After more than three hours of contentious debate Tuesday, the City Council adopted an environmental review of a Bicycle Master Plan and a Pedestrian Plan that keeps the city on course to add bike lanes and pedestrian improvements to city streets. The plan would put select Richmond roads on what Richard Mitchell, Richmond’s director of Planning and Building Services, calls a “road diet.” By redesigning streets from four lanes to three, the city could slow speeding traffic and create space for bikes and pedestrians.
“If you remember, the name of our Richmond Parkway was Richmond Bypass,” Mitchell said. “People were looking for ways to zip by our city. 23rd Street was modified in order to make it possible for people to pass through quickly.”
The “road diet,” funded largely by state, federal and private grants — and which some project would cost upward of $40 million over the course of the entire project — would have positive public health, environmental and economic benefits, Mitchell said.
The City Council approved a consulting contract with LSA Associates, an environmental consulting firm, in February. In the last two years, consultants say they have conducted more than 23 community-outreach meetings to make sure that public demand is in line with funds. But at Tuesday’s meeting, many community members said neither consultants nor city officials had asked for input or even informed them of the plan’s existence.
Jackie Thompson, a Richmond resident, said this was the first she had heard of it.
“It is difficult when elected officials make decisions for a community that impact where they live and they don’t include them,” she said. “Hardly anyone rides a bike. The diet is going to starve our community.”
Councilmember Nat Bates said he did not remember approving the consulting firm. “In what date was LSA Associates selected?” Bates asked.
He said he did not recall voting on that item. “I want to express my negativity toward this item,” he said. He asked LSA how much money went into the item.
“You mean our contract?” Kieron Slaughter asked. “I believe it’s $24,900 for this contract.”
But Councilmember Tom Butt said neither the contract nor the proposal should have come as a surprise.
“These projects have been going on a long time,” he said. “There has been a lot of outreach and this is the first time anyone ever heard anything about it?”
Hector Esparza, president of the Richmond Police Officer’s Association, said he first heard about the plan a couple of weeks ago. On behalf of the Richmond Police Officer’s Association and Fire Department, he said he opposed the “road diets” because they will slow emergency vehicles and thereby impede public safety.
“If you are trying to get to an emergency you are going to want to have a road buffet,” Esparza said.
After Esparza sat down, Police Chief Chris Magnus spoke on behalf of the Richmond Police Department and said he supported the measure. Magnus said he agreed that the city needed more discussion between developers and the police department about the bike plan.
“I’ve been through a process like this in Lansing,” he said. “Before they passed the plan, it was conventional wisdom among fire and police departments that these recommendations were going to be harmful to operations. But they actually turned out to be quite helpful and beneficial.”
Councilmember Jim Rogers said that in addition to his concerns about the lack of outreach, he was worried about the harmful impacts exhaust emissions could have on passing bicyclists. Rogers asked the team if they had evaluated negative health impacts from the bicycle route.
“We are generally asked to do the opposite,” Adam Weinstein said. “We are asked, ‘What are the health benefits of having more people walking and bicycling?’ “
Rogers replied: “So, you are recommending a negative back here without having read the science about to what extent people riding on traffick-y streets and get cancer and die and that kind of stuff?”
Councilmember Corky Booze seconded Rogers’ concern about bicycle air quality on busy streets.
“I don’t want to kill anyone sitting on a bicycle,” he said.
Debra Richardson, an avid bicyclist and Richmond resident, spoke in favor of the plan. She said she rides her bike almost every day. When she bikes to work, she exclusively uses Marin Avenue, a street in Albany that has undergone a “road diet.” She said that it makes her feel safer.
“Before, I have to say I was completely against the road diet,” she said. “Now I’m in complete support of it.”
Adrienne Harris, a senior citizen and chair of Richmond for a Bikeable, Walkable Richmond, said she bikes to “keep herself svelte.” Harris said she supports the plan, and has worked to implement more bike paths in Richmond for years.
As the meeting reached a close, the discussion came back to Nat Bates, who said it wasn’t that he thought bicycling was bad, but that he didn’t believe the people of Richmond would use bike lanes even if the council did make streets bike friendly.
“This city imposed a heavy condition … to put in bike lanes on Sea Cliff–on the right-hand-side going down sea cliff drive,” he said. “And guess what? Nobody uses it.”
A voice from the chamber shouted, “I use it!”
Bates continued, “I don’t know if I can justify the cost associated with the number of users.”
Ritterman joined the discussion: “I have a question. Is it safe to say the goal is, by building this infrastructure we will make bicycling more safe? And by making it safer… we increase the number of Richmond bike riders over the future?”
“Yes, that’s it,” Weinstein said.
The debate dragged on. The meeting grew contentious as the council’s 11 p.m. deadline approached. Just before 11 p.m., Ritterman moved to extend the council meeting 30 minutes to ensure a vote. When the motion failed, Ritterman moved for a 29 minute extension. That failed, too.
“I’ll make a motion to extend for 28 minutes,” Ritterman said.
Loud shouts from the restive audience began to overpower councilmembers’ voices.
Ritterman continued: “If we don’t pass this measure we lose the chance for a grant–that’s real money coming into the city,” he said over the noise.
As community members shouted “no” over his pleas to extend the meeting, Ritterman raised his voice into the microphone. “Actually, when I have the floor, you cannot be speaking, OK?” he said. “OK?”
Ritterman secured the motion to extend the meeting by 15 minutes, and the motion was seconded by Mclaughlin.
With minutes to go, Booze articulated his continued opposition to the plan.
“The people of the city of Richmond are being slapped in the face because you aren’t allowing them to have input,” he said. “Now you hear from a full cross-section of the community and you’re making this decision. It doesn’t make any difference what the community says.”
The council then voted and the approved the review documents both plans and two projects with a vote of 5-2, with Booze and Bates voting no.
(Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to fix errors in some dates and terminology)