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

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



  1. I absolutely agree. I also think we need to ban candy from Old Town. It attracts too many outsiders to Old Town. The candy also makes the children hyper and they run too fast down the sidewalks and such. It really drives me crazy. However I think the candy should remain for the West Side- hey I don’t live there.

    I’d also like to ban sodas and such too. Oh wait I own a home in Alexandria right? That means that I don’t own old town and I can’t treat it like my property.

  2. Pay25$ to register your bike? We want to encourage bike riding by making it convenient and safe, not discourage it by making it costly and time consuming. There does need to be a culture shift if bikes are going to become more commonly used, but having the government cash in by forcing you to register your bike will not help. Enforcement, administration and implementation of this type of system will require resources. Do police take time out of their day to wave down bicklle riders and ticket them for not having current registration? I think not.

  3. (To the editor: The Times has published pieces on the two issues that inspire me to write: affordable housing and bicycles. I promise not to write regularly, just on these subjects.)

    Kathryn Papp’s letter in the Times is a fine view from 10,000 feet, but it misses several important points. For example, if one defines Old Town as everything east of the tracks, as many do,there are sidewalks that are appropriate for bikes to ride on like the one that runs along the ramp from Slater’s Lane to Henry Street. Cars take that ramp southbound at 45 MPH and bikes need to get north and south to the River Trail.

    A painted bike lane on Washington Street would be fine, but I was struck by a car at Washington and Wilkes years ago. I was respecting all traffic laws. The driver simply didn’t notice me. (At least he stopped and was covered by insurance.)

    Sharrows (shared-use streets with the bike symbol and the arrows) are great but an SUV nearly ran into me on Mount Vernon Avenue at its intersection with Reed Avenue last Saturday.

    My point is that both bikes and cars do rolling stops and violate other traffic laws. Bikes in Alexandria are the only conveyances (a word I’m trying to use to include pedestrians) that have no right-of-way that is their own. There is conflict on the use of trails and streets and sidewalks.

    I’ve been to countries where there is real bike friendly system, e.g. Denmark and the Netherlands. In those countries there are separate bike lanes for bikes only with separate traffic systems for bikes. And the lanes are full. 40% of commuters in Copenhagen get to work by bike.

    Alexandria has made compromises as we’ve tried to retrofit our street network to increase its use for bikes. There are no bad guys. We all just have to look out for each other as we move along trying to get where we’re going.

  4. I have been observing all of the commentary regarding the necessity for coexistence of bicycles and other vehicles on the streets of Alexandria.

    While I am in favor of sharing the roads, it has become increasingly obvious that a substantial number of cyclists that are using our cities streets pay absolutely no attention to the traffic signals, or the traffic signage. They frequently simply blow through stoplights and stop signs with frightening regularity.

    If both motorized vehicles and cyclists would observe the same traffic rules we would all be less hostile about sharing the streets.

  5. Drivers license issuance should require 10 hours on a bike on streets and paths. Critics of cyclists will likely change their views after some reality checks. In my two years as a cyclist, I have found that most cyclists ride in a reasonable manner. We are acutely aware of the dangers, particularly with respect to vehicles.

    On licensing bikes: would those who do not live in Alexandria be required to obtain licenses?

  6. I agree bicycling is something we should encourage more of in the DC area. It’s stating the obvious riding a bike has environmental and health benefits compared to driving a car. I frequently ride my bike through Old Town on Union St. and often fantasize what it would be like to ride on Union St. with no cars.

    Why not cordon off the entire length of Union St. and allow only bicycles and pedestrians? I’ve visited cities in Germany (Frankfurt and Munich) where the main down town street is blocked off from cars. It really is a joy to walk around downtown and enjoy the sights without having to worry about getting run over or inhaling car fumes.

    Lastly, everyday it seems, we Americans are reminded how fat and out of shape we’ve become. According to a CDC study, nearly two thirds of Americans are either obese or overweight. We need to encourage more not less bike riding and walking in the U.S.

  7. Ms. Papp’s editorial, while making sense in some areas of concern. It is pure hogwash in other areas of concern.

    Take for instance, making the riding of a bike on the sidewalk in Alexandria, like it is in DC. At first that is reasonable, because it protects pedestrians from getting hit, until those same pedestrians choose to J-walk, instead of crossing at the light.

    Also, By following the lead of DC, they would in one way, be causing cycling to become more dangerous. Because, When a hostile motorist, and an inexperienced cyclist use the same road space, the cyclist will undoubtedly pay with their life.

    Cyclists’ first got the right to ride on the road, back in 1880. That was almost 25yrs. before, Henry Ford, started and incorporated, the Ford Motor Company. But for 130yrs., motorists’ have been yelling for cyclists’ to get off the road, while pedestrians have been yelling to get bicycles off the sidewalk.

    If Ms. Sapp’s point is global about motorists’, pedestrians’, and cyclists’, needing to get along, then I totally agree.

    If Ms. Sapp’s point is leaning towards’ banning cyclists’ in Old Town, then she needs to come up with a justification for that reasoning, which there is none.

  8. Ms. Papp represents one of the many people in Old Town that I have to apologize to the general public for. She does not represent all of us.

    Firstly and foremost, get your facts straight. It IS illegal to ride your bike on the Sidewalk.

    Secondly, can you imagine if we set up a bike lane ON Washington Street as you suggested. Traffic held up by 1 lane of a few bikes. That would be a grand solution. If so, then all the rush hour traffic should be directed right by her residence. Oh and they could also park around her house. Good luck getting a spot near your home Ms. Papp. And while they are doing that, you are welcome to count how many cars roll through stop signs, if they brake at all. Similar to what I see on a daily basis at St. Mary’s School.

    Thirdly, what has chapped you so bad to be suggesting to move bikes out of Old Town in the first place? Did you have a personal vendetta that you need to resolve? I would suggest getting out and enjoying the city where all of us have to coexist and not conform to your Stalinist ways versus responding to these editorials (yeah, I read your other rant on the Times).

    And in closing if you want to get bikes out of the city, I would also like to add that we need to make it illegal to live here if you are deemed a curmudgeon. Sorry Ms. Papp, you are going to have to move.

  9. What is it with this hostility toward bicycles? Is it the same people who think we in OT should still be cooking in our summer kitchens in the yard? Let’s bring the horses back then we won’t have to worry about those pesky cyclists getting in the way of the author’s SUV.

  10. Contrary to what Ms. Papp would have you believe, Bikeshare is NOT part of a privately held company…

    And from Wiki (all CAPS mine):

    “Capital Bikeshare (also abbreviated CaBi) is a bicycle sharing system that serves Washington, D.C.; Arlington County, Virginia; and the city of Alexandria, Virginia. The stations and bicycles ARE OWNED BY THE PARTICIPATING LOCAL GOVERNMENTS and operated in a public-private partnership with Alta Bicycle Share. With more than 1,670 bicycles operating from 189 stations, the system is the largest bike sharing service in the United States.”

    A good, short rebuttal to some of the fallacies Ms. Papp puts forth as truth can be found here: