Cyclists question ordinance to prohibit Brook Road bike lanes

RICHMOND, Va. –Bicycle advocates want two City Council representatives to justify their ordinance to tap the brakes on an already funded plan that would reduce vehicular traffic lanes on Brook Road and install bike lanes in each direction.

In urban planning language, the plan is called a road diet and the city secured state funding to implement the lanes along a 3.8-mile stretch of Brook Road between Azalea Avenue and West Charity Street. The road would be restructured to include room for parking, a bike lane, and one vehicular traffic lane in each direction. It would be similar in design to the new Franklin Street protected bike corridor, though the floating parking lane would be in place all the time.

Brook Road was first identified as a possibility for a bike corridor in 2013, in the Richmond Connects Multimodal Plan and then in 2014 as part of the Bicycle Master Plan – which calls for the implementation of approximately 135 miles of new bikeways by 2025.

“Both of those plans identify opportunities throughout the city in a coordinated effort to make a usable network,” said Brantley Tyndall with Bike Walk RVA, a local advocacy group.

Implementation of the citywide bike network has been done incrementally, with the goal to have a comprehensive system. Brook Road would be a major north/south corridor connecting cyclists from Northside to downtown and it would hook up with the east/west Brookland Parkway bike corridor that was created in 2014.

Council president Chris Hilbert, third district, along with second district council member Kim Gray, recently submitted an ordinance to prohibit the new travel lanes.

Traffic and speed data on Brook Road was collected in 2017, according to Jakob Helmboldt, the city's Bicycle, Pedestrian and Trails Coordinator.

Federal guidelines from the Department of Transportation advise that roadways with average daily traffic  of 20,000 daily vehicle or less may be good candidates for a road diet and should be evaluated for feasibility.  Advocates said the traffic study determined that Brook Road met federal guidelines as a candidate for the road diet,  with around 10,000 cars traveling the route daily,  but Gray said she wants to see another traffic study before the project moves forward.

“All of these plans are several years old,” she said. ”They were in development long before the 301-apartment unit development on the Westwood Tract was being contemplated; before the 200 units at Lombardy and Brook were being contemplated.”

Helmboldt said that the plans were not done “long before” the development at Westwood Tract was being contemplated, and that the plans were contemporaneous and discussions included those changing conditions.

The consulting engineers who reviewed traffic determined that two intersections warranted keeping two through-lanes, plus both turn lanes, and transitioning back to a single lane to ensure adequate level of service during peak hour, according to Helmboldt.

"The analysis showed it would work with a single lane, but would be marginal, and with additional traffic from the Westwood Tract apartments they felt it best to design for the additional capacity up front," he said.

From a design perspective, the key is providing for left turns outside of the through lane so that traffic does not bottle up behind the left turning vehicle. All but three intersections at the southern end of Brook, including intersections without signals, have left turn lanes, and the signalized ones have right turn lanes, thus providing intersection capacity, which ultimately becomes the limiting factor in being able to move traffic through (think of it in terms of a hose and a valve), Helmboldt explained.

The left and right turn lanes also distinguish Brook Road as a better contender for the road diet, over Chamberlayne, which does not have the benefit of turn lanes at most intersections and carries twice as much traffic, Helmboldt said.

Advocates also defended the longevity of the data, noting that an increase of around 1,000 cars would still keep traffic well below federal recommended guidelines for a road diet.

“Bike Walk RVA is not excited about the ordinance to outlaw a bike lane project,” Tyndall said. “It leaves out an opportunity for negotiation and adjustment and it really just says no to something a lot of Northsiders are really excited about.“

Around 10,000 cars travel along Brook Road daily, advocates say.

Gray maintained that a lot of residents aren’t excited about limiting vehicular travel to one lane and said they fear there will be even more traffic backups. She also brought up concerns over emergency vehicles and snow removal trucks navigating the current proposed layout.

“It’s all about peak times and what is happening at specific times in the day,” Gray added.

Homeowner Ed Knight said there are plenty of other options for vehicle commuters including Hermitage, Chamberlayne, and the interstate – and the residents would enjoy less traffic on Brook.

“It would be safer for the children, safer for the adults and safer for the pets,” Knight said.

“The bike lane on Brook Road has a real opportunity to calm traffic and help pedestrians cross the street,” Tyndall said. “Traffic studies have shown that 65 percent of drivers exceed 40 miles per hour (on Brook), and if you are a pedestrian that gets hit at 40 miles an hour, then you have an 85 percent chance of not living.”

The speed limit on Brook Road is 35 miles per hour.

The 2017 traffic data also showed that  20 percent of drivers go 45-50 miles per hour, with another five percent driving 50-55 miles per hour.

Helmboldt said that equates to around 2,500 vehicles per day exceeding 45 miles per hour. Of those, more than 100 drivers daily are driving at least 20 miles per hour over the limit.

Gray said safety is on her mind as well and hopes a solution can be reached that satisfies people on both sides of this issue.

“I’m totally in favor of bike lanes,” Gray said, “my child rides her bike to work every day and back home. She bikes throughout the city to do her grocery shopping and every other function.”

“She’s been hit by a vehicle on her bike, so I know how important bike safety is for our citizens,” she added. It’s no closer to me than my own child.”

Gray also wants the community to be allowed more input, though Tyndall pointed out there were already two public meetings about Brook Road. Gray also said people across the city really know nothing about the Bicycle Master Plan (BMP) and called for more transparency.

When the BMP was being created, the City of Richmond created and distributed an online survey to solicit public input to  help determine priority streets and corridors for bicycle improvements, as well as collect information about which types of infrastructure improvements were most desired by the public.

Over 2,700 responses were recorded, according to the city. There were also multiple public open house events hosted by The Partnership for Smarter Growth and Bike Walk RVA, in 2013 and 2014, regarding the network recommendations and to receive comments from the public.

Hilbert was contacted multiple times to participate in this story, but never responded. He did post about the ordinance on his Facebook page and received numerous responses. 

Avid cyclist and coach Susan Ann Glass said that adding bike lanes to Brook Road is a no brainer.

“The money is there already for this safe bike lane…and we really, really need it,” she said.

“If they can do it in New York City, they can do it in Richmond,” Glass said, “we are a much smaller city and we have a lot of people who love to ride bikes.”

Gray said that the ordinance will be continued to the fall, instead of going before council on July 23.

“We are waiting to hear from DPW about initiating a comprehensive traffic study,” she said.

Bike Walk RVA has created a campaign for people to reach their council members about the ordinance. Click here for info.

***This story was updated to reflect data from the City of Richmond's Bicycle, Pedestrian and Trails Coordinator, who was out of office when the story was originally published.***