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Ask GGW: How do Arlington and Alexandria differ?

Arlington and Alexandria. They're, like, the same place... right? Ok yeah, no, they aren't. But one of our readers did point out that to many, two of DC's southern neighbors often get mistaken for one another, so we've explained a number of the differences.


Left: Wilson Boulevard in Arlington. Photo by Tony Webster on Flickr. Right: Old Town Alexandria. Photo by Roger W on Flickr.

The reader asks:

My fiancée and I currently live in Arlington, where we rent a high-rise apartment in Crystal City. We'll soon be moving to Alexandria, where we will be renting a townhouse in Old Town. It seems like a lot of people who live in DC or Maryland think that Arlington and Alexandria are the same place. I know that they're distinct jurisdictions but I'll admit, they're similar enough that I'm not clear on the differences. So as a transit-oriented urbanist making the move, what should I know about differences in local law, Alexandria local politics, reliability of public transit, and so on?
First, some history

Virginia donated both "Old Town" Alexandria and the land that later became Arlington County to form the District of Columbia in 1801. At the time, Congress organized the area as a subdivision of DC and named it Alexandria County.

In 1846, the land went back into Virginia's possession when DC was downsized to exclude the portion south of the Potomac River. In 1852, what was then the Town of Alexandria incorporated as a city; it became independent of Alexandria County in 1870.

Since 1871, all municipalities in Virginia incorporated as "cities" have been "independent cities," not politically part of a county. This revision to the state constitution happened after the Civil War and the creation of West Virginia.


1878 Map of Alexandria County, Virginia. Photo from Wikipedia Commons.

In 1908, the Town of Potomac incorporated as a town in Alexandria County. To avoid confusion with the adjacent city, Virginia's General Assembly changed the name of Alexandria County to Arlington County in 1920. The City of Alexandria annexed the Town of Potomac in 1930, and it's now designated as the Town of Potomac Historic District.

A number of neighborhoods in Fairfax County that aren't in Alexandria's city limits, like Franconia, Groveton, Huntington, Hybla Valley, Kingstowne, and Mount Vernon, still use the namesake on their postal addresses.

The local laws and politics are different...

Aimee Custis points out that since Arlington is a county, it's governed by a County Board. Alexandria, on the other hand, is governed by a City Council.

Canaan Merchant mentions that "Arlington was actually very rural for a long time and its current level of development didn't really take off in earnest until the mid and late 20th century. That informs how both areas look. Alexandria has great examples of 'old urbanism' while Arlington showcases how it's done today without worrying about historic preservation so much."


Courthouse Plaza in Arlington. Photo by Ron Cogswell on Flickr.

Kevin Beekman shares some details:

Alexandria and Arlington share so little in terms of administration, policing and planning for such relatively small jurisdictions. That has only recently begun to change. The development of Potomac Yard caused a dilemma for both jurisdictions because the county/city border was not changed with the realignment of Four Mile Run during the flood control project of the 1970-80s. This forced them to work together and resulted in the joint Four Mile Run Restoration Plan than is now underway.

I think the main difference is that Arlington was almost all developed since the start of World War II and was largely rural before that, whereas Alexandria (even the parts it annexed from Arlington) predate that at least somewhat. The big exception is the West End that Alexandria annexed from Fairfax County. The City and County allow residents to share public libraries though. I've found that useful.

As for differences in local laws, one that comes to mind is that new residents will only have 30 days to apply for a city decal showing that they've paid personal property tax in Alexandria on a percentage of the value of the car.

Agnès Artemel gives us a great in-depth analysis on the differences between Arlington and Alexandria, from the perspective of being a long-time Alexandria resident:
Alexandria and Arlington should be very similar in that they are both "inside the Beltway" communities that were once dependent on DC to employ their residents but now have developed their own employment centers.

But, as a long-time Alexandria resident, I feel they are very different—in physical appearance, way of life, and politics.

Physical: Alexandria has a very large grid-patterned Old Town that give it a distinct sense of place and a reason for tourism; the waterfront is another asset. Central Alexandria is all suburbia—large lot single-family. And the west is highway-oriented: apartments and condos for those who used I-395 to get to DC. To me, Arlington is divided up several ways 1) by the highways that traverse it making it seem impossible to get from place to place, and 2) by the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor versus the area to the north and the area to the south. Arlington also has huge federal land reservations that break it up. To Alexandrians, Arlington's streets make no sense whatever—lacking connections and even a reasonable naming system.

Way of life: Alexandria is still the sleepy southern town. Residents don't like bars and restaurants to stay open past 11 or 12. They don't like outsiders, particularly commuters from Fairfax. They tried to get toll gates set up at entrances to the city to discourage commuters. We wish we could be an island away from this pesky growthy region. Arlington has seemed more dynamic, more interested in jobs, economic development, and the new economy based on tech. Arlington found a way to separate its growth areas (Rosslyn-Ballston, Crystal City) from the neighborhoods that want to be protected from tall buildings. Alexandria is still fighting land use battles one at a time, starting from scratch on each one.

Politics: Until recently, it felt like Arlington had figured out how to get buy-in on smart growth, and the Board appeared unified in its approach to land use. Alexandria kept missing opportunities due to fear of opposition—we could have had the Potomac Yard infill Metro station in the mid-80s, for example. And for a long time, driving on Jefferson Davis Highway it was quite clear where the jurisdictional boundary was—Alexandria got all the traffic and none of the tax revenues was the way we saw it. Arlington planned for a streetcar through Crystal City and Alexandria planned for a BRT, and people were going to have to switch at Four Mile Run (no one will get a streetcar now, so its a moot point today).

Of course, much has changed in the last couple of years, in both jurisdictions. Time will tell whether we become more similar or not, and whether that's good or bad.


Photo of Alexandria's Amtrak station by Jeanette Runyon on Flickr.

Jonathan Krall touches on similar points:

Alexandria and Arlington have commonalities, such as the streetcar suburbs of Del Ray (Alexandria) and Clarendon (Arlington), both developed by the same company in the late 1800s. A big difference is that Alexandria predates Washington DC and has attitudes shaped by its history.

One way of looking at it is that many of the "mover and shakers" in Alexandria still want it to be a sleepy southern town where no decision is made until the proper people are consulted. After a major fight over bike lanes on King Street, in 2013-2014, the Alexandria leadership took steps to avoid further fights, delaying two bicycle projects that were scheduled to begin planning for Old Town. Major projects, such as the waterfront plan, are accomplished only by overcoming that conservatism.

All that is by way of saying the Alexandria has a conservatism that has been largely missing in Arlington. However, the recent street car revolt in Arlington makes this difference less certain going forward. Both places talk a good game in terms of urbanism, but Arlington does a better job of following through with their new-urbanist ambitions. This is why, on Potomac Ave, the bike lanes stop at the Arlington/Alexandria border.

...and so is transportation

Aimee Custis points out that both jurisdictions are served by WMATA Metrorail and Metrobus, however Arlington's local bus service is Arlington Transit (ART) and Alexandria's service is DASH.

Canaan Merchant mentions that "Arlington has a bit more flexibility when it comes to its transportation decisions because they opted to maintain control of their own roads rather than have VDOT take over (that's part of the reason why Arlington has more bike infrastructure)."

"Arlington doesn't really have any waterfront areas despite having more land on the river. The GW Parkway, Arlington Cemetery, and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport prevent the county from really developing one as well."

With regards to bicycling, Jonathan Krall says that "On the plus side, Alexandria has a large, flat, street-grid area that is relatively easy for bicycling, despite a paucity of bike lanes. One can reach the metropolitan downtown from this area of town without going up or down a big hill. This is something that Alexandria has in common with Portland, OR, and may be responsible for Alexandria's very good bicycle mode share."

The conversation then shifted to Arlington and Alexandria's street-naming system, with Michael Perkins giving some basic information about Arlington's system:

There is actually a good naming system for Arlington, unlike the "system" in Old Town Alexandria. North-South streets have names and East-West streets have numbers. First set of streets have one-syllable names like Bell and Clark. Second set have two syllable names like Kenmore or Quincy. Third set have three syllable names like Somerset or Quintana. There's only one four syllable name--Arizona.

There are longer boulevards and drives that don't follow this pattern. Examples are Arlington Boulevard, Lee Highway, Washington Boulevard, Fairfax Drive, George Mason Drive, and Shirlington Road.

Jonathan Krall gives us the Alexandria perspective:
In Alexandria, the original main street was Cameron, flanked by parallel streets King to the south and Queen to the north. Next was Prince and Princess. Then Duke and Oronoco. Oronoco was named for a tobacco warehouse.
Kevin Beekman adds, "In Alexandria, street numbers increase as you go north. In Arlington, street numbers increase as you go south. So there are places on Jefferson Davis Highway were the addresses (or block numbers) repeat."

Michael Perkins also adds that the street numbers in Arlington increase "as you get further away from Arlington Boulevard, either north or south".

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Retail


DC's "Little Ethiopia" has moved to Silver Spring and Alexandria

Historically, the DC area's Ethiopian diaspora has centered on Adams Morgan and Shaw. But as the community has grown, it's mostly moved out of the District. Today, the region actually has two "Little Ethiopias": one in Silver Spring and one in Alexandria.


Where the region's Ethiopian population lives. Map by the author.

Ethiopians have a lot of roots in the DC area

Ethiopians first began moving to the United States in the 1970s, fleeing a military dictatorship. The DC area has the nation's largest Ethiopian community, but just how big it is up for debate.

The 2013 American Community Survey found about 40,000 people of Ethiopian ancestry in the region, while the Arlington-based Ethiopian Community Development Center says there are 100,000 Ethiopians living in the area.

There's also a large population from Eritrea, which broke off from Ethiopia in 1991. The Census doesn't break out ancestry data for Eritreans for local areas. But in 2005, but the Population Reference Bureau estimated that about 2% of African-born blacks in the region, or about 2,300 people, came from Eritrea.

Today, Ethiopians are the largest African immigrant group in the region, making up one-fifth of the region's African diaspora. There are about 1200 Ethiopian-owned businesses in the region, according to the ECDC, as well as the Ethiopian community's own Yellow Pages. Famous Ethiopian entertainers have settled in the area, and major events serving the diaspora are held here, like this sports and live music festival that was at the University of Maryland this summer.

Two "Little Ethiopias" emerge

When the diaspora began, Ethiopians arriving in DC settled in Adams Morgan, then along 9th Street NW in Shaw, occasionally called "Little Ethiopia." Since 2000, DC's Ethiopian population has more than doubled, from 2134 to 4807 in 2013, though it's shifted north towards Petworth and Brightwood.

But like many immigrants in the region, many Ethiopians moved to Maryland and Virginia, and today most of the community lives outside the District. Montgomery County has the region's largest cluster of Ethiopians, with nearly 13,000 residents claiming Ethiopian ancestry, three times as many as in 2000. Fairfax County and the city of Alexandria have the region's second- and third-largest Ethiopian populations.


Ethiopian nightlife in Silver Spring. Photo by Reemberto Rodriguez.

Today, there are two "Little Ethiopias." One sits in Silver Spring and Takoma Park, and reaches into far northwest DC. Another is in Alexandria and extends west towards the Skyline area of Fairfax County.

Both areas are home to several thousand people of Ethiopian descent. Ethiopians make up 29% of one Census tract next to downtown Silver Spring, while one census tract in Alexandria, consisting of a large apartment complex called Southern Towers, is 40% Ethiopian.

The most Ethiopian places

The most prominent sign of the region's "Little Ethiopias" is food. Downtown Silver Spring has dozens of Ethiopian eateries, and with those numbers come specialization: there are white-tablecloth places, sports bars, an "Ethiopian Chipotle," and of course, many different coffee shops. Meanwhile, chef and TV personality Anthony Bourdain visited an Ethiopian market in Skyline on the DC episode of his show No Reservations.


Montgomery County's annual Ethiopian Festival in Silver Spring. Photo by Alan Bowser on Flickr.

These communities are also gathering and economic hubs not only for Ethiopians, but the wider African diaspora living in the DC area. Silver Spring is home to I/O Spaces, a coworking space geared to the African community. Montgomery County, which hosts an annual Ethiopian Festival in Silver Spring, is also the first jurisdiction in the nation to name September African Heritage Month.

Will "Little Ethiopia" continue to move farther out?

Why did Little Ethiopia, like so many other immigrant enclaves in the DC area, leave the District? Gentrification and displacement may be one cause. Though it's also likely that people moved to Maryland and Virginia for cheaper housing, better schools, or to be close to friends and family.

It'll be interesting to see if the region's Ethiopian population continue to move further out. There are already large concentrations of Ethiopians extending far from both Little Ethiopias: the one in Silver Spring stretches north towards Burtonsville, while the one in Alexandria continues south along I-95 towards Lorton.

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Places


We're heading to Alexandria for our next happy hour

It's time for the next Greater Greater happy hour! Next week, we're heading to Alexandria's newest park and its newest bar with our friends at YIPPS, GreaterPlaces.com, and Do Tank DC.


Photo by Ned Russell.

Next Thursday, July 9 from 6 to 8 pm, come see and enjoy the new Braddock Neighborhood Interim Park, located at 600 North Henry Street, to see what the City of Alexandria is doing to activate the Braddock Metro/Parker-Gray neighborhood. Play bocce, ping pong, horseshoes, corn hole, and more in the new half-acre park. Hear from local activists and planners who helped develop the active interim space.

After checking out the park, join us for a few drinks at Mason Social, two blocks away at 728 North Henry St.

The park and the bar are both a few blocks from the Braddock Road Metro station (Blue and Yellow lines). If you're coming by bus, the Metrobus 10A/B/R and DASH AT3 routes stop next to the park at Henry and Pendleton streets. There's a Capital Bikeshare station at Henry and Pendleton as well.

Over the past year, we've held happy hours in Gallery Place, Shaw, U Street, Eastern Market, and Silver Spring. We're always looking for new, Metro-accessible locations for future happy hours (especially in Prince George's County!). Where would you like us to go next?

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Places


How Alexandria's Courage Wall helped me find courage

A chalkboard wall in Alexandria that recently got national attention for asking people to finish the thought "I wish I had the courage to ..." is coming down. For me, the Courage Wall represented a moment when I took a courageous jump of my own.


The Courage Wall in Alexandria. All photos by the author unless noted.

Resident and leadership coach Nancy Belmont set up the wall outside her friend's business in the Del Ray neighborhood last month. Inspired by artist Candy Change's "Before I Die" project in New Orleans, the Courage Wall is an interactive piece of public art, constantly changing as people add their thoughts to it.

Over the following weeks, thousands of people wrote their wishes: "Ask her out." "Start my own business." "Be in the present." The wall appeared everywhere from the Washington Post to ABC News. Even First Lady Michelle Obama tweeted about it. Last week, Belmont took the wall down but promises to return it to another location in Northern Virginia.


Some of the comments people wrote on the Courage Wall.

The Courage Wall's site, a vacant lot at Mount Vernon and East Del Ray avenues in Del Ray, is a particularly significant location for me. Seven years ago, I had a studio project here while in architecture school at the University of Maryland. Our professor, Mark Ramirez, told us to design something here, but unlike every other project I'd done before, he didn't say what it should be.

I was shocked: how would we know what to build? My classmates and I started researching the neighborhood for clues. We interviewed residents and shop owners and explored the local history. We hung out in shops and restaurants and watched people go about their lives. I started digging into Census data, eager to learn about the demographics of the people living in the area.

That's when I came onto something: despite having a diverse and very young population, Del Ray and surrounding neighborhoods lacked a central gathering space, especially one for teenagers. I ended up proposing a public space on the vacant lot, with structures around it that were small enough for intimate gatherings, but big enough for performances. The building (which in real life is a web design firm) became a retail incubator on the ground floor, and a teen center above.


Two renderings of my proposed design for the vacant lot.

What I didn't realize at the time is that I'd basically conducted a planning exercise: using input from the community, I'd analyzed its needs and developed a plan. But I did know I was inspired in a way I'd never been before, so I started to get involved more with the neighborhood.

Later that fall, I drove down to Northern Virginia Community College one rainy Friday night to participate in "We Are More Than What You See," a city-run campaign where local artists worked with teenagers to make posters decrying prejudice. Our work was shown in a gallery in Del Ray, then appeared in shop windows at businesses around Alexandria, including one across the street from the vacant lot.


The poster I made for Alexandria's "We Are More Than What You See" campaign.

My entire life I had dreamed of being an architect and had built an identity around it. But I struggled with math and physics, and I felt disconnected from the people and communities I was supposed to design for. My time in Del Ray taught me something new about myself, and it gave me the courage to take the leap and try a different path. Seven years later, I'm a urban planner.

But I find myself dealing with even bigger challenges. I've always been a really optimistic and driven person, hopeful that I could overcome any obstacle. Yet the past three years after I graduated planning school seemed to be one setback after another: a struggle to find full-time work, hospital bills from a foot injury, two car accidents, a stressful living situation, a five-year relationship that ended. I became overwhelmed with doubt and anxiety, unsure of myself and afraid that this time, I wasn't going to make it through.

Over the past few months, I've been able to pull myself out, slowly but surely. A few weeks ago, I stood in front of the Courage Wall, watching people walk up, admire it, and add something of their own.

This is a place where I'd shown myself courage once. Chalk in hand, I felt hopeful I could do it again. I added my words and I went on my way.

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Politics


Virginia has a primary Tuesday. Here's the urbanist scoop on the candidates

Virginia's elections for many local offices are this year, and the primary is Tuesday, June 9. There are competitive races in the Democratic primaries for Arlington County Board, Alexandria mayor, two Fairfax supervisor seats, and the 45th legislative district.


Virginia voting image from Shutterstock.

I asked our Virginia-based contributors what they think of the candidates in these races. Who is good on smart growth, transit, walking and bicycling, and other issues we cover? Who has a strong vision and the ability to work with people to achieve it?

Arlington

Mary Hynes and Walter Tejada were both up for re-election to the Arlington County Board this year. After John Vihstadt won a full term and the board canceled the Columbia Pike streetcar, Hynes and Tejada announced they would not run again, leaving two open seats.

The streetcar aside, Vihstadt, fellow member Libby Garvey, and their political backer Peter Rousselot have built their political bases by criticizing county spending on a wide range of infrastructure projects. Perhaps some initiatives were unnecessary or overly expensive, but Arlington now needs board members who can articulate a vision to make the county better instead of simply doing less.

Just as some people accused the former board of acting too often as a single bloc, there's the possibility that Garvey and Vihstadt would gain an allied third member and have a bloc of their own which would move the county in a much more conservative direction, halting investment in the county's future rather than continuing the kinds of policies which have made Arlington County a national model for sustainable growth.

There are six Democratic candidates for the two seats. Arlington Democrats will have the ability to vote for two apiece. Chris Slatt says,

Peter Fallon and Katie Cristol are both solid pro-smart-growth candidates. Peter has the experience (he's been on practically every commission you can be on), while Katie brings a new perspective, youth and energy.

Peter has a track record of supporting transit, biking, and walking. Katie doesn't have a record she can point to, but even a brief conversation with her makes it clear that she sees Arlington's commitment to smart growth as what has made it so desirable as a place to live and she's committed to doing whatever needs to be done to keep it moving forward.

James Lander isn't anti-smart-growth, but it doesn't appear to be a focus or a passion. There is nothing smart-growth-y on his issues page, for instance. Andrew Schneider is in the midst of his first term on Arlington's Transportation Commission and has largely voted in a smart growth way. He also turned in some of the most spot-on answers in a cycling issues questionnaire, but he has taken some potentially anti-transit positions such as a lengthy soliloquy about even the cheaper, redesigned Columbia Pike transit stations being too costly.

Christian Dorsey is a passionate, compelling candidate but has the support of Peter Rousselot (publicly) and Libby Garvey (privately), which is troubling for many given not just their opposition to the streetcar but also the destructive and negative way in which that opposition was presented. Bruce Wiljanen hasn't devoted enough time and effort to his campaign to have a chance at winning.

Steven Yates adds,
I actually know Katie Cristol. I was the stage manager for a production of Clybourne Park that she was in (which was a Greater Greater Washington event, in case any of you went). I can tell you she was a pleasure to work with.

She's a newcomer, so she doesn't have an extensive record on issues to point to, but she is at least saying the right things. On housing she's proposing modest increases in density through things like microunits and allowing renovations to convert single into multi-family housing.

She also supports transit-oriented development and wants to accelerate the TSM 2 alternative on Columbia Pike which includes off-vehicle fare collection and multi-door boarding, as well as greater frequency. She doesn't say the streetcar was a bad idea, just that it's in the "rearview mirror."


Peter Fallon (left) and Katie Cristol (right), two candidates for Arlington County Board. Images from the candidate websites.

Alexandria

William "Bill" Euille has been Alexandria's mayor for twelve years, and for the first time, faces primary competition—in fact, two competitors: councilmembers Kerry Donley and Allison Silberberg. Euille has been an alternate member of the WMATA board since 2000.

One contributor, who wasn't comfortable being named, said:

The article that accompanied the Washington Post's endorsement of Mayor Euille portrayed each candidate succinctly and brilliantly.

Allison Silberberg is a lovely person who is caring and delightful to know one on one; regrettably her votes have been anti-growth of any kind, even to the point of voting against an Alzheimer's care facility on busy Route 7 between a cemetery and a nursing home. She also has no concrete proposals on how to pay for the causes she espouses such as better schools, historic preservation, more parks and open space, etc.

Kerry Donley was mayor for a number of years, as well as being on and off the council subsequently. He is in favor of the Potomac Yard Metro and economic development projects such as the PTO and NSF, which he helped attract to Alexandria, yet he antagonizes many in the community by being dismissive of concerns.

Mayor Euille appears to strike the right balance between listening to citizen input and getting things done, and as the Post says, he was able to limit the recession's impact on the city. Many are concerned that Donley and Euille will split the pro-growth, smart growth, fiscally responsible vote and that both will lose.

Jonathan Krall takes a different view (which, perhaps, helps illustrate the potential for vote-splitting between Euille and Donley):
According to my friends in the bicycling community, they are supporting Donley, even though Euille mentions bicycling more often in the campaign. They cite his comments and votes when he served on the Transportation Commission, Euille's abandonment of the Royal Street bike boulevard project, and Silberberg's weak support on bicycling issues.
Krall wanted to emphasize that all of the views he's talking about are individual people's personal opinions and not the position of any cycling advocacy group.


Bill Euille (left) and Kerry Donley (right), two candidates for Alexandria Mayor. Images from the candidate websites.

Fairfax

The Mason district covers the part of Fairfax County which borders Arlington and the west side of Alexandria. It includes Fairfax's portion of Columbia Pike and the south side of Seven Corners.

That last spot has been a source of major controversy, where a county plan would transform Seven Corners' big-box stores and giant parking lots into mixed-use, walkable (though perhaps only marginally transit-oriented) urban villages.

As the Washington Post's Antonio Olivio reports, current Supervisor Penelope "Penny" Gross supports the transformation, but some neighbors do not, warning it could turn Seven Corners into San Francisco or downtown Washington. That has drawn her two opponents, Jessica Swanson in the Democratic primary and Mollie Loeffler in the November general.

Both say they oppose greater density in the Seven Corners area. The Washington Post endorsed Gross for reelection.

In the Mount Vernon District along the Potomac, four candidates want to succeed retiring delegate Gerald Hyland. This district includes one side of much of Route 1, where Hyland and Lee District supervisor Jeff McKay have taken different positions on the corridor's future. Will Route 1/Richmond Highway remain a traffic sewer flanked with strip malls that divides communities? Can it be a chain of real places with real transit?

The next supervisor could have a significant impact, but our contributors did not have input on this race. If you do, please post it in the comments.

District 45

Delegate Rob Krupicka is retiring, and five candidates are vying to represent the district which includes Alexandria, some of Arlington, and a bit of Fairfax. As Patricia Sullivan explained in the Washington Post, there aren't a lot of clear policy differences between the candidates.

Our contributors felt similarly. One said, "All five candidates are good people, and it's hard to differentiate them on issues. All have built their campaigns primarily on education and women's issues; none have particularly addressed smart growth, planning, or transportation." Jonathan Krall added,

I attended two 45th district debates and took notes on the number of times various candidates mentioned biking, walking, transit, smart growth, etc. In fact, these issues were not discussed a great deal. Transit was only discussed by Craig Fifer, Julie Jakopic and Clarence Tong, who each mentioned it twice.

Tong was the only candidate that mentioned biking, noting that he hears from friends that the National Park Service should plow snow from the Mt Vernon Trail in the winter. Larry Altenburg, Mark Levine, and Tong lost points with me by suggesting that traffic congestion should be addressed rather than made irrelevant by adding transit.

What do you think?

If you have followed any of these races and identified actions or statements from the candidates that relate to urbanist issues, share them with our Virginia readers in the comments. And if you live in Virginia, please vote Tuesday! (Especially if you are a Democrat, because the competitive races are only in the Democratic primary.)

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Bicycling


To create safer bike routes, Alexandria can learn from other cities

Bike boulevards are an excellent way to keep roads safe for everyone. It's possible they'll come to Alexandria, but before that happens, planners should take note of what's worked and what hasn't elsewhere.


Photo by Payton Chung on Flickr.

A bike boulevard by any other name

Bike boulevards are streets that keep car volumes and speeds low, giving priority to people on bikes. They're sometimes known by other names: Portland, Oregon calls them "neighborhood greenways," and in Alexandria, planners call them "neighborhood bikeways." Alexandria Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee (BPAC) Chair Jim Durham prefers the term "neighborhood greenway" because he says a greenway is safer for all people, not just those on bicycles.

While terminology can vary, the basic design elements stay the same. On a bike boulevard, cars are slowed by way of speed bumps, narrowed streets with big curb extensions, and by breaking up long straightaways, where drivers tend to speed. Sometimes bike boulevards block cars from using parts of the road, allowing only bicycles and pedestrians to pass through.

Bike boulevards are an example of a modern approach to street planning, where cutting down on speeds and conflicts is the job of design elements rather than law enforcement. A well-designed bike boulevard has fewer stop signs to avoid slowing down bicycles, instead using roundabouts that make people slow down but don't force them to stop. The result is that everyone on the road can expect to move at a reasonable 15 mph.

Because modifications are limited to the roadway and the intersections, bike boulevards don't mean less parking space. "It really is a win for everybody," says Durham.

Can Alexandria's Royal Street neighborhood bikeway be revived?

Alexandria's Royal Street is an ideal candidate for a bike boulevard treatment. It is a popular bicycling route with low traffic volumes and parallel streets for drivers who prefer to avoid people on bicycles, and it connects to the popular Mount Vernon Trail at the both ends of the street.

Also, a bikeway on Royal Street would mean fewer bicycles on parallel streets, meaning fewer bike-car conflicts overall.

In January 2014, as the King Street Bike Lane public process was nearing a conclusion, city staff told cyclists that Royal Street was the next big project. But that June, citing local opposition, Alexandria city staff shelved the idea.

Both my sources and comments from City Council meetings indicate that residents of Old Town opposed the project on the basis of safety concerns and expected loss of parking places. I personally assumed that these issues would be discussed as soon as the public process got underway.

Instead, city staff tabled the project without input from BPAC. They informed both City Council and the public of their decision at a City Council meeting in June 2104.

There's hope, though: earlier this month, when I shared a draft of this article with colleagues, an Alexandria bicycle and pedestrian planner let me know that city staff prefer the term "neighborhood bikeway." That Alexandria planners have any preference at all suggests that neighborhood bikeways have not been entirely abandoned.

How do Arlington's bike boulevards stack up against the nation's best?

Last year, I had the pleasure of riding bike boulevards in Portland. This month, I took a spin on Arlington's 9th and 12th Street bikeways. As much as I appreciate the progress embodied in the new, local bicycle routes, Portand currently has Arlington outclassed.

Right now, Arlington's bikeways don't connect to major destinations. On the east end, 9th Street stops at Wayne and 12th stops at Cleveland, both well-short of either the Pentagon or Pentagon City. In the west, they stop short of either the W&OD Trail or Bailey's Crossroads. The 9th Street route ends at Quincy Street, in a residential area, and the 12th Street bikeway ends at George Mason Drive, which isn't ideal for new cyclists.

Because neither 9th nor 12th Streets extend to reach major destinations, a realistic plan would be to connect these to other bike routes, creating a much-needed east-west route between the Pentagon area and Bailey's Crossroads.

Another thing Portland's bikeways do well is guide users through turns with signs and on-street markings. In Arlington, it's only signs, and at one point on 9th Street, I was worried I had lost the route.

Traffic diverters on Portland's bikeways designate separate space for bikes and pedestrians while stopping cars. Arlington's 12th Street, on the other hand, routes the bikeway and the sidewalk onto a multi-user path. People walking do not want to share a trail with people on bicycles, and for good reasons. Slightly wider trails with separate lanes for walking and biking would go a long way in Arlington.

Finally, Arlington's bikeways need safer crossings at major streets. At Walter Reed (both 9th and 12th Streets) and Glebe (9th Street only), I was left facing busy traffic with only a crosswalk to encourage me forward. Admittedly, I found myself in a similar pickle on Portland's Going Street bikeway, but in Portland I learned that drivers halt at the slightest sign that a pedestrian wishes to cross. No such luck in Arlington.

Moving forward

In recent years Alexandria has created numerous "shared streets" by adding sharrow markings and traffic calming to selected roadways like Mount Vernon and Commonwealth Avenues. But it has yet to build a bike boulevard.

"Sharing" a street is difficult because drivers can easily accelerate past bicycles. Some drivers get impatient behind bicycles and pass aggressively, even when it isn't safe to do so. Personally, I felt safer on Arlington's low-volume bikeways than on Alexandria's shared streets.

The practical reality is that sharrows and traffic calming cannot tame an arterial street. Shared streets need to be low-traffic, neighborhood streets.

It is not difficult to imagine a Royal Street bike boulevard in Alexandria. The collective use of sharrows, speed bumps, and traffic diverters in Portland's tried and true designs don't remove parking, and they improve pedestrian safety.

Safer streets are not exotic and not expensive, but we won't get them unless we ask for them.

A version of this post ran at Alexandria News.

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