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.

Let’s not build bike lanes that end in parked cars

When I first started biking in Richmond a few years ago, I used the Lombardy bike lane almost daily. It’s not a perfect piece of infrastructure (it could be wider in places and would be better with physical protection) but it’s a critical and well-used connector from Northside to the Fan. Biking in this lane offers a pleasant (if brief) vacation from cycling in traffic but it ends abruptly, dumps cyclists onto Broad Street, and forces them to merge with vehicular traffic (which is challenging, dangerous, and uncomfortable).

The dreaded Forced Merge Into Traffic at Broad Street.

The moment Where The Bike Lane Ends was almost always the worst part of my bike commute. If I didn’t love biking and weren’t incredibly stubborn, one or two experiences like this might have pushed me off my bike and back into my car—and I’m young and able-bodied. Moments like these must be even more terrifying and frustrating for those who are less-abled or more risk-averse. If our streets and bike lanes are really for people of all ages and abilities, what happens at the ends of bike lanes is critical. Bike lanes should never force cyclists into sudden, dangerous situations.

When I first encountered The End of the Lombardy Bike Lane, I was new to bicycle planning. I wondered why anyone who cared enough to build a bike lane in the first place would design one that dumped cyclists into Broad Street. Now I can guess why: on-street parking spaces. Anyone who has attended a public meeting about any project that proposed removing on-street parking spaces knows that re-purposing public space from low- or no-cost private vehicle storage to public mobility space angers a vocal minority. But it’s important to have this difficult conversation about how we use public space.

On Lombardy, 30 parked cars stand in the way of having safe, continuous, dedicated bike lanes south of Broad to Monument Avenue (on both sides of the street). If the entire public street space on every one of those eight blocks were dedicated to moving people (on bikes) rather than storing personal vehicles, it would be safe and comfortable for anyone to bike from Virginia Union University (including everyone from Northside who uses the coming-soon Brook Road bike lane) all the way through the Fan. Letting these parked cars continue to occupy prime public space means the difference between people on bikes feeling vulnerable and nervous and those same people feeling safe, comfortable, and welcome. Creating a safe, protected bike lane along Lombardy, as part of a wider network, would encourage more people to bike.

People on bikes being forced to bike around parked cars on Lombardy between Broad and Grace.

Obviously, The Lombardy bike lane would be an even more useful connector if it continued, on both sides, to Park Avenue or the Floyd Avenue Bike-Walk Street or even (gasp) all the way to where Lombardy ends at Cary Street. But on each block, there are a handful of parked cars.

How a protected bike lane along Lombardy to Monument Avenue might look.

The benefits of improving cycling networks are numerous and well-documented: they’re great for business, boost property values, improve health, make everyone safer and reduce congestion for everyone (yes, you read that right—building bike lanes reduces congestion for vehicles too, a statistic you’ll understand if you’ve ever driven behind someone forced to bike in the car lane).

So let’s re-think the way we use our incredibly valuable (and limited) street space. Should it be used for static vehicle storage (parking) or dynamic human movement (a bike lane)? Shouldn’t our public spaces promote public safety, health, and mobility? So let’s look at Lombardy south of Broad Street and make the corridor safer and more inviting for people biking.

The number of vehicles parked in space that could be a protected bike lane on 0.25 miles of Lombardy.