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Street in Motion

A redesigned bike-friendly avenue through Richmond’s Fan District might lure an unintended audience — drivers.


Pedals creak. Tires whirl. A cyclist whizzes toward Virginia Commonwealth University, slow-rolling through a stop sign on his way down Floyd Avenue.

The street already is a major thoroughfare for bikes in the Fan. If all goes according to plan, this time next year it will be transformed into the first of dozens of planned bike-walk streets across the city.

But how much the proposed changes to Floyd will benefit cyclists and pedestrians is a matter of debate. Some bike advocates worry that the $500,000 project intended to discourage car traffic has been watered down so much it will make the street more inviting to drivers.

"They call it a bike boulevard, but there's nothing that makes it a bike boulevard," says Doug Cole, the sole member of the city's Planning Commission to vote against the project. He says the project will do more to speed up car traffic than ease conditions for cyclists: "If it's easier on drivers, it's worse on bikers."

In other cities that have built networks of bike-walk streets, planners have relied on a mix of midblock speed humps, traffic diverters and traffic circles to discourage nonlocal car traffic.

In Richmond, largely in response to concerns from neighbors, planners settled on a proposal that relies almost exclusively on replacing four-way stops with traffic circles at intersections between Thompson Street and Monroe Park. The idea is that the circles will keep traffic slow while allowing cyclists to move through intersections without stopping.

But Cole and others note that traffic circles won't make car traffic any slower than it is, and will do nothing to discourage drivers from using Floyd. They say the circles will make the street more appealing to through traffic for the same reason it becomes more appealing to cyclists: There's no need to stop at the intersections.

Compared with the four-way stops that govern most intersections, Cole says, a redesigned Floyd Avenue with traffic circles will feel downright speedy to drivers used to the stop-and-go grind of the Fan.

The city's bicycle coordinator, Jake Helmboldt, says the concern is valid. But the planned changes will have the psychological effect of making drivers go slower on all parts of the street — not just at intersections, he says: "People don't tend to speed up as much in-between."

Helmboldt says the branding of the street also will be critical to showing drivers that Floyd is a place to go slow and give priorities to bicycles and pedestrians.

But other city staff members who reviewed the plan have shared concerns. In his report to the Urban Design Commission and Planning Commission, city planner Jeff Eastman suggested changes, including bigger traffic circles and reducing the speed limit to 20 mph.

Bike Walk RVA, the bike advocacy wing of Sports Backers, pushed similar changes, calling for midblock speed bumps to ensure drivers adhere to a 20-mph speed limit.

The city's traffic engineer, Thomas Flynn, says his office considers it unnecessary to lower the speed limit. And Helmboldt says speed humps were thrown out during the planning process because of resident opposition.

Similarly, diverters, which force traffic to reroute by directing it onto side streets while allowing bikes to pass through, weren't pursued. That's despite a survey of residents showing that more than 60 percent supported them. That wasn't a strong enough mandate, says Charles Samuels, one of three City Council members whose district the project cuts through.

The initiative has been the subject of tense neighborhood meetings, with opponents worrying that the project will take away parking. Planners say it won't remove any legal spaces.

Lindsay Walker is a bike outreach coordinator in Portland, Ore., which has more than 70 miles of bike-walk streets. The city calls them neighborhood greenways. She says planners in Portland no longer use traffic circles to discourage vehicular traffic.

"We found that the traffic circles didn't have that much of an impact on lowering vehicle speeds," says Walker, who co-authored a bike-walk street planning guide.

Instead, the circles created a pinch point in the street, forcing cars and bikes close together in intersections. "I have to say, it's one of the big lessons we learned here," she says.

Councilman Jon Baliles, who lives on Floyd Avenue, says he hasn't decided whether he'll support the project. But he says if the city finds out the changes aren't adequate, they can always revisit the project.

"Richmond does not do big projects with drastic changes well," he says. "This is an incremental plan that can be adjusted as it goes along. I think that's a better approach than diving in head first."