Cyclists, motorists and pedestrians can get along — just not in Old Town

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Alexandria’s known for being bike-friendly, but cyclists worry the city is slowing efforts to add new facilities, like dedicated lanes on busy streets. City officials say the improvements can’t happen overnight. (Photo/Derrick Perkins)

To the editor:

First and foremost, Alexandria is not a homogenous city. The West End’s sprawling suburbs are different from densely built Del Ray, and both differ from small-scale, historic Old Town.

One size in policy implementation cannot fit all. The city’s first attempt to wade into its new complete streets policy is creating problems for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers. Old Town is not the place to start or focus legitimate and much-needed efforts to offer a real demonstration of being an eco-city.

The city’s first try at implementing complete streets, an evolving concept not without problems, is most obvious with the sudden drop of Capital Bikeshare into Old Town. Bikeshare is part of a privately held company, and the program’s support comes from activist bicycle lobbies. Its presence in Old Town has resulted in a rapid influx of bikes — not all Bikeshare — and a rash of conflicts.

This should come as no surprise. Old Town is famous as a place where people use their sidewalks and signed and signaled crosswalks to get where they’re going. Safely. Speeding cars and trucks are less an issue in Old Town, where short blocks and multiple stoppages make for slow going.

The city has increased competition for Old Town’s small roads and sidewalks, and it has not anticipated the well-documented difficulties of mixing pedestrians, cars and bicycles. Each is accustomed to operating differently, and despite a Virginia Tech plan and citywide bike count, nothing was done in advance to avoid problems.

What can be done? First, move Bikeshare to Alexandria’s sprawling suburbs, where its energy and dedication can spearhead the long-term transformation of suburban reliance on cars while engaging the bike lobby to actively drive toward this goal. This was Bikeshare’s original intent, which changed after the first major study of its usage in Washington showed that it wasn’t heavily used by suburbanites but instead by city dwellers.

Instead of using Bikeshare to achieve its eco-city goal, Alexandria’s moved to put more bikes in a place well-served by public transit: Old Town. As a privately operated company, with revenue coming from increased bike use — for environmental or cars-off-the-road reasons — Bikeshare reaps the benefit while city residents pay $185,000 annually for poor placement and discord.

Second, move the bike path off Union Street and onto Washington Street, where there is room to create a dedicated bike lane more compatible with high use by short- and long-distance riders. This recognizes that not all cyclists are the same; some want a touring mode to Mount Vernon while some prefer a more leisurely ride through a neighborhood. The largest numbers of bikers in Alexandria are on the Mount Vernon Trail and Commonwealth Avenue in north Del Ray.

Third, riding bikes on sidewalks in Alexandria should be illegal. It is illegal to ride on sidewalks in downtown Washington. Pedestrians need dedicated walkways to feel safe as they are the most vulnerable of all — without helmets, metal shielding, flashing lights, etc. We pride ourselves on the fact that Old Town is a walker’s capital. Let’s make sure it stays that way with safety for all.

Fourth, all bicycles should be registered, and owners charged a fee. Online systems make this easy as well as cost-effective. Just as we can renew our driver’s license at a computer, we can register bikes, upload photos for insurance purposes and administer online testing. Dedicated revenues generated with a $25 annual fee can cover the cost of bike facilities.

An online system is cheap to develop, easy to manage and would go a long way to legitimize bicycles as transit and recreational vehicles. We already have a mobile app that tells Bikeshare riders where they can park within the system. This is a no-brainer. Cash-strapped municipalities should demand it.
Universal education will not solve the problems we observe in Old Town on a daily basis. Even dedicated programs on bike rules targeted to children and adolescents will not change behavior. We know this from the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, which was only successful when it recognized how ineffective antismoking educational campaigns were and shifted to focus on limiting access and raising the cost of cigarettes through taxes. These user-salient actions changed behavior, immensely.

Finally, adding bicycles to the mix and in the wrong places will create unnecessary backlash. Without supporting infrastructure to mitigate the inherent conflicts of shared streets or an understanding of capacity of the terrain — cited as critical to success in a recent biking study — we will fail.

Recognizing that all of Alexandria should not be treated the same and that putting bike facilities for long-term transformative use in the suburbs, not in already heavily transit oriented and dense areas like Old Town, is sensible implementation of the evolving smart growth and complete streets concepts.

– Kathryn Papp
Alexandria