Monday, August 8, 2022

Where the sidewalk ends, danger begins for cyclists in Williamsburg

Gretchen Bidell and her family consider themselves lucky to live in a location that allows them to bike to school with their children every day. But for most families, Bidell said, that's not an option. (WYDaily/Courtesy of Gretchen Bidell)
Gretchen Bidell and her family consider themselves lucky to live in a location that allows them to bike to school with their children every day. But for most families, Bidell said, that’s not an option. (WYDaily/Courtesy of Gretchen Bidell)

Every morning, Gretchen Bedell and her children ride their bikes to school, but not without heavy planning to map out a safe route.

“It’s not like I could throw the kids on bikes and go to the library,” Bedell said. “You would be crazy to take a 6-year-old on a bike down Richmond Road.”

Bedell, “lady in charge” at Odd Moxie and a board member for BikeWalk Williamsburg, said her family is one of the few that bike to school with their kids everyday because a lot of neighborhoods don’t have safe bike-accessible routes. In Williamsburg, there are bike paths for sports cyclists, but the casual cyclist has to put in a lot of work to plan safe routes around the area.

Decades of change

In 1993, Reed Nester, former planning director for Williamsburg, began a project to construct a more conducive cycling infrastructure in the city. The project that spanned over Nester’s 30-year career began by adopting a regional bikeway plan that let city planners consider a system that included parts of James City and York County.

City of Williamsburg Planning Director Reed Nester rides his bicycle on Richmond Road May 18, 2016. (Photo by Kirsten Petersen)

Since then, the number of bike-accessible areas has increased, but for cyclists trying to perform everyday activities, such as taking their kids to school like Bedell, there is still something to be desired.

“From a practical standpoint, you can’t have bike lanes and trails everywhere,” Nester said. “You can do that in a lot of urban areas where traffic is moving more slowly, but this area isn’t like that.”

Still, Nester worked with the city to make it more accessible to cyclists. Part of the issue was providing safe locations to park bikes, and the city now provides about 70 bike racks in Merchant’s Square, according to Nester.

The bike lanes have also expanded to connect Jamestown Road from John Tyler Lane to Merchant’s Square.

But Bedell notices that, despite the improvements, a lot of people have a hard time simply going a few miles.

“I tell people to say ‘hey, let’s just see how far we can get on our bikes,’” Bedell said. “It’s a good experiment because maybe you’re lucky and can get your of your neighborhood. But also, maybe you can’t.”

Safety on the open road

Part of the issue for cyclists in Williamsburg is the safety aspect. Bedell said that often, motorists aren't aware of the cyclists going through intersections, which makes her nervous for her children's safety. (WYDaily/Courtesy of Gretchen Bidell)
Part of the issue for cyclists in Williamsburg is the safety aspect. Bedell said that often, motorists aren’t aware of the cyclists going through intersections, which makes her nervous for her children’s safety. (WYDaily/Courtesy of Gretchen Bedell)

Cycling in the area has become a popular pastime, with two cyclist organizations now operating in Williamsburg. Williamsburg Area Bicyclists is a club dedicated to the sport of cycling, while BikeWalk Williamsburg is a group that advocates for greater bicycle safety and rights in the area.

Bedell is on the board for BikeWalk Williamsburg because she has firsthand experience with the difficulties of biking around the area. As a child, she grew up in a small town in Ohio where most children biked everywhere they needed to go. But in Williamsburg, it’s a different story.

“Our kids are lucky because our neighborhood is easily accessible on bike,” Bedell said. “But most kids don’t have that. It’s a sense of freedom and responsibility. It’s the mastery of your own world.”

With small children, biking around town can become dangerous quickly if the route isn’t heavily planned out beforehand, Bedell said. There are often locations where the sidewalk abruptly ends, and she has to merge back into regular traffic safely. For Bedell, this is a concern because many motorists aren’t paying attention to cyclists, she said.

And for the everyday cyclist, that’s part of the problem.

“It’s not like the lanes have barriers between cyclists and cars, so you’re still dependent on the motorists to know you’re there and stay in their lane,” said Rick Nevins, the vice president and ride coordinator for Williamsburg Area Bicyclists.

For families like Bedell’s, biking to school or into town is a bonding experience that not everyone has the opportunity to experience. For both Bedell and Nester, working to make the city more bike accessible is important because they believe contributes to not only a healthier lifestyle, but an adventurous one.

“It’s a nice way to experience the world from the seat of a bike,” Nester said.

Alexa Doironhttp://wydaily.com
Alexa Doiron is a multimedia reporter for WYDaily. She graduated from Roanoke College and is currently working on a master’s degree in English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Alexa was born and raised in Williamsburg and enjoys writing stories about local flair. She began her career in journalism at the Warhill High School newspaper and, eight years later, still loves it. After working as a news editor in Blacksburg, Va., Alexa missed Williamsburg and decided to come back home. In her free time, she enjoys reading Jane Austen and playing with her puppy, Poe. Alexa can be reached at alexa@localvoicemedia.com.

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