The future of Richmond biking

The man who now holds the title of the city’s Bike, Pedestrian, and Trails Coordinator is the first to hold the position. What does he plan to do, and what future do cyclists in Richmond have?

“If I didn’t think they were serious,” says Jakob Helmboldt, “I wouldn’t have taken the position.” He’s sitting across from me at a small table inside Lift coffee shop on Broad, and the position to which he refers is Richmond’s Bicycle, Pedestrian, and Trails Coordinator (BPTC)—the first person to hold such the title.

“I don’t think they would be doing all this unless they believed in it.”

I’m asking Helmboldt about his recent hire because I, like other Richmonders, can’t help but be a bit skeptical. It’s not that I don’t trust him—he’s remarkably affable and exudes a charming confidence that I find to be rather refreshing—but many in Richmond have been waiting for the city to become more bike-friendly. Now, with the Mayor’s office on board and Helmboldt on board, it seems all too…convenient–as if there is some shoe that waits for the most opportune moment to drop.

It’s with this incredulousness that I asked to speak with Helmboldt. Wearing a simple dress pant/dress shirt combination, the only overwhelming pieces of his presence in Lift are the thin frame eyeglasses he wears and the gold band on his ring finger. I find out he has 30 years of recreational and competitive cycling experience. Initially, I take his charming and reserved demeanor as one of naiveté. He strikes me as a man that was launched into the deep end of a large Richmond bureaucracy pool. Happily, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The City tapped him to be the new BPTC in mid-June. He will report to both Carolyn Graham and Byron Marshall, the city’s Deputy Chief Administrative Officer and Chief Administrative Officer, respectively.

When I ask him about his recent comment shortly after being awarded the new position (“What I won’t do is simply try to emulate what some other city has done. Richmond isn’t going to be the next Portland. We’re going to be the first Richmond.”) he maintains that “Every community has their own unique issues….and challenges.”

Jakob Helmboldt’s Curriculum Vitae

Education

  • M.S. Urban and Regional Planning
    Virginia Commonwealth University 2001
  • B.S. Business Administration Virginia Commonwealth University
    Minor: Political Science 1993

Work experience

  • Project Manager
    Transportation engineering and planning consultant services specializing in bicycle and pedestrian transportation and safety. VHB is recognized as a leader in engineering and planning services in the U.S. (January 2010 – August 2011)
  • Virginia Department of Transportation, Richmond, VA
    Statewide Bicycle and Pedestrian Program Coordinator (July 2007 – December 2009)
  • Virginia Department of Transportation, Richmond, VA
    Safe Routes to School Program Coordinator (April 2006 – July 2007)
  • GRTC Transit System, Richmond, VA
    Transportation Planner & GIS Coordinator (June 2000 – October 2003)

Perhaps the most immediate challenge for Richmond is to foster a conducive environment between motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians. One of the biggest issues is that cycling in Richmond is seen by many (including cyclists) as being a “niche activity.” There are the VCU students who bike, the Hipsters, the long-distance riders, etc. What Helmboldt wants so see, however, is a push to recognize the “vehicular cyclist” as a legitimate commuter. Biking, says Helmboldt, is “not alternative transportation—it’s transportation.” We talk about how in bike-friendly European cities, say for instance Copenhagen, cyclists don’t identify themselves as cyclists, as Americans typically do. They see themselves as someone who’s simply getting around their city, no different than a driver, or a bus rider, or a walker. “Making it more mainstream, more normal” is Helmboldt’s ultimate goal.

Although this goal is quite laudable, accomplishing it is another matter altogether. He smiles. “It’s definitely a challenge.”

So I begin to pry. How is he going to do reify this bike-accommodating philosophy. What, precisely, will he do?

He tells me about the Four ‘E’ Model. The first ‘E’ is engineering. It is the changing of infrastructure to best accommodate a more “complete street,” a street that well serves all of the main modal forms of transportation (cars, bikes, walking). This includes adding signage, creating bike lanes, and implementing sharrows. He tells me that by the end of spring 2012, there will be 80 miles of bike-related improvements to Richmond roadways. This will include adding bike lanes that run on the north-south and east-west corridors, as well as additions to US Bike Route 1.

With regards to sharrows, Helmboldt tells me that only recently were sharrows recognized by the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) as a standard for traffic implementation (the MUTCD defines the standards which all nationwide traffic control devices use). Heretofore, sharrows were only experimental designs. They are now official and will be used across the country–which will help build national recognition.

The second ‘E’ is education. This entails that all people, no matter which mode of transportation that they are using in any given instance, know about the other modes. For instance, Helmboldt tells me that at intersections that lack a traffic signal, stop sign, or crosswalk, pedestrians are legally entitled to cross the street as if it were a crosswalk. He also tells me that cyclists can legally park their bikes using city property (meters, trash cans, STOP signs, etc.) with impunity, as he did with his bike outside the coffee shop.

The third ‘E’ is enforcement. Helmboldt states several times that “enforcement does not have to be punitive.” He can envision an instance where police stop a cyclist who does not have flashing lights on their bike during a night ride. Police, Helmboldt says, can inform and encourage cyclists without having to write the offender a ticket. Instead, Helmboldt envisions police targeting the most “egregious offenders and behaviors,” such individuals and acts that put in danger any one of the varying modal transportation users. Helmboldt affirms that even bike-friendly options such as showers at one’s work or free bike parking will not entice more bike riding if people do not feel safe cycling on Richmond roadways.

The fourth ‘E’ is encouragement. This is to “enable people,” says Helmboldt. He tells me that the city is developing a bike training facility that will house courses for Richmonders to take. Although there is no plan to make these courses mandatory for cyclists, Helmboldt sees both the facility and courses as being a way to encourage the act of cycling, to make it part of the mainstream.

He also tells me that the Capital Improvement Budget has allocated funds for the city to install bike racks “where they are most needed.” I tell Helmboldt about Main Art Supply in the Fan which has installed a custom bike rack outside of their store. Thinking aloud, I propose to Helmboldt that what if, instead of installing the same model bike rack throughout the city, there was a way for communities and businesses to customize their own? He nods in eager agreement, eyes widening and mouth smiling at the possibility.

He reminds me of the Go Fish art project that placed hundreds of custom-colored fish statues around the city back in the summer of 2001 (some of which still exist). He also brings up David Byrne, the front man for the band Talking Heads. Byrne and the New York City Department of Transportation judged custom bike rack designs that were later installed throughout Manhatten and Brooklyn. He also mentions that Norfolk has followed a similar undertaking. What these creative efforts are doing, says Helmboldt, are “making it cool” to commute via bike. Something in this vein involving bike racks would help Richmond show that cycling is a legitimate and proper form of transportation.

Despite all of the excitement that Helmoldt and the city has about his new position, he is nothing if not practical and patient. He tells me that in his first graduate semester at VCU, where he earned an MA in Urban and Regional Planning, a professor said something that Helmboldt still remembers to this day: change happens incrementally.

Helmboldt does not have the power that the dream designers did in the film Inception. He cannot make roads wider with a snap of his fingers, he cannot paint bike lanes without budgetary approval. And he most certainly did not take the job to perform a quick fix. He knows that effective change will take decades–like it did in the cycling Mecca of Portland.

He is also aware that whatever changes come about in Richmond will not be his sole doing but that of the community. He sees himself as a true coordinator, an implementer, not a grand designer. “I’ve got a lot of people I can tap into,” he says, not least of which are Richmonders. He says he wants the public to become more involved, to come up with unique ideas that will make Richmond stand out among other cities.

“This isn’t my plan,” he says. “It’s the community that needs to help drive this and keep it on the rails.” Helmboldt has been entrusted to serve as a biking advocate to the city, the first position of its kind, so that these and other ideas become concrete. Ideas that are no longer lost in Richmond’s passing breath of what could have been.

 

photo by John Murden

  • error

    Report an error

Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

17 comments on The future of Richmond biking

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this piece, excellent work Nathan. I appreciate you writing about your apprehension about celebrating this new position — Richmond does tend to pull the rug out from under us….

  2. Phil on said:

    Awesome!

  3. Julie on said:

    Great article Nathan! I hope his vision comes to fruition and as a Richmond citizen who uses most modes of transport will pitch my effort in.

    A couple of follow-up questions – what is VHB and what happened in Williamsburg where he was last employed? (also – to reify :)

  4. mark on said:

    David Byrne was the frontman of Talking Heads, not Television.

    Great article!

  5. @mark – You are absolutely correct! I am rather ashamed to have confused my punk/new wave history by thinking of Richard Hell’s band, Television, instead of the Talking Heads.

  6. Jason James on said:

    Great piece, and kudos to RVA News for doing a great job covering cycling and pedestrian issues!

  7. Jake Helmboldt on said:

    Nathan, thanks for a great article. I look forward to future conversations about what we are doing at the city and how the larger Richmond community can engage on these efforts.

    Oh, and on the six degrees of punk rock, Richard Hell was also frontman for the Voidoids.

  8. Nathan,
    I found this very interesting. I love to bike and live in SW Florida. I often wondered why FLA doesn’t have bike routes from city to city, considering the fabulous weather we have most of the year round. It is illegal to ride on the sidewalks, although I would prefer to get a ticket for that then get run over by someone that is not paying attention because of texting, talking on the phone or because they just aren’t paying attention.
    Good Job!

  9. Clay Adams on said:

    “Perhaps the most immediate challenge for Richmond is to foster a conducive environment between motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians. ”
    *****
    Conducive to what?

  10. Stuart Squier on said:

    Okay, about the “customized bike racks,” this is hands-down my biggest pet peeve in cycling infrastructure. If you look around town you will see that there are no less than a dozen different bike rack designs. They range from the standard “Many U’s” design around VCU (and now “Many Slanting U’s”) to the bizarre “Sideways CD Rack” found at City Hall and Carytown Kroger, to the sculptural artistic racks at Main Art and Ellwood’s. These designs vary in their degree of usefulness, some are just okay while others are actually non-functional (try and lock to the rack at Retreat Hospital’s Robinson Street entrance- impossible without a kickstand and a long chain lock.)

    A bike rack must accomplish three tasks and if it doesn’t do all three, then it is wasted time, money, and opportunity.

    1. Above all else it should be easy to lock the FRAME of your bike to the rack, and preferably the front wheel too.
    2. The rack should make two points of contact with the bike frame so the bike doesn’t fall over.
    3. Bike racks should be convenient to destinations.

    Now if any customized or artsy design can accomplish all three of these things then that is fucking great, everyone will sell their cars so they can lock their new bikes to the words “GOOD FOOD” or whatever. But still- how much time and money did we just spend on these custom racks that could have been spent installing lots more standardized racks that work right in as many places as possible? Imagine if a failing mall decided their strategy to get more people to drive to the mall was to paint customized artistic scenes on their parking spaces? That doesn’t make sense, it’s not a results-oriented solution.

    So the point of this rant is, please, just give us lots of standardized racks in as many places as possible. Because the reality is at least 50% of the time I’m locking to street signs, trees, and fences and that just isn’t right. There should be enough standardized racks around town that no matter where you go you know you can lock up securely- because that’s how it is with car parking and that’s one (really good) reason why Richmond is so car dependent.

    Here’s a picture of nicely placed standardized racks in a train station in Gera, Germany:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/ssquier/5565928414/in/set-72157626366951058

  11. Stuart Squier on said:

    And I don’t mean to insult Main Art or Ellwood’s, I salute them for providing bike racks, period. I’m making this case against future rack installations planned and executed by the City.

  12. JohnE on said:

    The thing that confuses me about the bike rack issue is that I don’t understand why it falls to the city to fund and install bike racks outside of businesses. OK, really I do understand, but my point is that if I were in Nathan’s position I would see businesses as a key ally in this venture. The city can authorise the business to place the bike rack on city property, but the business can pay for it. The trade off for the business? It says ‘we are bike friendly/environmental and socially conscientious’. It means more potential customers because they can lock up their bike right outside.

  13. Jake Helmboldt on said:

    The artistic racks would be a small supplement to the standard city racks. And the intent is to make sure anything is functional, whether mass produced or one-off fabrications. Being at city hall I realize the limited utility of the “CD” rack.

    And we have also talked about ways to facilitate installations on private (business) properties, along with guidance on good installation practices. So all the points are duly noted and you’ll be glad to know that they are already on our radar screen.

  14. Kirk O'Brien on said:

    The real problem is going to be what happens when the paint hits the road. Given the nature of RVA motorists, I expect a prompt and immediate bikelash. If city hall can withstand that, maybe we have a chance.

    I’ve been riding daily in this city 25+ years, and bikelanes good or bad will not have the slightest effect on me one way or the other. But good lanes will help newer riders, so I’m fine with them, except previous lanes put in by the city have rated somewhere below awful. Exposing cyclists to danger for convience of cars ain’t gonna work.

    So two problems– 1) the paint has to be done right, no exceptions, and 2) the bikelash must be weathered. Given the second, I wouldn’t want to be in the center of it (Mr. Humbolt’s approximate position). I wish him the best, but like most longtime RVA riders, I ain’t all that sure that will happen. Sorry to be cynical, but that’s experience…

    Good article, though, even with the Television/Talking Heads confusion. For the record, I saw them both years ago and they were both fantastic, but that is another story….

  15. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation book club in Richmond is reading Joyride: Pedaling Towards a Healthier Planet if anyone wants to join us! It is written by Mia Birk, the Bike & Ped Coordinator in Portland, and portrays their uphill battle to turn Portland into a cycling city. More info at http://www.cbf.org/bookclub — we meet last Tues of the month (Sept 27) at 6:30 at the UrbanFarmhouse Market at 1217 E. Cary St.

  16. Quentin Charbonnet on said:

    I noted with interest while visiting Tucson, Ariz., this summer that in their public transportation system, each bus has a front-loading bicycle rack to accommodate the two-wheeling segment of the population. A bike-friendly city such as Fort Lauderdale would be well served by equipping Broward County Transit buses with bike racks.-

    Our favorite website
    <'http://www.caramoantourpackage.com/caramoan-tour/

  17. I believe that “education” is the biggest challenge. I have been biking in Richmond for almost 40 years and have seen my share of motorist-to-bike conflicts. Most conflicts involve motorists who do not wish to share the road with bikes. Bike riders are seen as not having the right to use a lane, a shoulder or share a lane with a motorist. Now, I have been a motorist in Richmond for about the same length of time and recognize that improved infrastructure would go a long way to providing adequate designated travel spaces for bikes and cars that are separate. However, the roads that must accommodate both cars and bikes in the same lane, with no option for “separate but equal” travel lanes will continue to challenge both the riding skill of the rider to maintain balance in a tiny space and patience of the motorist to share the lane in a respectful way.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Or report an error instead