destinations like the Downtown Mall, City Market, and shopping centers.

That’s music to the ears of local commuters Caroline Laco and Anne Dunckel.

Laco, 30, has been biking about 10 miles round trip almost every day for the past three years. Her daily commute goes through McIntire Park, past Charlottesville High School, and down Rose HIll Drive. The lack of bike lanes on Rose Hill and poorly maintained clutter along the Meadowcreek Parkway make cycling to work a challenge, she said, but Poncy’s upcoming improvements—including the new intersection at 250—should give her a straight shot to work and shave several miles off her daily ride.

“The biking community feels like the city has put us as a greater priority now,” said Laco. “It’s like they’re saying ‘We know you exist, and we’ll take your safety more seriously.’”

With Charlottesville occupying less than 11 square miles, many bikers say that getting from point A to point B is often easier on two wheels, especially in terms of traffic and parking. But crossing the city on a bicycle can be impractical, Gensic said, because the setting constantly changes from urban to residential to parkland.

“We’re going to have to have a mix of off-street and on-street [trails] to get you any distance over about a mile through the city because you change environments every three or four blocks,” Gensic said.

A graduate student at UVA, Dunckel doesn’t own a car. She said biking is her first choice for transportation, otherwise she’ll walk.

“It seems like anywhere you need to go is within three miles,” Dunckel said. “I feel like I get to most places just as quickly or quicker than I would in a car.”

Getting from her home on Barracks Road to Grounds is normally pretty easy, she said. But riding her bike down Main Street to get to the Downtown Mall makes her nervous.

“From Starr Hill to [Blue Moon] Diner, the bike lane is pretty much a door lane,” she said. “I’ll usually take the lane of the road and not risk getting doored by people who aren’t paying attention. People don’t really look for cyclists all that much in Charlottesville.”

West Main Street is an area of concern for Poncy, and she said she hopes cyclists and pedestrians will speak up while the city conducts a streetscape plan for the corridor.

“That is something that’s going to be considered as part of that effort, and I encourage anyone with an interest in biking or walking along West Main to participate in that process,” Poncy said. “They can really influence the design of how bike facilities are on that corridor.”

Options to make the corridor safer could involve widening the roads, removing street parking, or realigning the bike lanes to the other side of the parked cars. Making these changes is a community process, she said, which can be both a blessing and a curse.

“Ultimately when a project comes to be and is ready, the public has to weigh in and get a chance to share their concerns,” she said. “Some neighbors might feel very attached to parking, so having competing interests and a very limited right-of-way can be challenging.”

Poncy approached City Council with a list of immediate and future projects, and requested $100,000 in funding. Council allotted $200,000 for the projects, and unanimously agreed that Charlottesville’s bikeability and walkability are a top priority.

City Councilor Kathy Galvin, a landscape architect who bikes to work and often goes weeks without getting in her car, said it just makes sense for the city to prioritize the biking and walking demographics. Cycling fits the bill from an economic and health standpoint, she said, but it also addresses one of the area’s major economic issues. If residents have easier access to biking and walking, living without a car—and saving the thousands of annual dollars spent on maintenance, fuel, and insurance—is a more practical option.

“We’re known for our expensive housing costs, but if a car will cost about $10,000 a year to maintain, it starts becoming competitive to live in a city with high housing costs but minimal transportation costs,” Galvin said.

According to AAA’s annual report on driving costs, driving a medium-sized sedan costs roughly 61 cents per mile—about $9,000 for every 15,000 miles. Vehicle miles traveled have fallen about 9 percent since 2005, and biking is up 24 percent in the young adult demographic (ages 16-30).

“This suggests to me, as someone who’s in urban design and is a policy maker, that there’s a growing mode shift in terms of what people are using to get around,” Galvin said. “It’s a university town, and it makes a lot of sense to me that we would begin to understand what the demographic wants and needs.”

Gensic’s budget for maintaining and improving the city’s walking trails is $100,000 this year, and he said he’s excited to work alongside Poncy to make Charlottesville’s urban and trail systems more cohesive, bridging the gap between recreational and transportation biking with safe intersections that connect park trails, greenways, sidewalks, and bike lanes. That’s good news for cyclists with knobby tires.

“I can only put a trail in the woods for so long before I’m going to hit a street,” Gensic said. “A trail in the woods is fun to ride circles on, but if you can’t get to work, school, or Downtown, it’s not really a transportation link.”

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