Good Ideas

Richmond has been creating a few bike lanes recently. On Lombardy, there’s a short stretch with a painted bike lane, and Southside Richmond and Chesterfield have a few. They look like this:


This is wonderful. My main wish is that we would create a well-planned network of lanes that could provide safe biking routes all around the region.

However, as part of my good ideas series where I dream about what could be realized here in Richmond, I want to discuss something far better than bike lanes: bike roads.

In my former hometown of Vancouver, BC, the city took entire streets and turned them into bike routes.

These bike routes are traffic-calmed streets that are optimized for biking in numerous ways: Stop signs are removed or turned to keep bike traffic flowing, many signs alert automobile drivers to the presence of bicycles, and traffic-calming devices are used to keep cars from using the route for more than a few blocks at a time. Here’s some pictures:

Routes are well signed.

More signs & road stencils.

Traffic calming device enabling bikes, but not cars, to continue down the street.
All photos by Matthew Blackett for Spacing Magazine, used with permission.

The truly revolutionary aspect of this approach to bike routes is evidenced in the last picture: the traffic-calming devices. Most devices in Vancouver are simpler and cheaper than the one pictured above- many use a simple concrete barrier which has a cut-out for bikes but prevents cars from using the road as a through-route. But the main point of the bike routes is that the entire street is designed primarily for cyclists, not for cars.

The Vancouver network is also quite extensive.


You can see a full map here [PDF].

In Richmond this could work by turning roads that run parallel to major routes into bike roads. For example, Floyd Street in the Fan which parallels Main and Cary. Or Grace St., which parallels Broad.

Downtown, perhaps Marshall could be utilized. In Church Hill, 24th could serve as the North/South Route, and Marshall could be the East/West route.

Local traffic and folks who live on the road are still able to drive down their street, just not for more than a few blocks at a time. And no cars can use it as a through-route.

Other cities are using this approach, including Albuquerque which just passed a “Bike Boulevard” ordinance, Palo Alto, and Berkley.

Here’s a promotional video for Albuquerque’s campaign:

So my latest good idea from another city is to forget the bike lanes, and give us entire streets!

And just to continue promoting the glories of Vancouver, here’s a quote from the city’s transportation department on their transportation priorities:

City Council has set a list of transportation priorities in the following order: pedestrian, bicycle, transit, movement of goods, and private automobile. All existing and new projects in the City are evaluated with these priorities in mind and are developed to accommodate them, wherever possible.

Will someone remind me why I moved back to Richmond?


The following post is part of my periodic good ideas series, where I highlight good ideas from other cities that could improve Richmond if implemented here.

San Francisco’s mayor Gavin Newsom recently echoed a recurring theme in state- and city-level politics:

The political dialogue must change, Newsom insists. “If it’s not going to happen through national leadership or statewide leadership,” he says, “then it has to happen on a local level.” [VIA Time Magazine]

Sound familiar? It should. Politicians have been hammering that theme as their reason for enacting anti-immigrant legislation.

Newsom, however, isn’t talking about the federal government’s failure to enact meaningful immigration reform- he’s talking about the millions of Americans who lack health insurance.

And he’s got a plan: Healthy San Francisco.

The idea is not to provide universal insurance for San Francisco’s 82,000 uninsured residents, but rather universal access to health care.

Uninsured San Francisco residents can enroll in the Healthy San Francisco program, pay monthly fees and co-pays according to an income-based sliding scale, and then go to any number of participating clinics, hospitals, and doctors. A key difference between this program and insurance is that the benefits don’t travel- outside San Francisco you can’t get care.

From the program’s website:

The following services are included with Healthy San Francisco:

  • Preventive and Routine Care
  • Specialty Care
  • Urgent Care
  • Emergency Care
  • Ambulance Services
  • Hospital Care
  • Alcohol and Drug Abuse Care
  • Laboratory Services and Tests
  • Mental Health Care
  • Family Planning
  • Durable Medical Equipment
  • Prescription Medicine

Not covered are vision, dental, organ transplants, and many other important services and procedures.

The big question, of course, is funding. Amazingly, they’re attempting to fund the program without a general tax increase.

The city estimates that it spends $111 million on emergency care for uninsured residents. So by providing basic preventative care they can trim that figure and redirect the excess.

Program director Tangerine Brigham (great name!) addressed where the remaining funds would be found:

Brigham said the program should cost $200 million the first year, and officials expect to finance it without a tax increase. They will also receive a federal grant of $24 million a year. In addition to membership fees and co-payments, the city will also receive money for the program from employers with more than 20 employees, who, starting in 2008, will be required to contribute a set amount to health care. [VIA The Cincinnati Post]

Of course, the bit about employers contributing has been controversial- for those interested in that debate opposing views were printed in today’s San Francisco Chronicle. See the supporting editorial here and opposing one here.

Could this work in Richmond? I can’t even pretend to make an authoritative statement about that. But I’m thrilled that a city is attempting a truly innovative approach to solving this perennial moral problem in American society.

And beyond the social justice aspect, could offering health care to all Richmond residents stem the tide of population loss? Would folks choose to stay in the city when their children reached school age if their medical bills were lower?

Would we see increased entrepreneurship and small business start-ups as the crushing financial burden of providing for your own health care was lifted?

Or would this exacerbate the problems created by our independent city form of government by giving another incentive to businesses to locate in the counties (assuming that the counties would not participate in a program like this)?

I’m sure the country will be watching San Francisco to see how this plays out. I’m hoping it becomes a model for the rest of the country.

The following post is part of my periodic good ideas series, where I highlight good ideas from other cities that could help improve Richmond.

Fair warning: this post deals with taxes, about which I have only a rudimentary understanding. Please feel free to use the comments section to correct any mistakes or bad assumptions I’ve made.

Property taxes on real estate in Richmond tax two things:

1. The value of the land
2. The value of any “improvements” made to the land- primarily buildings.

There’s a movement around the world* to stop taxing improvements and only tax land, implementing what’s known as land value tax. The tax rate would increase in order to compensate for lowered taxable values. Here’s why I support adopting a land value tax for Richmond:

Taxing buildings creates a disincentive for development and encourages land speculation.

If I buy a vacant lot downtown, under the current tax structure I’m only taxed on the value of the land because there are no improvements. I would typically pay very little, and the government collects relatively little, simply because I’ve built nothing.

As soon as I build something, my tax bill soars. Likewise, if I own a surface parking lot downtown, because the improvements are minimal I’m not highly taxed.

For example, the YMCA on W. Franklin St. has an assessed land value of $1,030,000 and an assessed building value of $5,855,000, making the total taxable value $6,885,000.

Meanwhile, the surface parking lot across the street, owned by the Jefferson Hotel, has an assessed land value of $512,000 and no improvement value. The total taxable value, then, is $512,000.

The disparity in taxable value under the current tax structure is $6,373,000. There’s no incentive from our tax system to build on that unimproved land.

In other words, it is to my advantage to do nothing with my “unimproved” land until the real estate market is at a peak (when downtown development picks up) and I can sell my land at a much higher cost than I originally bought it; or I can build on my parking lot and be sure to recoup a larger cost by selling my new condos or leasing my retail space at high cost in the new stronger market.

Clearly, taxing land improvements discourages development and encourages speculative real estate purchasing. This is one reason why there are so many surface parking lots currently in downtown Richmond, and why the old hotel at the corner of Franklin and Belvidere sat empty for so many years- there is no significant tax burden for owning land with minimal or no valuable improvements on it.Surface lots

If, however, land were the only thing taxed, there would be no incentive to hold on to land without improvements. If my tax bill for a one-city-block-sized surface parking lot was the same as the tax bill for the high-rise office building next door which is collecting rent from its tenants, I would be a fool to NOT build.

Other reasons for implementing a land value tax are more philosophical:

A land value tax recovers for community purposes the monetary value the community creates. In other words, when the government or private individuals build infrastructure, buildings, or other improvements, they increase the value of neighboring land, which then increases the tax revenues more quickly than the current system.

Another reason to support this tax is practical:

It is an inexpensive tax to administer because land ownership is easier to track than sales transactions, land leases, etc. Also assessments, while still subject to dispute and controversy, are simplified as only land value and not building value need be determined.

My suggestion would be to implement this new tax structure in a special district downtown. I would create a downtown tax district east of Belvidere, north of the river, south of 95, and west of 14th st. (thereby exempting most of Shockoe, which could be considered for inclusion). I would exempt all properties currently zoned for single-family houses, such as those in Jackson Ward and Carver. Then I would increase the tax rate and stop taxing the buildings.

Returning to the YMCA and its neighbor, the surface parking lot, under a land value tax system the disparity in taxable value drops from its current $6,373,000, to a more reasonable $518,000.

This seems more fair than our current system, and a good economic incentive to develop vacant land in the downtown core.

* Places around the world that have implemented some form of the land value tax include Denmark, Jamaica, and 15 cities in Pennsylvania.

**For more info on this topic, read wikipedia’s entry on land value tax. Also see the wikipedia entry’s bibliography for further reading.

So as promised, albeit after a long delay, I’m starting what I hope will be a regular feature of this blog: highlighting good ideas for cities.

To kick things off, I’m taking the suggestion of a reader who brought to my attention an idea from Columbus, OH.

Ohio DOT wanted to widen I-670, so in one location, the decision was made to hide the highway by building retail shops along the bridge. Here’s a picture:

And a view from street level, where you really can’t tell it’s a highway overpass at all:

This is a great idea, because instead of allowing the highway to divide neighborhoods and destroy them for the sake of the automobile, this development allows neighborhoods to remain pedestrian friendly and maintains a connection between both sides of the highway (at least in this one space).

According to the Columbus City Council webpage, they’re considering highway “caps,” as they’re known, all over the city. Check out these links, which show pictures of 4 different highway overpasses and proposals to cap them with buildings or parks (be sure to click on the “next” link). It’s really an amazing transformation they’re proposing:

Of course, Columbus is not the only city to hide its highways- Boston’s Big Dig is the most infamous of all attempts to reclaim urban space from the ravages of the interstate highway system. But other cities are getting in the game as well:

Dallas, TX wants to connect it’s arts district and Uptown neighborhoods with a 3 block-long park:

Trenton, NJ created a 6.5 acre park over US 29 which sparked reinvestment in neighboring areas. A view from “street level”:

Other cities with caps include Seattle (I-5), San Diego, Duluth (I-35), and Phoenix (I-10).

Of course, Richmond has 2 caps already, the RMA parking garage and Kanawha Plaza. While over a highway is one of the best places to put parking, as it uses otherwise wasted urban space, Kanawha Plaza is closer in concept to these other developments because it serves to connect both sides of the Downtown Expressway.

Kanawha, however, is much smaller in scale than these newer caps. And it’s also flanked by busy streets on both sides, which diminishes its ability to actually connect the two sides of the expressway as it’s not pleasant to walk there.

So Good Idea #1: hide the highways by capping them and reconnecting divided neighborhoods. Where could this work in Richmond? Perhaps in Oregon Hill? Maybe a retail cap along S. Meadow St. near the near the new lofts? What do you think?

When I used to live near the expressway in Carytown I dreamed of a green-space cap that would cover the entire expressway as a bike and walking path to downtown as well as heal the ugly scar in the neighborhood and deaden the incessant noise. Now that I see so many other cities getting into this game, perhaps it wasn’t such a far-fetched dream after all…


And please, send me some good ideas you’ve seen in other cities or have dreamed up yourself.   Let’s think big for Richmond. Send ideas here: ambivalentrichmonder [at]

I promised 2 posts ago that I’d post a new regular “feature” of good urban ideas on Friday if my oh-so-loyal readers sent me some suggestions.  Well a few of you have, and therefore I will.  But the posts are taking longer than expected to do well, so I’m postponing their debut for a few days.

Meanwhile, keep sending me any and all ideas you have for how to make Richmond a better city- based on other ideas you’ve seen, or just ideas you’ve got in your head.

Ambivalentrichmonder [at] yahoo dot com

I’m thinking of starting a regular feature on this blog highlighting “good ideas” in urban development, and I’d like your help.

Have you visited or lived in a city and wished some of its planning, design, architecture, politics, or whatever could be magically transplanted to Richmond? I’m thinking of things like bike lanes, mass transit, environmental innovations, community gardening projects, or whatever.

Or, if you’re particularly pleased with something good happening locally, that’s great too.

Just send your ideas, preferably with links to articles, explanations, and/or pictures to:

Also be sure to let me know if and how you’d like to be credited.

If enough people respond with suggestions, I’ll run this feature every Friday.