Alexandria City Council on Saturday emphatically ended almost a year of contentious debate by unanimously voting to put bike lanes on a very short stretch of King Street. All six city councilors and Mayor Bill Euille voted in favor of installing bike lanes between West Cedar Street and Janneys Lane, while eliminating 27 resident off-street parking spaces.
This conflict, one of the nastiest and most divisive Alexandria has seen in a while, deserves a post-mortem. While even the Times editorial board cannot agree on whether bike lanes belong along that stretch of road, we believe there’s plenty to learn from this experience. What can be improved upon and what can we emulate when the next contentious issue flares up?
First, to put it mildly, advocates on both sides should have behaved better. At traffic and parking board meetings, in the press and on the sidewalk, invective was hurled from cycling advocates and King Street homeowners.
The pro bike group included members from outside Alexandria, as the homeowners charged, and these advocates often came across as arrogant in their conviction that if a project promotes more biking, then it must be good. And homeowners dug in their heels in a classic case of NIMBYism. These attitudes made the compromise transit officials sought nearly impossible.
While neither side will walk away completely happy — bike lanes will go in, but nearby homeowners won concessions from city officials — the process was commendable. Holding a multitude of traffic and parking board meetings let both sides make their cases and air their grievances. Transit officials really did spend months weighing homeowners’ concerns and looking at alternative routes.
When Rich Baier, the city’s director of transportation and environmental services, ignored the traffic and parking board’s November recommendation (which was to shelve the bike lanes in favor of additional community outreach) and gave the project the green light, residents — with the help of city attorneys — found and invoked an obscure section of city code to appeal the decision. Thus the project returned to the traffic and parking board, which again urged setting the bike lanes aside until a compromise could be found. City council, which had the final say regardless of the board’s recommendations, ultimately decided against delaying the project any longer and approved an amended version of the plan.
As with so many other contentious issues in our fair city, not everyone is happy with the outcome. But we applaud the city for taking the concerns of both sides seriously, particularly given what a small section of road we are talking about.
After the messy fights over the waterfront and Beauregard redevelopment plans, city officials made civic engagement a priority. Just a few weeks ago, officials approved a handbook outlining strategies for getting residents involved and working through contentious issues. Here is one such concrete example.
We also applaud residents — for and against the bike lanes — for staying involved throughout. Civic engagement is a two-way street and productive discourse requires passionate and involved community members.
We may not all agree that bike lanes on King Street are a good idea, but we can acknowledge that, when it comes to civic engagement, City Hall is headed down the right path.