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Equitable transportation guidelines adopted by Richmond City Council

Cars drive near an uncontrolled crosswalk that connects Blackwell Elementary School to Charlie Sydnor Playground on Richmond's Southside.
Richmond's Path to Equity plan commits the city to improving pedestrian safety. Current transportation infrastructure often fails to adequately protect pedestrians, such as this uncontrolled crosswalk that connects Blackwell Elementary School to Charlie Sydnor Playground on Richmond's Southside. (Photo: Connor Scribner/VPM News)

For decades, infrastructure projects in Richmond have prioritized cars over other forms of transportation. Monday night, City Council approved guidelines intended to change that. 

The Path to Equity policy guide, proposed by Mayor Levar Stoney and approved by all present council members, won’t change anything overnight. Instead, it directs the city to prioritize projects that promote biking, walking and taking the bus as it maps out a multimodal transportation network for the next 30 years.

Kelli Rowan, with the city’s Office of Equitable Transit and Mobility, said at a committee meeting last week that the guide will help answer a number of questions: “What transportation assets do we have? Where are the gaps? What people are we serving? What people aren’t we serving?”

The plan begins by tracing the history of Richmond infrastructure harming low-income and Black residents. 

“Historically, there’s a lot of reasons why transportation has been extremely inequitable and has also been a … driver of inequality,” said Daniel Piatkowski, a land use and transportation policy professor at Oslo Metropolitan University. “So, that’s the history of redlining, and that’s the history of the interstate highway system and all those kinds of things.”

In Richmond, government officials twice used eminent domain to clear historically Black neighborhoods to make way for suburban, largely white motorists. In the 1950s, I-95 was carved through Jackson Ward, leaving Gilpin Court stranded between the interstate and the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad, now owned by CSX. 

Today, Gilpin Court is one of the poorest areas of the city. About 64% of residents, including most of the 1,000 children there, live in poverty. And the neighborhood is almost fully segregated. At least 97% of residents identify as Black. 

In the 1970s, after court-ordered busing to end school segregation rapidly accelerated white flight, Richmond built the Downtown Expressway to ferry the new suburbanites to jobs, restaurants and theaters. City officials cut through Carytown, Byrd Park, Randolph and Oregon Hill — all historically Black or low-income communities — to make space for the highway, separating them from the wealthy Fan District. 

In Path to Equity, Richmond acknowledges this history. But it also discusses how infrastructure harms city residents today.  

A dependence on cars

Urban renewal projects and an increasing number of wealthier, white residents have displaced many Black and low-income people from the city’s urban core, according to the report. As a result, more low-income Richmonders now reside in car-dependent neighborhoods consisting of detached single-family housing, something made more expensive this year by rising gas prices and  increasing used car prices

“If you want to live without a car, you’re going to have to move to a place in which you can get all of the things you need by walking or riding your bike. And those places tend to be really expensive places to live in,” Piatkowski said. “Because most people can’t afford those things, you’re entirely dependent on the automobile. And if you can’t afford a car, then you’re entirely dependent on any other options that are out there.”

The other options are limited or, like relying on Uber, expensive.

At nearly all Richmond bus stops, the average wait between buses is half an hour or more. On some routes, including 4A and 4B, which connect the working-class neighborhood of Fulton to the city, wait times can be more than an hour. 

The 'key to public transit'

Todd Litman, a researcher and executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute in British Columbia, said increasing public transit funding and frequency is important, but he added that it can’t come without making transportation safe for pedestrians and cyclists.

“Pretty much every public transit trip involves walking or bicycling. That’s how you get to the station,” he said. “Walking and bicycling are complimentary, they’re key to public transit.”

The high volume of traffic in urban areas makes them dangerous for pedestrians. The Governors Highway Safety Association estimated that motorists killed about 7,500 pedestrians across the United States in 2021, up 12% from 2020, and 54% during the past decade.

Path to Equity continues Richmond’s pledge to eliminate pedestrian fatalities. 

To do that, Richmond must change its infrastructure, building more bike lanes and improving pedestrian crossings — and its culture. The policy guide has called for taking steps to reduce the number of trips people take in cars. 

The plan aims to do this by improving access to job centers via transit, walking and biking. That compliments Richmond’s commitment to increase transportation demand management, where private companies work with the government to incentivize people to take alternative forms of transportation. 

In Virginia, that mostly takes the form of park-and-ride lots, but other examples include congestion charges near urban centers or paying people not to drive to work. 

“An awful lot of commuters get a free parking space if they drive, and that’s an awfully expensive asset,” Litman said. “One to two hundred dollars a month is what an employee who drives gets if they receive a parking space. 

“If we want people to drive less and rely more on walking and bicycling and public transit, one of the first things we recommend is to cash out the free parking. So, yes, if you drive, you get a free parking space, but if you walk or bike or use public transit you get the cash equivalent.”

Piatkowski, the land use and transportation professor, said decreasing car dependence will be a difficult task for Richmond, but that encouraging people to take other forms of transportation is a good start. Disincentivizing driving could be an effective tool, as well, but Piatkowski noted it’s politically unpopular.

Litman said that many disincentives, like charging for insurance by the mile, can’t be implemented at the local level. 

While Virginia’s investments in non-car infrastructure have increased, the state still spends millions annually on non-toll roads, effectively a subsidy to drivers. Virginia has spent more than half a billion dollars on improving and widening I-64 between Richmond and Hampton during the past 6 years.

Another difficulty: improving walkability without increasing housing costs. According to Redfin, a company that analyzes the real estate market, pedestrian friendly homes in the U.S. demand a price premium. Those homes are nearly 25% more expensive on average than car-dependent ones.

Piatkowski said to avoid pricing residents out of their homes, Richmond must invest in building more affordable housing. The city is already short about 11,500 affordable homes for renters, according to a state study.

“You can’t be doing transportation plans in isolation,” he said. 

The policy guide is set to inform Richmond Connects, the city’s long-range transportation plan. City Council members will join the Richmond Connects Advisory Committee for a public meeting 10 a.m. June 6 at Main Street Station.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the timeline of what neighborhoods in Richmond were impacted by I-95. VPM News regrets the error.

Connor Scribner is the assistant news editor at VPM News and also reports on the housing market and public housing.