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Arlington has a great new park, and it was easy to build

What if you turned parking space in your neighborhood into the area's newest park? Staff members from a handful of Arlington County agencies recently did just that, creating a new "pop-up plaza" near Courthouse Plaza. It only took paint, plantings, outdoor furniture, and two days of work.

Though the County may have borrowed this idea from New York City, it has recently shown an ability to get innovative in transforming public spaces using inexpensive materials: in May, tape, paper, and potted plants were all it took to build a temporary bikeway.

The pop-up plaza calls to mind the temporary "parklets" that pop up on Park(ing) Day each September, but it's great to see these innovative spaces being created at other times of year.

Hopefully this plaza will remain a permanent fixture of the Courth House neighborhood (at least until the entire parking lot is reclaimed and transformed into a park).

Where do you think Arlington's next pop-up plaza should go?

Bicycling


What do you think of these bike plans for Columbia Pike?

Columbia Pike is one of Arlington's least bike-friendly corridors—there aren't any bike lanes, traffic is heavy, and the bike boulevards on parallel streets are disjointed and disconnected. The good news it that there's a plan to make the Pike a better place to bike. The bad? It isn't exactly going to win any awards.


Riding a bike down Columbia Pike? Harrowing. Photo by Cliff on Flickr.

The transportation planning for Columbia Pike largely grew out of 2004's Columbia Pike Streetscape Task Force Report. This report set the ultimate vision for what each block of the Pike will look like in the future, once the corridor redevelops.

With that ultimate vision expected to take 30 years or more, Arlington is undertaking a short-term solution, the Columbia Pike Multimodal Project. This project includes plans to create a way to bike down Columbia Pike, or on 9th Street or 12th Street, which parallel the Pike.


The bike-related infrastructure that's planned for Columba Pike. Map by the author, base map from Google Maps.

Below are the details of the project's plans for bike infrastructure, from the western end of Columbia Pike to the east:

The west end sidepath

Starting in the west, at the Fairfax County line, Columbia Pike will get a 10-foot wide shared-use path on the north side. The path will stretch from the county line to the bridge over Four Mile Run just east of Arlington Mill Community Center.

This portion of the Pike Multimodal project is slated to being begin construction fairly soon. Fans of such a facility would likely describe it as a "trail," detractors would probably say it's "just a wide sidewalk." Having a curb to protect you from traffic is certainly a plus, but mixing with pedestrians is a negative, and having a bike route that runs in two directions cross driveways and side streets is certainly a safety concern.


The narrow sidewalk that currently runs across Four Mile Run Bridge. Photo by the author.

The Four Mile Run bridge is one of the gaps in planning for biking Columbia Pike. The 10-foot sidepath suddenly becomes a narrow and busy sidewalk that sits immediately adjacent to traffic. Right now, the only alternatives to biking in traffic over the bridge are sharing that sidewalk with pedestrians and other cyclists or detouring north past the community center, down into the stream valley via a number of switchbacks, across a fair weather ford over Four Mile Run, and then back up a steep hill to 9th Street.

Ideally, the county would either renovate the bridge to widen the sidewalk to 10 feet to match the sidepath to the west, or add a dedicated bicycle and pedestrian bridge either immediately to the north of the bridge, or further upstream to connect to 9th Street.


Fair weather crossing alternative to Four Mile Run Bridge. Photo by the author.

A bike boulevard for the central core

Moving east across the stream, the county's planned bike infrastructure transitions to a bike boulevard along 9th Street, which runs parallel to Columbia Pike. Bike boulevards are easy to bike on because while they're open to cars, they keep speeds and volumes low.

This quiet neighborhood street will get you approximately two blocks before arriving at the second potential gap in the planned bike network along Columbia Pike: crossing George Mason Drive. Most cyclists right now head another block to the north where they can safely cross George Mason Drive with a light at 8th Street.


The proposed 9th Street bike boulevard ends before George Mason Drive. Photo by the author.

While the additional two block detour is relatively negligible for someone on a long-distance ride, it could potentially double the length of a trip for anyone trying to go just a couple blocks. A better long-term solution would be a bridge across George Mason, from where it dead ends at Taylor Street to where it picks back up at Quincy Street.


9th Street before and after it reaches George Mason Drive. Image from Google Maps.

From Quincy, the 9th Street bike boulevard continues, to Glebe Road, where engineers evaluated the intersection for a HAWK signal to make crossing there easier and safer. Unfortunately, because the traffic control manual that Virginia's engineers defer to says a signal there isn't "warranted" because not enough people use the route, there won't be one.


View as a cyclist on 9th St Bike Blvd approaching Glebe. Photo by the author.

This is a common chicken-and-egg problem for bike and pedestrian crossings: Nobody crosses there because it's difficult and feels unsafe, and it's remaining difficult and unsafe because nobody crosses there. Common sense says that many cyclists and pedestrians are likely going out of there way to cross at Columbia Pike or at 8th 7th Street so that they can do so at a light, but would prefer to cross at 9th if a signal were there.


9th Street at Glebe (Route 120), and the detour at Ivy Street. Image from Google Maps.

East of Glebe, cyclists are directed to detour up to 7th Street for one block at Ivy Street because of a one block stretch of one-way street between Ivy and Irving Street. The county proposed making this stretch of road two-way as part of the initial bike boulevard roll-out, but ran into fierce neighborhood opposition.

Nearby residents were very concerned about opening the street up to two-way traffic around a narrow curve with bad sight-lines and contended that while the curb-to-curb width may appear to be wide enough, the mature oak trees that line the street mean that nobody is actually able to park adjacent to the curb which leaves less room for driving than you might think at first glance.

The 9th Street bike boulevard continues east to the intersection with Walter Reed Drive. Here, Arlington engineers decided the intersection needs a full traffic signal. It will be installed as part of the long-delayed Walter Reed Drive Complete Streets Project sometime in the next few years. That project will also rebuild the intersection into a more traditional and understandable layout.

A sidepath for the east end

At Wayne Street, the 9th Street Bike Boulevard ends and the planned bike facility transitions back to a 10-foot shared use path on Columba Pike. That path is planned to stretch all the way from Wayne Street, down the hill, underneath the Washington Boulevard bridge, back up the hill past the Sheraton and all the way down past the Air Force Memorial to at least Joyce Street and potentially all the way to the Pentagon.

A stretch of the 10-foot path already runs under the new Washington Boulevard bridge. The remainder of the sidepath will be built as part of future phases of the Columbia Pike Multimodal Project, but probably not until 2018 or 2019.


New 10' sidepath beneath Washington Blvd bridge. Photo from Google Streetview

Again, the choice of a sidepath here is less than ideal. The sidepath would cross a number of side streets and driveways, not to mention the off-ramps from the Washington Boulevard bridge. Cyclists going downhill will pick up a fair amount of speed, and drivers rarely expect high-speed cyclists on what looks like a sidewalk, especially when they are coming from the "wrong direction" (because the sidepath is on the north side of Columbia Pike, cyclists headed east would be on the left side of the street).

From the east end of Columbia Pike, cyclists could continue along to the Route 27 trail past the Pentagon Memorial, or head along the Joyce Street sidepath to the future protected bike lane on Army Navy Drive into Pentagon City. Plans for this end of Columba Pike are somewhat in flux because of the land swap that is still being negotiated between Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington County and VDOT.

The land swap would potentially re-align Columbia Pike and reconfigure the Columbia Pike / Route 27 interchange near the Pentagon, changing it from its current cloverleaf configuration into a more compact signalized setup.

What about 12th Street?

There is also a bicycle boulevard on 12th Street, but given that it's on the opposite side of Columbia Pike from the sidepaths, I've focused on 9th Street in the context of a cyclist trying to travel the full length of Columbia Pike. People are unlikely to want to cross Columbia Pike multiple times just to continue on their way.

Why bike boulevards and sidepaths? Why not bike lanes or protected bike lanes?

If this plans seems a bit old-fashioned, building parallel boulevards and sidepaths instead of protected bike lanes, remember that they all grew out of that 2004 Streetscape Task Force Report. The biggest driver however, is space: there isn't that much of it, and there are a lot of competing demands for it.

In many places, the space available across Columbia Pike from building to building is less than 80 feet. In some places, the land the county currently owns is as narrow as 60 feet.
In that space, the county has been trying to accommodate wide sidewalks with street trees for a pleasant pedestrian experience, 24,000 vehicles a day with heavy transit traffic, and safe accommodation for cyclists. They don't all fit, and what has been compromised the most is the bicycle facilities.


In this cross section of Columbia Pike, there are 56 feet just for cars. The remaining space has to juggle bike lanes, pedestrian space, and trees. Image from Arlington County.

Converting some or all of the bike facilities on Columbia Pike to bike lanes or protected bike lanes would require identifying significant width to be taken away from some other use on the Pike. Turning a standard five-foot sidewalk into a ten-foot shared use path requires five feet of space beyond a typical Arlington Cross-section. Standard bike lanes would require an additional five feet, buffered or protected bike lanes additional width equal to the width of the buffer or the protection.

Does that space come out of the sidewalk? The street trees? The left turn lanes? The travel lanes?

Arlington County is set to spend over $100 million rebuilding Columbia Pike, and yet the "Complete Streets" project will not result in a bike facility that runs the entire length of the corridor. Is that really a complete street? Columbia Pike is the most affordable area of Arlington, and would be the ideal place to have top-notch facilities for one of the most affordable means of transportation: the bicycle.

Right now that isn't going to happen. Should it?

Bicycling


Arlington's Fort Myer will soon be much more bike and pedestrian friendly

On August 1st, a long-closed gate at an Arlington military base will re-open for pedestrians and cyclists. The change will make it so you no longer have to take a huge detour to leave that part of the base, meaning travel by walking or riding a bike will be much more appealing.


The Henry Gate pedestrian entrance, pictured in 2012. Image from Mobility Lab/Google Maps.

Located at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall (JBMHH) and known as Henry Gate because the road it sits on becomes Henry Place once it enters the base, the gate is where Arlington Boulevard (US-50) meets North Pershing Drive. The change comes as a result of recommendations from a study by Mobility Lab and Arlington Transit Transportation Partners.

Pershing is popular amongst both drivers and cyclists, running east-west through the quiet neighborhoods of Lyon Park, Ashton Heights, and Buckingham. Pershing is scheduled to receive bike improvements in the near future, and the stretch near the intersection with Arlington Boulevard already features bike lanes and a recently-completed mixed-use development called The Shops at Pershing.

On the other side of the fence, the barracks located just behind Henry Gate house hundreds of young soldiers, many of whom do not have easy access to cars and could really put transit, bike, and pedestrian networks to use. Nearby, there's a CaBi station, a Metrobus stop, Zipcars, and the Arlington Boulevard Trail.

However, because Henry Gate has been closed since 9/11 as part of a wave of increased security, the soldiers in these barracks have to live within yards of these amenities without being able to easily reach by any way other than driving. A base resident would have to walk 33 minutes and 1.6 miles out of their way to reach them without a car, utilizing the main gate at 2nd Street South.


Detour that pedestrians and cyclists would have to take to reach The Shops at Pershing due to Henry Gate's closure. Image from Google Maps.

However, that's all about to change thanks to Mobility Lab and Arlington Transit Transportation. After surveying 467 residents and people who work at JBMHH, ATP found that 88 percent of the commuting population drives to work alone. Once the surveyors solicited ideas from participants on how to combat this issue, the idea to reopen Henry Gate to pedestrians and cyclists caught on with base officials.

After numerous meetings between Mobility Lab/ATP and JBMHH staff, Henry Gate is finally scheduled to reopen on August 1st. The new access point will only be open to pedestrians and cyclists, giving them a convenient way to access the amenities located directly outside the gate and connecting them to the wider transit network via the Metrobus stop and bike trail.

Additionally, keeping the gate closed to cars will ensure that there won't be any new congestion along Arlington Boulevard or Pershing as a result of this decision. It's an incredibly welcome improvement for bike and pedestrian access to one of the county's most expansive military installations.


The Henry Gate pedestrian entrance, the adjacent Metrobus stop, and newly-improved Arlington Boulevard Trail. Image from Google Maps.

A few other recommendations for improving access to Fort Myer for people who don't drive came of Mobility Lab and ATP's survey. For instance, because the vast majority of work trips to JBMHH are made at the same time, the study recommended making employees more aware of carpooling and vanpooling through a service like Commuter Connections.

Also, in conjunction with the reopening of Henry Gate, the base hopes to create a "geofence"—a set pickup location across the street from the gate—where taxi, Uber, and Lyft drivers can pick up and drop off passengers without having to physically drive onto the base, which is currently seen as an inconvenient option due to heightened security measures.

Improving pedestrian and bike access for the soldiers that live at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall is certainly a noble goal. But reducing single-occupancy vehicle trips to JBMHH (and thereby reducing congestion) will not only benefit the base's residents and workers, but also Arlington County as a whole. See Mobility Lab and ATP's full presentation on their JBMHH Transportation Survey here.

Transit


SafeTrack returns to Ballston this week, and some work from last time still isn't finished

Between July 20th and 31st, Orange and Silver Line trains will share a single track between Ballston and East Falls Church and run less frequently. SafeTrack's first work surge was in the same place, and there are still a few loose ends to tie up.


The percent change in how many trains will run on the Silver and Orange lines during SafeTrack Surge 5. Image from WMATA.

Surge 1 work focused on the track typically used for inbound traffic (otherwise known as track "K1"). During Surge 2, Metro workers will hop over to track 2 (K2) and will do a lot of the same work. That likely means replacing rail ties, fasteners, insulators, grout pad, and power cables. In addition to this, workers will also need to finish up some deferred power maintenance that they didn't get done during Surge 1.

For all riders to the west of Ballston, this means that trains will come only every 18 minutes, 1/3 the number that typically come during a normal rush hour. They'll run more frequently east of Ballston, both because some Orange Line trains coming from New Carrollton will stop and turn around there and because the Blue Line will keep running its normal schedule from Rosslyn.

How to get around during the Surge

As with Surge 1, some westbound Orange line trains will stop at Ballston, and others will continue to Vienna. The ones that stop at Ballston will probably let people off on the regular outbound platform, turn around, reload passengers, and continue back to New Carrollton. Trains continuing to Vienna and Wiehle will enter Ballston on the "wrong" track, let people on/off there, and continue to their destination.

In other words, the shuffling that caused confused riders at Ballston's platforms will probably be back. It'll be possible for trains both heading into and away from DC to pick up and drop off passengers on either platform. So hopefully Metro again has employees in the station helping you out telling you where to pick up the train.

Metro has lots of alternative transportation info listed, including the bus shuttles around West Falls, East Falls, and Ballston, Metrobus routes with additional service, and info on traveling by bike rather than train. If you anticipate being affected by the work, check to see if there's a bus line, carpooling options, or other transport that might be a feasible alternative during the 12 days of single-tracking.

The FTA already found defects in the Surge 1 and 2 areas

The Federal Transit Administration recently released inspection data on the first two surges, showing that as of July 14th, inspectors found 109 "defects" in 27 inspections. The Surge 1 area from East Falls Church to Ballston had eight items that needed to be corrected, and there were 26 for the second SafeTrack area, near Stadium-Armory.

The term "defects" is vague, however: a defect could be anything from a burnt out lightbulb in a tunnel, to missing fasteners that could cause a derailment. The FTA defines a defect as "a documented non-conformance or deviation of WMATA's safety standards, [or] rules or procedure." So some of the issues the FTA found may be relatively small, but any noted deficiencies shows Metro still needs to work towards minding both the big and little rules when it comes to passenger and worker/employee safety.

Metro's Deputy General Manager of Operations, Andy Off, commented on the quality of the work done so far during SafeTrack, acknowledging that the agency needs to tighten up on some of the quality control being done. A new feature of SafeTrack is having quality control/assurance employees walking the tracks while work is being done, not just afterwards.

If this procedure change is more tightly integrated with the track work being done and Metro's new Chief Safety Officer continues to work on the agency's safety culture, then we should hopefully see these defect numbers diminish over the life of SafeTrack, and further on down the road.

Development


In praise of the stacked townhouse

A cross between apartments and townhouses, the "stacked townhouse" is becoming a popular house type among DC-area homebuilders and buyers. While they're great for urban neighborhoods, a quirk in zoning means they're most common in far-flung suburbs.


This townhouse in Arlington is actually two houses (note the two house numbers). All photos by the author unless noted.

Also called a two-over-two or maisonette, the stacked townhouse is basically a rowhouse divided into two two-story units, one over the other. Both units have doors on the street, usually in a little alcove, making it look like it's one big house. The garages are tucked in back, on an alley.

This house type is what some architects call the "missing middle," not quite a house, not quite an apartment, but a good alternative housing choice in places where the only options are a detached house or a high-rise.

Historically, lots of cities have rowhouses divided into multiple apartments: Boston's triple-deckers, Chicago's two- and three-flats, Montreal's plexes. In those cases, each building generally has a single owner who rents out the other unit. They don't seem to have been common in DC.


Two-flats in Chicago. Photo by Samuel A. Love on Flickr.

Today's stacked townhouses are either sold individually as condos, or rented out as apartments in a larger complex. They've become popular in the DC area within the past 20 years for a couple of reasons.

Builders like stacked townhouses because they take up the same amount of space as one townhouse, which saves on land and infrastructure costs. Unlike traditional apartment or condo buildings, these homes don't have lots of common hallways and lobbies that can be expensive to build and maintain.

Stacked townhouses are also great because they provide the same amount of space and privacy as a townhouse at a lower price, which might enable buyers to live closer in than they could otherwise afford. For instance, a stacked townhouse at Greenbelt Station in Prince George's County is currently selling for about $330,000, while a similarly-sized townhouse in the same development is selling for $70,000 more.

Neighbors might like this house type because they look like big houses, allowing them to blend in with other residential buildings, including apartments, conventional townhomes, or even single-family homes.


"Stacked townhouses" in Greenbelt. All photos by the author.

Well, most of the time. These stacked townhomes at Greenbelt Station in Greenbelt have plain, flat exteriors which only emphasize their size, making them look bigger than they really are. But this is an aesthetic choice, and can be avoided.


Stacked townhouses at Downtown Crown in Gaithersburg. Photo by the author.

These stacked townhouses at Downtown Crown in Gaithersburg use different materials, colors, and bumpouts to break up what would otherwise be a big, four-story wall. It helps make the building feel smaller than it really is, while the individual doors for each unit add a bit of human scale.

You'll find that stacked townhouses are pretty common in further-out suburban communities, from Frederick or Chantilly or Loudoun or Prince William counties. Whatever benefits stacked townhouses provide go away when they're in a car-bound place where residents have to drive everywhere.

This happens because zoning in most communities outside the District (even close-in ones like Arlington) considers them apartments, meaning they can only get built in areas zoned for apartments. Where land values are really high, developers are more likely to just build a high-rise apartment building instead.


Arlington Square, an apartment complex in Arlington with stacked townhomes.

New townhouses in closer-in, transit-accessible places like Arlington or Silver Spring can easily cost over $800,000. If stacked townhouses were allowed in townhouse zones, builders would be able to provide a more affordable alternative that still blends in with existing neighborhoods.


Stacked townhouses at Jackson Place in Brookland. Photo by Jonathan Neeley.

That's basically how zoning works in the District. Areas zoned for rowhouses usually allow apartments too (with some exceptions). As a result, you can find stacked townhouses at Jackson Place, a new development in Brookland, and at another project under construction on Georgia Avenue in Takoma. Both locations are zoned for rowhouses.

We need big apartment buildings, and we need single-family houses. But we also need meaningful alternative for any household that doesn't want an apartment or a detached house, especially in inside-the-Beltway, transit-accessible neighborhoods. Stacked townhouses could be one of them, if they were simply easier to build.

Transit


Metro's next big shutdown starts Tuesday night

Starting Tuesday, Metro will shut down the rails between its National Airport and Braddock Road stations for seven days. Around 50,000 riders will feel the impact, and the move may provide the first big test for Crystal City's still-new dedicated bus transitway.


Decreases in Metrorail service during Surge 3. All images from WMATA.

This is the third "surge" in Metro's SafeTrack plan, and it will start at 8 pm tonight and last through the end of July 11th. It's the second time Metro has closed an entire segment during SafeTrack—a big Orange, Silver, and Blue Line closure just wrapped up, but the first surge was only single-tracking in Arlington.

South of the closure, Blue Line trains will operate every 15 minutes between Franconia and Braddock Road, and Yellow trains will run every 12 minutes between Huntington and Braddock Road. North of the closure, both Blue and Yellow Line trains will run every 12 minutes. Yellow Line trains will continue all the way north to Greenbelt.

To help shuttle people, Crystal City's Transitway will run for free, and every six minutes during peak periods, between Pentagon City, Crystal City, and Braddock Road. There will also be an "express" shuttle from Braddock Road directly to Pentagon City, running every five minutes.

Some additional shuttles will run directly between the Franconia and Pentagon stations via I-395, and local jurisdictions have made other bus schedule changes as noted on the Metrorail advisory page.


Free shuttles available between Pentagon City, Crystal City, and Braddock Road.

Can the new BRT system ease coming headaches?

The Metroway only opened back in April, and this Metro surge could be a way for the bus system to demonstrate what it's capable of. With Metroway buses running every 6 minutes during rush and possibly even more frequently like during the Orange/Silver/Blue shutdown, we should be able to see what kind of capacity the dedicated lanes can handle.

Metroway's ability to stand in for Metro during SafeTrack will stay relevant during the next surge, which will close tracks between Pentagon City and National Airport.

Metro estimates 50,000 weekday trips are made through the section being shut down, which is still significantly more per hour than the buses could handle. During the second surge with buses coming on average every two minutes, around 1,800 passengers per hour were able to be transported between either Minnesota Avenue or Benning Road through to Eastern Market. There very likely still will not be enough bus capacity for everybody needing to get north of Braddock Road station, so Metro and jurisdictions hope that those who can take alternate transportation or telework do so.

The tracks between Braddock Road and National Airport are mostly aerial, which means there's less total space for crews to work in. Metro's decision fully shut service down was likely for at least two reasons: First, it's safer for the workers, as they don't have to be watching out for trains in the opposite direction every few minutes; Second, shutting down both tracks should let them get the work done quicker. At the least, since there are no wooden rail ties to replace on the raised aerial structures, there's one less type of work to focus on.

For those wanting to get a little exercise in, there are also several Capital Bikeshare stations near the affected stations, and biking in the area recently got a bit easier thanks to the completion of several changes on the Mount Vernon Trail near National Airport.

Bicycling


Near National airport, the Mount Vernon Trail is new again

A number of changes to the Mount Vernon Trail near Reagan National airport just wrapped up. The National Park Service installed a new railing where the trail comes close to the parkway as well as a much-needed water fountain, and removed a sharp turn from the trail.


The new water fountain on the Mount Vernon Trail. All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

The water fountain, which is already working, is the only water stop on the trail itself in the eight mile stretch between Jones Point Park in Alexandria and the trail head in Rosslyn.


Running water from the Mount Vernon Trail's new water fountain.

The park service installed a new railing between the trail and the adjacent George Washington Memorial parkway where the two are just feet apart under a bridge at the southern end of National airport.


The new railing between the trail and parkway.


The new railing is located under a bridge that carries cars from National airport to the parkway.

The park service also shifted the trail away from the parkway under the bridge that connects Crystal City and National airport.


The trail under the Crystal City-National airport bridge today (left) and at the beginning of work in October (right).

Finally, the sharp turn in the trail around a tree south of both bridges is now gone.


The newly realigned trail is on the left and the old route around the tree on the right.

Weather postponed the completion of the improvements to the Mount Vernon Trail to June from the spring, says Aaron LaRocca, chief of staff of the park service's division responsible for the parkway and trail.

The trail work has been a long time in coming. The number of users continues to increase, especially since the beginning of the SafeTrack work on the Metrorail system. The Yellow and Blue lines are scheduled for a full closure between Braddock Road and Pentagon City - the section of track that parallels this part of the trail - for much of July.

Many users continue to seek more improvements to the Mount Vernon Trail. Among the various ideas are a bike bypass at Gravelly Point and snow removal in the winter.

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