Untitled Urbanism Project #1

Installing a huge buffered bike lane on the Leigh Street bridge, connecting Downtown and Church Hill,  was a massive step forward for Richmond back in 2014 or 2015. But today, that bike lane is faded and full of debris—including cars. On one end of the bike lane you have VCU’s medical campus and city services housed within City Hall—places people need to go. On the other end of the bike lane, you have a bunch of neighborhoods including Mosby Court—places where people live. So why in the world would we not offer the most protected bike lane possible? Protected bike lanes offer a wider buffer and vertical delineation from traffic, helping to separate vulnerable people on bikes from speeding two-ton metal boxes. Plus, it just makes you feel safer! Enter Untitled Urbanism Project #1, aka The Festive Cones project.

If you’d like to help fund our next tactical urbanism project, Untitled Urbanism Project #2, you can contribute over on our GoFundMe. We’re looking to raise $300. If you’d like to learn more, keep reading!

Sometimes you just have to DO SOMETHING in order to fix your streets. Tactical urbanism is a short (sometimes very short)-term solution to an ongoing problem—a lack of sidewalks; an intersection thats too big and scary to cross; a downtown parking space that could be better used as a public parklet; or an important connector street (like the Leigh Street bridge) that needs a quality, protected bike lane. But why not spend the time and energy pushing for an appropriate long-term solution right off the bat? Well, that’s where we usually start, but sometimes advocating for a long-term solution doesn’t get you very far very quickly. Tactical urbanism is about demonstrating what could be if you—actually, your city leaders—had the necessary funding, political will, and/or creative design that they lack. Sometimes, it can just help open folks’ eyes to easy ways to make our city safer, more humane, and more fun. Sometimes, it helps build momentum toward that long-term solution. And, sometimes, it’s just a fun release of creative energy. 

We started StreetsCred to create a space for conversations about making our city a better place. To quote from our mission statement a bit, “Streets Cred raises awareness of urban issues affecting mid-sized American cities today and the best practices used to address inequities and challenges in the built environment.” Small, creative, and clever tactical urbanism projects—projects that raise awareness of Richmond’s urban issues—are exactly in line with what we’re trying to do here.

And Untitled Urbanism Project #1 is just the beginning. We’ve got a super-secret list of great tactical urbanism projects we want to put down across the city and are excited to roll them out over the next couple of months (if you’ve got ideas, send ‘em our way). Each project will be small, cheap, clever, and will, in a small way, make a tiny part of Richmond safer, more humane, or more fun. 

While these projects are cheap, they aren’t free. Untitled Urbanism Project #2 will cost us $300. Click here to contribute over on our GoFundMe.

Open Letter to VMFA: It’s time to give Parsons Plaza back to people

Our comrade Doug Allen over at Richmond in Motion has written an open letter to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts that we would like to share with you. If you agree with his argument about the need to close Parsons Plaza to car traffic, give the @VMFA a nice little tweet or email about it.

To whom it may concern:

To continue working toward its mission of enriching the lives of all by providing Virginians and others access to world-class art, VMFA should permanently close the Mary Morton Parsons Plaza to car traffic. VMFA’s Parsons Plaza, facing Arthur Ashe, Jr. Blvd, is the main entry point and gateway for visitors, and has tremendous potential as a gathering place. However, the presence of cars – picking up, dropping off, and passing through – prevents the Plaza from reaching its full potential. Instead of a place where people gather, relax, and meet-up, it’s a busy thru-way, avoided by most. Walk around the museum grounds on a beautiful Saturday afternoon and observe for yourself; there will be dozens of people enjoying the sculpture garden and almost no people enjoying Parsons Plaza and the other spaces facing Ashe Blvd. Those who are taking in Parsons Plaza are confined to the bicycle parking area – caged in by large blocks to protect them from passing cars.

The arrival of Rumors of War is the perfect opportunity for VMFA to transform Parsons Plaza and give the space back to the people. This incredible piece is guaranteed to attract more people than ever before to the areas along Ashe Blvd. With the current traffic setup, visitors will have to avoid getting hit by passing vehicles while they take in, contemplate, and interpret the largest sculpture acquisition in the history of the VMFA. In addition to providing a safe, comfortable place for people to view Rumors of War, removing cars from Parsons Plaza will unlock the entire portion of the museum adjacent to Ashe Blvd. The current car lanes and pickup and drop off area are an obstacle that separates the museum’s main entrance, Best Café, and sculpture garden from the green space and sculptures along Ashe Blvd.

Concerns would be raised about funneling all parking traffic through the Sheppard St entrance and exit. There are several responses to this concern, including working with the Virginia Museum of History & Culture to route some traffic to Kensington Ave during times of heavy ingress and egress. Concerns about pickup and drop off areas can be addressed by designating the area fronting Ashe Blvd for curbside pickup and drop off and designating an area near the current disabled parking for certain pickup and drop off. Parking is currently not allowed in front of VMFA on Ashe Blvd due to the curb cuts, so this could be done without losing any street parking.

Permanently removing cars from Parsons Plaza would provide a massive long-term benefit to VMFA visitors and unlock a huge portion of the museum’s grounds that are currently underutilized. VMFA has done an excellent job in the past few years to provide access to world-class art to larger and larger audiences, which is one of the reasons why I recently became a VMFA member. Removing cars from the Parsons Plaza is a logical next step in expanding and improving the museum’s access.

Sincerely,

Doug Allen, AICP, PMP
VMFA Member since October 2019

Waiting for the bus at 2nd & Broad

The bus stop at 2nd & Broad has to be one of, if not the, busiest bus stops in the entire city. It’s served by the #1ABC, #2ABC, #3ABC, #12, #78, and #87. That’s 16 total bus lines. It’s seven more routes than what the existing Transfer Plaza handles during the day. It’s one bus every 3.75 minutes on average. It’s a lot of buses.

Yet this bus stop has no shelter. It had no benches until some kind soul put out two wooden benches of their own—then, maybe shamed into it, the City and GRTC installed two “official” metal benches. Regardless of seating, on a day like today—cold, windy, rainy, and snowy—it’s a shit place to wait for a bus.

While the City pushes towards an enormous redevelopment of downtown—a project that includes a multi-million dollar GRTC Transit Center—bus riders today are forced to wait for their next bus out in the elements. And no matter how nice, expensive, or expansive the proposed NoBro Transit Center will be, hundreds of buses will still stop at 2nd & Broad and hundreds of bus riders will still wait in inhospitable conditions. The City could fix this tomorrow—no multimillion dollar, TIF-funded, once-in-a-generation opportunities necessary. Just put up a couple of shelters so folks can feel like a person while waiting for their next bus.

Safe streets require dollars. But who holds the wallet?

Earlier this week, the Sherwood Park Civic Association hosted a “Northside Neighborhoods Traffic Study Rally” at the Richmond Police Training Academy. Over 100 people packed the standing-room-only classroom. We attended mostly to listen, but learned a few things along the way. 

Several of the opening speakers from some of the surrounding civic associations made clear at the beginning of the meeting that the purpose of the “rally” was not to revisit the topic of whether bike lanes or new residential development is good or bad for the neighborhood, but rather how traffic will flow safely through Northside in light of these forthcoming changes. 

A screenshot of the meeting invitation that was distributed by one of the participating civic associations.

Rather than a play-by-play of the meeting (boring), here’s the gist of what we heard from the folks in the room who chose to speak up:

  1. Northside residents want safer streets. 👍
  2. Northside residents want a comprehensive traffic study. Fine. But are we going to take into consideration people riding bikes, buses, or walking as “traffic”—or are we just going to study the movement of cars through the neighborhood? 🤷‍♀️
  3. Some people still don’t want the Brook Road bike lane, even though they want slower speeds and safer crossings. 🤔

People also wanted to know the status of when the Brook Road bike lane is going to be installed and since nobody from the Department of Public Works was in attendance (weird), the best info we got is that “it is happening”. 

Finally, there was some confusion about who is responsible for getting the funding to pay for the traffic study (which may we may not even need). Clearly, professional “traffic engineers” must conduct the study and they obviously have to get paid, but who is responsible for allocating that money? The Mayor? City Council? A wizard with a cauldron full of gold coins? This is where things got interesting. The call to action from the meeting organizers was: “Email the Mayor and make sure he puts this in his budget”. But, wait a second, doesn’t City Council control the budget? Isn’t that, like, their job? And weren’t two councilmembers sitting right there? A neighborhood resident asked this very question and the response from the councilmembers was…not clear-cut. 

Turns out, Section 6.10 of Richmond’s Charter is pretty clear on this matter:

§ 6.10. Action by council on budget generally.

After the conclusion of the public hearing, the council may insert new items of expenditure or may increase, decrease or strike out items of expenditure in the budget, except that no item of expenditure for debt service or required to be included by this charter or other provision of law shall be reduced or stricken out. 

So, yeah, if you want money in the budget for something in your neighborhood (may we recommend traffic calming measures, safer crossings, and kid-friendly bicycle infrastructure), email the Mayor. But you should also email your City Councilmember because Council can amend the budget in anyway they see fit and ultimately puts their stamp of approval on what stays in, what gets cut, and how much taxpayer money is used.

I see a bus lane and I want to paint it red

Earlier this week we got mad. We also said we’d spend some time writing about what the City and GRTC can do to make Broad Street, specifically the bus-only lanes, safer. Important context for this entire conversation: People driving cars and unsafe street design are what kills and injures the vast, vast majority of people on our roads.

Part of what makes Bus Rapid Transit work is giving the buses their own dedicated space on the street. This is why subways and (some) light rail is great: If you can keep cars and drivers out of the way of transit, the transit is faster, more efficient, and more useful for folks. Richmond’s BRT, the Pulse, has dedicated lanes for a good chunk of its route but, unfortunately, those lanes look just like every other travel lane—with a few signs here and there plus some road stencils on the road to let drivers know to stay the heck out of the way of the bus. This means that people in cars occasionally end up confused, driving or parking their vehicles in space specifically meant for the bus.

Luckily, there’s an easy and straightforward way to let folks know that bus-only lanes are for buses only. Richmond, like many other American cities, should paint its bus lanes red.

Red paint is one of the cheapest and most effective ways to keep cars out of bus lane. A 2017 study by the SFMTA found that “red treatment reduced the number of [Transit-Only Lane] violations by 48%-55% depending on the time of day, even as total traffic volumes increased.“ Anecdotal evidence from D.C. suggests that red paint works so well that it keeps cars from parking in the bus lane even when it’s perfectly to do so.

Red paint actually makes streets safer, too. That same study out of San Francisco found that police-reported injury collisions in the corridors with fresh red paint decreased 24% while injury collisions citywide remained unchanged. We’ll never know for sure if red bus lanes would have saved Alice Woodson’s life, they would be an important, striking visual reminder for people walking, biking, or driving that the rules change in the bus-only lanes.

There are a couple of ways to highlight bus lanes with red paint:

Edge-to-edge

The most common implementation is the full red carpet treatment, with edge-to-edge paint covering the lane. Think San Francisco or Washington D.C.. It looks great, but tends to wear as the wheels on the bus continually drive over them. The National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board, in a 2017 study, estimated the cost of edge-to-edge red paint at around $308,000 per lane mile. Some back-of-the napkin math puts the cost of painting our 3.2 miles of dedicated lanes at around $2 million.

Photo by: Matt’ Johnson

Narrower than the bus

If you want to cut back on some of the maintenance costs of red paint, look to Seattle. They do this great thing where they paint just the center of the lane red—wide enough so that its still obviously a red lane, yet narrow enough that the bus’s wheels don’t drive over any of the paint.

A thin red line

What’s the budget version of a red bus-only lane? How about these red-stripped BRT lanes in Indianapolis? Way cheaper with just a single red stripe paralleling the lane—especially to maintain—but still gives you that hint of that red-paint flavor. It’s like the Lacroix of red bus lanes. 

Enforcement

Despite the nearly magical properties of red lanes, they don’t vaporize cars and drivers who wander into them (unfortunately). To keep buses the only vehicles in the bus-only lanes, cities need to plan on doing some enforcement—either manually, like with cops writing tickets, or, if you live in a place that allows it, automated camera-based bus lane enforcement. This is definitely a case of diminishing returns, so cities need to carefully balance the cost of enforcement with its intended results.


The great thing about any of these options, even enforcement, is that they’re fairly straightforward for the City to implement—and, to be sure, it’s the City, not GRTC, that has the authority to paint and stripe lanes. We could make a safer Broad Street next week, all it takes is the money and the political will to get it done.

Don’t get distracted: Our streets are f*cked up

Our insides are still all tied up from the awful and fatal bus-involved crash in which a Pulse driver killed a woman who stepped into the bus-only lane. While there has been some thoughtful coverage about how we can make our streets safer through infrastructure improvements to ensure this never happens again, there has also been some sensationalized local media coverage vilifying the Pulse. 

For some reason, our local media loves to use the bus as a punching bag while ignoring the fact that the vast, overwhelming majority of people who die on our streets are killed by drivers of cars. And the further sad truth is that these deaths and serious injuries often go unnoticed, underreported, and, even worse, usually nothing is done to build better streets and make them safer for people. 

Don’t get it wrong: There are changes that need to be made to the Pulse’s bus-only lanes to increase their visibility and safety. We’ll post more on that later. But for now, where does the blame really fall for nearly every pedestrian death? These deaths are caused by terrible street design that prioritizes the speed and throughput of cars over the safety of people. And we should also blame shitty, distracted drivers. 

Here are just a few reports of people walking who were killed or hurt by drivers in the Richmond area just over the past couple months:

And of course, there’s this: Richmond drivers among the worst in America, new study says.

So before you watch the next overly sensational, breaking news, special report about the dangers of bus rapid transit in Richmond, consider this: If our streets were actually designed for people rather than speeding metal boxes, and if people would actually slow down and pay attention while operating them, we wouldn’t have lost 16 people this year who were just trying to walk somewhere and the 242 people who were injured by drivers wouldn’t have been hurt at all.1

We’d rather have productive conversations about how we get those numbers down to zero by fixing our fucked up streets and enforcing our existing traffic laws. Everything else is just a distraction.  


1 According to the Virginia DMV, 16 pedestrians have been killed by drivers in Richmond, Henrico, and Chesterfield since January 1, 2019 and another 242 have been injured.

Tied up

Earlier this week, a GRTC Pulse driver hit and killed a pedestrian. From what I’ve heard (I’ve not and will not watch the video should it ever exist publicly), she got out of a car, attempted to cross the bus lane, but never looked for an oncoming bus. She died at the scene.

This awful incident is right at the center of two things I care about deeply, both personally and professionally: buses and pedestrian safety. That those two things, in this case, are in conflict makes me feel tied up on the inside. I had to bail on the second half of my day because the thought of writing regular transit emails or meeting with regular transit people was just too much; A woman on foot was killed by a bus, and it’s the top story on the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

I’ve been trying to figure out how I feel, other than tied up. I want to defend the bus, which police say had the right-of-way. I want to scream at the past 70 years of City leaders for allowing our biggest and best street to devolve into an inhumane, unsafe nightmare highway. I want to ask this woman, Alice Woodson, 32, why she didn’t look left before taking her last step. I want to know how to build a city where people can make catastrophic mistakes and not die as a result. I want to explain to folks reading the newspaper that car drivers are involved in nearly every serious injury on our streets—that it’s cars and bad design that make our streets unsafe.

I’ve also been trying to figure out what to do, other than sit with my tied-up feelings. Do we beg city staff, City Council, and the Mayor to study and analyze the video footage, figure out why this terrible thing happened, and change Broad Street to make sure it never happens again? Should we start a campaign to paint the bus-only lanes red, clearly marking space on the street where the rules change and folks should take extra caution? Or maybe I should stay tied up, out of respect, waiting until we inevitably forget about Alice and move on.

It’s a sad, shitty, and complicated situation, and it has really brought to the foreground the feeling of hopelessness I get when walking, biking, or taking transit in Richmond. The constant buzzing background of angry, aggressive drivers and busted, broken sidewalks and inconvenient bus schedules feels sharply in focus this week. We’ve come so far in the last five years—something I excitedly tell people on the regular—but, realistically, we’ve got unimaginably far to go before we can even begin to claim that our city is a safe place for people to get around.

I don’t know the specifics of this fatal crash, and I don’t know if all of the red paint and bollards and policy changes in the world would have prevented Alice’s death. But here are two things I do know: Buses are a critical part of Richmond’s future, and our city is full of dangerous streets. We’ve got such a long way to go before we can untie these two incompatible facts.

pics from THE NOOG

I spent last week in Chattanooga (which everyone—and I mean everyone—probably calls THE NOOG) for Project for Public SpacesThird International Placemaking Week. Not going to bother with a run-down of the conference, but I do want to show you some cool photos of things that THE NOOG is doing with regard to transportation and public space. Maybe Richmond can learn a thing or two from a fellow mid-sized river city? (Full disclosure, I didn’t actually hear anyone actually say “The Noog” while I was there.)

Let’s start here, with the Chattanooga Tennessee Riverfront:

The Walnut Street Bridge — used to be for cars, now for people only. 
Terraces along the Tennessee River for public access to the water in downtown Chattanooga.
The Passage is a pedestrian link between downtown Chattanooga and the Tennessee River and marks the beginning of the Trail of Tears. 
The Trail of Tears refers to the journey which forced the removal of the Cherokee tribes from Ross’ s Landing in Chattanooga to Oklahoma. Some 4000 Cherokees died before reaching Oklahoma. 

The Passage is some heavy shit. Onto some light-hearted transportation stuff:

Parking with post and curb protected bike lane! 
And bike share that’s where people want to ride (some bikes were electric-assist).
And, holy shit!—signs that say not to park in the bike lane?! You can do that?!
A free downtown circulator bus that runs “about every 5 minutes” until 11 PM.

I really like how they repurposed the first level of this block-sized parking deck with street-level commercial:

Chattanooga knows how to make cool alleyways by hanging stuff in them:

But Cooper’s Alley is the coolest:

Like Richmond, public art and murals were everywhere:

If I had one gripe, it would be that in an otherwise walkable downtown, nearly every intersection was stacked with beg buttons, requiring you to ask permission to cross the street. Crossing times were not long enough for even an able-bodied person such as myself. And if you forgot to press the button…well, wait until your turn comes back up in a few more minutes.

This one had a big-ass sign, but not many of them did. 

Did you know THE NOOG is home to THE MOONPIE? Well, it is. 

Every time I attend a conference in another city, I am reminded that the best part of a conference is the day that you have totally or mostly free to wander around on foot, take bike share, or hop on a bus and explore. I love actually experiencing a city while visiting, and Chattanooga has a lot to offer for us urbanist-type people. Wouldn’t it be cool if you went to a conference that was just a series of free days for exploring? 🤔

The State has pulled their plan to sever Richmond’s bike network…for now

Earlier this week we wrote about the State’s plan to redesign 9th Street, and, in the process, put a huge hole right in the middle of our Downtown bike network. That plan was unacceptable, and you let them know. 

Great news: Your advocacy totally worked! As of today, we’ve received word that the State’s Department of General Services has withdrawn their proposal for 9th Street until further notice, and it will NOT be heard at the October 10th Urban Design Committee meeting. This is a positive step that’s due, in no small part, to y’all’s willingness to get involved in the civic process.

But we’re not done!

While the possibility of building a safe east-west passage for folks to get through Downtown on bikes survives, the work to make it a reality still remains (this is when we ask you to get involved once more and throw yourselves into the gears of City and State government).

Please take two minutes and email Richmond representatives Del. Jeff Bourne and Sen. Jennifer McClellan and let them know that any plan for redesigning 9th Street or Bank Street must include a safe and protected bike path connecting the existing bike lane on Franklin Street to Bank Street all the way through to 12th Street.

Remember, the Department of General Services answers to the General Assembly, and, while they’ve pulled this particular plan for 9th Street you can bet your back bike fender that they’ll eventually come back with another plan. We need to let Richmond’s elected officials know that any future proposal for redesigning the streets around the Capitol needs to prioritize Richmond’s planned bike network. 

Thank you for your continued advocacy!

The State’s proposed redesign of 9th Street will sever the downtown bike network

As part of the ongoing work to implement changes and improvements to Capitol Square, the state government—specifically the Department of General Services (DGS), which answers to the General Assembly—has released a new plan that will sever a critical bike connection between the eastern and western parts of the city. This overreach by the state, as currently planned, runs counter to Richmond’s Bicycle Master Plan and will leave a hole in the City’s bike network that prevents safe connections between the Franklin Street bike lane, the Capital Trail, and points east…likely forever.

Now is the time to let the City and the General Assembly know that they cannot allow the Department of General Services screw up downtown Richmond’s bike network. More on that below, but, if you’re in a hurry, feel free to email Mayor Stoney (RVAmayor@richmondgov.com) something along the lines of: “A safe and protected bike path connecting Franklin Street to Bank & 12th must be part of any proposal to redesign the area around the Capitol. The City should do everything in its power to alter the State’s current plan for 9th Street.”

Here’s what DGS has planned: They want to build a dedicated vehicle slip lane and floating sidewalk on the east side of 9th Street between Grace and Franklin. To do this, they’ll take the right-most lane on 9th Street and flip-flop it with the sidewalk, creating a protected place for vehicles (similar to that of the Federal Reserve entrance on E. Byrd Street) entering the Capitol while maintaining a sidewalks for folks walking up the hill or catching the bus. Essentially, this removes a travel lane from 9th Street (more on that later) and would also make 9th Street a one-way, northbound street from Canal Street to Leigh Street. This will also create a dual-left turn from Franklin onto 9th Street, which is double the murder trouble for people trying to cross the street right there.

If you can wrap your head around engineering diagrams, here’s what it’ll look like:

State, Y U NO LIKE BIKES?

The purpose behind DGS’s plan to remake 9th is, ostensibly, safety and security. From their application to UDC (UDC 2019-26):

To modify both vehicular approach and screening capabilities for vehicles seeking entry to the Capitol Campus. To harden the security of Commonwealth Gate #1 thereby addressing security concerns and vulnerabilities that currently exist to pedestrians and Commonwealth of Virginia facilities (i.e. the State Capitol and the Governor’s Mansion).

Unfortunately, this proposal punches a huge hole into the City’s long-planned bicycle network and prevents a safe and easy connection from the Franklin Street bike lane to Bank Street and points east. If 9th Street is modified as shown, there is no safe way to ride a bike from the Franklin Street bike lane on to Bank Street. Your safest bet is to dismount, walk across 9th in the crosswalk, walk down the sidewalk to Bank, and get back on your bike. This sounds terrible, unrealistic, and will most likely result in an uncomfortable mixing of bikes and pedestrians. The alternative most folks will end up taking is to exit the Franklin Street bike lane a couple streets early, which unnecessarily puts riders in mixed traffic and obviates several blocks of our city’s best bike infrastructure.

Additionally, because DGS’s plan already includes removing a vehicle travel lane on 9th Street, the likelihood of taking another lane to build a bike lane on 9th—something that’s been recommended in the Bicycle Master Plan since 2014 (see below)—is close to zero.

Here’s what we want: A safe and protected bike path connecting Franklin Street to Bank & 12th. This is what’s recommended in Richmond’s Bicycle Master Plan, and it opens up both east-west and north-south connections for folks on bikes—plus it just makes a ton of sense. The Department of General Services’ proposal breaks existing and future bike connections, puts people on bikes in unsafe situations, and prioritizes vehicular entry into the Capitol Grounds over the people who use Richmond’s streets every day.

Ahhhh that’s better. A simple, safe way to move east-west through Downtown by bike.

There are a couple of different ways to go about creating a safe bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure on 9th Street, but it all begins with getting DGS to modify their current plan to include safe bike infrastructure.

So, if you’d prefer that the State government not waltz into town and blow up our bike network, here’s how you can help:

  1. The City’s Urban Design Committee will consider this plan on October 10th. Email the UDC secretary, Josh Son (Joshua.Son@richmondgov.com), to let them know that you do NOT support the current proposal. Shoot for something simple and short, along the lines of: “A safe and protected bike path connecting Franklin Street to Bank & 12th must be part of any proposal to redesign the area around the Capitol.”
  2. The City’s Planning Commission will consider this plan on October 21st. Email the Planning Commission’s secretary, Matthew Ebinger, (Matthew.Ebinger@richmondgov.com), and let them know that you do NOT support the current proposal. Feel free to use the same email you sent to UDC.
  3. One of the Mayor’s roles—and something he talks about frequently—is being a champion for Richmond across the street at the General Assembly. This is a perfect opportunity for him to do just that, and you can let him know you’d like to advocate for the City’s bike network by sending an email to RVAmayor@richmondgov.com.
  4. Finally, since this is a State plan, you can email your representatives at the General Assembly and ask them to get DGS to change their plan. You can find your legislator’s contact information here.
Look at all of those bike lanes we should have Downtown!