They Want to Ride Their Bicycles, But How?

“Ever bike? Now that’s something that makes life worth living!…Oh, to just grip your handlebars and lay down to it, and go ripping and tearing through streets and road, over railroad tracks and bridges, threading crowds, avoiding collisions, at twenty miles or more an hour, and wondering all the time when you’re going to smash up. Well, now, that’s something! And then go home again after three hours of it…and then to think that tomorrow I can do it all over again!” –Jack London
I‘m all for folks riding bikes, no matter where they live, from New York to Kansas to Hawaii. So when I heard about a national bicycle race coming to my very own Richmond, Virginia, I didn’t think much of it. Living in a city, you learn to make time to overcome these events, especially on weekends. But then I noticed a sign saying one of the main roads I take every day would be closed, not for an hour or so as we have with parades or foot races, but all day. I started to wonder what exactly was going on.

The race, which took place this past weekend, is called the 2014 UCI National Championships. Leading up to the race, I discovered this was a actually a two day event, complete with a three-day consumer expo, as a test event for the 2015 UCI World Championships. How much bigger would the World Championships be? Instead of two days, it would run eight days. And the courses closed for the race would expand from a 0.9 mile area to a race running from a nine-mile circuit all the way up to a 33-mile circuit. So I began thinking, if the 0.9 mile race disrupted the city as much as it did Friday through Sunday, what would a 33 mile race do?

On Friday alone, 36 points were closed. That’s not counting ‘No Parking’ areas, as well as the additional routes closed Saturday and Sunday (up to 39).

Now, it’s one thing to sit in traffic. It’s another to have to leave work early, as I know some folks had to do. The Virginia State Government estimated that this small race would impact 12,000 state workers on Friday. The city bus line, GRTC, issued a warning of major delays, saying its routes would be following detours that ‘may change without notice.’ The Richmond City government said it would ‘remain open,’ yet warned folks going to City Hall and social services that there would be delays and parking issues, and to rely on online methods. Additionally, the city left this little note at the bottom of their homepage: “The Richmond General District Courts, the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court and Clerk’s Office for the City of Richmond will be closed on Friday, May 2.”

To say this event had a significant impact on Richmond and Richmonders is an understatement. But how much did it cost the city to put on? For this portion of the race, it’s hard to tell.

The problem with these types of events is that when they are sold to city leaders, the economic studies put forth with them tend to be based on assumption. The example sold to our city leaders for the upcoming 2015 race says that it will generate $129.2 million dollars for the Metro Richmond Area, according to an article by Scott Bass in alt-weekly, Style Weekly. Yet according to that same article, the metrics of the economic study are questionable, and rely on assumptions about the way visitors spend their money. Bass refers to as “Substitution Effect, which dictates that the money spent in one place is diverted from another.” For instance, if a person is local, and would have purchased a meal in the city that day anyhow, but instead went to the race and bought it there, did the city gain any in taxes? Not at all. So these studies are effectively guestimations, taking what it guesses will be in attendance, guessing where they will spend that money, and guessing that they would not have spent it anyhow.
So it’s a questionable wager, a gamble, even, to put money into something like this race when, at best, the numbers are not really available, only guesstimations of possibilities. And how much has the city wagered on these guestimations? According to the Richmond Times Dispatch,$2 million of cash and in-kind services. And how much does it expect to get back in taxes? According to the Richmond2015 website itself, $3.8 million to local governments. Notice ‘local governments,’ which does not necessarily mean the City of Richmond alone. So if folks get a hotel in neighboring Chesterfield County, that county gets the tax money. If they stay in Henrico County, Henrico gets the tax money. And what are the chances that folks will stay in the City of Richmond? Well, if you consider the number of city street closures, I’d wager folks will come in during the day, and be quick to get out in the evening.These economic impact numbers were prepared by a company called, Chmura Economics & Analytics, a local Richmond firm, whom according to Peter Galuszka’s Style Weeklyarticle where he quotes Stewart Schwartz, director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, some Chmura studies seem to be part “‘of an integrated public relations campaign for projects that already have a preordained conclusion.'” Take the Redskins training camp, where according to Galuszka’s article, Chmura actually got the figure they were citing from the Redskins themselves.

And in all of this, we have to wonder: Why would the city take this gamble? Such a gamble seems way too risky to even think about, spending $2 million to POSSIBLY get a guessed $3.8 million in taxes, that may or may not go to the city itself. But I can name the folks behind the deal: Mayor Jones, Governor McAuliffe, Senator Warner, Tom Farrell, the President and CEO of Dominion, as well as the long list of Venture Richmond, Dominion, and bankers usually seen on projects that put the city financially on the line for seemingly little return.

The part of this that gets to me the most, the reason I looked into this at all, past the point of the street closings, is this seems to be another example of a poor city putting money into something that does not serve its residents’ needs. While Richmond is giving $2 million of ‘cash and in-kind services’ for a bike race, its schools need around $26 million dollars to address issues from caving in roofs to mold to schools that are completely closed. And amidst this, city council, reluctantly agreed to give a mere $3.8 million to try and address problems in the schools.

Given the events taken by the mayor and city council recently, Richmond seems to be operating like a beach town: doing what it can to rake in visitors, but on the dimes and backs of its residents. Time and time again, between the football training camp and the attempt to build the baseball stadium in historic Shockoe Bottom, the city gives money that could go toward improving its infrastructure to touristy things instead.

And what do we get in return? A central city park handed over to private interests. A city council that wants to meet less. A school system in disrepair. And roads closed, buses rerouted, and folks too poor to have a computer notified online that they should avoid the social services building due to parking issues. Meanwhile, other folks race by on their expensive bicycles.

The lucky ones are those whom live somewhere else, somewhere like Chesterfield, whom as January 2014, haven’t put any money into bringing this race to the city, but whose taxes will be used to put books and solid roofs over the heads of their students. The unlucky ones are the resident school children of Richmond whose book and school money goes to subsidizing suburbanites’ entertainment.

And that seems like the grossest injustice of all. Just another clash of class in history.

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Photo courtesy of Quail Bell Magazine.