Parts of South Lakes Drive might look similar to this while other parts will stay four-lanes.  Flickr Road Diet by Complete Streets licensed under Creative Commons.

Fairfax County proposed new bike lanes for South Lakes Drive in Reston this spring. Now the county has released the final plans for where they'll go.

Some of the new lanes are already painted on Bowman Towne Drive and Pinecrest Road, and South Lakes already has one section with new lanes west of Reston Parkway. More are coming to other nearby roads as construction crews make their way through the area.

Why South Lakes needs bicycle infrastructure

One of the more ambitious plans was to put South Lakes Drive on what's called a “road diet” and convert what's currently a four-lane road into two, with the extra room used for bike lanes.

Reston is familiar with road diets; nearby Lawyers Road, Soapstone Drive, and Colts Neck Road are all successful examples. Nevertheless, the plan to do the same on South Lakes Drive was controversial because many residents assumed that losing a travel lane would increase congestion on the road.

According to county officials, South Lakes as a whole is well under the traffic count threshold for roads that could undergo a road diet without creating more congestion. However, there are some pain points, particularly at intersections to other major roads (like Reston Parkway or Sunrise Valley Drive) or by South Lakes High School where drivers line up to drop off kids in the morning.

After that March meeting, county officials promised to look at things again to see where changes could be made, and now their proposed changes are out. South Lakes Drive will get a road diet and bike lanes along parts of the road, but in other places the current four-lane configuration is staying.

A map of the current and new bike lanes. Red lines indicate current bike lanes, blue lines are proposed, black circles show where the road is staying the same.  South Lakes Bike Lanes by the author.

In the map you can see how what's proposed technically creates a bike route across South Lakes Drive without giving up any space where it's supposedly needed. New bike lanes across Ridge Heights Road will connect to current bike lanes on Soap Stone. The bike lanes will pick back up on South Lakes after the high school.

This is good, but it could be much better

The changes are definitely an improvement, but the current plan still has some pretty major disadvantages for both cyclists and drivers.

For cyclists, the biggest problem is that now instead of just having a safe place to ride on South Lakes, they have to make three turns then go up and down a hill just to get from Colts Neck Road to South Lakes Village Center. Or, they can stay on South Lakes Drive and contend with traffic like they do today — at least it's flatter and doesn't require extra turns. But even then there are still gaps at Sunrise Valley and Reston Parkway.

For drivers, the new road may be confusing and the constant switch between sections with two and four lanes could encourage more speeding or dangerous passing if people feel the need to “beat” traffic before a lane goes away. Roads that switch between two lanes and four lanes can cause more congestion than simply staying two lanes the whole way through.

This “compromise” could be more dangerous for everybody — and it was struck just to serve the short window of time when there are back-ups from kids being dropped off at school. This is a permanent change to fix a problem that only lasts a few minutes at a time…on weekdays…when school is in session.

Unlike other roads that went on a diet, South Lakes has a landscaped median. Making more space for turning traffic means taking out more median, which means a lot more planning and funding for what becomes a major project instead of just using existing repaving resources.

South Lakes today for most of its route.  Image by the author.

Mistakes of Biblical proportions? Not quite, but…

I'm excited for some new bike lanes on South Lakes and on other nearby roads. When I'm told the whole road can't be converted because of congestion, it's not that I disbelieve the numbers.

However, I can't help but be reminded of the “Judgment of Solomon.” In order to resolve a parenthood dispute between women who claimed to be the real mother of a baby, the biblical King Solomon offered to just cut the baby in half. For the uninitated, the real mother immediately protests and Solomon gives her the child. Unlike that story, it seems like the county is going to go ahead and split the difference.

The county doesn't want to leave cyclists out in the cold (South Lakes is already a popular street to bicycle on), but the idea that there might be some extra delay between 7:30 am and 8 am is unconscionable to a planning system that always prioritizes reducing motor vehicle delay, even when that can harm other users.

In the meantime, South Lakes Drive will also be getting more much-needed sidewalks, so the overall outlook for the area is pretty positive. Still, the current plans show the limits of just fitting in bike lanes where they won't bother drivers, instead of putting them where they're most needed.

GGWash sometimes organizes around issues affecting our region. Should we consider advocacy around this topic? Let us know!