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Got Wheels?

Getting Around Richmond

Most mornings, Peter Fraser packs up his laptop and paperwork to commute to his offices at Fraser Design, about 10 miles away. He also grabs a water bottle and spare shoes. Then Fraser dons cycling cleats to cover the distance on his bike.

Fraser started commuting by bike last summer. Along with his wife Sally and their three children, he has been cycling recreationally for years, but only recently started using his bike for a more practical purpose. “It’s partly about making a statement, because in America we don’t embrace cycling as a mode of transportation,” he says. “But it’s true that I’m also going to the gas pump less.”

These days, more people are cycling, walking, bussing, and carpooling around Richmond.

Fraser is part of a growing trend of Richmond-area residents who are getting creative about getting around. As the economy has worsened and cost of living expenses have risen, these commuters are saving money and sometimes even boost-Ing fitness as they run their daily errands.

More are cycling, walking, bussing, and carpooling through the city.

Ridership on GRTC bus lines increased slightly from 2008 to 2009. But participation in the GRTC RideFinders program really grew. The program organizes vanpools and helps match riders with carpools in their area. From 2008 to 2009, the number of vanpools rose from 76 to 96, and the number of Richmondarea RideFinders users grew from 10,607 to 12,590 according to Von Tisdale, Executive Director of RideFinders.

“Certainly gas prices are affecting it,” Tisdale says. “People want to save money and they also want to do smart things to preserve our environment.” The GRTC also offers a program in which employers can sponsor free bus passes for their employees. The University of Richmond signed up over 100 employees in the spring of 2008 when it entered the program. Other employers offering free passes include the Federal Reserve, VCU Health System, and the Virginia Lottery.

Alice Ortman and her son Tito use a Combination of their bikes and GRTC options. When it’s not raining, they bike from their home in the Fan to nearby Fox Elementary School, where Tito is in first grade. Then Ortman continues her commute downtown. She works for the Virginia Department of Transportation, which provides her with a free bus pass.

Biking and bussing to work and school can save families money and help preserve the environment.

On wet days, Ortman drives Tito to school, parks her car, and rides the bus to work. “Parking downtown would cost $40 a month,” she says. That may not sound like much money, but Ortman isn’t factoring in gas savings or increased wear and tear on the car.

During the summer, Ortman loads her bike onto a GRTC bus rack, then rides with Tito to the downtown YMCA for childcare. There, she unloads her bike and rides it to work. On the bike, Ortman feels relatively safe on her urban commute, even with a seven-year-old child. “Richmond is a great bike-friendly city,” she says. “The vehicle traffic is used to seeing bikers, and drivers are pretty understanding.” But in the suburbs, families can face safety issues. For example, although Peter Fraser’s family are all avid competitive cyclists, he discourages them from riding near their home in Mechanicsville. His daughter Julia would love to ride to her middle school. And the two younger boys would be happy to make a grocery store run with dad.

Try to think of walking as a form of transportation instead of exercise.

“I fear for their safety,” Fraser says.

“The roads are rural two-lanes with no shoulder and people driving over 40 miles an hour. I grew up in the city and was a bike messenger, so cars don’t intimidate me. But the kids don’t always ride in a straight line.” Part of the “culture change” that Fraser hopes to achieve by biking himself is increased community awareness about alternative forms of transportation. He hopes that Richmond may put increased resources toward bike lanes and driver education.

Perhaps the safest family commute of all is simply walking, which appealed to Chris DeWilde after she and her son returned from a long vacation in Switzerland last summer. “We walked all the time,” she says. “I realized that I could do that here more. I just had to take it out of the context of exercise, and start thinking of it as transportation.”

DeWilde usually walks to her job as a nurse at MCV, about three miles from her home in Byrd Park. She doesn’t walk if it’s raining, below 40 degrees, or above 90. “My rule was it had to be nice,” she says. She also walks to the grocery, about a mile from her house.

DeWilde says that although son Jackson isn’t much of a walker, she can convince him to join her on his Razor scooter (she sometimes rides hers also). But her husband, Jon Prescott, hasn’t made the transition yet.

“You have to change your expectations, because it does eat up more time,” she says. “But that’s not a bad thing. I am not as frenzied and stressed-out.” DeWilde says on her walks she often returns phone calls or does some thinking. “I seem to still get enough done in my life,” she says. “I just don’t ‘have’ to get it all done in one day.”

Phaedra Hise
Phaedra Hise is a freelance journalist and editor, published author, and parent of a teen.
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