Arlington is proposing a cycletrack to connect two of its busiest trails. The connection could be great, but only if the design keeps cyclists and pedestrians safely separated.

Concept plan by Arlington County.

Arlington officials plan to connect the Washington & Old Dominion Trail and the Four Mile Run Trail with a raised cycletrack along Walter Reed Drive. The stretch is short but important, as the W & OD and Four Mile Run are South Arlington’s two busiest trails. It’s currently lined by sub-standard sidewalks of varying widths, on-street painted bike lanes, 10-foot travel lanes, 10-foot left turn lanes, and a painted median.

The concept plan would remove the median in favor of wider 11-foot travel lanes, 11-foot left turn lanes, and a consistent 6-foot clear sidewalk. It would protect the bike lane from traffic by raising it up to sidewalk level.

It’s a welcome project, but the design has a number of flaws

Arlington presented its plan at Monday night’s Bicycle Advisory Committee (BAC) meeting, and members expressed support for new and innovative bike facilities in Arlington, especially ones that will encourage new riders.

But they also voiced concern that if it isn’t implemented carefully, this project could turn out as a facility that is no safer for cyclists than a wide sidewalk.

While the proposed design satisfies the National Association of City Transportation Officials’ (NACTO) minimum requirements for a raised cycletrack, it leaves out some of important recommended features.

  • The cycle lane is at the same elevation as the sidewalk rather than at an intermediate level, which makes it hard to distinguish the two.
  • The lane doesn’t have a mountable curb, which would make it easier for cyclists to move in and out of the car lane when needed as well as to make a vehicular-style left turn.
  • It has no buffer area between the cycle lane and the automobile lane, nor between the cycle lane and the sidewalk.
  • As designed, the cycle lane will have to rise and fall across each driveway apron that it crosses.

Rendering by Arlington County.

Some BAC members also expressed concerns about being unable to exit the cycle lane to the street in case of emergency, and others said that without clear separation from the sidewalk area, the cycle lane would function as just another piece of the sidewalk. This problem has occurred in other parts of the Washington area, such as on the Metropolitan Branch Trail along 2nd St NE, on the Silver Spring Green Trail along Wayne Ave and on Western Ave in Friendship Heights.

Making Arlington’s plan better wouldn’t require much, but there’s a lot at stake

Arlington transportation staff said that while they’d like to include buffers for the cycle lane, the existing right of way isn’t wide enough to do so. But this is only true if you widen all of the travel lanes to 11 feet, which the concept plan does. DES said the lanes need to be this wide because of heavy bus and truck traffic along Walter Reed, but that claim deserves reconsideration.

Walter Reed functions just fine with 10-foot lanes now, and there’s research that shows that 10-foot lanes are just as safe or safer than wider lanes while carrying similar amounts of traffic. Sticking with 10-foot lanes would free up five feet of space for a buffer around the cycle lanes, and it would also shorten the distance pedestrians and cyclists have to travel when crossing Walter Reed Drive.

The cycletrack would have a lot more flexibility in its design if Arlington freed up the space for buffers. The curb could become mountable, or a buffer between the cycle lane and the sidewalk could encourage pedestrians not to walk in the cycle lane. Alternatively, the cycle lane could return to street level and be protected by a curb like the lane on 1st St NE.

This would make it much less likely for pedestrians to treat the lane like part of the sidewalk as well as make it more likely that cars pulling out of driveways along this stretch will see approaching cyclists.

Protected cycling facilities have great potential for making more folks comfortable with cycling as a viable form of transportation, and it’s important that Arlington gets its first versions of these facilities right. If they’re safe and enjoyable to ride on, people will demand more of them. But if they aren’t, it will be difficult to justify trying a second time.

The project is still in the concept stage, so now is the time for feedback to make it the best project it can be. Over the next few months, Arlington staff will solicit feedback from nearby neighbors, and then the’ll move on to design and engineering. Construction would begin in the Summer of 2016 at the earliest. The plans can be reviewed on the project website, which also has an email address for submitting feedback.