Posts by Steve Offutt
|Steve Offutt has been working at the confluence of business and environment for almost 20 years, with experience in climate change solutions, green building, business-government partnerships, transportation demand management, and more. He lives in Arlington with his wife and two children and is a cyclist, pedestrian, transit rider and driver.|
Arlington County residents rely more and more on a wide range of transportation choices to get around the county, but Arlington Public Schools (APS) still focuses solely on buses in its transportation plan. A recent controversy around which students could ride the buses exposed the weaknesses and omissions in APS's transportation planning.
Current Arlington policy provides bus service for students living more than 1 mile from elementary school or 1½ mile from middle and high school. In-mid August, the school district sent letters to each family with APS students informing them that the school district would more rigorously enforce these "walk zones."
The letters informed families whether their students were eligible and, if so, where their bus stop was. Because of this, many students who previously rode the bus were suddenly designated as walkers just as the school year was set to begin.
Parents were upset that the changes came without much notice. The process was a serious problem, and this episode also highlights how a singular focus on buses versus no buses doesn't effectively serve all Arlington residents.
The APS transportation department website reveals almost no information beyond how the buses are operated and who is eligible to ride them. Even a document with the encouraging title of "Transportation Demand Management" is mostly about the parking at schools, and has only a short list of vague phrases about how to help students get to school any way other than driving or riding the school bus.
These statements and documents reveal that the transportation plan for APS is essentially a bus plan and little else. In the 21st century, a mid-20th century school bus plan is insufficient. A good transportation plan should address the transportation system as a whole and every student's transportation mode, whether it's bus, bike, skateboard, car, or shoes.
It should also address issues of traffic, environment, and even land use. A comprehensive plan should look forward in time, set goals, and put in place strategies to meet those goals. If it proposes changes, it should look at the effects of those changes on traffic, environment, timing, and safety.
Those are all things that the Arlington government (as distinct from the schools) has decades of experience with. Arlington's transportation department is often held up as a national model for how jurisdictions should develop and implement long-term transportation plans. At least 40 years ago, the county was already planning for transportation and land use in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor.
Arlington has effectively managed enormous growth in commercial development and multi-family residential development with virtually no increase in traffic for several decades. Now, similarly, the schools are experiencing rapid growth in student population and APS needs to plan for that growth to continue. It's time for APS to call Arlington's transportation department and request their expertise in developing a real, 21st-century transportation plan.
Arlington has started installing the first of the 250 "wayfinding" signs it has planned along the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor. They are part of a comprehensive plan that will include hundreds of signs across the county.
The first signs are a big improvement over the non-existent or outdated signs currently along the trails. They can still be better, and hopefully the county will learn from the first ones and from comments regular trail users.
My past reviews of trail signs have mostly been negative because they either did not exist or did not function well. The new signs are better, but they still have a few issues.
This map shows the locations of the 3 signs reviewed here.
The sign at the top right is mounted on the sound wall at the entrance of the trail. The signs now list the name of the trail, a vast improvement over ones in the past which pointed towards destinations but failed to tell you which trail you were on.
Now someone who gets directions online or from a friend that say to "turn right on the Custis Trail" will have confidence they are at the right place when they reach the trail entrance.
This spot has always been confusing because both directions look like the trail. This sign helps, but it should also indicate that the Custis Trail continues to the left.
The East Falls Church distance indicator in the sign at the top was accidentally swapped with the one on this sign. The soundwall sign is actually closer to East Falls Church than this sign, but says it is 0.1 miles farther away.
This sign presents two specific problems but also offers an example of how future signs can improve further.
First, the word "THRU" is unclear. Is there a difference between the word "THRU" and a straight arrow? If so, it's difficult to tell what that is.
If not, a straight arrow would be clearer, and it would be more consistent with the directional arrows used elsewhere. The County may have already recognized the possible confusion since, as of yesterday morning, the word "THRU" had been blacked over on at this particular sign.
Second, Washington-Lee High School is not a useful destination to a vast majority of trail users. I would guess that only a small portion of cyclists and pedestrians passing this point are going to Washington-Lee High School.
Maybe it was necessary to have a directional sign for Washington-Lee High School to meet Safe Routes to School objectives. But if that's the case, then it should be at the connector to 15th St North near North Taylor and at the Quincy St connector, the exit points from the trail to the school.
At this location, the sign should have a more general location like "Clarendon" or, better yet, Washington, DC. Probably more than a quarter of trail users at this point are headed to the District. Yet, Arlington staff have told me that Washington, DC will appear on very few of the signs even though it is one of the most common destinations, especially for weekday commuters.
Finally, these problems raise a larger question: why weren't any of these issues resolved prior to posting the signs? Arlington hired a supposedly top notch contractor to do this. They spent a lot of time and money developing a comprehensive plan. I'm very active in the cycling community, yet I never heard anything about them soliciting user input on this sign system.
Before the next signs are finalized, Arlington and their contractor should make better effort to gather input and feedback from the trail users and the general public. In the future they should:
- Get on the DC online bike forums to ask the community about challenging intersections and common destinations
- Present at the Bicycle Advisory Committee meetings to seeking local knowledge; and
- Have a presence out on the trails, to talk with the actual trail users and get their input.
These are simple tactics to gather information. It's hard to say definitively, but I'm not aware that they engaged local users other than the Arlington County staff. Aren't these the kinds of things for which a Bicycle Advisory Committee exists?
To be sure, the new signs is are a fantastic improvement over the previous state. But hopefully Arlington can learn from first ones and apply those lessons as the program expands.
Arlington County is replacing the footbridge across Four Mile Run that connects the W&OD and Custis trails east of Sycamore Street with the East Falls Church Metro station. Replacing the is necessary to improve safety.
The current footbridge is very narrow, very old, and has become obsolete. The new bridge will meet ADA standards, will be wider, and is in a better location for reducing confusion among trail users.
Input from the Arlington County pedestrian and bicycle advisory committees was helpful in determining the location of the replacement bridge in order to reduce confusion and improve utility. Unfortunately, signage is not included in the current project budget.
This map shows the locations of both the original bridge and the new bridge, which is planned for a mid-March completion, as well as the estimated placement of the new trail connector.
The old bridge is at the yellow marker, the new bridge at the pink marker. Image from Google Maps. Click for interactive version.
A significant area of asphalt will be removed and replaced with landscaping. The total amount of permeable surface is likely to be increased even though the new bridge and trail connector will be wider than the original.
The new bridge has an estimated lifespan of 75 years and will be 50 feet long and 14 feet wide with a concrete deck (the existing bridge has a wooden deck). Half of the $240,000 cost is covered by Arlington's bridge replacement funding, while the other half comes from the pedestrian improvements budget.
Arlington County has chosen a pedestrian- and bicyclist-friendly design for its upcoming rehabilitation of the Carlin Springs Bridge over North George Mason Drive.
Presently, the bridge has 5-foot sidewalks and no accommodation for cyclists. The new bridge will have 8-foot sidewalks and 5-foot bike lanes on both sides. Although the rest of Carlin Springs Drive does not have bike lanes now, it is both important and forward-thinking of the county to plan for the future by including them in this project. Arlington County is currently considering ways to improve bicycle accommodations between this bridge and the Ballston Mall.
Had better pedestrian and bicycle accommodations not been included in this rehabilitation project, it would likely have been difficult to change for the next 30 or so years.
Aside from the bridge, Carlin Springs Drive itself is not pedestrian friendly. There is only a single pedestrian-activated caution signal and no fully signalized crossings along the entire 1.3 miles from its origination at the Ballston Mall to the interchange at Route 50/Arlington Boulevard.
It's so dangerous for those on foot, several families who live nearby will not allow their middle-school-aged children to ride the bus, go to the Arlington Forest pool, or bike to the Bluemont Junction Trail unaccompanied because they cannot safely cross the road.
Hopefully these improvements will be the first of many steps to further refine the overall design of Carlin Springs Drive through North Arlington to better serve all users.
Last week, Dan Reed argued that an on-street Crescent Trail may be better for cyclists and pedestrians. But not putting the trail in a tunnel represents a huge downgrade of bicycle infrastructure, and the MTA should find a way of fitting the trail in the tunnel with the Purple Line.
For a year or so I commuted through that tunnel almost every day and have been an occasional user since it opened. It is an excellent cycling amenity, providing a shorter, quicker, safer and more convenient route through the heart of Bethesda.
In his post last Friday, Dan suggests that putting the trail on the street may be safer because the tunnel might attract criminals. He points out crime problems at other bicycle and pedestrian tunnels. In this case, the tunnel has been open since 1998 and crime has not been a problem. More activity makes crime even less likely. The danger of crossing Wisconsin Avenue at street level is greater than the risk of crime.
It makes no sense to eliminate an excellent grade-separated facility that already exists in order to get drivers to understand that bikes "belong" on the street. Plus, with an improved trail to Silver Spring will likely increase the number of cyclists in the Bethesda area. Cyclists in the area will use the streets to get to and from the trail. The better the trail, the more will use it, and the more street traffic there will be.
In the '90s, cyclists fought long and hard to get the tunnel opened because it was a terrific alternative to the on-street routes. It was an enormous success and trumpeted in the biking community. The Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail not only supported the tunnel opening, but contributed thousands of dollars of funding to help make it happen. Clearly the biking community prefers the tunnel to the on-street routes.
It seems unlikely that one would argue to eliminate the Custis Trail through Arlington or the W&OD trail through Falls Church in order to put more bikes on the streets. But Dan thinks this is a good idea in Bethesda.
Creating cycling facilities like those found in Copenhagen or Amsterdam, including grade-separated facilities like the one shown here, makes it better for cyclists, and more cyclists are everywhere, creating a better atmosphere all around. Those cities did not achieve their high biking mode share by eliminating grade-separated crossings.
Boulder, CO has added 20 new grade-separated crossings in the last 20 years, and cycling has gone up, not down. And there are lots more cyclists on the streets, too, not just the trails.
Current estimates indicate that keeping the trail in the tunnel with the Purple Line will cost $40 million. Even at that price, the trail is worth the cost. However, the Maryland Transit Administration is undertaking detailed studies to determine whether the cost could be lower. The Montgomery Planning Board has also asked them to study alternative ways of fitting the trail into the tunnel.
The shortest on-street alternative to the Bethesda tunnel adds about 400-500 feet to the trip. (The longest adds about 1,500 feet.) The shortest on-street detour also entails a 30-foot elevation rise and fall and a major road crossing that will require a wait at a signal.
This route is likely to add at least 1 minute to any cycling trip, costing as much 10,000 hours per year cumulative for cyclists and peds (at current usage rates, before increased traffic when the trail is completed to Silver Spring). In addition, auto traffic will also be delayed by longer signal cycles to accommodate trail traffic. Some might argue that is good, but it's time lost, nonetheless.
Should Montgomery County propose closing lanes and parts of streets and eliminating parking in order to create this route, they are likely to receive pushback in the public process from drivers and businesses. Officials will likely end up scaling back the design as a compromise with opponents.
There's no guarantee that the alternative on-street route will end up with good design and execution. It could very well end up a lose-lose for cyclists and pedestrians: the tunnel option could be eliminated, and the on-street alternative could be adequate instead of excellent.
The Capital Crescent Trail in Bethesda is equally as busy as the the Custis Trail through Rosslyn. There are approximately 23,000 weekly users on CCT and, according to Arlington County staff, about 26,000 users on the Custis Trail.
Building an at-grade crossing at Wisconsin may end up creating as big a problem as the Custis Trail/Lee Highway crossing. That intersection is a huge headache for planners there and a significant hazard to users. Admittedly, the Bethesda on-street routes do not suffer from the same design issues as the Arlington one, and it would likely be easier to make safer.
Should the cyclists and pedestrians lose this battle, it will once again send the signal that they are are lower-priority citizens. Cyclists showed up in droves a couple of years ago to keep the tunnel open during the upcoming development by JBG and, with the help of Councilmember Berliner, were able to win that concession from the developer.
Prior to that meeting, though, the county was intending to go along with the developer's plan to close the tunnel during construction, an option that would never be considered for a similarly important automobile route. Until the cyclists spoke up, the developer's needs were put ahead of them.
This is an almost identical situation: a proposal is being made to close the trail in the tunnel to accommodate development. Fortunately, this time, it appears pedestrians and cyclists are being given more consideration. A few weeks ago, the county planning board toured the tunnel and, according to the Washington Post, the board was very supportive of finding a solution to keep the trail in the tunnel.
Dan suggests that taking the trail out of the tunnel will make this a "better experience." Given the strong support, including actual financial contributions, from the biking community for the tunnel, it seems that most cyclists feel the tunnel is the better experience.
When I was commuting from Arlington to Silver Spring, I wanted to get home, not browse shop windows. I couldn't wait to arrive at the tunnel during the dark winter nights, and it made for great shelter during summer thunderstorms.
But other times when I was actually visiting somewhere in Bethesda, I could choose to proceed directly to my destination on the streets. The existence of the tunnel does not preclude cyclists and pedestrians from accessing local businesses. In fact, a superior facility is likely to attract more people to the area, which would be good for local businesses.
Lastly, on a per-user basis, my back-of-the-envelope calculation indicates that the per-user cost of the Purple Line is actually higher than the per-user cost of the trail with the tunnel, and that doesn't include operating costs. With 60,000 estimated daily Purple Line in 2030 users and a cost of about $2 billion, the average cost per daily user is $33,333. The trail, on the other hand, is expected to cost about $100 million and handle about 4,000 daily users. That makes the average cost per daily user $25,000.
Keeping this excellent piece of the regional bike infrastructure is critical to the ongoing growth of cycling and continuing to improve Washington's standing as a good biking area. As Dan writes, the trail has been included in plans for the Purple Line for more than 20 years, including the tunnel portion, which shouldn't be eliminated to save a few dollars that no one will remember a decade from now.
The intersection of Lee Highway and Lynn Street in Rosslyn, where the Custis Trail crosses Lynn St., is one of the most dangerous intersections for cyclists in the Greater Washington area. By reconfiguring the exit ramp for the Key Bridge, this conflict could be reduced, dramatically improving safety while also potentially improving traffic flow.
This intersection has received a lot of scrutiny lately, after a driver sideswiped a cyclist who was subsequently blamed for the incident by Arlington Police.
The primary problem at this intersection is traffic turning right from the I-66 off-ramp onto Lynn Street to head toward the Key Bridge. This traffic has a green light at the same time as the pedestrians and cyclists have the walk signal. There are two lanes of right turning cars (and sometimes cars in the third lane turn right illegally). Shifting the Key Bridge traffic to the north of the Custis Trail crossing could eliminate this conflict.
According to recent counts, the intersection sees more than 400 bikes an hour during rush hours, and that number is increasing. That is one bike about every 9 seconds on average.
My proposed redesign could significantly improve the situation for all users: cyclists, pedestrians and drivers. The numbers below correspond to the red numerals on the above graphic.
1. Split I-66 offramp: Currently the I-66 exit ramp is one lane that curves up to Lynn Street, dividing into three lanes as it approaches Lynn. The right lane is right-turn only, the middle lane is right turn or straight onto Lee Highway, and the left lane is straight only.
My proposed configuration would divide the ramp just after its split from I-66. Lee Highway traffic would follow the existing ramp up to the light at Lynn Street. Traffic headed for the Key Bridge would curve down under the existing Custis Trail ped/bike bridge over the GW parkway and then curve left to join the existing Key Bridge ramp from the southbound Parkway.
2. Reconfigure southbound offramp intersection: The combined Key Bridge ramps could be reconfigured into a 90-degree intersection at Lynn Street with a traffic light. While I proposed all three lanes to be right turn only, the far left lane could potentially allow movement onto the ramp for the northbound GW Parkway. This intersection would have no-right-turn-on-red restriction, which would eliminate the current conflict for cyclists and pedestrians also headed for the Key Bridge.
Cyclists and pedestrians could cross with the Lynn Street traffic while it has the green, and would wait with the Lynn St. traffic while the ramp traffic has the green. With three right turn lanes and no time lost yielding to bikes and peds, there could easily be an increase in capacity for cars, even with right turns on red prohibited. In evening hours, right-on-red movements could be allowed from the right-most lane only.
3. Narrow existing Lynn/Lee offramp: The existing ramp/Lynn St. intersection can then be narrowed to two lanes, allowing more space for the trail, improving sight lines, and reducing crossing distances. Both lanes would be straight only onto Lee Highway. This would completely eliminate all conflicts with Custis Trail traffic, since there would be no turning cars. Lee Highway and Custis Trail traffic would cross on the green and would wait on the red while Lynn Street traffic proceeded.
It appears that there is probably enough room under the existing bike/ped bridge to accommodate a new ramp lane without lengthening the bridge. This Google Street View shows the southbound lanes of the parkway traveling under the pedestrian bridge.
Note there is space on both sides of the lanes (the far support is about six feet beyond the stone wall if that additional space were needed.) The new configuration would have one lane of traffic traveling north as it passes under the bridge in addition to the Parkway lanes, which would be shifted into the existing median.
I paced it off, and my best estimate is 58 feet of span available between the support wall on the west and the support column in the median of the Parkway. That would accommodate three 12' lanes with 22 feet for shoulders and median. I'm not an engineer, but if that is possible, then this solution allows for eliminating the conflict without the need for significant additional infrastructure like a bike tunnel.
While this may seem like a costly proposal, a permanent solution like this one is eventually going to be necessary. The conflict at this intersection can only get worse. Bicycle use is increasing rapidly, and both DC and Arlington are promoting more cycling and investing in it with Capital Bikeshare and other efforts. As bike traffic increases, the number of conflicts with right turning cars will no doubt increase with it.
The redesign also would nicely complement the N. Lynn St Esplanade and Lee Highway/Custis Trail improvement projects that are currently being planned. A meeting on these projects is scheduled for tomorrow night.
Whatever the solution, the northern portion of Rosslyn will need major updates to its traffic patterns in order to accommodate a growing number of cyclists and pedestrians in an environment that was originally designed for the convenience of motorists.
Rather than taking maximum advantage of an opportunity to improve an area that is in dire need of better design, the City of Falls Church settled on a cookie-cutter, big box store when planning for BJ's.
The BJ's Wholesale Club opened last October 9 near Seven Corners to much fanfare. Most of the press around the opening was very positive, though it was built with little regard for future urban design or long-term planning in the area.
The property owner, JBG Properties, and the City of Falls Church announced the original plan two years earlier in October 2008. In that deal, the city agreed to provide $250,000 in annual tax relief to the property owners (totaling approximately $3 million over 12 years). The relief was intended to help offset some of the costs of site preparation, including retaining walls and infill.
At least one Falls Church resident perceived the deal as providing an unfair advantage to a business that doesn't really need it in comparison to some of the small businesses in the area.
The site is approximately 8.5 acres, and the store is reportedly 87,000 square feet, or about 24% of the site area (for comparison, the wildly popular, mixed-use Clarendon Common in Clarendon sits on 10 acres). It is exactly 1 mile from the East Falls Church Metro and is a typical big box retailer, with a large parking lot along the street and a deep setback.
Though tastefully landscaped, the site was formerly forested, and as many as 100 mature trees were sacrificed for the store's construction. As expected, the parking lot was full the first weekend it opened. On the numerous occasions I've passed by there since, I have never seen it more than about 2/3 full and often more than half empty.
As the resident above points out, there is little to no chance Falls Church would have allowed this BJ's near the center of the city. It is in the far southeast corner of the city (map), bordering both Fairfax and Arlington Counties, and away from the "village" area of Falls Church.
One could argue that the BJ's fits into this car-centric area around Seven Corners, which is unlike the center of Falls Church, with its mom-and-pop stores. However, the design could have been somewhat better with minor adjustments and considerably better with significant changes.
One step toward transforming the site to be more pedestrian-friendly could have been siting the building next to the street with a wide, inviting sidewalk and the parking in the rear. Better yet, a few small storefronts could have been integrated along the street as well, lessening the anchor store's isolation and vastly improving the pedestrian experience. Within 1/2 mile of this site are literally hundreds of housing units, primarily multi-family, so a significant density of potential pedestrians exists.
Even more innovative, though, would have been to develop the site completely differently, perhaps with a variety of uses and working on intelligent ways to take advantage of the Metro station just 1 mile away and the density of nearby housing. It could have been the start of a larger transformation for the entire area.
This picture shows the small group of stores just to the west of BJs. When this strip is redeveloped, the setback could be moved closer to the street, improving the pedestrian experience and continuing what could have been a mild transformation had the BJs site been more well designed.
To the east of BJ's is this Jiffy Lube, a fine establishment no doubt, but one that for the time being will detract from improving the streetscape. I am unaware of any current or imminent development efforts in the immediate vicinity of the BJ's.
Presumably Falls Church, with its relatively progressive population and policies, is a strong candidate for innovative suburban land use. In fact, the city has been working with Arlington County on a more progressive, long-term plan for the East Falls Church Metro station area.
In the end, timing likely affected some of the decisions surrounding this property. Because of the recession, Falls Church was desperate for sales tax revenue. If this deal had taken place before the downturn, the city may have had the means to negotiate for a better land use in return for less revenue.
It wouldn't be surprising if, at the end of the 12-year tax break period, the owners either negotiate an extension or simply move to another location. The building itself is single use and couldn't be easily re-purposed, as evidenced by the long-empty Big Lots less than 1000 feet away in the Eden Center.
In retrospect, a few design changes could have been implemented that would have served as a small step towards transforming this area. Unfortunately, that effort was not made and we're left with another disposable big box.
Unless Falls Church and Fairfax County decide to work together to develop a vision for Seven Corners, it will remain a poorly designed, unsafe, and unattractive part of the Washington region.
Back in March, I reported that the newly renovated Safeway at Seven Corners had designed their shopping cart corral in such a way as to block sidewalk access, forcing pedestrians to walk into traffic.
Two weeks ago, the Safeway removed this barrier, and now the sidewalk is completely open, allowing for safe and convenient pedestrian passage.
Left: Previous barrier. Right: The same area today. Photos by the author.
The manager said that a few months ago they were made aware that their design did not meet ADA requirements, thus prompting the removal of the wall and corral. He did not indicate whether or not any publicity or blog postings were instrumental in making them aware.
One reader contacted us to let us know that she noticed the change and thanked us for running the post. She had contacted the Safeway herself earlier this year, too.
The manager expressed pleasure at the new design and said that he supported the change from the beginning. Score one small victory for pedestrians.
An empty plot of land in Rosslyn has been turned into a temporary public plaza while its owner works to build a skyscraper. Instead of a weedy, fenced-in lot, the plaza is a lively public space.
JBG Companies is planning a million square foot, 2-tower development at the corner of Wilson and North Moore Streets in Arlington. While they work to secure tenants in preparation for construction, they have teamed up with Rosslyn community groups to turn their empty lot into an attractive public space.
The plaza, called CentralSpace, is a good example of how organizations can work together to make small but positive changes to their environment. The effort was a cooperation between JBG, the Rosslyn Business Improvement District, Rosslyn Renaissance, and local volunteer groups. It includes a stage, benches, tables and chairs, as well as a rain garden to help reduce runoff.
Cities are dynamic places that are constantly in flux, as new development replaces old and changes are made to the urban form. Well executed and creative temporary urbanism can make the growing pains more pleasant and exciting, and can make our cities better places.
If the people I see enjoying CentralSpace are any indication, it's been a great success.
On Tuesday Arlington County activated a bike-only signal in the Rosslyn area of the Custis Trail at the corner of N. Oak Street and Lee Highway.
This is one of the several intersections on the trail's "Rosslyn Hill" section, which is definitely the most dangerous section of the Custis Trail. Numerous cyclists and drivers have collided at some of the section's crossings in the past.
This crossing already had a walk/don't-walk pedestrian signal, which would inform cyclists about the status of the cross-traffic. Since right turns are prohibited on red, cars waiting on Oak Street will not create a conflict when the bike signal is green and the pedestrian signal is in the walk mode.
Cyclists need to watch for right-turning traffic from Lee Highway onto Oak. Although these cars are supposed to yield to bikes and pedestrian in the crosswalk, cyclists should double-check.
The above photo shows the bike signal still green while the pedestrian signal is flashing "don't walk" with 3 seconds left. Since bikes can cross much faster than pedestrians, this makes sense. There is a brief yellow bike signal that illuminates for 2-3 seconds before changing to red.
I did not observe bicycle behavior at this intersection with the new signal. The signal is green for much more of the time than it is red, probably 75% of the time. Most of the time cyclists will be able to proceed through this intersection without pause. It will be interesting to see how cyclists behave with this new signal: if they will treat it like a car would treat a traffic signal or more like an "Idaho stop."
It's great that Arlington continues to work to improve the cycling environment. Hopefully this new signal will increase safety and awareness.
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