Roanoke is an outdoors town.
You hear this all the time. And, of course, it is true – the Roanoke Valley is blessed with an abundance of natural beauty that we recently have begun to appreciate and exploit. We are surrounded by gorgeous mountains that are, in turn, riddled with hiking and walking trails. We have the largest municipal lake in the country in Carvins Cove, a dream for kayakers and folks who like to fish. The region recently was designated a Silver Level Ride Center by the International Mountain Bicycling Association, one of only 15 such designations in the country recognizing the great opportunities the region provides for exploring nature by bike. A river runs through our urban center, bordered by a greenway hosting bikeshare riders, strolling families, joggers, dog walkers, picnickers and skateboarders. When the first warm day of spring hits, the valley blossoms literally and figuratively as the redbuds bloom and everyone rushes to get outside and enjoy the view.
Being outdoors does not always means being in nature, though. Being outdoors could be a walk through one of the valley’s historic neighborhoods, or window-shopping and lunch in Downtown Roanoke, Salem or Vinton. Being outdoors could be enjoying a bike commute to work, or a walk to the bus stop with some of your favorite music in your earbuds. You could cycle along the greenway to your favorite playground – or your favorite ice cream shop.
Just recently, the Roanoke Valley hosted the 10th Blue Ridge Marathon, and it is telling that this grueling 26-mile race explores both the surrounding mountains via the Blue Ridge Parkway and other roads, and snakes among neighborhoods, businesses, and downtown streets.
During the last decade or so, the Roanoke Valley has made great strides in making it easier to do something other than drive to your destination. The Roanoke River Greenway is one or two gaps away from being 26 contiguous miles of paved path connecting Roanoke, Roanoke County and Salem, with neighborhood connections and spurs that make it easy to get to commercial and neighborhood centers without having to drive. Miles of bike lanes have been added, in some cases to major arterial roads like Elm Avenue and Franklin Road in Roanoke. In addition, the growth of residential development in and around Downtown Roanoke has made it easier for some folks to live close to where they work and play. Investment and revitalization projects are making their way through some of the valley’s oldest neighborhoods and it is becoming safer to be a pedestrian in these places. Great work is taking place to restore old housing stock and build new businesses in these places. Over and over again, we hear that quality of life is an important reason people are choosing to move to the valley, to invest in the valley and to start businesses in the valley. A key component to quality of life is the ability to choose how you get to the places you want to go. Safe pedestrian and bicycle access and good public transportation means that citizens can choose not to drive when they don’t want to.
Certainly, there is much work to be done. While it has only taken us a few years as a community to appreciate and begin investing in our natural resources, our streets and neighborhoods have decades of car-centric design and dilapidated buildings to overcome. The national renaissance in and reclamation of downtowns and neighborhood centers has certainly come to Roanoke, but not to every neighborhood. There are neighborhoods that continue to wait for investment to make them safe places to walk. We have spent significant resources to make it easier for cars to get places, with the result that sometimes those places are not suitable for people. Consider crossing Electric Road at Tanglewood Mall at the end of the work day, or waiting for the bus in the gravelly shoulder of Orange Avenue in the rain.
However, there are all kinds of signs that the valley’s commitment to being outdoors is developing with infrastructure scaled to people not cars as we see more sidewalks and fewer freeways as well as more bus routes and fewer parking lots. While government and community leaders, elected officials and municipal planners are all pursuing these ideas, it will take citizens and neighbors taking the same pride in their neighborhood streets as our hikers take in McAfee’s Knob to move these improvements forward, and to make sure they are moved forward equitably, fairly and appropriately in all our neighborhoods and communities.
While not everyone has the option to do something other than drive, those who do should consider their alternatives. Pick a day each week to bike to work or walk to the grocery store. Carpool with a neighbor to save money and take a car off the road, making it safer for those who bike. Look for your closest transit route online. The program I run, RIDE Solutions, do all this free. Just visit www.ridesolutions.org, to learn how to replace a car trip with something that gets you outside. Every trip outside gets you closer to your neighborhood, your neighbors and are among the reasons this valley is a great place to live.
If you cannot do these things because the resources are not there or the streets are not safe outside of your car, then talk to your elected officials or city planners about making them better. Let them know you better sidewalks or more bike lanes or more frequent bus service. RIDE Solutions also can help you connect to decision makers and planning processes that are addressing the changes you want to see.
Not too long ago, the Roanoke River was mostly ignored, something that ran alongside the backside of industrial businesses or huddled along tire-strewn and plastic-caked banks. Our mountains were something you drove past on I-81 to get somewhere else. We have come to appreciate the immense value these natural resources bring to our lives – and our economy. The same attention should be paid to the immense value to be gained in investing in and improving our neighborhood streets.