The first Richmond Trail Forum took place Wednesday night at the Byrd Park Round House before an enthusiastic overflow crowd of more than 100 people. Many identified themselves as cyclists, runners, hikers, volunteers, and dog walkers.
The well-received six-member panel included Nathan Burrell, superintendent of the James River Park; Mike Burton, city trails manager; Andrew Alli, city trail technician; Michael George, Richmond Road Runners; Dennis Bussey, James River Hikers; and Greg Rollins, rvaMORE. The forum was moderated by Brantley Tyndall, community outreach coordinator for Sports Backers’ Bike Walk RVA.
“We are an outdoor recreation mecca in Richmond,” Burrell said. “We have a multi-use system that we are all happy to share.” [Read more about the history of the development of Richmond’s trails in our preview of the Richmond Trail Forum.]
See a video from TijoMedia’s Brandon Montijo that rolls through some historic moments in the timeline of Richmond’s trail network.
The trail network includes the James River Park loop, Ancarrow’s Landing (AKA Poop Loop), Forest Hill Park, Dogwood Dell, Powhite Park, Larus Park, and more trail is on the way. The system is maintained by James River Park and city trail crew — a total of about seven staffers — and thousands of volunteer hours.
“We live and die by the volunteers,” Burton said, thanking the many volunteers who were in the building.
Burrell said the JRPS welcomed more than 1.4 million visitors in 2016, according to the network of counters at almost every parcel of the park system. Park staff is able to tell the difference between cyclists and pedestrians, which helps them determine who to best manage the trails. Bikes are in the minority, with more than 2/3 of the visits coming from pedestrians in most areas of the park.
“We know when people are out riding wet trails. We know,” said Alli, jokingly to big laughs from the crowd. He said the counters show that the numbers of riders and pedestrians are generally lower during and after periods of rain. Users on wet trails can cause damage and require more maintenance, which was a big part of the evening’s discussion, which included several topics.
The panel emphasized that pedestrians have the right of way on the trails, though many runners and walkers tend to give way to bikes.
“Cyclists should yield to other users,” he said. “Downhill does not have the right of way either. I know you want to bomb down the hill, but we need to give way to hikers.”
Bussey said, “it is helpful to [hikers] when bikers give us a head’s up about how many riders are passing through.” Alli mentioned that bells have become more popular, but a good “rider up” will do fine too to warn anyone on a trail when approaching a blind spot.
The most common conflict on the trails comes the potential for bike-on-bike collisions, Burton said. The trail crew has worked harder to minimize blind corners and trims back vegetation where needed to keep trail corridor sight lines clear.
Earbuds are not encouraged — for runners but especially cyclists. “You are oblivious to your surroundings with earbuds,” Alli said. For what it is worth, according to VDOT, an earbud in one ear is allowed.
A question about unleashed dogs in the park brought a strong response from Burrell, who said “your dog is supposed to be on a leash. Not just in the James River Park, but anywhere around the city.”
Dogs are supposed to be leashed in the city, according to city ordinance. He said keeping your dog on a leash is important for wildlife in the park too. “Typically everyone’s dog that is off a leash — that dog is not next to you, but wandering around the park. Your dog interacting with animals creates negative tension” and can cause more problems than dog owners realize.
At the beginning of the year, the city began an experiment at the Poop Loop by running the trails in one only direction on alternating days of the week. The park offers “a diversity of speeds,” Rollins said, and “we figured we’d experiment out there and see what happens.” If it continues to go well, he said that Dogwood Dell and Forest Hill Park trails could become directional trails as well, although the James River Park loop would likely be too difficult to manage because there are so many entry points.
Trail sustainability was a big topic and the panel answered many questions about their guidance on trail maintenance. Factors in management include measuring resource management, economic impacts, and social impacts. Burrell said that decisions are always a balancing act. “We’re not an amusement park. Trail features are not removed because people can’t ride them,” he said.
“For us, it comes down to staffing,” Burton said. Do they have the resources, the time to accomplish maintenance and what would be the benefits for alterations to the trails.
“Typically, when we are accused of removing technical trail features, it is due to erosion,” Burton said. “We can’t ignore that it is eroding…We all ride, we like this stuff too.”
Alli said that typically, many sections are “social trails,” indicating that they have developed over time before the park officially began maintaining trail. Often they follow the straightest line — especially on sloped sections of trail — and staff has tried to redesign them to make them more sustainable. They use features like rocks and bumps to slow riders in any areas of the trail network.
The panel answered a question about the brown trail markers throughout the city’s network. The markers help pinpoint an emergency response and have helped to cut response times from 30 minutes to closer to 5 minutes per call. The signs are documented and maintained in part by help from volunteers from the James River Hikers.
Burton answered a question about the highly popular new T. Tyler Potterfield Bridge, which saw more than 35,000 visitors in its first month, between the opening date of Dec. 2 and Dec. 31. He said the next logical step is to finish the loop on the south bank of the river and connect with Belle Isle by way of making drastic improvements to the Missing Link Trail, which is planned for in the city’s Richmond Riverfront Plan.
“It is very much a needed connection to Belle Isle,” he said. “We cannot ignore the glaring need in the trail system,”home page