Long Branch Creek, Arlington by Erinn Shirley used with permission.

Arlington's bicycle network has gaps and some routes feel dangerous, so some people who would otherwise bike may be less inclined to ride. It's especially urgent to get people out of their cars as the county and the region work to mitigate climate change. Happily, the county now has the opportunity to build a safer and more robust bicycle network.

The Arlington County Board will consider updating its bike plan on Tuesday, April 23, which in Arlington-speak is called the “Bicycle Element of the Master Transportation Plan.” It will guide future bicycle projects and policies in Arlington County, so it's really important to get it right.

The policies in the draft plan generally expand opportunities for low-stress bicycle routes, but the projects listed are vague and might not be very safe. The question for the Board is: Will Arlington County commit to building safe bicycle infrastructure that cyclists of all stripes feel comfortable using?

Here's what's in the update

Over the past two years, Arlington County staff have consulted with a public working group to develop the proposed update. The draft plan lays out the following vision: “Bicycling is an integral part of Arlington’s equitable, multi-modal transportation system and provides safe, reliable, convenient and comfortable travel for persons of all ages and abilities.”

There are six goals and 15 policies, each with a multitude of specific implementation actions, to support that vision. The draft outlines quantitative measures of the plan’s success, such as “achieve 8% bicycle commute mode share by year 2025, and achieve 12% bicycle mode share by 2030,” “provide bicycle safety education to at least 75% of APS’ K-12 students by 2025 and 100% by 2030,” and “complete 75% of the planned low traffic stress bicycle network by year 2025 and 90% by year 2030.”

The latter part of the draft identifies the bicycle network, which covers the entire county, and specific projects necessary to complete the network. One section outlines how the projects will be built, and the appendices include a glossary, a guide to bicycle infrastructure facility types, and also give design guidance.

Here's what could be better

Appendix D lists the specific projects necessary for a fully-connected bicycle network, and that's where the most glaring deficit is. Many of the project descriptions call for an “enhanced bicycle facility” along a given route, but the draft does not define what an “enhanced bicycle facility” is. That definition matters.

Design guidance and other policies in the draft clearly state that only protected bicycle infrastructure is appropriate for streets with high vehicle counts or high speed limits. But one could argue that going from no lane at all to a painted “sharrow” is an “enhancement” and is therefore consistent with the plan, even though it's not as safe as installing a protected lane.

Moreover, the “low traffic stress bicycle network” referenced in the measures of success is never defined, which could give the county a lot of wiggle room to install infrastructure that's not very safe or stress-free.

The good news is that there is an elegant solution that would clearly call for the county to build the type of infrastructure we need to match the Bicycle Element's vision and goals.

The plan could clearly define an “enhanced bicycle facility” as one that meets the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) guidance for low stress. It could define the body of projects, along with existing low-stress routes, as a “low traffic stress network.”

There are a few other ways the draft plan could be improved:

  • Without funding, this ambitious plan is just a nice idea. Arlington County needs to commit to funding the plan.
  • When drivers park in bicycle lanes, they're less useful and safe. The plan should call for policies to address parking in bike lanes in the policies section.
  • It should also address under- and misreporting of crashes.
  • Add a low-stress bicycling route along Army Navy Drive on the east side of I-395 that connects to the planned Army Navy Emergency Access Road.
  • Include calls to build solutions—not just study them—for the W&OD Trail route through East Falls Church and for the Four Mile Run Trail’s crossing of Shirlington Road.
  • Add a project that connects the W&OD Trail to Carlin Springs Road, which would improve access to Kenmore Middle School.
  • Make the ability to change street design to reduce speeds or traffic volume one of the potential tools for creating low-stress routes.

The Arlington County Board will consider the Bike Plan on April 23. If you live or work in Arlington, sign our letter to make sure this rare opportunity to plan for great infrastructure isn’t missed.

Gillian Burgess is the chair of Arlington County’s Bicycle Advisory Committee, the founder of Kidical Mass Arlington, and a member of the County’s Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission and APS’s Advisory Committee on Transportation Choices. She lives in Cherrydale with her husband and three children.