County staff review the plans with residents. Photo by the author.

Arlington County is working to make bicycling easier in the Columbia Pike corridor with 2 new bike boulevards along 9th and 12th Streets. But some residents say they feel ambushed by the planning effort.

The plans, which cover only a portion of the Columbia Pike corridor, are the first phase of an initiative to make the area more bike friendly.  The county’s bike boulevard treatments along 9th Street and 12th Street will include sharrows, turn restrictions, curb extensions and medians.

Most of the proposed changes are relatively minor, with the most significant changes being proposed for turn restrictions at major roads and conversion of a short section of 9th Street from one-way to two-way operation.

Bike boulevard treatments are typically placed on calm streets parallel to a major arterial. These allow cyclists to navigate the city without mixing with faster traffic. Arlington’s street grid makes it ideal for treatments like those proposed for 9th and 12th streets.

Although bike boulevards are a new concept for the District and Arlington, many of the ingredients that make up a bike boulevard have been in place throughout Arlington County for years as part of its neighborhood traffic calming improvements. Despite this, none of the county’s streets had ever been planned specifically as bike boulevards.

The locations of the the bike boulevards. Image from Google Maps.

The proposed bike boulevards near Columbia Pike take advantage of existing infrastructure such as a mini-roundabouts along 9th Street at Quincy, Oakland and Lincoln streets.

New features planned include significant changes at the intersection of 9th Street and Glebe Road, which would get new high-visibility “ladder” crosswalks, a HAWK pedestrian crossing signal and a raised median that would prevent left turns from Glebe and through traffic on 9th while still allowing bicycles and pedestrians to make all turns and through movements at the intersection. The intersection of 9th Street and Glebe Road will see turn restrictions, as well.

The intersection of 9th Street and Walter Reed Drive is also slated for changes, including curb extensions and a potential HAWK signal. Where Walter Reed Drive intersects 12th Street, the existing median will be widened to provide a refuge for cyclists and pedestrians as they cross. Similar improvements are planned at 12th Street and George Mason Drive, which will also see the adjacent trail in Doctors Branch Park widened to 12 feet.

A bike boulevard treatment in Portland, Oregon similar to one proposed at

12th & Walter Reed. Photo by Steven Vance on Flickr.

Other changes include curb extensions at the intersections of 9th Street and Irving, Highland, Cleveland, Barton, Adams and Wayne streets. Stop sign removal is also proposed on 12th Street at Highland and Edgewood streets, to make the route more attractive for cyclists traveling at a slow, constant speed.

Given that the plans were announced more than a month in advance and meeting details were announced in local media more than a week in advance, much of the turbulence at the meeting seemed overblown. County staff admitted that no matter what they did, it would be almost impossible to make everyone happy.

One resident, who would only identify herself as Allison, opposed the entire concept of encouraging bicycle use for non-recreational trips and was very vocal that bike boulevards should not be considered in the first place. “Roads were meant for cars,” she said. “It’s frightening to think that a biker now thinks that they share the road.” Arlington County’s chief traffic engineer, Wayne Wentz, quickly set her straight on the facts.

Although there were a handful of meeting attendees seated with Allison who agreed with her that bikes are not a mode of transportation that should be encouraged, she clearly held a minority opinion at the meeting. One concern of Allison’s, however, was widespread among other attendees. Despite being a resident of 12th Street, she said, she first found out about the plans from a blog post earlier that day on ARLnow.com.

Arlington County’s bike and pedestrian program manager, David Goodman, noted at the meeting that the bicycle boulevard plans emerged from the county’s Columbia Pike planning process, not from the citizen-initiated Neighborhood Conservation Program that results in many of the county’s traffic-calming installations. As a result, the planning process may not have been one to which many residents were accustomed.

"A lot of people here are feeling ambushed,” the vice president of a local civic association said. “There’s been a lot of work and study, but none of it included us.”

Other residents expressed the same concern about the short notice. When county staff responded that they had notified local civic associations weeks before the meeting and other meeting attendees pointed out that the plan was the result of a planning process that had been ongoing for at least five years, the civic association vice president became angry. “I don’t like the insinuation that we weren’t paying attention,” he said.

Despite the distrust that grew out of communication gaps, some significant issues related to the plan were discussed at the meeting. The county plans to install some of the less controversial aspects of the plan, such as sharrows and signage, this summer, while continuing to work with the community on other parts of the plan. One such sticking point for residents of 9th Street was conversion of a section of their street near Ivy Street to two-way operation.

County staff explained that although a bike boulevard corridor should enable two-way travel, they were hesitant to place contraflow bicycle lanes alongside parallel parking and chose two-way operation instead. Meanwhile, residents were worried that the change would create more cut-through auto traffic on their streets. Discussions after the meeting between chief traffic engineer Wayne Wentz and 9th Street residents provided promising indications that a compromise could be reached.

As the county begins to implement some parts of this project over the summer, there are still opportunities to weigh in on less definite aspects of the plan, such as 9th Street two-way operation, on the project’s page on the county website.