Rebecca Martinez -- March 3rd, 2010
Harrisonburg Mayor Kai Degner and an entourage of three local activists, a city Planning Commissioner, a city employee and a documentary film maker left for Davis, CA today to learn about the city’s famous bike-friendly infrastructure.
Robb Davis, who lives in Davis, CA and has taught at Eastern Mennonite University in the past, corresponded with Harrisonburg’s Voluntary Gas Tax group about the plan to send a local delegation to learn how things work in Davis, which was developed largely around bike culture.
“We want people to be able to live in communities where biking is really an option, like for everything,” said Davis, who said he’s been “car-free” for seven years. “We know it take a lot for a community to change, but we also know that we were able to make that decision to go without a car because of a lot of committed people who came before us.”
Davis said he recognizes the considerable carbon footprint associated with air travel but he figured, since the planes would be flying anyway, it was worth it to get Harrisonburg’s delegation on board.
He organized a four-day itinerary for the Harrisonburg team, which includes biking around town to survey Davis’s layout — including bike lanes, parking and traffic lights — and talking to historians and city officials about development and funding. They’ll meet a business owner who brews and delivers coffee on bikes (Yes, brews. Something about using a pedal mechanism to turn the machine.) and police who travel on bikes and promote bike safety. They’ll harvest fruit from ornamental trees and deliver it to a food bank, and learn how to repair their bikes at a local collective.
“Everybody I call up or e-mail is just really willing to help,” Davis said, adding that local residents and bike coalition members are eager to pick up the Harrisonburg team from the airport, open their houses to them or host pot luck dinners. “Everybody’s been, ‘We’re proud of our town and we want to do this.’”
Even Mayor Pro-Tem Don Saylor of Davis, CA, sent an e-mail to Mayor Degner inviting him to town.
Robb Davis said his city has some advantages for bikers: It’s flat, sunny and warm. Still, he said, rainy Portland, OR and mountainous Boulder, CO are also designated platinum-level Bicycle Friendly Communities by the League of American Bicyclists.
“I’ve biked Harrisonurg. That’s a bikeable city,” Davis said. “There are some hills. Downtown and all over (EMU) is pretty bikeable. The weather sucks, but it’s pretty temperate. And it’s all about the leadership.”
The local Voluntary Gas Tax club, Shenandoah Valley Bicycle Colation and New Community Project — each of which has been lobbying City Council to increase the number of bike lanes on roadways, among other improvements — were eager to expose Mayor Degner, public works and city planning personnel to Davis, CA’s status quo.
“We felt like it would be really important to get city officials out there so we can really look for seriously at improving bicycle infrastructure in Harrisonburg,” said Tom Benevento, a member of all three activist groups. “We’re working pretty carefully right now I’m looking abut what we can make happen without costing the city very much money.”
The groups pooled their funds and Davis donated a huge sum of his ready-to-expire frequent flier miles to cover several plane tickets. Once there, the Harrisonburg team will stay with host families, eat at potluck dinners and commute on borrowed bicycles. The City of Harrisonburg did not contribute any funds to the trip.
“It’s one of the most creative ways that I’ve seen a group come together to inform council about an issue,” Degner said. “Put simply, I don’t think it would have happened if it had cost the city a dime.”
Degner said the issue he heard most about during his campaign for City Council was improved bike and pedestrian infrastructure. He said he hopes the trip to California will help him address some of Harrisonburg’s infrastructure and budgetary obstacles.
“Our challenges are about retrofitting road infrastructure that was built without bicycles in mind. Also, how do you sort of have bikers and vehicles in some sections in town on the same road in a safe way,” said Degner. “There’s limited money every year. What’s the most effective way or most efficient way to make the most impact?”
Degner will blog about the trip at harrisonburgdavisbiketrip.blogspot.com/
The following is a letter from Davis, CA’s Mayor Pro-Tempore Don Saylor, inviting Degner and his delegation to learn about the city’s bike infrastructure.
Dear Mayor Degner;
As a member of the City Council and Mayor Pro-Tem of the City of Davis I want to welcome you, and all the members of the delegation from Harrisonburg, to Davis in early March. We eagerly await your visit to our city. We look forward to learning about Harrisonburg and sharing our city and our bicycle culture. We look forward to showing you how it all got started and to reflect with you on what it takes to maintain it.
We are always learning from others how we can improve our community. We stand on the shoulders of others who worked hard and sacrificed to lay the foundation of what we have today. Our challenge is to not rest on our laurels but rather to press on to enable this city to maintain what we have and build it to face the transportation challenges of the future. Your visit reminds us of the imperative to continue to learn, to create dialogue, and to act in order to cede to our children a city that is every bit as bike friendly as the one we inherited.
We have learned and must continue to remind ourselves that bicycling is not merely a recreational activity but that it is a key form of transportation, the system and infrastructure for which must be weighed and developed alongside other forms of transit. Encouraging bicycling, as you know, simultaneously enables us to confront a variety of obesity-related health challenges; reduce automobile emissions that themselves have long-term negative health impacts; reduce our carbon footprint and strengthen our sense of community (getting out of our cars has an amazing way of getting us to talk more to each other!).
The pioneers who laid the foundation for our success understood these issues and gave us a chance to confront them. We are happy to share both what they did and what we continue to do to try to make Davis a place in which people use bicycles for all trips under two miles! We see YOU as the pioneers in Harrisonburg–the people who are laying the foundations for a bike friendly city in the Shenandoah Valley. We will do our utmost to provide you with encouragement, ideas and suggestions while you are here. You will have a chance to meet local bicycling activists who help articulate our vision, city staff who work to develop and maintain our infrastructure, policy makers who help move the vision ahead and citizens of all ages, shapes and sizes who use their bicycles as a key mode of transportation around town.
So… Come! Share your energy with us–remind us of why it is so important to stay focused–and learn from us about the kinds of things a city must do to create what we have today. I look forward to meeting with you while you are here.
Photos by kate at yr own risk.