What happened to the Washington Boulevard bike lanes?

About one month ago, Arlington County staff announced a revision to the restriping plan along Washington Boulevard, from (roughly) McKinley Road to North Sycamore St. Originally, the plan had called for bike lanes down the entire stretch of Washington, at the cost of a handful of parking spots along Washington. However, in April, county staff announced a revised plan which preserved the west-bound bike lane, but nixed a large stretch of the east-bound lanes, in favor of parking preservation and an alternate bike boulevard running “near” Washington.

This, despite 56 crashes over a five-year span, and 85th percentile speeds of 34-37 MPH (fun explanation of what the “85th percentile speed” is), and despite this route becoming a popular route for cyclists getting to/from East Falls Metro station.

Further, what happened between the March open house and the presentation of the revised plan on April 19th, and how the county arrived at the new plan, remains opaque.

At one point, the county had announced that a majority of comments had come out in favor of the new lanes, but that doesn’t appear to have overcome what was a small-but-vocal minority, quite upset over now having to walk an extra block for free parking (even though most lots along this stretch have driveway access). Afterwards, the county, essentially saying VDOT was growing impatient, presented the revised plan in April, and announced it was final.

For folks looking to expand biking and other non-car infrastructure throughout Arlington, the county buckling to an unorganized collection of NIMBYs is cause for concern. Arlington is, in essence, out of easy-to-build bike infrastructure: i.e. we’re running out interstate-sized streets to narrow. And now, we’re down to places where the county board and staff will have to begin to make difficult choices in how car-free infrastructure and road diets are implemented. With that fact looming over all of us, plans like these become value statements about the kind of community we intend to build.

If Arlington is going to continue seeing total VMT (vehicle miles traveled) drop; if we want to continue making the county’s streets more complete; and if we want to continue moving closer to Vision Zero, we need to do more work to convince folks that making these improvements will make a safer and better Arlington. We need buy-in from civic associations; we need to saturate people with safety data and information; we need everyone able and willing to sell these ideas at maximum. Also quite important, and something I learned from reading Streetfight — a fantastic book by Janette Sadik-Khan, the former transportation commissioner of New York City — we need to start with the most maximal plan, work our tails off to convince folks it’s the best one, and go from there.

We don’t start with sharrows and half-hearted bike boulevards — we go cycletracks, buffered lanes, or better.

But, most important, we need to recognize something I used to tell folks when canvassing door-to-door, working for votes:

“You can’t save everyone, but if you can get most of the folks you talk to, that’s good enough.”

In other words, we need to recognize there will always be a small and vocal group fighting progress at every step: they’ll hide under the guise of preservation; they’ll assert free parking is a right; and they’ll never acknowledge that complete streets are safer and more efficient streets. We can respect their concerns when valid, but we need to convince staff and elected officials they’re just a loud and noisy minority — in other words, we need to show, bigger, louder, and ready to rumble each and every time we can.

Do that, and we’ll win, and we’ll continue to build Arlington into a safer and stronger community for everyone who lives here.