Bike boulevards are an excellent way to keep roads safe for everyone. It’s possible they’ll come to Alexandria, but before that happens, planners should take note of what’s worked and what hasn’t elsewhere.
A bike boulevard by any other name
Bike boulevards are streets that keep car volumes and speeds low, giving priority to people on bikes. They’re sometimes known by other names: Portland, Oregon calls them “neighborhood greenways,” and in Alexandria, planners call them “neighborhood bikeways.” Alexandria Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee (BPAC) Chair Jim Durham prefers the term “neighborhood greenway” because he says a greenway is safer for all people, not just those on bicycles.
While terminology can vary, the basic design elements stay the same. On a bike boulevard, cars are slowed by way of speed bumps, narrowed streets with big curb extensions, and by breaking up long straightaways, where drivers tend to speed. Sometimes bike boulevards block cars from using parts of the road, allowing only bicycles and pedestrians to pass through.
Bike boulevards are an example of a modern approach to street planning, where cutting down on speeds and conflicts is the job of design elements rather than law enforcement. A well-designed bike boulevard has fewer stop signs to avoid slowing down bicycles, instead using roundabouts that make people slow down but don’t force them to stop. The result is that everyone on the road can expect to move at a reasonable 15 mph.
Because modifications are limited to the roadway and the intersections, bike boulevards don’t mean less parking space. “It really is a win for everybody,” says Durham.
Can Alexandria’s Royal Street neighborhood bikeway be revived?
Alexandria’s Royal Street is an ideal candidate for a bike boulevard treatment. It is a popular bicycling route with low traffic volumes and parallel streets for drivers who prefer to avoid people on bicycles, and it connects to the popular Mount Vernon Trail at the both ends of the street.
Also, a bikeway on Royal Street would mean fewer bicycles on parallel streets, meaning fewer bike-car conflicts overall.
In January 2014, as the King Street Bike Lane public process was nearing a conclusion, city staff told cyclists that Royal Street was the next big project. But that June, citing local opposition, Alexandria city staff shelved the idea.
Both my sources and comments from City Council meetings indicate that residents of Old Town opposed the project on the basis of safety concerns and expected loss of parking places. I personally assumed that these issues would be discussed as soon as the public process got underway.
Instead, city staff tabled the project without input from BPAC. They informed both City Council and the public of their decision at a City Council meeting in June 2104.
There’s hope, though: earlier this month, when I shared a draft of this article with colleagues, an Alexandria bicycle and pedestrian planner let me know that city staff prefer the term “neighborhood bikeway.” That Alexandria planners have any preference at all suggests that neighborhood bikeways have not been entirely abandoned.
How do Arlington’s bike boulevards stack up against the nation’s best?
Last year, I had the pleasure of riding bike boulevards in Portland. This month, I took a spin on Arlington’s 9th and 12th Street bikeways. As much as I appreciate the progress embodied in the new, local bicycle routes, Portand currently has Arlington outclassed.
Right now, Arlington’s bikeways don’t connect to major destinations. On the east end, 9th Street stops at Wayne and 12th stops at Cleveland, both well-short of either the Pentagon or Pentagon City. In the west, they stop short of either the W&OD Trail or Bailey’s Crossroads. The 9th Street route ends at Quincy Street, in a residential area, and the 12th Street bikeway ends at George Mason Drive, which isn’t ideal for new cyclists.
Because neither 9th nor 12th Streets extend to reach major destinations, a realistic plan would be to connect these to other bike routes, creating a much-needed east-west route between the Pentagon area and Bailey’s Crossroads.
Another thing Portland’s bikeways do well is guide users through turns with signs and on-street markings. In Arlington, it’s only signs, and at one point on 9th Street, I was worried I had lost the route.
Traffic diverters on Portland’s bikeways designate separate space for bikes and pedestrians while stopping cars. Arlington’s 12th Street, on the other hand, routes the bikeway and the sidewalk onto a multi-user path. People walking do not want to share a trail with people on bicycles, and for good reasons. Slightly wider trails with separate lanes for walking and biking would go a long way in Arlington.
Finally, Arlington’s bikeways need safer crossings at major streets. At Walter Reed (both 9th and 12th Streets) and Glebe (9th Street only), I was left facing busy traffic with only a crosswalk to encourage me forward. Admittedly, I found myself in a similar pickle on Portland’s Going Street bikeway, but in Portland I learned that drivers halt at the slightest sign that a pedestrian wishes to cross. No such luck in Arlington.
In recent years Alexandria has created numerous “shared streets” by adding sharrow markings and traffic calming to selected roadways like Mount Vernon and Commonwealth Avenues. But it has yet to build a bike boulevard.
"Sharing” a street is difficult because drivers can easily accelerate past bicycles. Some drivers get impatient behind bicycles and pass aggressively, even when it isn’t safe to do so. Personally, I felt safer on Arlington’s low-volume bikeways than on Alexandria’s shared streets.
The practical reality is that sharrows and traffic calming cannot tame an arterial street. Shared streets need to be low-traffic, neighborhood streets.
It is not difficult to imagine a Royal Street bike boulevard in Alexandria. The collective use of sharrows, speed bumps, and traffic diverters in Portland’s tried and true designs don’t remove parking, and they improve pedestrian safety.
Safer streets are not exotic and not expensive, but we won’t get them unless we ask for them.
A version of this post ran at Alexandria News.