Cycling advocates push for new initiatives and urban planning efforts during national symposium at VCU

The cycling excitement in Richmond did not end when Peter Sagan grabbed the rainbow jersey in the men’s elite road race of the UCI Road World Championships.Instead, about 50 people gathered at VCU this week to learn how urban planning, public policy and health benefits converge with bicycling for transportation.

The Bicycle Urbanism Symposium II, hosted by the Center for Public Policy at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs and Bike Walk RVA, was held Monday and Tuesday in the University Student Commons.

Ralph Buehler, an associate professor of urban affairs and planning at Virginia Tech’s Alexandria Center, speaks during the Bicycle Urbanism Symposium II at VCU.
Ralph Buehler, an associate professor of urban affairs and planning at Virginia Tech’s Alexandria Center, speaks during the Bicycle Urbanism Symposium II at VCU.

Ralph Buehler, an associate professor of urban affairs and planning at Virginia Tech’s Alexandria Center, offered the plenary speech at lunch Tuesday. Urban planning focused on automobile travel since World War II has created “car-shaped places” challenging for pedestrians and cyclists to navigate.

“We don’t require nice playgrounds for kids. We require parking, which makes driving irresistible,” said Buehler, who discussed how to make cycling irresistible instead. He said cycling is more environmentally friendly, equitable and economical on a personal and societal scale.

“Many daily trips are short enough to take by bike,” Buehler said. However, many lack the confidence or comfort to ride. While the number of trips made by bicycle is far lower in the United States than in Western Europe, he sees “a lot of potential” for growth here.

We don’t require nice playgrounds for kids. We require parking, which makes driving irresistible.

Many larger cities have invested in cycling infrastructure, such as traffic-calming road redesigns to reduce the speed of motorists; rail-to-trail conversion of old railways; and bicycle boulevards, where motorists are directed to parallel streets.

Often, these projects coincide with road repaving and related public works to save money.

Buehler said it is important that bike lanes, trails and other cyclist-friendly spaces tie together as networks feeding people from destination to destination.

“The bike lane cannot just end somewhere and then, ‘OK, good luck,’” he said.

One benefit is that when cycling increases, fatalities and injuries “drop quite dramatically,” Buehler said. A chart showed cyclist fatalities rising, then falling as Denmark invested in cycling infrastructure starting in the 1970s. Injuries and fatalities per mile traveled remain markedly higher in the U.S.

Safe cycling education for children and adults is important, Buehler said. Drivers, as well, must be taught how to interact with bicycles on the shared roads.

Buehler said one problem facing planners and advocates is that many Americans see cyclists as “the other” and distrust government motives – and expenditures – for promoting anything other than car travel.

“‘This stuff is not for me. I don’t want this.’ That’s very difficult to overcome,” he said.

Before and after Buehler’s speech, rapid-fire presentations were shared by more than a dozen participants. There were also roundtable discussions.

“I’m a true believer,” said Joshua J. Miller, community education program manager for the 16,000-member Cascade Bicycle Club. He was involved in the inaugural 2013 event at the University of Washington.

Miller discussed the club’s goal that participants in workshops, camps and other events will align with the Seattle region’s demographic mix.

“If you’re doing it right, it takes time,” he said. The club has grown to a cadre of 20 instructors who reach 17,000 students in Seattle public schools and many other groups. The club also hosts open drop-in sessions in public housing areas, where they might discuss safety, sign up people for camps and classes or repair kids’ bikes.

“It’s not really about the bike. It’s social work. The bike is the reason to be there,” Miller said.

A VCU Mobility Hub near the James Branch Cabell Library, which features covered bike parking.
A VCU Mobility Hub near the James Branch Cabell Library, which features covered bike parking.

Tessa McKenzie, a research coordinator in the Division of Community Engagement, and Herb Hill, coordinator for undergraduate research in the Office of Research, discussed the Urban Biking Benefits class they co-teach at VCU.

After performing hours of service learning during the UCI races, students continue to research Richmond’s history, present and future as a cycling town.

It’s a nice, interesting mix of people with a lot of shared knowledge and common interest on how to make cities more bicycle-friendly.

Students, instructors and guests have cycled more than 85 miles through the city so far, and they’ve only suffered one flat tire, Hill said. They continue to work on a survey of VCU’s bike racks.

For the university, “this is giving us some exposure on the issue of planning and urban design for bike-friendly cities,” said Damian Pitt, Ph.D., an assistant professor of urban and regional studies and planning in the Wilder School.

VCU was approached last year about hosting the program, Pitt said. The University of Washington served as co-host of this year’s symposium.

“The idea was to have this event … immediately after the UCI to capture some of that excitement,” Pitt said. Folks came to VCU from across the U.S. and even abroad for the symposium.

“We have a roughly one-third split between academics, local government officials like planners, and professional bicycling advocates. It’s a nice, interesting mix of people with a lot of shared knowledge and common interest on how to make cities more bicycle-friendly,” he said.

 

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