Lisa Riegel wears a gold bicycle charm on her neck, and as director of BikeWalk NC is a fierce advocate of bike trails and roads that are friendly to the two-wheeled set.
But her own path to this work is not that of the die-hard weekend mountain biker or helmet-clad commuter. Riegel is a scientist by training who moved from industry to environmental work, and eventually found herself immersed in rural economic development.
She’s the first paid director of BikeWalk NC, a decade-old group devoted to ways of getting around other than driving. BikeWalk promotes safety for bicyclists and pedestrians, as well as creating roads and trails that can be used for transportation as well as recreation.
A hydrologist who started her career working for oil companies and most recently worked in land conservation for the N.C. Department of Natural Resources, Riegel likes to view these goals through an economic lens – whether it’s creating the walkable communities that are in demand among younger workers or building tourism through recreational trails.
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“I went from protecting land to realizing that we’re never going to be able to buy all the land we need to protect,” she says. “What we need to do is grow our communities in a way that makes that land more valuable, and transportation is the key.”
Roger Henderson, a transportation consultant and board president of BikeWalk NC, formerly the North Carolina Active Transportation Alliance, says Riegel has already worked to raise the profile of alternative modes of transportation, particularly among legislators.
“It’s nice to know there’s somebody who spends the day thinking about how to make life easier for walking around, or riding a bike,” he says. “Everybody is talking about exercise and diet and getting healthy, and about having walkable and bikeable communities. All of these things come together when we can get out of our cars.”
From oil to advocacy
Riegel spent most of her youth in the Philadelphia area and says her first connection to North Carolina came through summer vacations to the Outer Banks.
She returned to the state to earn her bachelor’s degree at Duke University. She studied hydrology out of an interest in science, and worked for a while for the oil industry.
But her career veered toward public service when she took a significant pay cut to take a job doing groundwater pollution abatement.
“These were communities that had gasoline coming out of their sinks, and my job was to figure out where it was coming from,” she says. “You do feel like you’re helping people when you are finding them clean water to drink.”
Later, when she was living in Delaware, she ran a nonprofit that created a library and community center on donated land. She was working part time while caring for her young children when she learned of the project, which was foundering.
“Nothing was happening,” she says, “and finally I realized that if I wanted something to happen, I was going to have to make it happen.”
She got a friend who was a lawyer to help set up a nonprofit and sought out board members. A relative did marketing for the group, which raised several million dollars for the effort.
“It’s one of the most rewarding things I had ever done,” she says.
Her husband’s job brought them to North Carolina, and she soon had two job offers with the state Department of Natural Resources: one working in hydrology, the other with the land conservation trust fund.
She chose the latter, which would rely more on the advocacy skills she had gained through volunteer work – forming partnerships to help preserve land across the state for future generations.
Her work with the fund helped her learn about land use and community growth, issues that are also key to her work with BikeWalk.
At DENR, she also became involved in an effort to expand the tourism industry in the Uwharrie Mountains, which span a nine-county area south of the state’s urban core, with more trails and adventure tourism. Creating trails for bikes and hiking is a key part of that effort.
“If we can value that land, then we don’t have to spend a lot of money protecting it,” she says. “Let’s grow our economies by protecting these assets.”
In her current role, Riegel works closely with government, the nonprofit sector, citizen groups and others to focus energy and resources on making it easier to bike and walk.
“I like playing the connector role,” she says.
Last week, she met with officials from the state department of transportation to discuss plans to develop roads that allow more people to ride and bike safely.
State legislators passed a package of laws aimed at bicycle safety two years ago. Instead of more laws, Riegel says, she’s focused on raising awareness of exiting rules regarding bicyclists. One of her main challenges is to change attitudes about bicycles on the road in a state where drivers tend to view cyclists with frustration.
Riegel hopes an increased focus on making roads accessible to bikes and people as well as cars could bring economic benefits as well as health benefits. Walkable cities such as Denver and Austin are attractive to consumers.
BikeWalk focuses on state and regional issues more than local ones, though she’s working to promote several projects in the Triangle. The group was active in starting Raleigh’s bike-share program, which she hopes will be a model for other cities, and is helping to promote the proposed mountain biking trails and center near the William B. Umstead State Park and Raleigh-Durham International Airport.
That initiative exemplifies the idea of using trails as an economic driver, she says, that would draw knowledge-based companies whose employees are often interested in outdoor activities.
“That could become a nationally significant mountain biking hub,” she says. “If done properly, it can become a crown jewel.”
The proposed bicycle route along Interstate 40 is another proposal her organization is backing.
BikeWalk holds an annual bike summit in different cities; this year’s will be in Wilmington in November.
Cyclists tend to be a vocal group, with clubs scattered throughout the state that work with BikeWalk on initiatives and events.
But Riegel says part of her job is to advocate for those who find themselves walking from choice or necessity, but don’t think to speak up about the difficulties they face, from lack of sidewalks to drivers who don’t adhere to laws regarding pedestrians.
“No one wakes up in the morning and says, ‘I’m a pedestrian,’ ” says Riegel. “We have to think about people whose voices aren’t that loud.”
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Lisa Diaz Riegel
Born: January 1961, Los Angeles
Career: Executive director, BikeWalk NC
Education: B.S. geology, Duke University; M.S. engineering geology, Drexel University
Family: Husband Stephen; children Harry and Sophie