Bike lane deadlock

Bike lane deadlock

By Derrick Perkins (File photo)

Three months of contentious public debate surrounding a plan to add bike lanes to a heavily trafficked section of King Street failed to change the minds of the city’s traffic and parking board members.

Following a marathon meeting Monday, the board endorsed proposed pedestrian improvements on King Street, between the intersections of Russell Road and Janneys Lane. But members recommended that — in a 5-2 vote — city officials temporarily shelve plans for a 0.7-mile stretch of bike lanes.

The project, which would see 27 on-street parking spots removed in favor of bike lanes, has rankled homeowners along the stretch and shifted the longstanding debate about cycling in the community back into high gear. Monday’s vote was in line with the board’s previous recommendation: neighbors and cyclists must hammer out a compromise.

“We know there is a common ground; we know that there is a compromise,” said Jay Johnson, chairman of the traffic and parking board. “Everywhere there is a compromise, and we feel that there is one [here] and that the staff and the bicyclists and the residents, they’ve got to find that common ground.”

But finding a middle road has proven elusive. After the traffic and parking board voted in favor of delaying the bike lanes in November, Rich Baier, director of the city transportation and environmental services department, opted to pedal ahead regardless of the board’s recommendations.

That did not slow down critics, who invoked a little-known section of city law for appealing Baier’s decision — first to the traffic and parking board and then before city council. Alexandria’s top elected officials likely will take the issue up next month.

The early debate focused on the loss of parking, but safety has since emerged as the leading concern.

“It’s almost like putting a bunch of seals in a swimming pool with a bunch of great white sharks,” said Johnson. “We’re here to protect everyone, and we didn’t feel that putting these bicyclists in a major artery … that this was going to be safe for them.”

But proponents of the lanes also cite safety. It’s not as if that section is a bicycle-free zone, said Baier. Cyclists already travel the route; they just thread the needle between cars or dodge pedestrians on the sidewalk, he said.

Critics pitched possible detours around the bustling roadway, and while Baier considered them all viable routes, cyclists will continue using King Street, particularly as bike-friendly amenities expand at the nearby Metro station.

“Cyclists are there; they’re using it now. They will be there in the future,” Baier said. “If we don’t put in bike lanes, we’ll be in the same situation in a year that we’re in here: Cyclists squeezing down the roadway.”

Baier sees replacing little-used street-side parking spots with bike lanes serving several safety-related purposes — creating a buffer between pedestrians and motor vehicles as well as giving cyclists a designated lane. And studies show the presence of bike lanes tends to slow traffic, he said.

While Baier focuses on safety improvements, traffic and parking board member Kevin Posey worries about the present state of affairs on King Street. It’s a tragedy waiting to happen, he said.

“That sidewalk on King Street is a death trap, and with every delay, we are rolling the dice,” said Posey, who cast one of two votes against the recommendations. “The bike lanes are the key component of the project. They provide breathing space for pedestrians on that sidewalk.”

The counterargument calls for pedestrian-safety improvements too. But critics believe encouraging cyclists to use the busy road will lead to accidents, injuries and perhaps even lawsuits.

“We’re supposed to be protecting pedestrians and bicyclists and people who drive, and we brought up that question, too, that, ‘Hey, there is a lot of moving parts in this small confined area and I don’t want the city to be liable if one of their large trucks … goes into the bike lane and hits a bicyclist,” said Johnson. “There could be some other bike routes that are just safer than putting them out on that narrow road. That’s why we wanted [proponents and critics] to come up with their own plan.”

But few — if any — cyclists have worried about the prospect of injury on that stretch, according to Posey and Baier. Usually officials hear concerns about possible danger by those most at risk, the transit head said. And that’s not the case on King Street.

Posey, like his colleague Johnson, had a more colorful description of the situation.

“[It] was very disappointing that the board chose to reject all of that evidence and reject the testimony of cyclists who are familiar with bike lanes and know what King Street is like,” Posey said. “They have said it was safe — bike lanes make things safer. Professionally trained staff says bike lanes make things safer.

“It’s akin to an airplane passenger telling the pilot how to fly the plane.”