Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Go, Dog, Go

With Fall comes the chance to talk to strangers and discuss the city.

Tonight was the first of this season's Community Conversations at the Valentine and the broad appeal topic was transportation. Coming on the heels of the bike race and the recent attention to that form of getting around, I was expecting some lively discussion.

It took a while for everybody to settle down, despite director Bill Martin's attempts (similar to herding cats, I'd imagine) and when people finally acknowledged him by sitting, he responded with, "Gracious, people!"

Inevitably, one of the very best parts of these conversations involves no one talking but Bill and that's when he shares some of the fabulous photographs in the Valentine's collection (compiled by a savvy intern) that pertain to the topic.

The first one nailed it all: a shot of a horse and wagon followed by a carriage followed by a car. There it was.

There were so many pictures of places I walk by on a regular basis, places such as a vintage shot of Great Shiplock Park in use. He said that Broad Street and 6th, 7th and 8th streets are about the most photographed in the city and we saw plenty from those junctions, crowded with horses and wagons, trolleys, cars and buses.

During his presentation, he made several terribly interesting points: that mass transportation and public transportation are not the same thing.

That while people have a tendency to romanticize the trolleys (which I hadn't realized were constructed and run by real estate development companies, not the city), they forget how they segregated the city by economic class, race, religion and ethnicities, too. Nothing romantic about that.

Next came the usual polling phase of the evening where each of us used hand-held devices to answer questions to determine who was in the room. For instance, 73% of us were city residents and we were predominantly male tonight.

When polled on our two favorite things about the city - people, neighborhoods, outdoor activities, history, Short Pump Towne Center, those kinds of things. - I was amazed to see that culture was not one of the options.

Naturally, I chose "other" to represent the absent culture. No surprise, absolutely no one chose the faux village of Short Pump.

Next came small group time where we discussed the statements found on cards we'd each been given. Mine read, "Fact or fiction: Using public transit is slower than traveling in a car." My group agreed that that's not always so given the constraints of one-way streets and finding parking.

But it was, "Fact or fiction: it's safer to ride a bike on the sidewalk than the street." that really got everyone jabbering. One guy said he'd nearly mowed down two bicyclists on the sidewalk near Lee's Chicken because he'd been making the turn and never thought to scan the sidewalk for bikers.

Another older woman made the point that some people ride on the sidewalk because they don't feel safe in a bike lane. Personally, as a daily walker, I hate bikes on the sidewalk and when they whiz past me, I want to be that old man who raises his fist and reminds them it's a sidewalk not a sideride.

But I refrain.

In hearing what the other groups talked about, one guy was beaming with pleasure, saying his group had talked about all the transit options available. "I found like-minded people," he boasted.

"That's your tribe?" facilitator Matt asked him.Without a doubt, that is one of the benefits of these community conversations. Usually people who come are passionate about their feelings.

Our expert panel was made up of Carrie from GRTC who did a succinct summary of the proposed bus rapid transit, Jacob from the city's bike/pedestrian initiative and Charles from RVA Rapid Transit, a citizens' group.

One of the slides shown was a pie chart of different kinds of bike riders, such as "never" or "strong and fearless."

The largest section - 60%- was the segment of those who wanted to ride more but weren't sure how comfortable they were with the associated issues. They were labeled "interested but concerned."

The Man About Town, sitting in front of me, responded with, "That's me on most things" and let out a chuckle. Ba dum bum.

Charles talked about the difficulty of getting the nine local governments together to agree on anything, much less get anything built in this region. We're the 44th largest metro area in the US by population, but we rank 92nd in the top 100 areas for public transit. Let's face it, that's embarrassing.

Although I'd been to one of the bus rapid transit community meetings, I didn't know until tonight that they'd identified the BRT corridors that need to come after Broad Street is finished. If Hull Street, Midlothian Turnpike and Jeff Davis Highway BRT routes are built, Richmond would go from 27% of the population to 80% being connected by public transit.

Far less embarrassing.

The Q & A provided even more fascinating nuggets. Carrie told us, "Chesterfield County owns half of GRTC. Spoiler alert." I find this especially fascinating since Chesterfield is also the county that has historically wanted no buses because they'd just as soon keep people without cars out of their sprawling county.

So you can imagine the audience's surprise when Charles told us his group had met with the Woodlake Homeowners' Association, that bastion of suburban hell living. "Your eyes will bug out, but they want it." Eyes were bugged. Seems they think it'll improve that stretch of Hull Street from the city line to them (property values, you know).

People still had questions, but one thing Bill insists on is that all community conversations end on time, so we did (mostly), although plenty of lingering involved furthering some of those conversations.

I enjoy talking to strangers, but if you want to have a seven-hour conversation with me, I'm going to have to know you a whole lot better. Spoiler alert.

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