Taking Bicycles Seriously

Bike lanes in Arlington County are not a parks & recreation sideshow -- they create transportation options, reduce traffic congestion and promote healthy lifestyles.

Arlington cyclistsby James A. Bacon

The Arlington County Board takes bicycling very seriously. Every month, one or more members attend a planning staff update on the county's bicycle program. They dig into the details. How many bike-share stations has the county installed in the last month? How many bicycle lanes have been striped?

You don't see that kind of high-level attention devoted to bicycle issues in many localities around the country. It helps that four of Arlington's board members, including himself, are active cyclists, says Vice Chairman Walter Tejada. Board members also have a competitive streak. Arlington County received Virginia's only "silver" ranking from the League of American Bicyclists' 2012 listing of bicycle-friendly states and communities. But that wasn't good enough. "We have a little chip on our shoulder," says Tejada. "We want to be gold."

The commitment to cycling runs deeper than winning kudos, however. It dovetails with the county's Fit Arlington campaign to promote public health. And it is integral to the county's plan to develop "complete streets" that accommodate pedestrians, bicycles and mass transit as well as cars. A top county priority is to reduce the number of cars on local roads, ameliorate congestion and improve livability. More bikes on the road means fewer cars.

Bicycling for every-day transportation, not just recreation, has great untapped potential in Arlington, says Dennis Leech, county director of transportation. Bicycles' share of trips is relatively low, around one or two percent. "Over the past two or three years, there has been a real push to raise awareness, with the intent of getting that bicycle travel share up to five to ten percent."

Across much of Virginia, bicycles are seen as transportation frivolity, simply not to be taken seriously. The federal government may require the state to spend money on bicycle trails but hardly anyone rides them, the thinking goes. Siphoning away money from roads to serve a tiny percentage of Sunday riders or spandex-clad racing nuts doesn't make sense. The indifference of elected officials is reinforced by an outright hostility among some motorists who regard bike riders as pests taking up road space, clogging traffic and creating safety hazards.

But the bicycling movement is gaining momentum elsewhere in the Old Dominion, most notably Richmond, Roanoke and college towns like Charlottesville, Blacksburg and Harrisonburg. Cities and urbanized counties contemplating bike-friendly policies have a lot to learn from Arlington, which has ridden farther down the bicycle trail than other Virginia localities.

Some key lessons from the Arlington experience:

  • Build a network. If you want to create a bicycle-friendly community, you have to go "all in." A biking path here and a bike lane there don't add up to anything useful. Just as motorists need a network of roads to drive between home, work and shopping, cyclists require a network of lanes to reach a wide range of locations.
  • Support the biking culture. Cyclists need racks to park their bikes. They need lockers and showers to make themselves presentable for work. Communities need to educate citizens about bikes as a transportation option and promote safe cycling.
  • Understand the payback. While cyclists don't pay user fees like gasoline taxes, they do create economic value. Localities that are rich in travel choices enjoy higher property values than those where travel is limited to automobiles. Higher property values translate into higher property tax revenues. Moreover, by taking cars off roads, bicycle-friendly policies can reduce or defer spending on auto-oriented infrastructure from roads to parking spaces.

Arlington is unique among Virginia localities in having committed four decades ago to fundamentally transform its urban fabric. Exploiting the opportunities made possible by construction of several METRO stations, the one-time bedroom community has reinvented itself as a vibrant urban center. By increasing density, creating walkable communities around METRO stops and investing in a robust local bus system, city officials believed, they would reduce automobile congestion and save money on road improvements. That strategy, which Arlington has stuck to through successive mayors and city councils, has paid off. Despite greater density and more people, auto traffic on many streets has actually declined. Citizens have access to a wide range of transportation options. The goal of a "car free" lifestyle is a practicable one for many residents.

A sustained commitment

The focus on bicycles is relatively recent. While Arlington had made gains in coaxing people out of their cars, onto the sidewalks and into buses and trains, it hadn't done much to put them on bicycles. But the emphasis shifted when the county overhauled its transportation plan in 2004 and adopted a Complete Streets policy in 2007. Today, county officials are convinced that bicycles represent a source of untapped potential.

Arlington's commitment to bicycling is most visible in the hard infrastructure developed over years. The county has built 40 miles of dedicated bicycle/pedestrian trails, which includes a loop encircling Arlington National Cementry, Crystal City and the Ballston-Rosslyn Corridor. There are another 30 miles of "sharrows," or dedicated bike lanes carved out of county streets, and the Arlington County Bike Map identifies many miles of bicycle-friendly streets that complete a network penetrating every nook and cranny of the county.

To promote safety, the county has striped eight to 10 blocks of buffered bike lanes, providing more space between bikes and cars, and it has painted lanes in six locations where cyclists and motorists might encounter conflicts at street lights. Colored lanes provide a visual cue to drivers that they can expect bikers at that location.

Arlington also participates in the Capital Bikeshare system with Washington, D.C., and Alexandria, soon to be joined by Montgomery County, Md. Arlington alone has 44 bike-share stations and plans call for expanding the number to 100 by 2014. As the second largest bike-share system in North America (Montreal has the largest), Capital Bikeshare has racked up two million trips in its first two years of service, reaching 214,000 trips in August. The latter figure amounts to 7,000 trips daily across the system. Arlington's contribution to the program in FY 2013 ran $528,000.

Rentals defray roughly half the cost of the bike-share program. For riders, the price ranges from $7 for a 24-hour rental to $84 for a full-year membership. Members enjoy the convenience of riding a bicycle without worrying about maintaining it or where to park it. (On the other hand, renters do get billed $1,000 on their credit cards if they fail to return a bicycle.)

To encourage more bicycle use, Arlington has a sizeable community outreach program. Two Wheel Tuesdays are evening sessions where citizens can learn about bicycle safety, gear and equipment, and how to get around Arlington. Anyone can attend. County officials provide bicycle education classes and regularly visit neighborhood and civic associations -- about 100 per year. Additionally, the county publishes a bike map and disseminates information through its Commuter Stores.

The next frontier is building a biking culture, says Tejada. The county honors bike-to-work day and bike-to-school day. It participates in the Safe Routes to School program, not just for walking but biking. And it encourages employers to accommodate employees who bike to work by providing showers and lockers. "You don't want B.O. at work!" he says. "We want it to become part of the culture to provide that option."

Building a strong bicycle culture is clearly an area where the county can do more, agrees Greg Billing, outreach and advocacy coordinator for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. "They've got good bones -- a good trail network," he says. "But they're kind of lacking the cycling culture -- the community events, the funky events."

OK, it works for Arlington but can it work for anyone else?

Biking enthusiasts outside Arlington may marvel at the county's bike-friendly policies but conclude they wouldn't work elsewhere. After all, few other Virginia localities have METRO, and none can match Arlington's density that puts so many destinations within easy cycling distance. Few jurisdictions are as affluent as Arlington, which has one of the highest median incomes in the country. Not everyone can afford the luxury of diverting funds to building bicycle infrastructure.

But Bicycle programs need not be costly. The county is spending $580,000 on community outreach this year, $530,000 on the bike-share program, and $1 million on improving bicycle infrastructure and other projects in the Capital Improvement Plan -- in all, about $2 million out of a $1 billion budget. If the county manages to grow bicycles' transportation share, however, the county will earn ample payback by reducing the need to spend more on upgrading roads.

The hardest advantage to reproduce is Arlington's control over most of its own streets. Arlington is one of only two counties -- Henrico is the other -- that join cities and towns in assuming responsibility and receive funding to maintain their own street networks. The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and the National Park Service are in charge of some roads, but Arlington has more resources and decision-making autonomy than other counties.

"VDOT is a challenge to work with," says Billing with the bicycle association.

Until VDOT thinks differently about bicycle policy, implementing Arlington-like changes will be difficult for most other counties. The outlook is better for Virginia cities and towns, which do have authority over their own streets, along with grid streets and compact development patterns that make them more conducive to bicycle travel..

But Tejada says any locality can make itself more bicycle friendly. He urges other localities to build on their strengths -- abandoned rail spurs that can be converted into bike trails, universities with large student populations, walkable downtowns, whatever. "Look at best practices around the world, not just in Arlington County but places like Holland where bicycling is part of their life. ... Look for opportunities. Enhance what you already have."


This article was made possible by a sponsorship of Bon Secours of Virginia Health System.


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