Arlington, VA

Within the next decade, a new transit group wants to make the bus the go-to transit option in the D.C. area

Earlier this year, the Washington Area Bus Transformation Project — which is backed by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority — released a draft strategic plan with a variety of short and long-term goals and strategies for improving the D.C. region’s bus network.

“The national capital region is adding 40,000-60,000 jobs and households each year,” the group said in its strategic plan. “But its transportation system is struggling to keep pace, leading to some of the longest commutes and worst traffic congestion in the nation.”

Potential ways to improve D.C. area buses and thus help alleviate traffic issues were broken into six categories, ranging in complexity and potential cost.

  • Ease of use: make simpler, consistent maps, naming conventions, and pricing. Another recommendation would be free transfers between Metrorail service and local bus lines.
  • Prioritizing buses on roads: potentially with bus-only lanes and traffic signal priority, though regional coordination will be needed.
  • Frequent, reliable, convenient service: overhaul existing routes to create a more efficient system and provide flexible, on-demand transit services for areas not well served by conventional buses.
  • Balance regional and local bus systems: develop a 10-year plan to allocate services between bus systems and applicable routes. The plan also includes a recommendation to “revise the cost local jurisdictions pay WMATA for local service to better match the actual cost to provide service.”
  • Streamline back-office functions: most of the recommendations in this category are behind-the-scenes improvements, like consolidating support functions and developing regional standards for bus data collection and analysis.
  • Centralizing regional bus networks: form a regional coalition of jurisdictional representatives with authority to implement strategy recommendations.

The bus system has a long way to go if it wants to turn its image around. Since 2012, bus ridership has fallen 13 percent across the region. The project will also require cooperation from the region’s nine bus service providers.

Much of the project also depends on local jurisdictions to implement strategies like restricting parking to facilitate better bus transit. This is why representatives from Arlington Transit and several Arlington County departments are in the group’s technical team and strategy advisory panel.

Meanwhile, most of the technical team and all of the leadership team are WMATA employees.

So far there are no cost estimates for the plan’s recommendations. Allison Davis, a member of the project team, said the price tag will come later in the process.

The project started in September. The group is currently in the middle of a public outreach campaign to sell the public on the idea and gather feedback. At an open house yesterday at George Mason University’s Arlington campus, the room was covered with boards for collecting thoughts on the project and the direction it should take. A survey is also available online.

The plan goes to the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority and the WMATA board this summer for review, with a roadmap planned for development in the fall.

“We’re trying to look at this from a customer perspective,” Davis said. “This [plan] is a tool we have to make better [transit] choices.”

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The Arlington County Board voted to fund several transportation projects this weekend that officials had used to woo Amazon during the tech giant’s search for its second headquarters.

On Saturday, County Board members approved using $33,850,000 in state funds on the projects. The vote comes after Board members and state legislators pledged millions in transportation upgrades near Amazon’s HQ2 site as long as the company meets certain job creation and space occupancy benchmarks.

Per a staff report to the Board, the projects include:

  • $18,850,000 to expand the Crystal City-Potomac Yard Transitway to the Pentagon City, adding 1.1 miles of dedicated bus lanes. The state previously pledged $46.6 million for the project.
  • $10,000,000 for the Army-Navy Drive Complete Street project, which aims to redesign the roadway for easier bike and pedestrian access between the Pentagon, Pentagon City, and Crystal City.
  • $5,000,000 to help build an east entrance at Crystal City Metro station, a project the county has postponed before for lack of funds.

The Board’s vote authorizes the Department of Environmental Services to receive the $33,850,000 from the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA) and apply it to the county’s fund for transportation capital projects. The matter was passed as part of the Board’s consent agenda for the Saturday meeting.

Metro stations and transit featured prominently on the maps that developer JBG Smith used to pitch Arlington on building its headquarters in the area. Officials are hoping an eastern Metro entrance could also better connect passengers using the Crystal City VRE station, which itself is set for upgrades.

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(Updated at 3:20 p.m.) A summer of headaches for Blue and Yellow line riders will kick off this weekend with changes along the Blue Line — and more Metro closures ahead.

Arlington Cemetery will close this Saturday and Sunday while crews install a grade crossing. Because of the construction, Blue Line trains will run as Yellow Line trains going to Greenbelt, and riders heading toward or returning from Largo Town Center will need to catch the Silver Line, Metro says.

Free shuttle buses running every 10-15 minutes will ferry passengers between the Pentagon and Arlington National Cemetery.

“To get to Rosslyn from the Pentagon (and stops south) customers should travel across the Yellow Line bridge and transfer at L’Enfant to an Orange or Silver Line train,” Metro spokesman Ian Jannetta told ARLnow.

Jannetta said the station’s shutdown will not affect the opening hours of Arlington Cemetery itself, and is for crews to build a way for rail inspection vehicles to access the tracks.

“This will be especially useful during the summer platform work, which will cut off hi-rail vehicle access to the system from the Alexandria rail yard,” he said.

The summer shutdown referred to will begin next Saturday, May 25, Metro will close the following six stations in Alexandria, below Reagan National Airport, until September 8 for planned reconstruction of the station’s crumbling platforms:

  • Eisenhower
  • Van Dorn Street
  • King Street-Old Town
  • Franconia-Springfield
  • Braddock Road
  • Huntington

The airport’s own Metrorail station will remain open during the “summer shutdown,” and passengers who can travel there by rail are encouraged to do so to curb the worsening traffic from ride-hailing cars and ongoing construction that’s expected to last until 2021.

“It’s very key to our success that folks continue using public transit — the normal train service going north and free shuttle buses going south for the summer to be successful,” a spokesman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority told WTOP yesterday (Thursday.)

Arlington Transportation Partners (ATP), a division of Arlington County Commuter Services (ACCS), is advising commuters to “add at least 30 minutes to their commute times during the shutdown” and consider alternative transportation options like biking or carpooling.

During rush hour, free shuttle buses will run every five minutes between the affected stations and direct shuttles will run to the Pentagon. The shuttles will run every 10 minutes during non-rush hours.

Metro will also be making parking free at Franconia-Springfield, Huntington, and Van Dorn stations during the shutdown.

The Virginia Department of Transportation is paying $3.6 million to beef up other transportation methods like additional bus service in Alexandria.

Arlington did not receive grant money, but has said ART may add bus service during the shutdown.

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If the Avengers were a local enterprise, Chris Slatt would be the Guardian of the Arlington Transportation Galaxy.

Slatt serves as the Chair of the Transportation Commission and has a steel trap memory for county transportation projects — and the politicking behind why some never happened.

He’s weighted in on toll enforcement, infrastructure planning, and he’s organized everything from a protest for bicycle safety on the Pike to the cutest free library in Penrose with tools to fix your bike.

For this episode of the 26 Square Miles podcast, we sat down with Slatt to talk about why the Columbia Pike-Crystal City streetcar never took off, what Amazon means for local public transportation, and what it would really take to build safe bike routes across the county.

Listen below or subscribe to the podcast on iTunesGoogle PlayStitcher or TuneIn.

Photo via Jas Sanchez Photography

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A recently-released report recommends that Arlington County improve its delivery of real-time transit information.

The Department of Environmental Services’ Mobility Lab released a 245-page report calling for changes to the way the county shares real-time arrival information. Respondents to a survey said the information was valuable, but they wanted additional updates and more data.

“People are overwhelmingly turning to personal technology as a source of real-time information,” the report notes. “Google Maps, WMATA Trip Planner, and Twitter were all mentioned in the focus groups as useful websites.”

Researchers first convened 14 focus groups of up to 12 participants each to design the survey last July. Afterward, the survey was published online and 346 responses were collected between September and October.

A Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation grant funded the work.

The survey and the focus groups indicate that people in Arlington use information about the “cost, time, and convenience” of trips to choose which mode of travel to take.

Eighty-one percent of the people who responded to the survey said it was important that information be available in “real-time.” Seventy-three percent said having real-time information helped them “relax” when using public transportation.

Mobility Lab suggested several improvements to the county’s real-time systems based on the feedback, which Research Manager Dr. Lama Bou Mjahed summarized in a blog post:

  • Re-evaluate transit phone systems — go straight to the information avoiding lengthy automated messages
  • Implement highly customizable or on-demand text message updates avoiding texting “spam”
  • Modernize BusFinder — add features and information like routes and schedules
  • Continue providing real-time transit information through the county’s website and LED displays
  • Diversify the locations of dynamic message boards.

Currently, the county utilizes several real-time transit information systems: online and phone-based bus and rail predictions; the BusFinder at ART bus stops; and LED signs or LCD monitors at bus stops and rail stations.

But the Mobility Lab noted that, “there is limited research into how users perceive these technologies, how well it meets their needs, and how it affects their transit use.”

For example, a majority of survey respondents said that the phone system was “valuable,” but many said the service was “a hassle” and was used as “a last resort.”

Nine out of 10 respondents said the green “Bus Finder” boxes at bus stops were a good service, but some reported they were confusing to use or didn’t work.

“A recurring theme for all technologies stationed at the physical stop or station is that this information is provided too late in the travel process,” the study said. “By the time a rider has access to that information, they’ve already committed to taking that mode of transportation, and are essentially ‘stuck.'”

Users also reported some transit apps were confusing and offered too many options.

“The key takeaway was that respondents do not want yet another app on their phone that only provides a piece of the puzzle,” the Mobility Lab wrote. “Instead, they would like one single or centralized app that works to combine all available information in one place.”

Image via Mobility Lab

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The county is moving forward with long-held plans to narrow lanes and widen sidewalks on Columbia Pike near the Penrose neighborhood, but not everyone is on board.

County staff presented an updated version of the plan last week to the Penrose Neighborhood Association. It calls for narrowing the lefthand travel lanes on the Pike east of S. Wayne Street down to 10 feet, and narrowing the righthand lanes, next to the sidewalk, to 11 feet.

The project is slated for the section of the Pike between S. Garfield Street and S. Quinn Street, staff told ARLnow, and the total Columbia Pike right-of-way width is expected to remain 56 feet width.

It’s also part of a years-long plan to improve the Pike and add more room for pedestrians and bicyclists. However, attendees at the meeting said they fear tighter lanes could mean trickier turning and more accidents for cars.

“The goal of the project is to make Columbia Pike a safer, more accessible route for all users by creating a balance between pedestrian, bicycle, transit and vehicle spaces,” said county transportation spokesman Eric Balliet in an email Monday.

Even after the presentation by the county, some local residents remained skeptical.

“No satisfactory or convincing reason was offered by the county regarding the plan to reduce the lane size,” said one man. “It is quite concerning that a main hub such as Columbia Pike is expected to suffer significant lane reductions that will likely create traffic backups and accidents.”

“At the meeting we discussed many scenarios, like could a school bus pass a garbage truck, could a Giant delivery truck make the turn into Adams Street, could an 18 wheeler pass a bus on the left,” Penrose Association President Maria “Pete” Durgan said, adding that county staff agreed to look into the questions.

Bailliet said the plan is based on “urban street design guidelines from the National Association of City Transportation Officials,” which “recommend that lanes should not be greater than 11 feet as they may cause unintended speeding and assume valuable right of way at the expense of other modes.”

Bailliet says the new lane widths have also already been rolled out in other parts of the Pike, including on the sections between:

  • Four Mile Run and S. Wakefield Street
  • S. Oakland Street and S. Garfield Street
  • Washington Blvd and Columbia Pike interchange

The plan was listed in the the bike component of the county’s Master Transportation Plan, which the County Board updated last week. In it, the county said it intends to build “wide multi-use trails, or wide sidewalks, along at least one side of Columbia Pike in the areas east of S. Wayne Street and west of Four Mile Run” for bikes and pedestrians to share.

“It is tackling a tough question,” the Penrose Neighborhood Association’s website said of the revised lanes. “With only a limited amount of right-of-way, how should that space be allocated? Turn lanes? Street Trees? Wider sidewalks? Bike lanes?”

The reason to widen the sidewalks, Bailliet said, was in part to allow a more vibrant and business-friendly streetscape, but also partially to provide a way for cyclists to connect with the designated bike boulevards that run parallel the Pike.

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Detours start today along the Washington and Old Dominion Trail to allow for construction of a bridge over Lee Highway.

The trail will be closed between Little Falls Street and Lee Highway and is scheduled to remain closed until fall 2020, when the new bridge is scheduled to open, according to VDOT.

Pedestrians will be detoured north and turn right onto Fairfax Drive, while cyclists will be sent south to Jefferson Street, which does not have a sidewalk.

The new bridge over Lee Highway is planned to offer a safer crossing at a busy intersection for the over 2,000 people who use the trail in this area on peak days.

The W&OD isn’t the only trail facing closure soon. Starting May 6, the Custis Trail is scheduled to close at the I-66 underpass near Bon Air Park to allow for the construction of an additional I-66 East lane.

Trail users will be diverted to an existing pedestrian bridge to the east.

Like the W&OD closure, the Custis Trail closure is expected to last until fall 2020, at which point the trail will be shifted slightly south for visibility and safety improvements.

Both projects are part of VDOT’s Transform 66 project.

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(Updated 10:05 a.m.) Arlington will soon release the results of a study on whether Uber and Lyft should replace some bus routes in certain areas of the county.

At the end of May officials are expected to conclude its “Parameters Study for Zone-Based Demand-Responsive (Flex) Transit Service,” per a county spokesman. The study will help officials weigh whether ride-hailing companies can replace some bus service in areas experiencing low bus ridership.

Ride-hailing services could connect riders heading to and from those areas with the nearest Metro station.

Taxi companies and paratransit providers are also being floated as possible service providers, county transportation spokesman Eric Balliet told ARLnow yesterday (Tuesday).

“We’re in the research phase right now, so no decisions have been made about [the] number of providers or where vehicles would pick up passengers,” Balliet said. “These would be looked at if we decide to move forward with this service concept.”

The areas being considered for this are identified in the county’s Transit Development Plan, which was approved in 2016:

  • The Douglas Park, Nauck, and Arlington Village neighborhoods which the plan aims to connect to transit along Columbia Pike.
  • The Rock Spring, Williamsburg Middle School, and Dominion Hills areas, which currently see only 10 passengers per hour on the ART 53 route. Those neighborhoods would be connected to the East Falls Church Metro station.
  • The Chain Bridge Forest, Rivercrest, Bellevue Forest, Gulf Branch, and Stafford-Albermarle-Glebe neighborhoods, which also only see 10 passengers per hour on the ART 53 route. Those neighborhoods would be connected to the Ballston Metro station.

“Each trip must either originate or end at that chosen destination,” the plan says. “This service will use smaller vehicles that may not be operated by or under the banner of ART and could include a separate fare system. Rides would be grouped and provided on a demand responsive basis.”

“In Arlington County there are several low-density neighborhoods which are served by low-frequency, low-ridership, costly-to-operate bus routes,” a 2018 description of the study says. “In these areas, it may be easier and cheaper to provide on-demand private-vehicle service for people needing to get to Arlington’s business and shopping districts than continuing to provide bus service.”

The county “sees this project as a potential model for other places which are facing similar issues with their bus systems,” said the study’s description.

County Manager Mark Schwartz said in a 2016 statement that the county’s “goal is to review a possible way to encourage transit ridership, increase efficiency and reduce costs,” and added that the county “must overcome many challenges and answer many questions before we could consider implementing this proposal.”

Montgomery County, Maryland is planning to test a similar transit program this summer where residents can request a shuttle pick-up using the Via app, WTOP reported.

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Drivers heading northbound on I-395 should expect lane closures and periodic traffic stoppages tonight near Pentagon City.

The traffic impacts are due to a planned overhead sign installation.

By midnight, only one northbound lane is expected to remain open, causing delays for anyone heading in the direction of D.C.

More from a VDOT press release:

Motorists are advised that I-395 North will be reduced to one lane during overnight hours on Tuesday, April 16 near S. Washington Boulevard. Periodic traffic stoppages of up to 30 minutes will occur between Midnight and 4 a.m. These closures are needed for crews to install an overhead sign structure as part of the I-395 Express Lanes Northern Extension Project. Work is weather dependent.

Details are:

  • Beginning at 10 p.m. tonight, a single lane will close on I-395 North
  • Additional lanes will close at 11 p.m.
  • Intermittent traffic stoppages on the northbound lanes are scheduled to occur after Midnight
  • All lanes will reopen by 5 a.m.
  • As construction progresses this spring and summer, motorists should expect single lane closures on the I-395 HOV lanes weekdays between the hours of 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., and closures on the general purpose lanes from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The 395 Express Lanes, which involve extending the current express lanes eight miles north to the D.C. line, are scheduled to open this fall. Learn how Express Lanes work and how to get an E-ZPass at www.ExpressLanes.com.

The 395 Express Lanes are a public-private partnership between the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and Transurban. See more details on the project and related lane closures.

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Capital Bikeshare is currently removing electric bikes after concerns about the brakes.

The bikeshare provider announced on Sunday it had “received a small number of reports from riders who experienced stronger than expected braking force on the front wheel” and decided to remove the black bikes from its fleets “out of an abundance of caution.”

Several D.C. riders shared experiences on social media of CaBi’s strong brakes causing their e-bikes to flip, or come close to doing so.

New York City’s bikeshare program “Citibike” also pulled its e-bikes from the streets on Sunday, citing the same braking problem.

The Arlington Department of Environment Services (DES) shared the news by continuing its repartee on social media with actor William Shatner of Star Trek fame.

DES retweeted CaBi’s weekend announcement, writing, “We’re bummed too, @WilliamShatner.”

Shatner, who is a brand rep for e-bike Pedego, responded by saying, “They should get Pedego bikes!”

Previously, the actor sparred with DES over the county banning e-bikes on trails — a policy he called “barbaric.” The e-bike ban was lifted on NOVA park trails last month. A DES spokesman told ARLnow at the time that officials were also considering lifting it on county trails.

CaBi first debuted 80 of the bikes in September as part of a pilot program with the District Department of Transportation.

Within two months, data showed that the electric-pedal assist bikes were twice as popular as the normal CaBi bikes, with the e-bikes making up only 2 percent of the total CaBi fleet, but generating 4 percent of total trips, according to data analysis by Greater Greater Washington.

The new recall is not affecting dockless bike providers, such as Lime which added 150 e-bikes to Arlington in December.

Read below for the full statement from CaBi:

Since Capital Bikeshare first deployed electric bikes last year, riders have taken thousands of rides and shared with us incredibly helpful and overwhelmingly positive feedback.

However, we recently received a small number of reports from riders who experienced stronger than expected braking force on the front wheel. Out of an abundance of caution, we are proactively removing the electric bikes from service for the time being. We know this is disappointing to the many people who love the current experience — but reliability and safety come first.

In the meantime, we will temporarily replace the electric bikes with pedal bikes.

Thank you for being a member of our community.

Image via CaBi website

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Arlington cyclists can now ride e-bikes on NOVA Parks trails, including the popular W&OD Trail, thanks to a new change in the rules.

“Last Thursday, the NOVA Parks Board adopted the attached changes to our regulations that now allow for electric assist bikes on our trails, including but not limited to the W&OD Trail,” NOVA Parks Executive Director Paul Gilbert told ARLnow.

“This is for all NOVA Parks properties which is 12,200 acres over three counties and three cities,” he said.

The trails span Arlington, as well as parts of Fairfax and Falls Church. However, each jurisdiction has their own regulations for e-bikes on their local trails.

A spokesperson for Arlington’s Department of Environmental Services confirmed Arlington does not currently allow the electric bikes on local county trails but change could be coming down the road.

“Regarding allowing e-bikes on County trails, we’ll look at it this summer during the evaluation of our shared mobility devices demonstration project,” said department spokesman Eric Baillet.

It’s a direction that pleases William Shatner, of Star Trek fame, who took Arlington to task for making its trails one of the final frontiers for local e-bike riders.

Arlington’s Department of Environmental Services had tagged the e-bike-enthused actor in November during an exchange about the bikes were banned from trails. It was a policy Shatner called “barbaric” at the time.

“Remember this?” Shatner tweeted Wednesday with a link to the November conversation, “Now I can!”

“See you and your e-bike on the W&OD, Bill,” the department responded. “As to getting it on the non-NOVA trails around here, stay tuned for a rule review in coming months.”

NOVA Parks’ new regulations apply to pedal bikes with electric  motors that assist riders, but not mopeds, per a copy of the amendments tweeted by NOVA Parks Board Chairman Michael Nardolilli.

The regional parks authority proposed lifting the ban back in February, after the regional authority commissioned a study on the impact e-bikes in Prince William County, San Jose, California, and Sweden.

The study, conducted by Silver Spring-based Toole Design Group, said it found that e-bike riders displayed “nearly identical safety behaviors.”

Toole Design also found that although e-bike riders typically travel faster than regular bicycles on roadways, e-bike riders  travelled slower than regular cyclists on shared bike paths.

Toole Design Group concluded that:

Research indicates that E-bikes pose no significant safety concerns when compared with regular bicycles, and that E-bikes make cycling more accessible and attractive to a larger segment of the population. Specifically, E-bikes may help attract cyclists that are less able-bodied and more utilitarian in their cycling preferences, which could help explain why many studies seem to show a decrease in potentially risky behavior when E-cyclists are around other vulnerable road users.

The Virginia General Assembly approved legislation in 2013 allowing “electric power-assisted bicycles” on bike paths.

The Fairfax County Park Authority has since amended their local park regulations to allow e-bikes on local trails, according to Gilbert.

Electric bikes are growing in popularity with companies Lime and JUMP both offering them in Arlington, as well as a new e-bike initiative from Capital Bikeshare.

Photos courtesy of JUMP and Lime

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