This is part two of contributor Gabriel Morey’s coverage of the year-old Virginia Capital Trail. Read part one here.
The Virginia Capital Trail offers one of the best cases of how well-designed bike and pedestrian infrastructure can transform communities.
The trail – a serene, 55-mile path from Jamestown to Richmond – has brought numerous economic changes to the cities and towns along its route. It’s lured large corporations like Stone Brewing to Richmond, and boosted business at mom-and-pop establishments like Cul’s Courthouse Grille in Charles City County. However, economic benefits are only part of the success of the trail: it has also brought a renewed push for bike infrastructure and an increased quality of life in the communities around it.
“We’re thrilled about the added value it brings to the Historic Triangle and the opportunities it offers for residents and tourists alike to enjoy the area,” said State Senator Monty Mason (D-Williamsburg), a supporter of the trail.
Senator Mason’s hometown of Williamsburg recently won a state grant to build a similar multi-use path along Monticello Avenue, which connects the historic town to the Capital Trail. The Capital Trail Foundation has not slowed down its work either. Since the trail’s completion, the group has been busy installing amenities such as benches and portable toilets for riders. Most importantly, it has begun adding electronic bike counters to the trail to better gauge ridership and help the group advocate for expanding and maintaining the trail.
In Richmond, the city is proposing adding 25 miles of new bike lanes, including one to connect its weekly farmers market with the Capital Trail. Finally, VDOT and the Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization are studying a 60-mile long expansion of the trail to Fort Monroe. While some of these projects might have gone through without the trail, its success smoothed opposition by proving the value of such infrastructure. As Beth Weisbrod, executive director the Capital Trail Foundation, put it, “Now [grade]-separated, multi-use trails are being discussed as transportation.”
This infrastructure is going in not just because localities want it, but because residents have demonstrated growing desires to have access to such facilities. Dot Boulware owns and operates the Edgewood Plantation B&B with her husband, Julian. While the trail has only minimally affected her business, it has added new life to her part of Charles City County, southeast of Richmond.
She said, “It’s not just [benefiting] the bikers, but it also [has benefits] for people that are older that can just walk the trail. People are not just sitting in their chairs anymore, or watching their televisions anymore. People are riding it, people are walking it, and are being very cordial to you. You don’t have to walk very far; you can judge your own time. It’s fun.”
Cullen Jenkin, one of the owners of the trail-adjacent Cul’s Courthouse Grille, shared a similar sentiment. “It got me off the couch,” he said. “It’s had a huge impact on me.”
Perhaps the most impressive impact of the trail can be seen at Charles City Public Schools, which has added a cycling program to its middle- and high-school physical-education curricula.
“The Capital Trail project really provided the initial inspiration for starting a bike program at our schools,” said Superintendent David Gaston. “Business and residents all noticed quickly that there was more activity as cyclists and citizens began to take advantage of the trail. If there had not been a Capital Trail built, I’m not certain that we would have thought about establishing a bike program, as these are extremely busy roads with a lot of fast-moving traffic.”
So far, CCPS has bought 24 Giant hybrid bikes for its classes, which feature both a riding component and a maintenance and safety component. The school system is also working with a local vendor to get classes on safety and technique taught to elementary-school students. While many students live far away from the trail, Dr. Gaston said that student interest in the trail has definitely increased. To further integrate the two, he hopes to get a connector built between Charles City High School and Route 5.
The economic benefits of the Capital Trail are impressive, but perhaps not as potent as the cultural changes it has brought. Just as the railroads and interstates re-shaped the American landscape, the Capital Trail is re-shaping Virginia’s Lower Peninsula, albeit at a slower and smaller pace, but as it continues to expand, one can expect to see more bike lanes, paths, and riders in places like Richmond, Williamsburg, and Hampton Roads.
Already the trail has surpassed its projected first-year ridership, drawing 550,000 riders from all over the nation. More than anything else, the trial has proven once again that if you build it, riders will come.
Photo: A couple rides along the Virginia Capital Trail near Sherwood Forest, Va. (D. Allen Covey/Virginia Department of Transportation, Flickr, Creative Commons)