I rode off into a chilly January evening this past Wednesday on a twitter tip from FABB, the Fairfax County cycling advocacy group, about a public townhall meeting in McClean with several legislators representing the Northern Virginia region. This would be a great opportunity to press for cycling safety bills before the beginning of the 30-day legislative session convening in Richmond on January 9th. When I arrived at the McClean Community Center my bright yellow bike was the only one locked to the rack out front, so I was a bit worried at first about the cyclist turnout.
FABB was hoping to show support for two specific bills that have been presented in previous legislative sessions and killed. The first is a bill requiring drivers to exercise due care to avoid colliding with pedestrians and cyclists. This bill stems from a 2007 recommendation by VDOT’s research center (VCTIR), which made a whole list of recommendations that can be found on pages xiv – xviii of their report (pdf). Virginia is one of four states without this law.
The second bill prohibits drivers from following cyclists too closely. There is already a law prohibiting motor vehicles from following other motor vehicles too closely, but the language of the current law oddly excludes non-motorized vehicles. The proposed bill changes the language to “all vehicles”. This would also cover animal-drawn vehicles, which is another important consideration for some parts of Virginia, such as the Shenandoah Valley, where Mennonite communities use horse-drawn buggies (and bikes!) on public roads. Virginia is apparently the only state that excludes non-motorized vehicles from their “following too close” law.
Both of these bills were proposed last year and failed.
The night’s discussion covered a wide range of topics, and when transportation did come up it was focused on highways. So I was very pleasantly surprised when the moderator’s last question of the Q&A session asked the panel whether they thought that Virginia needed new laws regarding multi-modal transportation or if the state is doing fine as it is. I guess there were enough cyclists present submitting questions to get it presented to the panel. All present agreed that improvement was needed, but agreement was similarly solid that nothing was likely to be done about it. Examples of past failures were brought up, including a failed effort to require drivers to stop for pedestrians in crosswalks (this effort is also mentioned on pg 11 of the VCTIR study). Blame was also aimed at rural Virginia counties which consistently vote down such bills. The response came across as basically a shoulder shrug and a recommendation to “work it at the local level.” For basic safety measures designed to protect vulnerable road users, this was deeply unsatisfying.
The rest of the transportation conversation yielded some interesting tidbits. House Delegate Bob Brink is proposing an amendment to Virginia’s constitution to allow a governor to serve consecutive terms (Virginia is the only state to prohibit this). He believes this restriction causes a problem for transportation planning as governors tend to only plan for short-term projects that they can see completed and take credit for within one 4-year term (one could easily see how this could impact long-term planning in general). Other speakers emphasized the importance of improving Virginia’s road network as a means of attracting highly valued employers. The Lockheed Martins of the world are evaluating the state’s ability to attract a skilled workforce and see Northern Virginia’s legendary gridlock as a big negative mark on its report card. Far-flung ideas have been floated to come up with extra transportation dollars including selling naming rights to bridges (thankfully that one failed). With a gubernatorial election coming up later this year a clear plan for the state’s transportation future will likely be a key issue that will define the candidates’ campaigns. Expect to hear much more on the topic once that race kicks off.