Stretching between Richmond and Jamestown, the Virginia Capital Trail is a powerful example of how bike and pedestrian infrastructure can encourage economic growth and sustainable living in diverse communities. The 55-mile paved, multi-use path dances along historic Route 5, connecting small towns, bucolic farmland, historic sites, and high-rise apartments.
First proposed in the 1990’s, groundwork for the trail began in 2003 when Virginia Secretary of Transportation Whitt Clement made the trail a priority. The following year he helped found the Virginia Capital Trail Foundation – the non-profit that manages and promotes the trail – and in 2005 VDOT broke ground at Jamestown. Since its completion in October 2015, the Virginia Capital Trail has provided more than just a safe place to ride, walk, and run: it is also quietly changing the life and the economies of the communities that it passes through.
No place is that more evident than in Richmond, Va., where the trail is helping power that city’s revitalization. Beth Weisbrod, executive director of the Capital Trail Foundation (based in Richmond), sees the trail as a major economic engine for the city, citing packaging company WestRock’s 2006 decision to move to downtown as based partly on the then-incomplete trail. She also pointed out that smaller businesses have benefited from it as well. “When the trail opened,” Weisbrod said, “there was no place to rent a bike in Richmond. Now there are at least three.”
One of those places is The Kickstand, a non-profit founded by the Richmond Cycling Corps that advertises itself as “the easiest (and coolest) way to get on a bike and enjoy the Virginia Capital Trail.” Opened in July, The Kickstand does more than rent bikes – it also teaches kids from low-income households how to bike and fix bikes. Those students are then employed as mechanics for Kickstand.
To Max Hepp-Buchanan, Director of Bike Walk-RVA, the trail is both a cause and an effect of increased cycling in Richmond. “I think it’s done a great job generating excitement around biking and walking” he said. “Once the snowball starts rolling, it just keeps getting bigger.” The stats from Richmond are certainly not small. The city has nearly doubled its bike infrastructure in the past three years, announced a bikeshare program, and hosted the UCI World Cycling Championships.
Furthermore, the trail has served as an anchor for new businesses. “Stone Brewing is one of the biggest examples,” Hepp-Buchanan said. “They are literally building their bistro on top of the trail.” While not all recent economic development can be attributed to the trail, Hepp-Buchanan argues that it has helped make Richmond an attractive place for corporations like Carmax, which recently moved downtown. “You can’t deny that having the Capital Trail right there is one of the biggest reasons why a company like that would locate downtown,” he said.
The trail is also making an impact outside of Richmond. There is no better place to see that benefit than at Cul’s Courthouse Grille, a charming restaurant managed by mother-and-son team Bonnie Whittaker and Cullen Jenkins. Cul’s opened seven years ago when Whittaker, recently retired, decided to create a space for community gatherings near the historic Charles City Courthouse. Although Cullen stresses that Cul’s focuses on the community, not “dollars and cents,” it is impossible to ignore the business the trail has brought. “We’ve just tried to hold on and do the best we can,” Cullen said. “Recently, Channel 12 did a nice piece on the impact that the trail has had on small business, and they focused on us. My mom said that [business grew] by 30 percent in the interview, but she meant to say 300 percent.”
The increase in customers has meant more than just money for the restaurant. “We’ve been able to hire 10 folks because we needed them for the business,” Cullen said. Ten jobs might not seem like many, but in a small community like Charles City County (population 7,000), they make a huge difference. “These women are holding their families together with the jobs they have here,” Cullen said. “We can give someone a decent living wage where they can pay their bills and have a couple of bucks left over to improve their quality of life.”
Cul’s isn’t the only business to capitalize on the trail. Nearby Shirley Plantation recently added a large dining room to its outbuildings, placing in front of it a chalkboard sign reading “Welcome Cyclists: Please remove your clip-ins. Thank you!” Closer to Cul’s, rumor is that an old schoolhouse is being rehabilitated into a coffeehouse. And according to Beth Weisbrod, the Capital Trail Foundation is planning a connector trail to the Blue Heron Restaurant, another local eatery slightly off Route 5.
The money and cyclists flowing along the Capital Trail come from all over the world. Rich Thompson is a staff member at the College of William and Mary, where he helps lead the College’s Bike Alliance. (Full disclosure – the author was a founding member of the Alliance.) A regular cyclist on the trail, Thompson has met folks from D.C. and farther.
“I recently ran into a son and mother cyclist from Germany and Great Britain,” Thompson said. “They were vacationing here and biking in Surrey and Isle of Wight County,” and told him that they were planning on riding the trail later.
One of forces driving this tourism is the ever-expanding number of companies offering bike tours of the Capital Trail, including Road-Tested Tours, Carolina Tailwinds, Trek Travel, and Vermont Tours. Additionally, the Williamsburg Winery has added weekly 40-mile bike rides to its list of offerings, and Cullen Jenkins, for his part, is renting bikes out to Cul’s customers.
The market isn’t saturated yet either. Jennifer Billstrom is the founder of Velo Girl Rides, a North Carolina-based touring company that hopes to launch a Capital Trail tour. “The unique thing about the Capital Trail, in my opinion, is that it is fairly flat, and it is fairly doable by anyone. And it’s also just a ribbon that runs through a very rich historical area. So using this can be an educational experience … that engages people both physically and with a history lesson, and that’s very unique,” she said.
If other examples hold true, the Capital Trail is only beginning to spark growth around it. Wendy Lyman would know: as the owner of the cyclist-oriented Swamp Rabbit Inn in Greenville, South Carolina, she has seen her region’s Swamp Rabbit Trail revitalize entire towns along its route. She recently traveled up to visit the Capital Trail, and saw ample opportunity for future growth. “I was really impressed with it” she said. “That midpoint destination hub – there’s a lot of development opportunities there, and I think that would make that trail even more vibrant.”
She has observed this type of development before – the trail is built, several businesses take off, more entrepreneurs follow, local residents discover new ways to use the trail, and a new economic and transportation ecosystem is built. The Capital Trail isn’t at that point yet, but with 550,000 trips along the trail last year, that type of development is likely. The question isn’t a matter of if, but when.
Read part two of this article, about the increase in biking that the Virginia Capital Trail is generating in adjacent communities.
[Ed: a previous version of this article stated incorrectly that Richmond’s B bikeshare had already launched. The city is currently aiming for an official launch in fall 2016 or spring 2017.]
Photos: Top, the VA Capital Trail as it approaches downtown Richmond along the James River (Al Covey/VDOT, Flickr, Creative Commons). Middle, the Bike Alliance at Cul’s Courthouse Grille (Bill Horacio). Lower, a chalkboard sign for bicyclists at Shirley Plantation (Rich Thompson).