Biking comfort conditions can often be a difficult concept to communicate through mere descriptions and photographs. A bike lane protected with posts and parking can feel vastly different than a simple street with sharrows, even though they both count as bicycling infrastructure.
To help relate this to those charged with creating that infrastructure, BikeArlington recently led a group of Arlington County transportation engineers and planners on a tour of different kinds of bicycling facilities.
In its guidelines for creating bike-friendly communities, the League of American Bicyclists recommends that jurisdictions regularly educate their employees on bicycling safety and impacts of different kinds of infrastructure.
“This is something we had been discussing for more than a year at the staff level,” said Henry Dunbar, BikeArlington’s program director. “Having the League call out the fact that we hadn’t done it helped us convince some upper managers of the importance of this kind of staff education.”
Getting engineers and designers out on the street with advocates provided an opportunity for the former group to experience how daily bicyclists interact with drivers and other traffic on roads. It also allowed advocates to learn about the engineering processes and plans that informed the street designs.
A major focus of the tour was the creation of bicycling routes that riders of all skill levels can use comfortably. Research consistently indicates that self-described “interested but concerned” riders are much more likely to ride on streets with protected bike lanes, as they feel less stressed on those streets. A recent report by the National Association of City Transportation Officials put that number at 81 percent, a major jump over the 39 percent who would be comfortable on painted bike lanes.
The tour in south Arlington circled the Crystal City and Pentagon City neighborhoods, hitting up nearly every level of bicycling facility, from shared traffic to parking-protected lanes. The first leg, notably, was not designed with bicyclists in mind, but was still a stress-free option; Dunbar explained that the service alley, which runs behind office buildings in eastern Crystal City, is an example of a low-stress route that most riders would only discover through outreach like comfort maps. The route parallels the busy Crystal Drive, the sharrows on which do not create noticeable feelings of comfort, as merging drivers only noticed our slow-moving group of bicyclists at the last second.
Nearby lanes provided a more visible and safer alternative to Crystal Drive. Extra wide, green-painted lanes (above) on South Hayes Street in Pentagon City were previously the low-stress, on-street standard for Arlington. While the wide widths and bright colors signaled that bicyclists had their own space on the street, conflicts arose as the group attempted to ride past buses dropping off riders at the Metro station.
The protected bike lanes on South Eads and Hayes Streets, installed in 2014, created a completely comfortable riding situation. One of the project’s then-managers, David Kirschner, now of the Federal Highway Administration, explained to the group how the lanes arose during a resurfacing period on Hayes, and how extensive neighborhood outreach and education was a key component of the project’s success. The pair also complements north-south travel patterns to offices and commercial centers. Overall, Arlington County only has 0.8 miles of protected lanes – but more are in the pipeline.
Ideally, the infrastructure tour will be the first of regular educational outings for county staff on Arlington’s streets, in which maps and metrics will be translated into experiences. BikeArlington hopes this tour is only the beginning of an ongoing conversation about biking conditions in the county.
Photos: South Hayes Street (Tim Kelly, BikeArlington). Street with no biking facility in Crystal City, and the South Eads protected bike lane (Adam Russell, Mobility Lab).