Atlantic Cities

In Search of a Bicycling Culture, Richmond Invites World's Elites to Town

In Search of a Bicycling Culture, Richmond Invites World's Elites to Town
Flickr user tdm911, licensed under Creative Commons

There are a number of ways to encourage a bicycle commuting culture in a city that has never had much of one. Bike-share programs are a good start. Cities can also paint new bike lanes, install bike-parking infrastructure or celebrate Bike to Work Day. Sending the mayor to work on a bike is also a good call.

And then there's this idea: Bring one of the world’s largest international cycling competitions to town, and see if that doesn’t transform the place.

“It’s not your typical [strategy],” laughs Jakob Helmboldt, who was hired over the summer as the first bicycle, pedestrian and trails coordinator for the city of Richmond, Virginia. “It’s not like every city is going after hosting the World Road Cycling Championships and using that as some kind of catalyst. But that’s kind of the way it’s being seen here.”

Last month, Richmond won its bid to host the 2015 UCI Road World Championships, bringing the nine-day event to the United States for the first time since 1986. The elite racing series is projected to have an economic impact of $86 million in town, and $130 million in the region. But more importantly, bike advocates in Richmond, including its recently converted mayor, Dwight Jones, are hoping the event will prompt new bike infrastructure, new bike commuters, new jobs in bike-related industries, and even new businesses interested in relocating to a “bike-friendly” city.

Currently, Richmond only has about three miles of bike lanes, and just 2.2 percent of people commute to work by bike according to the most recent census estimates (Helmboldt, though, adds that he’s cautious of census statistics on this question). The James River that cuts through Richmond also makes cross-town biking difficult.

“The last thing we want to do,” Helmboldt says, “is have this big event that draws a bunch of cyclists, a bunch of people with very healthy lifestyles, 500,000 spectators from around the world, and not have a city in which people can move about freely without having to be in a car.”

So the city has committed to building new infrastructure to accommodate the championships (which will run primarily through a 10-mile circuit within the city’s urban core), but it’s also planning to use the championships as an excuse to ramp up bike routes and programs not necessarily intended for the international cycling elite. By 2015, the region plans to have completed a 52-mile paved trail from the state capitol in Richmond to the old capitol of Williamsburg, so tourists will be able to take in the entire Virginia “Historic Triangle” without setting foot in a car.

Richmond also plans to expand the trails along its riverfront, knit together its existing greenways, and install more bike lanes and bike parking, all while rolling out outreach programs that will help translate cycling from an international spectator sport into a local commuting solution.

“The event is drawing a lot of attention to all of the other initiatives that we’ll be developing over the next four years,” Helmboldt says. The plan is admittedly not a biking blueprint that other cities could steal (the UCI championships are only held outside Europe once every five years, for one thing). But the catalyst may come as much from the looming deadline as the championships themselves. “It makes it that much more compelling when we say, ‘OK we need to start making the city more bikeable in these four years,’" Helmboldt says. "It gives us a real target to shoot for, a compelling reason to undertake a number of projects.”

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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