Thursday, December 13, 2012

So I'm Confused @ArlingtonVA, is Cycling "Transportation" or Not #bikedc

Photo by alykat (cc)
Now I love Arlington.  And Arlington DES is one of my favorites (not joking... DES has been highly responsive to inquiries and concerns).  But DES did something recently that caused a kerfuffle.  DES thought that it would be a good idea to talk to Arlington Citizens about snow removal.  Why would that cause a kerfuffle?  Well it resulted in this exchange:
Q by CS: Arlington often talks about how bicycling is an important part of our transportation network, and yet our bicycling infrastructure rarely if ever gets plowed, even major cycling thoroughfares like the Custis trail that continue to see hundreds of riders a day despite the weather. Minneapolis manages to keep their bike infrastructure plowed. When will Arlington?
A: Currently there are no immediate plans to plow or treat primary commuting bike trails, but our planners, Department of Parks and Recreation and DES operations staff continue to strategize how to improve the bike commute. The County will be looking to coordinate with the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority for priority to treat the WO&D Trail, which is not maintained by Arlington.

Q by MB: I have to say that I'm pretty disappointed by DES' inaction on plowing our primary trails. As people within DES can tell you, thousands of Arlingtonians use those trails every day to get to work. By failing to plow the trails, DES puts more people onto the streets in cars. Is that really what you want, during a snow event?
A: As previously asked by Chris, our planners, Department of Parks and Recreation and DES operations staff continue to strategize how to improve the bike commute. There are many significant safety and environmental concerns for bikers and our trails that we have and are attempting to find the best solution.
Okay, once again: consternation.  Arlington talks a good talk.  Arlington talks about how cycling is a great way to commute. Arlington talks about the Car Free diet. Arlington talks about Smart Growth through Smart Transportation. 

The problem is Arlington actually convinces a few of us.  And a few (thousand) of us have come to rely on cycling as our mode of transportation.  It's how we get to work, or to school, or to the store, or to lunch.  We drank the kool-aid, we have become car-free, and we bike the solution.

But having converted us, Arlington goes sideways on us and doesnt follow through.  There are major cycling arteries in Arlington that see 1000s of cyclist get to work every day.  These are the Custis Trail, the W&OD trail, and the Mount Vernon Trail (NPS).  These trails are cyclists freeways that see levels of traffic during rush hour that rival the roads.  During rush hour on the Custis Trail in Rosslyn, the cue at a red light is as deep on the Custis trail as it is on Lee Hwy.  The flow of traffic on the Custis is constant and we saw essentially cyclist traffic jams this year.

Those cycling arteries are not treated as "transportation" arteries by Arlington:
  • There are no plans to clear snow from the trails, in the same way other transportation arteries are cleared.
  • Arlington police park their cruisers on the Custis Trail in Rosslyn, blocking the trail.
  • Arlington Parks and Rec trucks regularly drive on the W&OD during rush hour, creating dangerous situations.
  • Arlington Parks and Rec shut down the Custis Trail during rush hour so that they could prune trees - something VDOT would never do to Route 66.
  • After decades of complaints from cyclists, the Custis Trail / Lynn St intersection remains as dangerous as ever with almost no action taken.
Let's make this simple:
Arlington: Is cycling actually "transportation," or is that just some cute words you put on paper so that you have dazzling looking transportation strategic plans?  
If you are going to talk the talk, walk the walk.  1000s of cyclists rely on the trails as transportation arteries.  Arlington, please behave like they are transportation arteries.


  1. Well said.
    One practical reason why the W&OD and Mount Vernon trails do not get plowed is the fact that their wooden bridges are not designed to hold the weight of a decent sized plow. In fact I have twice had to help an ambulance back up on the MVT because its forward path was compromised by a wooden bridge.
    A few days after a snowfall, the Mount Vernon trail becomes useless. You can't walk, run, bike or ski on it; it's just an icy mess.

  2. Snow removal on bike trails is an important issue for Arlington County. County staff have been strategizing for the last year to find a viable solution to improve bike commuting in winter weather. It is an issue that has included Department of Environmental Services planners and operations staff, and Department of Parks and Recreation. There are several significant safety and environmental concerns for bikers and our trails that have been raised.

    - Trails don’t have gutters or drainage, so snow pushed to one side will continue to melt, run on or along the trails and refreeze. A thin layer of ice can be difficult for cars to maneuver on streets and is also an important safety concern for bikes on trails where it could potentially be a greater hazard.
    - Salt can aid with refreezing and treatment for light precipitation events, but it’s toxic to most vegetation and landscaping along bike trails, most of which run through County parkland.

    The County is still in the process of identifying resources to make trail plowing possible. This includes procuring properly sized equipment that would be capable of plowing narrow trails and bridges that could not withstand the weight of a heavy pickup truck equipped as they are used on streets for plowing and treating, as well as identifying and training additional staff. We are dedicated to finding the best solution, including coordinating with area agencies who are also responsible for maintaining trails that run through Arlington County.

    A transcript from yesterday’s chat can be found online at

  3. Let's start at the top:
    First, Arlco, declare a policy that bike arteries are transportation arteries.

    Second, hit low hanging fruit:
    * Bike trails are not parking lots for police cruisers
    * Bike trails are not truck roads and will not be used by county vehicles (certainly not during rush hour)
    * Bike trails will not be shut down during rush hour for normal maintenance (pruning trees)
    * When bike trails are shut down, real and safe detours with proper notice will be provided

    And then we can talk about snow removal. Snow removal may be harder. So how about the easier items first??