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Different Spokes

With the international bike races coming, the counties are struggling to accommodate a renewed interest in cycling.

Different Spokes
Cycling is gaining in popularity, but adding bike lanes to suburban roads is expensive – and politically difficult.
By Peter Galuszka | Photos by Ash Daniel

On a recent hot afternoon, Victor Foreman, dressed in a sweat-soaked, orange-colored sports shirt, pumps away on his Trek bicycle along rural Second Branch Road in southern Chesterfield County.

Traffic is light this time of day, preferable for Foreman, who lives in Carters Mill. “I’ve made 1,600 miles in two years,” says Foreman, who took up cycling after he was injured playing basketball. Chesterfield’s narrow, windy country roads, along with impatient drivers, are a problem, but Foreman pedals on. He lauds cycling as a great and fast-growing sport.

He isn’t alone. Cycling is growing in popularity. The Richmond region is about to play host to the UCI Road World Championships, a nine-day event expected to start Sept. 19 and draw more than 400,000 cycling enthusiasts to the region.

Images of Richmond, including Confederate generals on Monument Avenue, will be broadcast globally time and again during the races. Cycle mania has swept the area as hotels book rooms, vendors stock race apparel and artists paint murals to enliven the routes, including the 54-mile-long Virginia Capital Trail in eastern Henrico County that runs all the way to Williamsburg.

The race craze underlies an important cultural shift, especially in the region’s urban center. Cycling groups have seen their memberships swell. And it’s not just for the exercise. As the population becomes younger and more environmentally conscious, people are embracing two-wheeled travel. Cycling lanes and bike racks are popping up across Richmond.

In the suburbs, however, the cycling boom is running into resistance. Designed primarily around the automobile, the suburban counties have been slow to accommodate the trend. Chesterfield’s political leaders have declined to participate in the international cycling competition, citing budgetary constraints, and generally have yet to make room for bicyclists, especially on the county’s two most-traveled thoroughfares – Hull Street Road and Midlothian Turnpike. Nonetheless, Chesterfield has launched the region’s most ambitious plan – to add 362 miles of bike and pedestrian trails.

 The plan, says Stuart W. Connock Jr., who oversees construction and design for Chesterfield Parks and Recreation, would connect more populated areas in the county’s north with Richmond and add new trails in more isolated parts of the county to the south.
But to date, the plan has garnered little by way of financial resources. Envisioned over the next 50 years, the plan carries a hefty price tag of $360 million that would be financed by taxes, grants and contributions, Connock says.

Polls have shown that 93 percent of county residents want better bike access. The county has begun a series of public hearings to gather input on the bike plan. But at a June 17 hearing, skeptical citizens questioned the proposal’s expense and whether it would lead to property rights clashes and invasions of privacy. “This is just a plan; it’s just at the beginning,” says Edgar V. Wallin, planning commissioner from the Matoaca District, saying that it can change as more opinions come forth. The next hearing will be in September.

But at least Chesterfield has a plan. Henrico County doesn’t have a bike plan at all, other than a few paragraphs in the county’s 2026 Comprehensive Plan. “It is in Chapter 10,” says Henrico Planning Director R. Joseph Emerson, “and it calls for more bike paths.”

“At this point we do not have a separate plan,” says Todd Eure, transportation development division director in Henrico’s Department of Public Works, “We have not received that direction from the Board of Supervisors yet.”

Cycling enthusiasts praise Chesterfield for being farsighted. “We’ve seen Chesterfield put a lot of thought and effort into creating a bike plan,” says Gregg Hillman, a set lighting designer who is president of the Richmond Area Bicycling Association. “I’m a resident of Henrico, and it has no plan. Short Pump is bloated in terms of size and scale, and you don’t see anything for pedestrians or cyclists.”
Controversies over bicycles date back to the 1870s when newfangled contraptions started popping up. They were so awkward to pedal that they were originally referred to as “boneshakers,” designed with wooden wheels and tires made of iron. Another bicycle design was the equally dangerous penny-farthing because it had a huge front wheel and a tiny rear one so it resembled British coins that had remarkably different sizes. The “safety bicycle” didn’t show up until the 1900s.

According to James Longhurst, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse, early bicycling had a cachet of being an upper-class activity that belonged in the exclusive sphere of white men. Women and people of color were discouraged from participating, according to Longhurst’s new book, “Bike Battles: A History of Sharing the American Road.”

Conflicts also broke out over whether roads should be dominated by wagons, walkers or bikers. The debate was settled, at least for some decades, when the automobile appeared from 1900 to 1920. By midcentury, bikes became regarded as toys for children. By the 1950s and 1960s, he writes, being an adolescent and getting a driver’s license became a rite of passage for maturity. Young people wanted to roar around in cars and not be seen on kids’ bikes.

By the 1960s, more people began to adopt European attitudes toward bicycles. They were regarded as efficient, nonpolluting and a useful way to get exercise. They also took on a counterculture panache of challenging conventional authority, including the powerful, Detroit-based car industry.
Today, bicycling is loaded with high-tech gear. Typical road bikes cost $400 or more, not including riding apparel, flashing safety lights and shoes. While large retailers including Wal-Mart and Target have always sold bikes, specialty bike shops are opening and expanding, including Conte’s Bike Shop and Carytown Bicycle Co., which opened a second store at Westchester Commons in Midlothian earlier this year and has done a brisk business, says store manager Mike Stoop.

Still, the attitudinal change about biking has been a long time coming. Chesterfield, for example, didn’t start planning seriously for bike trails until 1989 and has been refining plans since then.

Most developed bike paths are in the more populous northern part of the county on such familiar thoroughfares as Charter Colony Parkway, Courthouse Road, Robious Road and Woolridge Road. Several of them funnel into the northern part of Pocahontas State Park, which features a multitude of bike trails.

The Richmond Area Bicycling Association regularly hosts weekend rides through the counties. On a recent Sunday in July, a group of cyclists catches a quick breather at a stop sign in Varina.
According to Connock, the new plan builds on existing paths, spreading out along connectors in the northern part of the county and adding new ones, such as River Road from the county’s southwestern piney woods to Petersburg. The idea is to form a backbone of routes that cross the county, toss in some connectors to schools, libraries and the like and then incorporate some scenic routes.

One in the last category would be the Appomattox River Scenic Route, which would skirt the county’s southern border and include paths along or near Lake Chesdin. Much of the land to the west is owned by timber companies and is leased by private hunt clubs.

Yet another would connect the sprawling subdivisions of Woodlake and Brandermill along Genito Road to parts to the east. “Just think,” Connock says, “you might be able to bike all the way from Woodlake to watch a movie at the Commonwealth 20 theaters near Hull Street Road and Route 288 or go shopping.”

Farther north, Connock sees trails linking subdivisions along Robious Road to Richmond, creating cycling commuter routes. Others would funnel into office parks near Charter Colony or other areas.

The actual bike paths can take several forms, Connock says. Off-road paths can range from 10 feet to 14 feet in width surrounded by cleared areas.

Ones alongside existing roads can involve more land with rights of way of 70 feet to 125 feet in width, depending on the size of the road. In some cases, motorists would be warned not to stray on the roadside bike paths by yellow caution stakes. To cross streets, lanes may be equipped with signals that can be set off by pedestrians or cyclists. The county has 192 of them now.

Going farther still, plans are to connect county bike trails with regional ones such as the East Coast Greenway that will stretch about 2,500 miles from Calais, Maine, to Key West, Florida, or the 54-mile Virginia Capital Trail that will host international bike racers in September and links Richmond, Williamsburg and Jamestown.

Cyclists often have special runs that tour the Richmond area, such as the 102-mile “Grand Fondo” that runs through eight localities, says Stoop. He says the trip can take casual bikers about eight hours, but cyclists in top shape can do it much faster.

Henrico’s rather skimpy initiative on cycling trails instructs the county to boost bike lanes on such roads as Routes 1 and 76. It directs planners to “consider the accommodation of bicycles in the planning and design of all major roads where feasible.” The requirement follows policies expounded by the Virginia Department of Transportation, although Henrico is one of only two localities in the state that builds and maintains its own secondary roads.

As more people cycle, an inevitable conflict is arising between riders and motorists who still don’t understand that the bicyclists have just as much legal right to be on a highway as motorists do, unless, of course, it is a high-speed, limited-access highway.

Two high-profile deaths of bicyclists have marred the area in recent years. In July 2012, Lanie Kruszewski, 24, was struck and killed by a driver on River Road in Richmond while she was riding home from her restaurant job. The driver of the car that struck her, Elias Webb, was sentenced to three years in prison.

In September 2013, Gary B. Burton, a 63-year-old Richmond city planner, was struck and killed when he was riding to visit his sister on Huguenot Road in Midlothian. At the time, the thoroughfare had no designated bike lanes.

Signaling a group turn on a recent Sunday morning ride in Henrico, cyclists navigate shoulderless roads and, at times, impatient motorists.
Chesterfield’s bike trail plan is designed specifically to prevent such accidents. But in the county, there are special problems with a number of roads in the more rural southern corridors, such as Beach, Genito and River roads.

“They had been old wagon trails that started to get paved round 1900,” Connock says of the older rural roadways. Large swaths of the roads have no shoulder to speak of and are filled with sharp turns, sudden rises and other blind spots. Motorists often go 55 miles per hour or more on the twisting roads that are favored by cyclists for their pretty, rural scenery.

“The speed limits there are high,” says Tim Mullins, a co-founder of Carytown Bicycle. “When I get buzzed by a car at one foot, I have a near-death experience. It’s about respect. Someone has to be inconvenienced for 10 seconds when he slows down. I have a right to be there. I pay taxes like everyone else.”

Part of the problem is cultural. “I just got back from the Netherlands and Europe,” Mullins says. “People there are really into biking and use them to commute to work. Drivers slow down or there are safe paths.” Yet local motorists, unused to bicyclists, often feel that the road is for them exclusively, especially in rural areas where they can zip along unencumbered by traffic lights or stop signs.

Another problem, says cyclist Foreman, is that riders living in subdivisions such as Carters Mill must pedal on dangerous roads to get to safer ones.

Installing shoulders on older roads to accommodate cyclists is problematic because many rural residents have mailboxes mere inches from the edge of the pavement, or roads meander and curve around trees or follow property lines that were established decades before.

The county has straightened out curves, but to do so for bike paths will involve acquiring property or enforcing rights of way. If there’s no agreement with a property owner, “then we would have to acquire the property,” Connock says. Doing so could end up in lengthy court battles, giving rise to charges that the county is condemning land merely to accommodate someone’s hobby. While cycling is growing in popularity, the number of riders using the roads is still miniscule compared to motorists, making it difficult to justify the taxpayer expense of spending millions on bike lanes.

Building off-road paths might run into other types of property ownership issues. At the June public hearing, Jim Cress complained that adding paths could invade homeowners’ privacy.

Similar concerns date back to the early days of bicycle. History professor Longhurst notes in his book that a Chicago farmer named Absalom Wycoff would whip anyone cycling across his property. He stopped his horsewhipping practices when a bicyclist retaliated by beating Wycoff with his own whip.

Modern-day trespassing issues might involve private waterfront property. The proposed Appomattox River Scenic Route skims the shoreline of Lake Chesdin in parts. Building the path might involve ruining a property owner’s water access or scenic view for which he may have paid dearly. This is one reason the trail would skirt around the high-income Chesdin Landing subdivision, Connock says.

Another issue may come up if public bike paths link up with the huge subdivisions of Woodlake and Brandermill. Both have miles of their own bike trails, but they are considered private property and are maintained by their homeowners associations. If nonresidents arriving on public paths veer off onto private ones, there could be trouble, Connock notes. He’s started having discussions about the matter with Brandermill and will soon do so with Woodlake. “Usually, we’d put up signs saying ‘private property’ after a certain point,” he says.

Henrico, meanwhile, is much further behind. Hillmann says that while Henrico has bike paths in county parks and has some designated bike paths near busy highways, they aren’t enough. Trying to cross West Broad Street in the Short Pump area, he says, “is like taking your life in your hands.”

In Chesterfield, the high estimated cost of the bike plan – $360 million – could be a problem. County voters dislike spending. Two years ago, 104,000 voters, 56 percent of the total, voted down a proposed modest hike on the county meals tax to pay for more than $300 million in school construction projects. If county voters say no to schools, spending millions on bike paths may be wishful thinking.

Connock says the figure is just an estimate and would involve a 50-year time frame. It isn’t clear where the funds would come from, but possibilities include state and federal road funding and grants. In some cases, developers might raise some funds by paying something like proffers they now pay when they build houses to cover the cost of public infrastructure and services, including schools, water and sewer.

 He says it would take about two years from the time the plan is approved to get something in motion. “This is a 50-year-plus plan,” he says, noting that current bike path plans in the Raleigh-Durham area in North Carolina were put together in the 1970s and still are being built out. In other parts of Virginia, bike path projects have been helped because they have been located on abandoned railroad lines, which helps cut down on costs.

Planning Commissioner Wallin said that modifications may be made as more public comment becomes available through public hearings.

For the same to happen in Henrico, the county’s Board of Supervisors would have to initiate the move, Eure says: “We haven’t had any direction from them yet.”

One telling factor in how the push for bicycle paths continues may be how well the UCI races go. If they create overwhelming traffic congestion and bad publicity, the movement could coast for a while. But if it is a smashing success, pedaling in Chesterfield and Henrico just might shift into a higher gear.

© 2017 Chesterfield Observer