Charlottesville converted this parking space for bicycle use in 2013

Bikes and walking — we all know they are possible alternatives to driving cars. 

In Charlottesville, the conversation is shifting to the money such transportation choices can return to our wallets and to an improved bottom line, and even how they can help with the recruitment of young professionals.

About 50 residents gathered at CitySpace last week for a presentation and panel discussion that explored the economic benefits of walkable and bike-friendly communities.

“There are a lot of reasons to invest in biking and walking, transportation choice is just one of them,” said Amanda Poncy, Charlottesville’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator. 

“There are some economic benefits, as well, and we want to broaden that conversation,  so that people in the business community, in city government and people who are developing [real estate] can start to think more broadly about those benefits.”

Poncy assembled a panel that included City Councilor Kathy Galvin; the city’s economic development director, Chris Engel; developer Frank Stoner; and Kurt Burkhart, executive director of the Charlottesville Albemarle Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The discussion revealed some skepticism about hard economic data on the benefits, but significant enthusiasm for promoting a stronger culture for bikes and walking that leaders said can make Charlottesville more attractive to its residents, tourists and businesses.

“One of the problems is that the indirect benefits can’t easily be measured,” said Stoner. “They can’t easily be measured in a period of time in which city governments typically make budget decisions.”

Stoner is president of Milestone Partners and is known for developments as varied as the Belmont Lofts, Belvedere and the redevelopment of the Jefferson School. He said government “has to take the long view.”

“Look at the Downtown Mall as an example,” Stoner said. “We spent a lot of money on it in [1976] and in 1994 we started to reap the benefits of that investment.”

(L to R) Chris Engel, Kathy Galvin, Kurt Burkhart and Frank Stoner

Galvin said to make a place healthy, inviting and a destination requires careful planning.

“The best way to think about making places that are healthy for the environment and human beings is to think about mobility,” Galvin said. “How do you get there? Can you do it without extensive use of fossil fuels? That’s why the idea of bike-ped becomes very intriguing to me.”

Galvin encouraged the audience to think about the costs of driving and how the money spent on insurance, vehicle maintenance and parking could be otherwise invested in the local economy.

Yet, the panel noted a significant number of factors go into the choice of how we get from point to point in the community: the weather, safety, distance and even the opportunity for a shower to aid the transition from a bicycle commute to a business coffee.

Burkhart described his experience living in Flagstaff, Ariz.

“They took sidewalks that go 6 to 7 miles along Route 66 and encouraged them to be used for bicyclists,” Burkhart said. “In the spring and summer I would ride to work … I was fortunate in my office … because we had a shower, which was very convenient.”

Burkhart said people come to the local visitors center asking about bike trails and bike rentals.

“We’ve got the Rivanna Trail and so much around here that is walkable,” Burkhart noted. “I can tell you when people get out of their hotels they don’t necessarily want to drive. We could do more interactive trails.”

Engel said he fielded similar questions two years ago from a company looking to relocate to Charlottesville.  

“They were looking for an East Coast location, 80 jobs, significant capital investment, a pretty neat company,” said Engel. “This was unlike any other prospect visit I have been a part of because they started asking questions about bikes, bike lanes and transit.”

Engel said the community “struck out” and lost to Asheville, N.C., when it came to the unavailability of an appropriate 20-acre site. However, he hasn’t forgotten the significance the company placed on bikes.

In a statement Engel read, the company said it believed it “was important to have a site where our co-workers can bike or walk to work, and that was an easy way to winnow down the choices.”

“We are not New York City, we are not Portland, and we should never expect to be that,” said Engel. “With a lot of smart people [here], we want to compare ourselves and look at other places for examples. That’s a good thing … but there is some danger in it because you might think we could automatically do [some of those things].”

“We can aspire to some of the attributes that those places have, but we don’t have the [same housing] density,” Engel noted.

Stoner encouraged government to lead the way with appropriate infrastructure investments. He said new development would follow.

“We need to develop a culture that bikes are a realistic alternative to our cars,” said Stoner, “but I don’t think we are there yet.”

Bike Week kicks off Monday with the third annual Cross Town Ride from the University of Virginia to the Downtown Mall. The ride will conclude with speakers and an awards ceremony in front of City Hall at 12:30 p.m.