In April, Charles Morant wrote a very good piece (here) with a solid explanation of the need for bike lanes in Norfolk, including links to the highly detailed Master Plan by the Toole Design Group, commissioned by the City.
Morant gave all sorts of examples of great pedestrian infrastructure in other cities and the higher quality of life and benefits afforded by those relatively minor investments.
To that end, the City is doing its job of investing in and testing bike lanes and Morant couldn’t be a better advocate for why we should continue building out. But the vital piece remains community engagement.
What Makes a Community Worth Living In?
One of the strongest arguments I hear against pedestrian improvements is that nice infrastructure and improvements are just nice things to look at – that they are not used by anyone and therefore are not worth the expense.
But local landscape architect Ann Stokes provides a great perspective on this when she makes the point that even if a person doesn’t sit on a bench, people like to live near welcoming places and things like benches and trails; other soft amenities provide the visual markers that make an area welcoming, even if, in reality, those amenities are not used very often. Think of the picket fence and perfectly manicured lawn. What use do they really have? They’re just expenses, but they’re inseparably part of the American Dream.
This is also addressed at length by Andres Duany, renowned urban planner, architect, and founder of the Congress for the New Urbanism, who discussed in his seminal work, Suburban Nation (pp. 101-109), the hard work that suburban developers put into creating the image of a walkable, closely-knit neighborhoods, despite the fact that very few of those developments actually are walkable or much more than bedroom communities.
In Ghent we actually are a walkable, closely-knit community and we should want to maintain and spread that lifestyle.
The Cost Is Not Too High
The cost to reconfigure the route as described in the Virginian-Pilot will be $457,000. This seems steep, but just to provide a back-of-the-napkin perspective on cost, 22 houses over 10 years would pay for it in property taxes.
ADP alone is reportedly bringing 1,600 or more jobs to downtown. How many of those people will choose to live Ghent and the surrounding neighborhoods? Certainly those who see the value in a few hip, developing neighborhoods with potential for future growth and more progressive pedestrian planning. How many will establish new households or drive demand for new apartment buildings? That is where public amenities and pedestrian infrastructure pay off.
Obviously funding is a little more complicated than that and all sorts of other services and infrastructure are paid for out of that money, but it’s important to keep in mind that these are ways to help keep score: every new sale generated and new residence brought in by the desirability of walkable, bikeable, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods is another point on the board and another arrow in the quiver when we ask to expand pedestrian infrastructure – not to mention the obvious benefits of improving the tax base and bolstering local businesses.
It is the City’s job to provide infrastructure and to create good public spaces. It is the citizens’ job to make good use of the spaces and create good places. As activists, advocates, and users, we must take the responsibility to ensure that our new demonstration route in Ghent is a success and proves both a worthy use of our tax money and increases the quality of life.
The Business Community
One aspect is pretty simple: we need to make sure our businesses are part of the pedestrian culture by offering discounts or benefits to bicyclists and walkers, and that they are motivated to provide complementing improvements along the route, like bike racks and drinking fountains.
Perhaps something like the City’s We Roll Together campaign from 2013 can be re-rolled and expanded so that businesses are nudged to get their employees and customers out of their cars and on their bikes. We need the business community actively engaged in making this a success.
The Social Community
The other major aspect is softer, but incredibly important. It’s the culture side. We have to curate the activities to bring people out and get them engaged if we want to cultivate the community and create the culture.
These quality of life issues are serious for a city. I am a long-distance road cyclist and know two road cyclists who have moved to Richmond at least in part because of that city’s cycling community. I go up a few times a year just to ride. I spend money on hotels and bars and restaurants and visit museums and see shows just because I’m in town to do a ride. I have considered making the move many times. Richmond does a great job building spaces and creating places – useful, interesting places, and like most successful urban centers, spends a lot of time and energy making neighborhoods pedestrian-friendly.
The place is just replete with bike-friendly roads, running paths, wide sidewalks, drinking fountains, bathrooms, and there are placards and signs with history and trivia and tid-bits at every turn, creating a more engaging pedestrian experience and making you want to ride or walk just to be closer to the city. And by the way, what small retailer, restaurant, grocer, or gallery wouldn’t want to open along a corridor that interesting?
What Community Engagement Looks Like
In Chapter 3. Implementation, of the City’s 2014 strategic bike plan, the authors recommended having public event days to create a sense of community and to showcase the benefits of the new bike lanes. I would like to take that a step further. I encourage those in our local bike advocacy groups, business groups, civic groups, City, and those generally enthusiastic to come together to create a regular Saturday mid-morning event based around the loop.
There will be a community ride and race with prizes for participants and winners, perhaps creatively incorporating things like MapMyRide, Strava, and Pokemon Go (for as long as that rage rages). For the Colley and 35th Street segments, sidewalk takeovers and pop-up vendors; for the Olney segment, a marriage of the annual art shows along Botetourt and Stockley Gardens; and along the Llewellyn segment a farmer’s market at Ghent Elementary or the Harrison Opera’s parking lot (a St.Paul resurrection?) and taking a page from the Heart of Ghent 10K: live bands.
Considering a First Saturday event each month would be a good way to coordinate with First Friday events where visitors, performers, and vendors might consider staying in town for the night to catch the next morning’s affairs as well. This might start slowly, but with a concerted effort from the disparate groups and interests, we could really leverage this new piece of infrastructure to create something interesting, exciting, and worthwhile that genuinely improves the lives of our residents.