Bringing the Benefits of Cycling to the New River Valley and Beyond

The quintessential symbol of the American Frontier, the cowboy, is often depicted riding a sturdy steed in a leather saddle in a pair of worn leather chaps and a ten-gallon hat. Riding on a more contemporary-style saddle, today’s modern “metal cowboys” ride congested streets on two wheels in attire ranging from cycling jerseys to business suits. City cycling is growing throughout North America, including major cities such as Washington D.C., Chicago, New York, and Montréal. Some cyclists are fueled by the same kind of adrenaline their ancestors possessed while living dangerously in the Wild West. However, the typical commuter rides to attain health benefits, time and cost savings, or for the simple enjoyment of biking for recreational use.

Residents of smaller urban and rural communities are also recognizing the benefits of cycling for commuters, visitors, and the local economy. David Verde, Founder of the annual Roanoke (VA) Tweed Run and local community advocate in the New River Valley is eager to lead efforts to ensure favorable conditions for cycling in the Town of Christiansburg. Verde explains that while living in Charleston, SC, the city worked diligently to connect existing greenways and provide a safer environment for cyclists: “Though Charleston could not necessarily afford to provide real estate for dedicated bikeways,” Verde observed, “the city managed to provide other forms of bike infrastructure and hold both cyclists and drivers to the same standards when traveling downtown.”

This past October Verde joined local organizers and other visitors at the second annual City Works (X)po in Roanoke at which community members and other conference attendees shared ideas to promote civic education and engagement for small cities. Discussion topics included historic preservation, urban forestry, public theatre, and sustainable transit, including cycling. Mike Lydon, leader of the Street Plans Collaborative, presented a series of strategies communities could adopt to engage local stakeholders and boost outreach initiatives. Research, writing, and communication are at the core of the Collaborative’s mission to influence community-planning processes, especially for cycling

How to secure greater resident use of more sustainable forms of transportation is an increasingly significant topic of discussion among local stakeholders and public officials in the New River Valley. The NRV Planning District Commission (PDC) has begun to take steps to respond to the demand for a less auto-centric transportation system. In 2011, the PDC created a Bikeway-Walkway-Blueway Plan that incorporated an integrated system of bicycle facilities, river access points, and pedestrian walkways into the existing transportation system. The plans stressed improvement of regional assets such as multi-purpose trails, shared roadways, hiking and mountain biking trails, and blueways. A core aim of the document was, “to focus more extensively on utilizing the highway as an artery for mass transportation and focus on fresh concepts concerned more with moving people than moving vehicles.”

The cycling community in the NRV is still relatively small and only a tiny fraction of the total population commutes to work by bicycle. Ride Solutions, a regional ridesharing program operated by the Roanoke Valley-Alleghany Regional Commission in cooperation with the New River Valley Planning District Commission, hosted several events in 2012 to boost cycling awareness and ridership. The Shadowbox Microcinema and the Taubman Museum joined forces with the organization to host a film festival. The event featured directors from around the region and previewed films that highlighted local cycling enthusiasts. Ride solutions also worked with Roanoke Parks and Recreation and the City of Roanoke to host the Mayor’s Ride. Led by Mayor Bowers, the intent of the event was to honor those who supported the region’s cycling initiatives.

Programs at Virginia Tech have also surfaced to support local and regional efforts to encourage safe cycling on campus. The Virginia Tech Bicycle Ambassador Program, led by the university’s Alternative Transportation Coordinator Kathryn Zeringue, encourages the responsible use of bicycles by educating new and experienced cyclists on law-abiding behavior and providing resources for creating a bicycle culture on campus. In addition, Transportation and Campus Services at Virginia Tech has been awarded funding by the US Department of Transportation’s TEA-21 Enhancement program for a bicycle pathways project called “Hokie Bikeways.”

Although the New River Valley has a sometimes challenging geography and weather patterns, a strong bike culture in the region is nonetheless possible. Cycling communities succeed when transportation infrastructure is focused on modes beyond the automobile, bike lanes are available and well connected, and appropriate parking is plentiful. Safe and reliable bicycle facilities are key, not only to alleviating vehicle congestion on high-traffic roadways, but also to inspiring more people to ride bicycles. The initiatives outlined here represent a hopeful sign that our region is now taking steps to assure just such an infrastructure for area residents.

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renee race day.jpgRenee LoSapio is an Urban Affairs and Planning student at Virginia Tech.  She is currently completing her capstone work and investigating business perceptions of bike infrastructure and urban bike sharing systems. After graduation, she plans to complete a cross country bike tour as a Northern Tier cyclist for Bike the US for MS, a local non-profit in the NRV that raises research funding and awareness for Multiple Sclerosis. She is a local bike and public transit advocate her in Southwest VA.


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