Heather Neville is the brains behind the VeloFest Community Initiative and the woman pioneering the movement for bicycles and cars to safely co-exist in our busy small town. She’s gone from casual cyclist to a full-time advocate and educator all to keep our roadways safer. And it’s a big job. So, we sat down with her to get a better idea of what the mission of VeloFest is really all about, what riders and drivers need to know about the rules of the road and how St. Augustine residents can get involved too. Here’s what she has to say…
What is Velofest?
VeloFest, oh that weird word I created, that became a movement. VeloFest Community Initiative only exists because after a friend was killed while riding in 2011(R.I.P. Bryan Wrigley April 13, 2011) we decided to have a memorial event for him and to create awareness about the issues cyclists face. It wasn’t long after a date for the event was picked that two things happened. First I realized the rate of cyclists being killed was terrifying, and second, elected officials and city staff started asking what we going to do about it. That was summer of 2011. What does Velo Fest mean now? It’s become a verb and and adjective. It represents a mission to create a safer road for all road users. Its a “movement of the people.”
What inspired you to start the program?
Honestly it wasn’t intentional. I tell people all the time that this life just happens to me and I keep hanging on. After Bryan was killed, I started paying more attention to the data. You see, my uncle was killed in the 90s while community by bike to work one night. It was a hit and run. Then in 2004 my brother was hit and suffered a tramatic brain injudry while crossing a road near our childhood home. Even though I rode my bike everywhere while living in Jacksonville Beach, I never correlated the issues with a problem, just that things had happened. But then I moved to St. Augustine in 2008 and got rid of my cruiser because there was no where to ride, or at least no where I felt like I belonged. When Bryan was killed, and my husband was assaulted at knife point while riding one day, I became an advocate. I have always felt the need, a deep personal need to help others, and this was how I could help the most. So the program just became whatever the community asked for. Education, events, bike valet, speeches, a voice for those who had been killed, ghost bike installer, kid helmet fitter, transportation fund seeker, a voice on the other end of the line when a loved one had been lost who had no judgement for they how or why, only to keep it from happening again. I am not sure at one point I was inspired, but I do know, after Bryan, I was committed.
Are your efforts geared towards the cycling community or anyone who owns a bike?
In the beginning it was actually towards people who drive cars. Then it was a mix of people who driver cars and people who ride bikes. In the last 2 years it has really been completely about helping people realize we all need to just be a little more human. Treat each other with a little patience, including ourselves. We have dubbed it the “#humanmetric.” I spend a lot of time thinking about how to reach more people. Get them to care. In Florida, most cyclists drive cars, and are offenders as well.
How can people get involved?
Velofesting! Velofesting, verb, to create mutually beneficial roads in practice and rhetoric. We have so many fun events from helmet fittings to bike valet, getting a little altruism can really change your outlook. We of course have a website, mailing list, Facebook, twitter, Instagram and so on, but just drive your bike, and drive it responsibly.
What do you think the solution is for cyclists and cars to co-exist safely in St. Augustine?
Patience! I spend nearly 50 hours a week working on bike trails, bike lanes, awareness events, education campaigns and on and on. I also spend a lot of time running all over this county. I mean physically running while I train for marathons(I did mention earlier that I don’t ride much anymore.) I encounter a lot of frustrated and distracted people. We need to stop driving mad and we need to pay attention. Stop worrying about why tourists drive slow, mothers are distracted, teenagers speed, the elderly take an extra second at a stop sign, and give each other a break, pun intended. I call it the “DAMM” problem. I am working on an educational campaign geared toward adults. The mascot is a beaver with a stick in his mouth and it says “Its just one DAMM project after another.” Distracted, Alcohol, Misinformed, Mad. There are rarely accidents anymore. Almost 100% of collisions, bicycle, bus, trolley, taxi, mini van, hot rods, are attributed to those four things. 100% preventable.
What are some rules of the road that drivers forget?
First and foremost, unless you are on an interstate, drivers of bikes can be there, in your lane, even if there is a bike lane. I get a lot of non cyclists that ask about bikes out of the bike lane. Have you ever looked at a bike lane? Glass, grates, tree limbs, garbage cans, parked utility vehicle, it’s not safe. Both cars and bikes need to yield when entering traffic, at stop signs, and stop lights. Please, give at least 3 feet when passing. If there is another lane, move over. Why risk running someone over to save a half second to get to Starbucks?
What are some of the rules of the road that cyclists forget?
Drivers of bikes must go with the flow of traffic. Its the law, and if you have ever taken physics, it’s safer. The bright red octagons that say “STOP” are not art installments. There are some good arguments out there that say cyclists are actually safer doing an Idaho stop(courtesy stops,) but that’s assuming drivers of vehicles are stopping at stop signs. Also, lights are the law at dusk, night, and dawn. You are better off to use them every day all day too. Our many local bike shops carry excellent models that can be seen up to a mile away, even in the sun.
Are you personally an avid cyclist or recreational ride-your-bike-around-the-neighborhood type?
While in Jax Beach I was certainly a bike commuter from middle school until I moved to St. Augustine in 2008. My husband introduced me to road cycling in 2010 and I absolutely love it, but I am a Mom of a now 3 year old and it’s hard to find the time to go. Our son Tex loves bike rides. He has a glide bike and can go up to 2 miles. Unfortunately where we live there is no where to ride safely for about a mile. It was a little easier to cycle when I didn’t know so much.
What type of effect do you hope your efforts have on commuting in St. Augustine?
One day I would like to be able to ride from St. Augustine Beach to Hastings on separated cycle track. This beautiful city that I now call home, own a business in with my husband, building a new house, and convincing my parents to retire to, is in desperate need of congestion clearing solutions. No where are you more than 5 miles from anything. I want to be able to ride my bike anywhere, confidently, and see so much bike traffic that we need signals at the trail crossings. I want to help our local community see the bike for the great utility it has in addition to being a stress reliever, and a lot more beneficial to our environment and our pocket books then driving cars. Ultimately, I would like for my son to be able to ride his bike to school, and experience the independence it brings along with problem solving skills, and healthy lifestyle. And finally, I want to meet mission zero. Zero deaths of a cyclists. Zero new ghost bikes, zero phone calls from mothers and brothers, zero messages from patrol of a “John Doe” requiring identification and calling all my friends and bike shops to see who didn’t make it home. Mission Zero.