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