Arlington transportation planners’ latest attempt at crafting the future of the county’s cycling infrastructure has left neighbors, bicyclists and environmental advocates both pleased and disappointed.
The first draft of the 5o-page document, known as the bicycle element of the county’s Master Transportation Plan, originally included 26 cycling infrastructure projects including new trails and on-street bikeways. Since then, county staff has cut a few bike trails from the document, including two major projects: the Arlington Hall trail in Alcova Heights and another connecting the former Northern Virginia Community Hospital in Glencarlyn to Forest Hills, which were chopped after outcry from neighbors and environmentalists.
Still, bike advocates expressed broad support for the plan, but some think the latest draft doesn’t go far enough to ensure pedestrian safety and combat climate change.
“We made a number of changes in response to what we heard,” said Richard Viola, the project manager for updating the plan at the transportation division of the Department of Environmental Services (DES) told ARLnow Thursday. “I don’t think it negatively affects the overall plan, but it certainly shows a little more consideration of our natural resources.”
The plan is a sort of guiding “wish list” for the county, which some refer to as the “Master Bike Plan.” Viola’s group has been revising the document for more than a year, with the final version expected to be adopted later this spring. The latest edition will be posted publicly next week, he said.
During this latest revision, the county dropped its proposal for an off-street, half-mile trail connecting 6th Street S. to S. Quincy Street in the Alcova neighborhood at S. Oakland Street. The trail became a point of controversy because it could mean 6th Street residents lose some backyard privacy, and the county would cut down some important trees.
“We heard from a number of people from that Alcova Heights neighborhood that they did not want to see the trail built,” said Viola. “And then later we heard from a number of people in the neighborhood who want to see the trail build.” Ultimately, his working group shelved the Alcova trail idea for another time.
Another nixed idea was to extend the Four Mile Run Trail a half mile to connect with Claremont Elementary and Wakefield High. The Audubon Society wrote a letter in January warning that the proposal could cause “potential harm” to the rare magnolia ecosystem in the area.
“It’s a useful connection,” Viola said of the proposed trail. “People walk it today. But it would not be a suitable bike route when we thought about it because of the steepness [of the trail] and the proximity to this magnolia bog natural preserve.”
Another plan that became bogged down was a Glencarlyn/Hospital Trail connecting Glencarlyn and Forest Hills neighborhoods via the old site of the Northern Virginia Community Hospital. The half-mile project was envisioned by Viola’s team as a “low-stress route” between Arlington Boulevard and Columbia Pike because it could link up with other bikeways on S. Lexington Street, S. Carlin Springs Road, and 5th Road S.
The Audubon Society wrote that a trail passing through the old hospital site would “destroy valuable natural resources” in the conservation area that protects Long Branch Creek.
As a compromise, Viola’s team suggested instead widening the sidewalk on the east side of Carlyn Springs Road, so bikes and pedestrians can share.
“There are other comments they did not address in their plan,” said Audubon Society member Connie Ericson, referring to the organization’s January letter. “But we are pleased that they took some of our suggestions.”
However, members of the Arlington County Transportation Commission were “not wild” about the sidewalk idea, according to Commission Chair Chris Slatt.
Slatt told ARLnow Friday morning that members felt a paved, woodsy trail was too rare an opportunity pass up.
“There aren’t a lot of places where you could jog or bike without cars next to you,” he said. “It would seem like a shame to give up on that.”
In general, the plan drew praise from Ericson, and other advocates like D.C.-based Wash Cycle who said they couldn’t “spot any holes in the plans” in a January blog post.
Bruce Deming, who runs the Law Offices of Bruce S. Deming, Esq. and is known as the “Bicycle Lawyer,” also praised the Master Bike Plan for being “very thorough” and having a “cohesive strategy.” But he also told ARLnow in a phone call that, when it comes to safety, the “sense of urgency should be greater” in the latest draft.
The plan contains no mention of speed cameras — something Deming admitted is “politically unpopular” but reduces the injury and mortality rates in crashes with pedestrians and cyclists.
Deming also critiqued the plan for not prioritizing more bike lanes protected from cars, something 64 percent of respondents surveyed by the county wish for according to the Master Plan.
“According to the latest version of the plan, we’ve got 29 miles of bike lanes and 10 percent are the protected bike lanes,” said Deming. “I’d like to see that percentage increase substantially.”
Viola told ARLnow that the plan has been updated to language about “traffic safety education.”
The updates to Arlington’s Master Bike Plan are the first in 10 years, and according to Viola, the county doesn’t expect to undergo the process again for another decade. This comes a few months after the U.N.’s report indicating humans have 12 years to cut emissions before global warming causes permanent ecological damage, and reducing trips by car is one way to do this.
The Master Bike Plan acknowledges this, writing that improving the county’s pledges to improve air quality and reduce its emissions “depend greatly on shifting more travel to energy-efficient travel modes such as bicycling and walking.”
For Slatt, this means ensuring the infrastructure is so good it makes people want to ditch cars for bikes — something that would be easier to figure out how to do if the county allocated more resources and invested in high-end data analysis.
“People don’t people pick their transportation option because it saves the planet,” he said. “People pick their transportation option because it works for them because it’s faster or cheaper or makes them happy.”
Arlington officials say the first month of the county’s dockless vehicle pilot program has largely gone smoothly, though enforcing rules about where to ride the pervasive electric scooters remains a challenge.
Two companies — Lime and Bird — have been offering their dockless scooters around Arlington ever since the County Board signed off on a “demonstration project” for the vehicles in late September. Though Bird previously operated in the county without any explicit government involvement, the Board’s pilot program was designed to set some standards for dockless vehicles and allow companies to operate hundreds in the county at a time.
County commuter services bureau chief Jim Larsen told the Transportation Commission last Thursday (Nov. 1) that two more scooter companies could soon enter Arlington as well: Skip and Lyft, which only recently began offering scooters in addition to its ridesharing service.
Then, by January, Larsen expects that Jump could also make the move from D.C. into Arlington and offer both electric bikes and scooters in the county.
“The dynamics of this change weekly, if not daily,” Larsen told the commission.
Larsen added that, since Oct. 1, county police have responded to a total of nine crashes involving scooter riders, though he noted that there’s been “nothing major” among the accidents so far.
Still, one of those incidents did involve a student riding a scooter who was struck while in a crosswalk, Larsen said. The scooter companies generally ban anyone under the age of 18 from riding the vehicles, and Larsen said the county is working closely with the school system to make that clear to students.
Larsen also noted that the top public complaints the county has received about the program relate to “illegal sidewalk and train riding, improper parking, unsafe riding, underage riders and speed.”
Those were concerns echoed by Transportation Commissioner Audrey Clement, who noted that she’s seen teenagers riding scooters without helmets on the Custis Trail in the past, which would make for three violations of the county’s policies.
“There’s no way you could even ask Arlington Police to monitor the length of the Custis Trail or any of the trails in this county,” said Clement, who is also mounting an independent bid for School Board this year. “Absent a realistic enforcement policy, this pilot program is both reckless and irresponsible.”
Larsen conceded Clement’s point, but did stress that county staff are working closely with both the dockless companies and police to ensure the safety of riders and drivers alike.
County police, meanwhile, also trying to spread the word about scooter safety as part of a broader traffic safety campaign this fall, and have even started using electronic signs reminding scooter riders to stay off sidewalks.
Others on the commission were less willing than Clement to attack the program’s legitimacy. Commissioner Jim Lantelme was interested in comparing the number of scooter-involved crashes to those involving bikes, noting that they “might actually be safer than bicycles or other methods” of getting around. Larsen, however, didn’t have such data available.
By and large, commissioners said they were satisfied with the program’s early results, and Larsen agreed. He noted that Bird and Lime have both done a “pretty good job” of balancing the number of scooters available in D.C., which has its own dockless pilot program, and Arlington.
Larsen praised Lime, in particular, for employing 21 people to monitor the scooters around the county and operating its own warehouse in Arlington.
“They’re really trying to go around and self-police,” Larsen said. “We’re really trying to push the operators to emphasize safety themselves.”
The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT) is scheduled to hold an open house prior to the Arlington Transportation Commission meeting at 2100 Clarendon Blvd from 6:30-7:30 p.m. this evening.
The purpose of the open house is to discuss an ongoing DRPT study designed to come up with a list of projects eligible for funding from revenue generated by the plan to extend the 395 Express Lanes to Eads Street in Arlington.
Those projects could include better bus or rail service, more carpooling options and other ways to “support mobility, economic development, and sustainability goals for communities along the corridor,” officials said. Virginia has committed at least $15 million per year to funding possible projects.
Locals can weigh in on the study before the meeting by completing this DRPT survey.
“The goal of the new program is to engage more residents in the civic process who are not able or choose not to attend meetings,” the county said in a press release. “The goal is to increase awareness of County issues and ease participation for a more broad and diverse audience.
Meetings held in the County Board room will be broadcast using existing audio-visual equipment that’s used to air Board meetings. If the pilot program is successful, the county may expand the scope to include meetings held in other locations around Arlington.
A start date for the webcasts is expected to be announced soon.
In a second initiative announced Tuesday, the county has launched a new “Open Data Portal” that includes various spreadsheets, charts and maps of government data.
Among the info currently offered by the portal is a map of pothole and other service requests (pictured), restaurant health inspection records, real estate sale records, a map of car share locations, and a police incident log.
Some of the data is a bit dated — the real estate sale records, for instance, are only for 2015, and as of this writing the most recent crime records are from Feb. 17. On the plus side, there are also new tools for filtering, sorting and exporting data, along with an open API that may prove useful for analysis and for web and mobile application developers.
“New datasets from the County’s departments will be made available in the months ahead based on popular user requests and available resources,” the press release notes.
“Technology continues to improve our ability to share data and streamline processes for a more interactive and inclusive government,” County Manager Mark Schwartz said in a statement. “We will continue to seek out and implement tools like the data portal and web streaming that help us improve access to government and create a better overall user experience for our residents.”
“Our residents are busy people who cannot always make it to the County Board Room to sit through hours of discussion,” said Arlington County Board Chair Libby Garvey. “We want to make sure that they have another option – they can watch both Board work sessions and commission meetings on their computers, in the comfort of their homes, so that they can stay informed about important decisions that may affect their families and our community.”
“The County’s Open Government Program strives to achieve an open, accessible, efficient and transparent government,” said the press release. “The Open Data Portal and pilot webcast program are the latest efforts in serving and engaging the public more effectively.”