Arlington is one of the best places in Virginia for getting around by bike, partly because the county has been willing to push the envelope on designing streets to be bike-friendly. With the current bike plan up for an overhaul this winter, here are 10 ideas for how Arlington can continue toward building a world-class bike network.
These are the plan’s four major pieces:
- Policies: The current plan sets a number of policy goals, from infrastructure-oriented ones like “complete the bikeway network,” to cultural, like “create a community culture that embraces bicycle use as a mainstream travel mode.” Each policy includes several actions which provide the high-level guidelines for supporting cycling in Arlington, and they’re supposed to guide county staff.
- A proposed network: There’s a proposed network in the current plan - it lays out all of the streets where bike infrastructure is proposed plus an assortment of recommended routes on quiet neighborhood streets. Unfortunately, it’s riddled with gaps, and many of the parts that are contiguous are only that way because they’re connected by sharrows. This is a major weakness of the existing plan, as it focused on what was easy and cheap rather than on what would create a robust network. When the going got tough, the street got sharrows.
- Specific projects: The plan lists out a series of projects for bringing the network together. But aside from stating a loose time frame (long-term, medium-term, or short-term), the plan doesn’t say which should get priority, what the schedule for building them should be, how much they might cost, or where the money to pay for them might come from.
- Design standards and a Maintenance Plan: This part of the plan is a product of its time. It outlines how wide bike lanes should be, how trails should be built, what materials to use, and more. The listed standards are state-of-the-art… for 2007. Protected bikeways get no mention because they didn’t really exist in the US back then.
It’s time for a new plan
Since the plan was written, Arlington has implemented the vast majority of the network that the plan laid out. The Shirlington Connector has gone in beneath I-395, as have many miles of bike lanes as well as signs that direct riders through a bunch of quiet neighborhood bike routes. There’s also a completed design of the Washington Boulevard Trail.
But a number of groups have also pushed the county to update its old plan, including several of its own advisory commissions. County staff are supposed to follow the county’s plans, and without an updated bike plan, staff are on tenuous ground if they try to proceed with building protected bikeways or adding additional bike facilities beyond the disjointed network that is currently laid out.
In other words, as development projects move forward in Arlington, building bike infrastructure to accompany it is going to be difficult unless the Master Transportation Plan calls for it.
As part of the budget process, the county board has directed staff to report back this fall with an outline of how to update the plan. Here are 10 suggestions could help make Arlington a place where everyone who is interested in riding a bike can feel safe and comfortable doing so.
1. Set tangible goals
The goals set out in the current bike plan are generally vague and include things like being “one of the nation’s best places to bicycle.” The only concrete goals listed were to double the percentage of bike commuters between the 2000 and 2010 Census and to achieve the League of American Bicyclists’ gold level Bicycle Friendly Community status by 2011. The problem with both of those goals is that it was impossible to tell whether the plan was sufficient to achieve either of them (it turns out, it was not).
Tangible and measurable goals would go a long way toward shaping a plan that can achieve its overarching goals. One example might be “A complete, connected, low-stress bike network that extends to within 1/4 mile of every residence and business in Arlington by 2030”. That is the kind of actionable goal that you can create a plan around, and use for measuring success.
2. Build a complete, connected network
Arlington’s current bike plan proposed a network based primarily on what could be accomplished cheaply and easily. If a street didn’t have room for bike lanes without removing parking or travel lanes, the plan recommended sharrows no matter how important the connection was in the overall network. It also glossed over street crossings, often having designated bikeways cross major high-speed arterial streets without any accommodation like a HAWK signal or full traffic signal.
With support for cycling and sustainable transportation growing over the last decade, Arlington’s new plan could aim higher— for a network that makes sense, that gets you everywhere you might want to go, and does so efficiently.
3. Use modern, low-stress infrastructure
Protected bikeways aren’t mentioned anywhere in the existing plan, largely because they didn’t really exist in the United States at the time, or at least weren’t popular. The existing plan from the late 00s predates the 15th Street and Pennsylvania Ave protected bikeways in DC, and came together when sharrows were new and exciting infrastructure.
A new plan can incorporate all of the innovation and new research that has taken place around bike infrastructure since the mid-2000s. We now know that it takes more than just paint for people to feel safe on our streets, especially on larger main roads. It could supplement Arlington’s existing abundance of quiet neighborhood streets with protected bikeways and additional signalized street crossings to support travel along and across arterial streets.
4. Give cost estimates
The existing plan lays out a list of projects, but with no indication of what each will cost. Going into sufficient detail to get a very accurate cost is likely well beyond the scope of a plan and those estimates would likely change significantly overtime, but there is great value in at least determining the order of magnitude of the proposal’s cost. Will a project cost thousands of dollars? Tens of thousands? Hundreds of thousands? Millions?
5. Give criteria for setting priorities
After laying out a proposed network and figuring out what projects are needed to achieve that network, the next step is prioritization. Which projects do you do first? Which will do the most to achieve your tangible goals, and which projects get you the most bang for your buck? This is another reason cost estimates are important.
Every 2 years, the county puts together a 10 year Capital Improvement Plan (CIP). This is essentially the county’s planned budget for major infrastructure investment— building new parks, buying new buses, repaving streets, replacing water mains and much more. If it’s a major capital investment, it gets laid out in the CIP. If it isn’t in the CIP, it’s not on anyone’s radar to get built in the next decade.
Having a prioritized list of bike projects and a clear picture of why those projects are most important would help greatly when determining which projects need to go into the CIP, when they should be scheduled for and how much needs to be budgeted.
6. Have a plan for land acquisition
In many places, it is difficult to achieve a safe, efficient, or comprehensive bicycle network because the county simply doesn’t own land in the place where it needs a connection. The Columbia Pike Bicycle Boulevards are a great example of this. They are intended to provide a bike-friendly street that parallels the not-at-all bike-friendly Columbia Pike, but they don’t continue as far as they need to to provide a legitimate alternative to Columbia Pike, because the land needed is in private hands.
Land needed to extend bicycle boulevards. Areas in pink cannot be built without additional land. Map from Arlington County, modified by the author.
There currently isn’t a defined mechanism for the county to acquire land for transportation purposes. The updated bike plan should determine what parcels are needed, prioritize them and create a mechanism for the county to watch for these to come on the market and acquire them.
7. Include a plan for Vision Zero
Safety is the #1 reason that people don’t ride bikes. Building out a low-stress bicycle network is part of addressing safety, but it isn’t enough. The updated bike plan should lay out a multi-pronged, inter-departmental plan for eliminating bicycle and pedestrian fatalities and serious injuries that includes street design, street operations, enforcement, education, and outreach.
8. Focus on equity
Despite the stereotype of rich white men in lycra, many people who bike for transportation do so out of necessity to get to their jobs in a cost-effective manner. Sadly, those voices are rarely heard at planning meetings or in county board rooms. The bike plan should address this problem head-on and ensure that the planning process seeks out those missing voices and that facilities and amenities are distributed in an equitable manner.
9. Include a schedule
If the plan includes tangible goals, a proposed network and a prioritized list of projects with preliminary cost estimates, the plan can also include a schedule for implementation. The process of determining the schedule would bring the community face to face with the realities of budget for implementation vs time to implement the plan, which is a very important conversation to have. Nobody wants to spend six months building out a robust plan around a shared vision and then find out that the budget we’ve created for implementation means it won’t be complete until 2050.
10. Add new trails
In many ways trails are the highways of the bicycle network. They have mode-separated crossings and many of them are long-distance routes that traverse jurisdictions. Arlingtonians love their trails and want more of them. In a recent statistically-valid survey, Arlingtonians listed paved trails as the most important recreational amenity.
Despite this, Arlington has built very few new sections of trail in recent memory. The updated bike plan should look for opportunities to expand the trail network, especially when it can add connectivity to existing trails across the region. With the recent release of the National Park Service’s Draft Paved Trails Plan, it appears Arlington may have a willing partner for the first time in many years. Now may be the best opportunity we have to build a trail connection to the south side of the Roosevelt Bridge, better connect Iwo Jima to the Mount Vernon Trail, build the long-delayed 110 Trail or even build a better connection from Arlington to the Capital Crescent Trail which is so close and yet so difficult to reach from much of Arlington.
What are your big ideas for Arlington’s new bike plan? What does it need to succeed?