Henrico Making Strides in Walkability As Residents Demand More Sidewalks

Screenshot of Henrico County Government's video of groundbreaking on Hungary Road sidewalk

By Keya Vakil

September 5, 2023

Henrico has built more than 15 miles of sidewalks and shared-use paths in the past five years and the county is expected to construct 26 miles of sidewalks and 17 miles of shared-use paths in the next three years.

Sidewalks.

They’re what Terrell Hughes spends a lot of his time thinking about.

As the director of the Department of Public Works (DPW) for Henrico County, Hughes frequently hears about sidewalks—or the lack of them—from community members.

“We get a number of requests for sidewalks,” Hughes said in an interview. “It comes up very often with emails or conversations with residents, or suggestions on something we need to do, or frustration on why we don’t have it.”

Making communities more walkable and pedestrian-friendly has become a priority in many communities across the country in recent years, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which permanently shifted many workers to work-from-home set-ups and increased demand for walkable streets.

In Henrico County, the growing emphasis on walkability has coincided with a booming population. The county has grown by nearly 100,000 residents over the past 25 years, a 38% increase in population, according to US Census data.

This growth has “created a vibrant community that’s got great schools, a great economy, is incredibly diverse, and is welcoming,” state Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg (D-Henrico) said in an interview.

But as the region has expanded, so too has traffic and congestion, and residents have increasingly become frustrated by the lack of sidewalks and crosswalks throughout the county.

“Henrico is kind of like many metropolitan areas. People want to be connected in a way that was maybe not true 20 or 30 years ago,” VanValkenburg said. “They want to be connected to bike paths and they want to be connected to the city and they want to be connected to neighborhoods and parks.”

VanValkenburg, who is running for the state Senate this year, said that the way the county was originally built didn’t include a lot of these connections—particularly in the West End.

“There’s a lot of work to be done to make Henrico a place that’s fully connected via transportation and parks and all that stuff,” he said. “Certainly since I’ve been in office, it’s something that people talk about because they want to be able to ride their bike to work or they want their kid to be able to walk to the park without feeling like they have to cross a major intersection and things like that.”

Addressing the shortage of sidewalks is a “big priority” of the DPW, Hughes said.

But it’s something that will take time. After all, it requires essentially revamping the existing infrastructure, which was not designed with walkability in mind.

Making an ‘Auto-Centric’ Community Walkable

“Around America, I think a lot of suburbs developed with a very auto-centric mind that you get in your car and you drive places, and people aren’t walking,” Hughes said. “So the way land use and the way sidewalks were built, I think it was driven by a very auto-centric mindset.”

The county is trying to undo some of that history, according to Hughes, but it will take time and investment to overhaul transportation and infrastructure systems built for a county that had only about 57,000 people living in it in 1950.

“Henrico County is definitely lumped in with the other urbanizing suburban localities where we’ve really made a transition from being a rural suburban county to an urban suburban county,” he said.

Nowadays, Hughes said, many people prefer not to drive cars and instead rely on public transit, rideshare, bikes, and walking.

“That’s something that’s very common with a lot of people, especially people who are moving from bigger metro areas to Richmond and the Richmond area, Henrico County,” he said. “We’re seeing people coming from bigger metro areas and cities going, ‘Well, why can’t I walk?’”

The answer is complex.

“It’d be a lot easier if the roads were built with sidewalks. Unfortunately, that’s not the case, so we’re going in and retrofitting sidewalks,” Hughes said. “In order to add sidewalks, a lot of times you have to rebuild drainage systems, rebuild sections of road, relocate utilities, and buy property. As easy as it sounds to just add sidewalks, a lot of times it ends up being a mini road project.”

Despite these challenges, progress is being made on sidewalks, which Hughes described as his agency’s “bread and butter project.”

“We have 116 active projects in the county, transportation projects,” Hughes said. “I would say a good two-thirds of those projects are sidewalk specific.”

Many others are bike lane projects and trail projects, and many of the road improvement projects the DPW is undertaking also include adding trails or sidewalk improvements.

The sidewalk projects include building 0.7 miles of sidewalk along the north side of Hungary Road between Hardings Way Drive and Hungary Spring Road.

The project, which broke ground in July, will connect with other existing sidewalks to provide more than six miles of connectivity. According to local officials, this will create safe pedestrian access to two parks, two schools, several places of worship, four grocery stores, restaurants, and thousands of homes and apartments.

“I’ve wanted the sidewalk for so long; there was no place to go,” local resident Betty Ann Flynn said after the groundbreaking event. “I’m just looking forward to walking.”

Henrico has built more than 15 miles of sidewalks and shared-use paths in the past five years.

Other sidewalk projects are also in the works, and the county is expected to construct 26 miles of sidewalks and 17 miles of shared-use paths in the next three years.

This focus on sidewalk expansion—one Hughes described as “very, very aggressive”—is funded by a combination of local funding from the County Board of Supervisors, regional funding from the Central Virginia Transportation Authority (CVTA), and state and federal grants.

VanValkenburg specifically cited the emergence of the CVTA, which was created under a law passed during former Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration, as a key development in the effort to make Henrico more pedestrian-friendly. He also pointed to state Democrats’ decision to provide crucial funding for the Fall Line Trail, a 43-mile bike trail from Ashland to Petersburg, as a way to further connect Henrico to surrounding areas.

“A lot of it is at the local level, but at the state level, we can really have a big impact. And I think the Fall Line Trail and the CVTA are really two big examples of that,” VanValkenburg said.

‘We Need to Be Safety Conscious’

The effort to build sidewalks isn’t just intended to improve quality of life, but also to protect the safety of pedestrians in a county that has seen multiple pedestrian deaths just this year.

Hughes believes the answer to the safety question lies in building more and better infrastructure, such as ensuring pedestrian crossings have dedicated signals, adding push buttons and crosswalks, lowering speed limits, and improving lighting at intersections so that pedestrians are more visible.

Safety is also a key issue to VanValkenburg, who called for officials to be “very purposeful” in how infrastructure overhauls are executed.

“We need to be evidence-based in how, when creating bike lanes on the roads or if we’re doing roundabouts, to put in place the most safety-conscious solutions,” he said. “I think a big part of our problem is not having enough bike lanes on roads, but then also not having right-of-ways and stop signs that work in a way to reduce deaths and injuries.

“I would never ride my bike along the Staples Mill corridor. It would be horrifying. It’s not built for that. Cars don’t pay attention to you,” VanValkenburg added.

These changes are more difficult to implement on the most heavily trafficked-roads, however. While the county maintains its secondary streets, primary roads and interstates are maintained by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), which can take longer to address, since it requires coordination between the county and the state.

‘We Should See It As An Opportunity’

For VanValkenburg, sidewalks, increased walkability, and pedestrian safety are just a few of the elements he’s thinking about as he tries to do what he can in the General Assembly to make Henrico more connected, more livable, and stronger in the long term.

“I think it’s really about being purposeful with infrastructure spending,” he said. “There’s times where we’ve got to do road expansion or road repair, but we should also be thinking about how can we do bike paths? How can we do trains or buses where they work? And so how can we knit the community together in big ways and in small ways? And so I think that’s the main way we can play a role at the state [level].”

By tackling the transportation issues the county faces, VanValkenburg believes officials could also help address the growing cost of housing in the county, specifically in Western Henrico, where he said “the rent is too damn high and home prices are too high.”

“We’re pricing people out and we have an affordable housing problem,” he said. “Our transportation infrastructure needs to be responsive to that increased density.”

If the county is able to successfully connect its communities by building out sidewalks, bike lanes, public transit, and making streets safer, VanValkenburg believes the impacts could ripple outwards.

“I think there’s a ton of knockoff effects if you do it the right way,” he said. “You’re helping solve the housing problem at the same time that you’re solving the transportation problem.”

While the county faces similar challenges as other growing areas, ultimately, VanValkenburg believes it’s an opportunity to make Henrico an even better place to live.

“We should see it as an opportunity and we should use it to continue to grow economically,” he said. “And it’s a good place to live. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”

  • Keya Vakil

    Keya Vakil is the deputy political editor at COURIER. He previously worked as a researcher in the film industry and dabbled in the political world.

CATEGORIES: LOCAL NEWS

Politics

Local News

Related Stories
Share This