Arlington, VA

One sunny weekday afternoon last week, as the temperature clocked in at a perfect 72 degrees, there were just four bikes parked at Metro’s new $2 million bike parking facility in East Falls Church.

The scene contrasts with how cycling advocates remember the station pre-pandemic, when dozens of bicycles were parked out front on any given day.

“East Falls Church has been one of the most heavily used stations for cyclists in the past,” said David Cranor, who writes for the cycling blog TheWashCycle.

The 92-spot facility made its debut last August — in the middle of the pandemic — when the East Falls Church station reopened. Set to open in 2015, the structure was delivered five years late and $1.1 million over budget, costing the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority about $21,000 per spot to build.

The delay and budget overruns prompted an investigation that found miscommunication and a lack of oversight, among other problems, plagued the project.

Eight months after the opening and six months after WMATA’s Office of the Inspector General released its report, the East Falls Church Metro Station has yet to enjoy its pre-COVID-19 popularity among cyclists. Still, bicycling advocates maintain that facilities like this one are needed, as bike theft is a common problem. They predict longtime commuters and a new batch of cycling enthusiasts will one day fill the spots.

“I’m not surprised there were few bikes parked when you visited,” said Bruce Wright, the president of Fairfax Alliance for Better Bicycling. “Much of the use of bike parking is by commuters, and almost no one is commuting. We’ll have to wait until after people return to work before getting an idea of how heavily the bike facility will be used.”

Based on how packed the station was with bicycles before the pandemic, Wright added, “I assume it will be very popular.”

As vaccination rates rise and restrictions lift in the D.C. area, more people appear willing to ride the Metro. According to WMATA’s COVID-19 data, this month’s ridership is up an average of nearly 240% over this time last year, when stay-at-home orders were still fresh. Still, Metro reports that overall, ridership remains down around 85% compared to pre-pandemic levels.

And it’s not just bike parking that is down. Vehicle parking at Metro lots in February was down 94% compared to 2020, just before the pandemic.

One way WMATA can measure cyclists’ interest in parking is through registration numbers. Metro requires users to register for the Bike & Ride facilities, which are accessed with a SmarTrip card. To date, more than 1,200 SmarTrip users have registered to use the Bike & Rides, which are also located at the College Park and Vienna Metro stations, said WMATA spokesman Ian Jannetta.

“Users don’t register to use a specific facility so I don’t have station-specific numbers, but I would expect the number to be relatively low since the two new facilities opened during this period of extremely low ridership,” he said. “We encourage anyone who wants to make biking part of their commute to utilize these secure facilities as the region continues its recovery and more people travel.”

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Arlington’s annual Bike to Work Day is back and coming up next month.

Set for Friday, May 21, Arlington and the entire D.C. region will be participating in the 20th anniversary of this event.

Organizers are encouraging all, including those heading back to work at the office and those still telecommuting, to jump on their bike and ride. The goal is teach bike safety and to encourage bike commuting becoming a daily habit.

In Arlington, there will be seven pit stops — from Columbia Pike to Lee Highway — where bicyclists can pick up their free Bike to Work Day t-shirts in both the morning and afternoon.

Organizers are asking everyone to pre-register and only to attend one pit stop due to COVID-19 safety guidelines.

The pit stops are being sponsored by a number of community organizations including BikeArlington, National Park Service, Lee Highway Alliance, and the National Landing BID.

In most years, “Bike to Work Day” is a festive one where hundreds of bikers from across the county meet up at the pit stops, celebrate, and learn about bike safety before cycling off.

This year, however, is a bit different as expected. Organizers are asking folks to only briefly pause at the pit stops, keep their masks on the entire time while there, and to refrain from eating and drinking.

Additionally, the popular bike conveys are not happening this year either.

With many folks still working from home and not from the office, organizers are still encouraging telecommuters to take a short break, bike to their local “pit stop,” grab a t-shirt, and head back home to work.

There was a winter version of the event back on February 12, but cyclists had to deal with not-so-pleasant weather.

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(Updated at 5:20 p.m.) A recent Facebook post has hit a sore spot with some Arlington cyclists and mountain bikers. 

The Arlington Department of Parks and Recreation recently reiterated its policy on reserving natural surface “dirt” trails to walkers and hikers while allowing cyclists on paved trails.

The post drew the consternation of mountain bikers who have called on the county to let them use dirt trails for the past couple of years.

“I continue to be disappointed with the refusal of Arlington County Parks and Recreation to listen to the community and the County Board on this,” said one poster. “In both the Bicycle Element of the Master Transportation Plan and in the Public Open Spaces Master Plan, the Board said that Arlington would work towards opportunities for biking on natural surface trails. But 2 years later, DPR has been silent on the issue.” 

There are some indications that the department could consider providing natural trail options for cyclists in the future, however. The county has started developing a Forestry and Natural Resources Plan, which examines the impact of humans on Arlington’s natural resources, parks department spokeswoman Susan Kalish said.

“As we develop the Forestry and Natural Resources Plan, the county will look into ways we can include mountain biking in Arlington parks,” she said.  

Currently, mountain bikers have to leave the county to ride any trails, said Matthew Levine, who founded Arlington Trails, a group that advocates for a system of managed, multi-use trails in the county. If they want to ride in Arlington, they forge informal trails, also known as “goat” or “social” trails. 

The reaction to the Facebook post, combined with the informal trails and Arlington Trails’ advocacy, all signify that “people want to use their bikes on trails in the county,” he tells ARLnow.

The real problem is that there is not a managed, multi-use natural trail system,” he said, pointing to Montgomery and Fairfax counties, which have miles of shared-use dirt paths. 

That these exploratory paths exist “reveals the need for more trails,” he said, adding that his group is willing to help design and maintain them. 

Not everyone is on board with the idea of mountain bike trails. Last spring, in response to concerns from the Bluemont Civic Association about unauthorized bike trails and jumps in Lacey Woods and Mary Carlin Woods, the parks department upped its enforcement and posted “no biking” signs. Similar complaints about rogue mountain bikers in other wooded areas of the county have been lodged on Nextdoor.

The county only maintains official trails in Arlington because of the negative impact the informal trails could have, Kalish said.

“In cases where damage is persistent, staff makes every effort to close, reclaim, and restore these areas to a natural state,” she said. “At the beginning of the pandemic, there was an increase in the development of social trails, including ones developed by mountain bikers who built ramps and cut down trees.” 

In the past, staff have stopped youth who were found carrying shovels and hoes, removing plants and realigning trails, she said. 

But Levine said it seems like cyclists are unfairly targeted as culprits of harming these natural areas — despite some studies concluding that if mountain bikers and hikers use trails at about the same rate, mountain bikers do not contribute more to environmental degradation.

Kalish indicated a path forward for mountain bikers on natural trails could come if a balance is struck between use and impact. Other, larger communities have done it, she said.  

“We understand that placing signs and closing social trails are only pieces of the puzzle for successfully managing our trail system; so we will be looking at holistic solutions as we develop the Forestry and Natural Resources Plan,” Kalish said. “We look forward to working with the public as we move forward.”  

But Levine is a little more cynical, describing past experiences when the group has been sidelined.  

“The message is to work with stakeholders in the issue, but we have been rebuffed by the Urban Forest Commission and political leadership,” he said. 

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Arlington County is seeking public input about improvements to the portion of S. Eads Street between 12th and 15th streets in Pentagon City.

The public survey focuses on the east (northbound) side of the relatively small section of S. Eads Street running near Amazon’s future HQ2. It asks questions about living and working in Arlington, how individuals travel around the county, and how safe does one feel traveling along this particular segment of S. Eads Street.

The last page of the survey provides an interactive map, asking individuals to leave comments about their difficulty crossing the street, sightlines, and if pavement or sidewalks are in need of repair.

“We’re hoping to gather observations and experiences on how people use the street now across all modes, from biking and walking to taking transit and driving,” writes Eric Balliet, spokesperson for Arlington’s Dept. of Environmental Services, in an email to ARLnow. “We’d like to know what issues they experience, any safety or access concerns they have, and how they might want to see the street improved. The feedback will be used to guide the development of the concept design, which we will present later for another round of feedback.”

The existing streetscape includes a partially protected bike lane, inconsistent sidewalk, and a lack of street lighting. The layout of the street is also primarily oriented toward cars, according to the project’s webpage.

Improvements being considered include adding physical protection to the bike lane, adding more street lighting, and reconstructing and realigning sidewalks.

“Together, these improvements will create a safer, more accessible, and more comfortable environment for all users of the street,” says the webpage.

The county’s master transportation plan as well as other plans and studies all call for S. Eads Street to be reconstructed into a so-called complete street — one safe for pedestrians, bicyclists, mass transit users, and drivers. This was first implemented as a pilot project back in 2014.

The survey is part of the county’s “preliminary public engagement” process and will be open until Friday, April 23.

The concept design for the changes is set to be unveiled this spring or summer. Afterward, more time will be provided for the public to weigh in.

By the fall, the final concept design should be ready with engineering, design, and procurement of a contractor set to be completed by the spring of 2023.

Construction is scheduled to start in the summer of 2023 and be completed a year later, in the summer of 2024.

S. Eads Street has seen constant construction, planned improvements, and redevelopment in recent years due in large part to Amazon’s arrival to the county.

The other side of S. Eads Street — southbound — is also set to receive improvements as part of later phases of the (Amazon-funded) Metropolitan Park development.

Image (2) via Arlington County

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A store selling electric bikes appears to be moving into Crystal City.

According to window stickers, Leafy Bikes will be opening soon at 570 23rd Street S., next to Burn & Brew. It is moving into the former Vintage Dress Company space, after the store moved completely online.

Leafy Bikes, according to the company’s website, sells two-seat electric bikes.

“The Leafy Classic II,” says the website, “is designed to be half bicycle and half motorcycle without the contribution of gasoline.” A tutorial video on YouTube explains more about the bike’s features.

ARLnow has reached out to the email address listed on the website for confirmation, construction timeline and opening date, but has yet to hear back as of publication.

The property owner did confirm that the company has a lease and opined the electric bike store is “a cool idea.” Building permits were issued by the county to company founder Yoseph Assefa in early January for the space.

While the company has a presence in Miami, Florida, there also seems to be a local office in Potomac, Maryland.

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The County Board has unanimously approved plans to improve walking and cycling connections and add amenities to the Crystal City Water Park.

Water features and a food stand currently activate the privately-owned Crystal City Water Park at 1601 Crystal Drive. It also provides connections to the Mount Vernon Trail and Reagan National Airport, as well as the proposed Virginia Railway Express north entrance.

Park owner JBG Smith initially came to the board in January with plans to modify the Crystal City Connector path — which cuts through the site — and renovate the park. Members deferred the proposal over predictions that the developer’s plans for the pathway would lead to unsafe pedestrian and cyclist interactions.

On Saturday, County Board members signed off on revision to the project. The Crystal City Connector path will be turned into two paths accessing the Mount Vernon Trail and the new VRE entrance: one for pedestrians and the other focused on bicyclists.

JBG Smith will be “adding retail shops, cafes, and restaurants along the edges of the park, upgrading the existing water wall… adding a new water feature, [and] adding public art and an outdoor bar,” the county announced on Monday.

The additions include “nine (9) 300 square-foot retail structures positioned along Crystal Drive, a 1,415 square-foot retail structure along the northern edge, a 760 square-foot bar with a 2,069 square-foot terrace atop the water wall, a 409 square-foot performance platform to be used for the event lawn, and a 747 square-foot trailhead restroom facility,” per a county staff report.

“We’re proud to say that this project has evolved in response to the comments and we think gotten to a place that is better than we were a couple of months ago,” said Kedrick Whitmore, an attorney representing JBG Smith.

The staff report said the plan has been redesigned to minimize conflicts and support increasing number of pedestrians and bicyclists accessing the trail and the VRE station. Potential users testified in January that the initial proposed design, below, would lead to conflicts at the exit from the Mount Vernon Trail access tunnel, where visibility is low.

JBG Smith’s new plan removes the stairway that linked the pathways to the water park, located near a series of tunnels. It does not, however, remove an adjacent path between the Crystal City Connector path and the connection to the proposed VRE station, although some community members predicted it too would be unsafe.

“We think this is a really important area to maintain a connection,” Whitmore said. “Despite keeping the connection in place, we did hear loud and clear that there were safety concerns, and the use of paint, mirrors, signage and paving will help.”

The developer will also widen the sidewalk along Crystal Drive from eight to 10 feet and use landscaping, signage, striping and paving treatments near the tunnels and the connection to Crystal Drive to increase visibility and heighten awareness for all users, the report said.

Board members told County Manager Mark Schwartz that the county needs to increase the level of public engagement for similar projects going forward. Board members agreed with some speakers that more scrutiny from county commissions could have uncovered the safety concerns sooner and prevented the project’s deferral from earlier this year.

“Let’s not do this again,” said Pedestrian Advisory Committee secretary Pamela Van Hine, suggesting a smaller-scale version of the site plan review process for large projects. “We can help you but you have to ask us to help you.”

While the county classifies this project as a minor site plan amendment, Board member Katie Cristol said such amendments “may have a major impact on how people experience the site.”

Photos via Arlington County

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County staff has released its recommendations on how to improve Crystal City’s bike lane network.

The proposal includes adding one-way protected bike lanes on Crystal Drive and S. Clark Street, improved cross-street east-west connections, and additional protected or buffered bike lanes on 15th, 18th, 23rd, and 26th streets.

In March 2020, the Arlington County Board directed staff to develop a plan to improve the bicycle network “east of Richmond Highway, from the Alexandria border extending north to Long Bridge Park.” The requirement for the proposal is that it needed to be completed within four years — by Dec. 31, 2024 — and require minimal changes to the curb line.

The broad goals, according to the county, were to improve safety, provide greater access to trails, improve connections, and reduce blocking of bike lanes.

“By providing additional protected and buffered bike lanes, the County can increase safety for people riding bikes while also addressing challenges like bike lane blocking,” Eric Balliet, spokesperson for Arlington’s Dept. of Environmental Services, wrote in an email. “The bike network will also support Crystal City as a multimodal hub by balancing the multiple needs of the streetscape, such as parking, pick-up/drop-off, and transit.”

Balliet noted that residents want safer connections to the nearby Mount Vernon and Potomac Yard trails.

Staff considered several other options, but those rejected either didn’t fully address safety issues, could not be completed in the four-year timeline, or substantial capital improvements would be needed.

Not everyone thinks the recommendations go far enough. Darren Buck, who serves on Arlington’s Transportation Commission and lives in the Aurora Highlands neighborhood, said the recommendations reflect a “short-term view” that will not age well given that Crystal City in the midst of so much development.

“Let’s create a road map with a long-term vision, especially on Crystal Drive,” Buck says. “Let’s plan ahead with a 10 or 20 year goal for how that street should look.”

Right now, he says, gaps remain in the plan that doesn’t fully protect and provide safety to cyclists on all Crystal City streets, particularly from 18th Street to Clark and 27th streets.

For the county’s part, Balliet says that Crystal Drive has proven to be a challenge.

“There’s a fixed amount of space in which cyclists, pedestrians, transit, vehicles, emergency vehicles, and the needs of businesses all must be accommodated,” he writes.

Buck does say he’s “thrilled” to see the recommendations include a number of protected bike lanes.

I have wanted to see a protected bike lane on that one single block of 18th Street that leads to the Mount Vernon Trail for years,” he says. “It is a big missing piece in our network and it’s just super exciting.” 

He also cites the inclusion of east-west connections to 23rd Street and lanes on the block of 15th Street leading to Crystal Drive as another great step.

Members of the public will be able to share their thoughts on the recommendations on Wednesday, Feb. 24 at a virtual community meeting. A second public engagement meeting will be held in the spring.

Public feedback will be incorporated into the development of a “preferred alternative” plan, says Balliet.

Photo (top) via Google Maps

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Morning Notes

Vaccine Registration Transfer Still in Progress — “We are aware that many Arlington residents who preregistered through the County system are unable to find themselves in the ‘Check the List’ feature. Data migration is continuing throughout the week and it may take several more days for your name to appear in the centralized system.” [Arlington County]

No Rolling Stops for Va. Cyclists Yet — “The Virginia Senate on Wednesday sidelined a proposal that would have allowed bicyclists to yield instead of halt at stop signs. Instead, lawmakers voted to commission a police study of the rule as enacted in other states. They also voted to require drivers to change lanes when passing bicyclists if three feet of distance isn’t possible and to allow two cyclists to ride side by side in a lane.” [Washington Post]

County Offering Emergency Training in Spanish — “To ensure a more equitable, culturally competent response to the COVID-19 pandemic and other emergencies, the Department of Public Safety Communications and Emergency Management and Arlington CERT are launching their first-ever Spanish-language Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) volunteer training.” [Arlington County]

First Non-Airline Lounge Coming to DCA — “A lot is changing at Reagan National Airport, and one of the new additions will be an American Express Centurion passenger lounge, the first non-airline passenger lounge at the airport. Reagan National will be the 16th U.S. airport to have a Centurion Lounge. The 11,500-square-foot lounge will open by the end of 2022.” [WTOP]

Gate 35X Replacement Opening Soon — “Airport officials have long planned to replace the 35X bussing system with a proper 14-gate concourse. So here’s some good news: looks like it will happen sooner rather than later. Airline Weekly reports that the American Airlines concourse will open three months earlier than anticipated. Turns out that the decline in air traffic during the pandemic helped accelerated construction work. It’s now slated to open as soon as April 20.” [Washingtonian]

GoTab Continues on Growth Path — “Industry-leading restaurant commerce platform GoTab has appointed sales and hospitality technology veteran John Martin as the company’s new Chief Revenue Officer. With over 30+ years of experience working with both brick-and-mortar restaurants and food technology systems, Martin has been a force in helping hyper growth startups with go-to-market strategy as well as helping CEOs develop approaches to accelerate sales and launch new products.” [Press Release]

Poems on ART Buses — “This year’s Moving Words Adult Competition 2021 Six winning poems were selected from 211 poems by this year’s judge, Arlington’s 2nd Poet Laureate Holly Karapetkova, who also has a poem on display. View the poems below and on Arlington’s ART buses from February through September 2021.” [Arlington Arts]

Beyer Gets Out-of-This-World Chairmanship — “Late last week, Democrats on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology elected Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) to serve as Chair of the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics for the 117th Congress.” [Press Release]

Flickr pool photo by Kevin Wolf

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A bill that has passed the Virginia House of Delegates would allow bicyclists in the Commonwealth to treat stop signs as yield signs in certain situations.

HB 2262 would legalize a common practice: cyclists rolling through stop signs when no other traffic has the right of way.

“Supporters say it will make roads safer for bicyclists after increases in traffic injuries and deaths, while opponents argue it makes the movements of cyclists less predictable,” the Washington Post reported. “The bill also would require drivers to change lanes when passing a bicyclist if three feet of distance isn’t possible and would allow two cyclists to stay side-by-side in a lane.”

The bill is now set to be considered by the Virginia State Senate.

What do you think?

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Shirlington Road bridge crosswalk (Photo via Google Maps)

As Arlington County prepares to build a new pedestrian and bike bridge in Shirlington — two decades in the making — some continue to express concerns about safety.

Late last week, the county brought advanced concept designs to the community for a new pedestrian and bike span between the Shirlington and Green Valley neighborhoods, and for maintenance to the existing bridge, which has only a narrow pedestrian sidewalk.

While incorporating previous public feedback into the design, questions still cropped up about safety and convenience, particularly regarding the crosswalks across busy S. Arlington Mill Drive and Shirlington Road, which provide access to the W&OD and Four Mile Run trails. Both are heavily-traveled by cyclists.

The first part of the project will be to improve and update the existing bridge. The bridge is in need of routine maintenance and resurfacing, and this project provides a chance for other needed renovations, the county says.

Based on public feedback, staff said they will widen the sidewalk to about 7 feet from a previous 3-5 feet. They will also coordinate the design aesthetic with the renovations to Jennie Dean Park, while adding new guardrails.

However, despite some urging it, the county won’t be removing the slip lane from the I-395 ramp. While admitting that it’s not bike or pedestrian-friendly, county officials say there isn’t much that can be done at present.

The lane is owned and maintained by the Virginia Department of Transportation. Adding a crosswalk there would also increase risk for an incident due to traffic taking the right turn with speed, while the lane it could lead to traffic backing-up on the I-395 ramp.

“We, at the county, are very much interested in [removing the lane],” said Jason Widstrom, Arlington County Transportation Capital Program Manager. “Unfortunately… it is not within our authority to remove it.”

Construction for these renovations should begin in the late summer or early fall of this year and be completed prior to the end of the year.

Then, at the end of 2021 or beginning of 2022, construction will begin on a prefabricated, 15-foot pedestrian and bike bridge located 20 feet to the west of the existing bridge. It will parallel the existing bridge, will be multi-use, and have “enhanced pedestrian treatments.”

Additionally, improvements are being made to those crosswalks at Arlington Mill Drive and near the Four Mile Run Trail.

Based on feedback, the county is widening pedestrian ramps and the refuge median, redesigning curbs and the crossing to allow for better sightlines, and adding new rapid flashing beacons to improve visibility of the crosswalk. There’s also thought of trimming trees to further help sightlines.

Crosswalk safety, particularly near the Four Mile Trail, has long been a concern for residents.

“County staff is well aware of the history of the crosswalk and the troubles of trying to cross at this location,” says Widstrom.

Funding for these projects are coming from a state grant and will cost just over $1 million.

County officials said they would like to do a longer term study about adding a bridge that goes over Shirlington Road and thus separates vehicle and pedestrian traffic.

That study remains “down the road,” however, and costs to add that bridge could exceed $8 million.

In the meantime, said Widstrom, “we are trying to make the situation a bit better.”

Photo (1) via Google Maps, (2) via Arlington County

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During the pandemic, many who formerly commuted to work are now working from home.

Some are eager to go back to the office full time when it’s safe to do so, while others may be contemplating a switch to either working from home permanently or at least a couple of days per week.

A wide range of companies are moving to or considering moving to a “hybrid workplace” model post-pandemic. Among them is Microsoft, which will let employees opt to work from home up to 50% of the time, or permanently with a manager’s approval.

It seems likely that many office-based employers in Arlington and elsewhere in the D.C. area will be implementing similar policies as the pandemic (hopefully) comes to an end this year. That has made us wonder about the impact on commuting.

More work from home days collectively would mean less commuting, which is generally a good thing for the environment and for traffic. There may be second order effects, as well, especially in cases where an employer offers flexibility in deciding when you go into the office.

Such flexibility, for instance, may have implications for bike commuting

Arlington County has long worked towards the goal of having more people bike to work, thus taking cars off the road during peak commuting times. So far it’s still a niche commuting option: only 1.5% of Arlington residents report biking as their primary means of commuting, compared to 51.1% who drive alone, according to the latest U.S. Census data.

Should you have the ability to pick and choose when you go to the office, it could allow you to go in on good weather days and skip bad weather days, a big deterrent to regular bike commuting. All of a sudden, with bad weather largely out of the equation, the idea of being able to commute for free without worrying about traffic, while getting a workout and fresh air, may become more attractive.

What do you think?

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