Nicholas Smith on the state of transportation in RVA

RVA Rapid Transit and the Partnership for Smarter Growth have hired a new Community Outreach Director, and he is here to tell us more about himself, how he got into transportation, and how we can think about it a little differently than maybe we have been doing.

Photo by Tom Woodward.

Last month, RVA Rapid Transit and the Partnership for Smarter Growth banded together and hired Nicholas Smith to be in charge of connecting with the community, answering questions, fielding complaints, and generally helping everyone in Richmond understand the importance of public transformation.

Originally from Montreal, Nicholas moved to RVA in 2014 and quickly immersed himself in maps, routes, and meetings.

Like, just on his own. Because he was interested, but also because he grew up in a city with wildly accessible public transport. Not only that, years of extensive traveling left him with lot of feelings and opinions on the easy-to-get-around-town cities versus the dependent-on-cars cities. RVANews is really fascinated with the idea that we could be upping our transportation game sometime soon, as you may have surmised if you’ve been keeping with our BRT FAQ. We spoke with Nicholas about his background, why he cares so much about helping our city out, and what our potential could be.

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On how one becomes interested in transportation

“I was always in math in school, and I went to math camp for a number of years I did a lot of things: I was a Zamboni driver for a couple of years, and I worked at managing elections for federal government up in Canada from a non-partisan standpoint, sort of like a county registrar here. Along with that, I went to Ukraine to observe their elections. Oh, and my mom was a flight attendant, so I’ve traveled to more than 30 countries and hundreds of cities.

“You go to a place and the way you get around is transit. In smaller cities, you might not see that, but a lot of cities across the world you have diverse transit systems. I’ve always looked at maps and been interested in seeing how a city works. And then I would go back to my city and pay attention to how it worked. Montreal has a very diverse transit system. Living there, you understand that sort of freedom when you get your bus pass at 12 and you can go anywhere in the city while still feeling safe and knowing it’s reliable.

“And then you move down to Richmond and you see that’s not an option. I also used to bike in Montreal, and biking here is such a different story.

“I read things about comparative transit systems–I’m the kind of guy who relaxes by reading studies. When I moved down here, I got involved and started going to public meetings and saw these changes happening, these groups trying to make a difference. I developed a relationship with certain people who saw that i was knowledgable, passionate, and helpful. And sometimes now I’ll go to a planning commission meeting and make a presentation on something and include a high level thing or a specific thing that could make a project better…then lo and behold a commissioner will make that change to the project. You can see that things can actually happen when you participate in these things!”

On the interconnectivity of transportation to just about everything else in the city (in multiple senses)

“People are realizing that all these things sort of work together. You can’t run out frequent bus lines into residential subdivisions that are lots on half an acre, because you’d be running buses with just one or two people on it. You have to look at line use, and when you look at line use, you have to look at housing, and then you have to look at poverty, and then you have to think about how people who are in poverty don’t have access to jobs–there’s this cycle, so you can’t just fix one of these things alone, so you have to look at them together.

“When you look at the finer side, the expert side, a lot of times people will go into their field but focus only on that. So there wil be someone who works on transportation or housing or lining or zoning–these people may not have talked together or worked together as one would have hoped! You have to work together across the different groups to create this change.

“You’re seeing this for example with the BRT study. Looking at land use and zoning along Broad Street, you have these large industrial buildings with huge parking lots in front of them–that doesn’t create a pedestrian-friendly environment or transportation-friendly environment! So the City is trying to look at how do we zone properly, and how do we communicate with developers properly to help this. In the past, i think, the culture of that being there didn’t seem to be as strong as what i’m hearing now. That’s really promising for Richmond.”

On poverty cycles, car access, and jobs

“The history of the cycle of poverty in Richmond, the South, the U.S. and all over the world, is one that people have not paid as much attention to as people are paying now. There’s the idea that people become a real person–a real adult–when they’re 16 and they get their license. People feel like that’s when you grow up and when you go into the world and have freedom to do what you want to do, and that’s only available when your parents can buy you a car.

“There’s a certain type who has that freedom and a certain type who doesn’t. There are those people who can’t afford a car, and as they grow up, because they don’t have that car, they can’t access education, jobs, what have you [in car-centric environments], which leads them to still not be able to afford a car. The lack of access to a car, to many people, means that they can’t break that cycle of poverty.

“No one’s going to suggest that we go out and buy everyone a car so that they can get to their jobs, but providing access for people to get around in some way is certainly a way you can do that. So when you’re talking about transit, you’re talking about where you can get to, reasonably and efficiently, meaning you’re not going to have to wait an hour for the bus and you’re not going to have to transfer four times. But it also includes accessibility by bicycle as well, or walking.”

On how cycling is great but it won’t solve all of our problems

“The majority of cyclists are actually minorities, and that’s because a bike is a lot cheaper to buy than a car is. If you go into certain parts of the city you’d think that cyclists are all middle-aged white men in Spandex, but in other parts of the city you see many, many bicycles. You’d think you’re on VCU’s campus by how many bicycles you see. When you think about the cost of a bicycle being a few hundred dollars, and a monthly bus pass is now $60 or so, that’s practically the price of insurance for a car!

“Giving people the option to get around [their immediate environs] works, but if you’re trying to get a job in Short Pump, that’s just not going to work.”

On choice, parking, and logic

“I live in Northside, if I want to get to Carytown, it takes me 10 minutes by car, it takes 20-25 minutes by bike and over an hour by bus. If you have an option, you’re not going to select the bus option if it takes five times as long. You’re only going to take that choice if the transit is reliable and efficient, or if you don’t have the choice. a lot of the times people who are using pubilc transit are the people who don’t have a choice.

“When you spend money on transit, it helps congestion better than building more roads and more parking.”

“Northern cities have people who choose transit not just because traffic is so bad, but because it’s reliable and efficient. I met this woman at a regional traffic meeting. She was from DC, and people said to her “Oh, you must be happy you don’t have traffic anymore.” And she said “What are you talking about? Now i can’t go anywhere without a car, while before I lived three blocks from a Metro. Now my 12-year-old can’t go anywhere without me.”

“People are seeing that in a different way now. If you work in the Fan or live in the Fan, and you’re worried about parking–there’s just not going to be anymore parking in the Fan than there currently is. There’s always going to be more people who want to go to that area. The only way you can make it so that you can always park anywhere is if you live in a suburban development with driveways and houses that are far apart. If you want something like that in the city, it’s just not going to fit.

“One of the things people point out is that this [focus on improving public transportation options] will help with congestion and parking issues. When you spend money on transit, it helps congestion better than building more roads and more parking.”

On other modes of transportation

“My focus is meant on transit in the Richmond region, so right now that’s BRT meetings but also fixed-service routes. I’ve joined the GRTC advisory group. As far as rail goes, they’re doing a line use study currently–DC to Richmond [study] will be ready first, then Richmond to Raleigh. Then once they have the study, they need the money.

“Car-sharing also works out pretty well. My wife and I have just one car, and it works for us. There’s only about once or twice a year where we’ve both wanted or needed a car at the same time. Going without a car would be difficult when we want to go to the things we want to go to. If we had a car-sharing thing, like a zipcar, we’d certainly give up our car. We had that in Montreal, and you just swipe your card and insurance and gas is covered! You pay by the kilometer or the minute and you do that twice a month. Even in Montreal, there are cases where you want to go in the countryside apple-picking or something, so you want a car.

“If you sort of force yourself to make that option to try something else and go without that extra car, you find ways to make it work. Going to meetings about transit, BRT, line use, bicycle meetings as well, I’ve learned that to get to a transit stop, they always say people will walk 1/4 mile, to get to a rapid transit stop, they’d walk 1/2 mile. To bike to a rapid transit stop, they might be willing to bike one to three miles. It’s sort of like having a park and ride, but a bike and ride.”

On reaching out to the community

“It all involves working with different community groups. Sometimes that means going to civic groups and talking about why this is important. You go to a part of town where there’s a lot of poverty, they’ll say, “Why are you spending all this money on a new bus route.” We’ll show you, “Here’s the way, it’ll get you to work and you won’t have to wait for an unreliable system.” They get these points very quickly, but dealing with that issue, dealing with poverty, and so on, is definitely a thing that works hand-in-hand. A lot of it is talking to people involved with the project and making concrete suggestions of what we think for changes.

“A lot of people don’t realize that just 60 seconds of writing an email to a committee or your councilperson, they need to know that you care about this. If you do that and you extend that contact, they’ll find that out. If you don’t, the people who are best at organizing and are good at being loud will be the ones heard. It’s at the local level where stuff affects you on a day-to-day level. You can make stuff happen, you just have to let your civil service people know.

“There’s a lot of compromise, you compromise and you compromise and you refine an idea, and that’s why there are all these stages to these projects. Like with Floyd Avenue [Bike Boulevard], people weren’t happy about various stages of the process, but you have to bridge the gap between multiple competing interests sometimes. Any side that’s sort of open to consultation and open to change is going to do better and get more positive results than someone who’s not willing to do that. I find a lot of poeple in Richmond are open to the idea that “This is what i want in a perfect world, but i know that’s not possible.” And that’s always a breath of fresh air when you see people constructively working together.

“As an individual, you’re not a driver, you’re not a cyclist, you’re not a bus ride or a pedestrian. You’re a person, who uses different modes of transportation at different times. Making them pelasant, simple, and safe to use doesn’t have a lot of opposition when you get down to it. I think that’s something most people can agree on.”

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Meet Nicholas Smith at any transportation-related meeting around town. He is almost certain to be there.

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Susan Howson is managing editor for this very website. She writes THE BEST bios.

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