Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Arlington


Suburban North Arlington is going to develop. Let's make sure it works.

Lee Highway is the main street through north Arlington. While other Arlington streets like Wilson Boulevard and Columbia Pike have grown more urban, Lee Highway has remained car-oriented. But the landscape is starting to change, and there's a big effort underway to ensure residents play a role in shaping the details.

Lee Highway and Spout Run Parkway. Photo from Arlington County.

Arlington is famous in smart growth circles for its walkable Metro station neighborhoods, and the sleek urban development there. But there's more to Arlington than Ballston and Crystal City.

North of I-66, where Metrorail has never reached, Lee Highway is Arlington's main road. It runs through leafy suburban neighborhoods filled with single family homes and low-rise garden apartment buildings. Its abundant surface parking lots, clutter of roadside signs, narrow sidewalks, and speeding traffic combine to make Lee Highway a fairly typical car-oriented suburban road.

Lee Highway is changing. The community is shaping how.

It's been that way for over 50 years, but as urban growth demand has skyrocketed, land values have shot up, and as land has become more limited in the nearby Rosslyn-Ballston corridor over the past ten, a few redevelopment projects have started to pop up along Lee Highway in areas that haven't yet been planned. Rosslyn, Courthouse, Columbia Pike, Clarendon all have adopted plans guiding growth and change within their boundaries.

Recent new development along Lee Highway. Photo by Google.

The community steps up

In response to that changing reality, north Arlington's civic associations and community groups formed the Lee Highway Alliance (LHA) in 2012, as a grassroots coalition to plan for the future.

Between 2012 and 2014, the LHA connected with hundreds of residents, businesses, and property owners in the Lee Highway community through a listserv. LHA organized walking tours and monthly forums on issues ranging from affordable housing to streetscape improvements to retail, and even conducted a targeted survey for Lee Highway businesses and property owners.

In the fall of 2014, they hosted a series of five community meetings spread along the corridor, to raise even broader awareness about Lee Highway and hear the local perspective on Lee Highway's strengths and weaknesses. The rooms were always full. Both LHA and Arlington County host webpages that document these forums and the community meetings that followed.

One of the key results of all these early efforts are guiding principles that set the stage for the community visioning effort soon to unfold.

In a time and place where citizen input is essential to get buy-in, LHA has become a model for planning from the ground up.

It's time to create the vision

After three years of grassroots background work, it's now time to start figuring out what the community's vision for Lee Highway will actually look like.

This weekend, November 6-9, a community design workshop, or charrette, will take place to develop a community-based vision for the future of the corridor.

Anyone who's interested in Lee Highway can attend the charette, where an army of planners will sit down with small groups of residents to hear ideas, put pens to paper, and mark-up maps.

By the end of the weekend, hopefully, the community will have hashed out the beginnings of a grassroots plan. Not imposed from officials, but built from the ground-up by the people who will live with it.

From there, the Lee Highway Alliance will deliver its vision to the Arlington County Board. The county will then consider how it can help the community realize their vision through formal planning efforts.

Plenty of challenges, but strong opportunities

Inevitably, Lee Highway won't end up looking the same as Ballston, Columbia Pike, or Crystal City. It's built to be a different type of place.

There's no Metro line on Lee Highway, and along most of the corridor the commercial buildings are only a single block deep, with neighborhoods of single-family detached houses immediately behind.

But people want to be on Lee Highway. Shopping centers are overflowing, and demand for new housing keeps rising. And though there's not as much land as on other streets, there are plenty of large properties that could become civic amenities.

The opportunities are there, and the charrette will begin to chart that new path. Attend it, and help create the vision.

The charrette will run from November 6-9, at the Langston-Brown Community Center, 2121 N Culpeper Street, in Arlington. You can attend for all or part.

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For Alexandria and Arlington elections: Bill Euille, Katie Cristol, Christian Dorsey

Many residents of Arlington and Alexandria watched Wednesday night's GOP presidential debate, but there's an election coming up much sooner which will have a major impact on life in those Northern Virginia localities.

Virginia voters go to the polls Tuesday to elect representatives in local county or city offices and state legislature. In the local races in Arlington and Alexandria, Greater Greater Washington endorses Katie Cristol and Christian Dorsey for Arlington County Board and recommends writing in Bill Euille for mayor of Alexandria.

Left to right: Bill Euille, Katie Cristol, Christian Dorsey. Images from the candidate websites.

Arlington County Board

In Arlington, incumbents Mary Hynes and Walter Tejada both decided not to run for their seats on the five-member board this year, shortly after the other three members voted to cancel the Columbia Pike streetcar.

Democratic nominee Katie Cristol stands out as the strongest on urbanism. In Friday's debate, she expressed strong support for a better transit network, protected bikeways, and allowing the county to grow.

Christian Dorsey, the other Democratic nominee, is clearly a step behind Cristol on transportation and growth but far ahead of the other two. (Voters will vote for two candidates for two seats.) He supports better transit, but is nervous about transit-oriented development without high parking requirements and doesn't yet understand the need for protected bicycle infrastructure.

Dorsey also has support from Libby Garvey and John Vihstadt, two members of the county board who won office largely by telling voters in the most affluent parts of the county that they shouldn't have to pay to build transportation and recreation infrastructure for anyone else. However, this doesn't mean he will take a similar approach, and he seems open to learning from his colleagues on the board and people in Arlington. He's also clearly superior to the other two options, Audrey Clement and Mike McMenamin.

Clement thinks Arlington has grown too much and doesn't want to build more bike trails. McMenamin doesn't want more density either because it could add to traffic (not realizing that Arlington has grown without making traffic worse), thinks adding more parking is more important than better transit, and would only consider bike infrastructure in the context of how it would affect drivers.

To make an endorsement, Greater Greater Washington polls our regular contributors and makes an endorsement when there is a clear consensus. Here's what some of our contributors had to say:

  • Cristol is great on transit—understanding the need for supporting non-work trips to really enable car-free and car-lite living. She has actual concrete suggestions on improving Columbia Pike bus service. She understands and talks about the economic benefits of cycling infrastructure and supports the expansion of protected bike lanes. She's the best candidate in the bunch.
  • [Cristol and Dorsey] have a firm commitment to affordable housing, without Audrey Clement's anti-intensification NIMBYism.
  • Clement just doesn't know how cities work and many of her proposed policies are way too proscriptive and busy-bodyish. McNemamin is one of those who sees everything as waste but wants to widen 66 and make parking easier.
  • I know Katie Cristol and she is a pleasure to work with. She seems to be the most in line with smart growth ideals than any of the candidates. Dorsey seems OK and better on the issues than the two other candidates, though his positions seem a bit more qualified.
Alexandria mayor

In Alexandria, there is only one candidate for mayor on the ballot, but there's a hotly contested race nonetheless that will determine the city's path for years to come. Alison Silberberg narrowly won the Democratic primary by 321 votes over incumbent mayor Bill Euille, but only because Kerry Donley played the role of spoiler, competing for the same base of voters as Euille.

Now, Euille is running as a write-in candidate, hoping the large majority of Alexandrians who supported him or Donley (who has endorsed his write-in candidacy) will help him defeat Silberberg.

As mayor, Euille has generally supported a vision of a growing, active, urban Alexandria which welcomes people getting around on foot or by bicycle. Silberberg, meanwhile, is running hard as the anti-change candidate who will stop Alexandria's growth and design the city entirely around the automobile.

Here are our contributors:

  • Bill Euille supports the development that Alexandria needs both in Old Town and at Potomac Yard. Silberberg represents a contingent who act as if Alexandria is "full" and unable to grow.
  • Alexandria's forward progress on cycling and the Potomac Yard Metro station have both come during Euille's tenure.
  • Euille understands how municipal budgets work. He is a big supporter of economic development and smart growth. He is leading the way for a Potomac Yard infill metro station, and has supported transit corridors and improved bicycle and pedestrian ways.
  • Silberberg basically doesn't understand that you can't lower taxes and vote "no" on growth while still providing needed infrastructure, supporting the schools, helping the elderly, funding affordable housing, and preserving every brick more than 50 years old.
This election matters a lot for the future of Alexandria. If you live there, we hope you will write in Bill Euille.

Alexandria council

There are six at-large councilmembers besides the mayor. Incumbents John Chapman, Tim Lovain, Del Pepper, Paul Smedberg, and Justin Wilson are running for re-election. There is also one open seat, the one Silberberg now holds.

The Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee sent a questionnaire to the candidates, and heard back from Chapman, Lovain, and Wilson, as well as Monique Miles and Townsend "Van" Van Fleet.

Even many of our contributors have not followed this race intensely, and so there were not enough votes to make an endorsement. However, of those who did, there was praise for the five incumbents, particularly Lovain and Wilson.

Here's what they said:

  • Chapman: Good thinker, came out with small business initiatives, supports growth around Metro.
  • Lovain: transportation expert; head of TPB next year. Supported streetcars and high capacity transit.
  • Pepper: This vote is for experience more than anything. She knows how government works, and has her ear finely tuned to citizen "wants." She can craft a compromise if needed to help a project move forward.
  • Smedberg: For good government, fiscal responsibility, economic development, and environmental stewardship.
  • Wilson: The brain of the City Council. He knows the ins and outs of every budget line item; can talk for hours on transportation, schools, budgets; has all the facts at his fingertips.
  • Lovain and Wilson are the strongest supporters of Complete Streets, transit-oriented development and Capital Bikeshare. Wilson is also quick to give realistic answers to questions raised by the public, and often gets heat for it because residents don't always like the answers. During recent "add/delete" budget sessions, Lovain has led the charge for funding Complete Streets.
  • Wood and Van Fleet are basically disgruntled about the waterfront plan and don't have anything positive to offer.
Polls will be open from 6 am to 7 pm. You can vote absentee in both Arlington and Alexandria until 5 pm Saturday, October 31, including if you will be working or commuting most of the day Tuesday.

Virginia has vote suppression laws that require voters to have a photo ID; if you don't have one, you can get a voter-only one on Election Day at the Arlington to Alexandria elections office on Election Day (or an earlier weekday).

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Arlington's upcoming County Board election is a big one. Here's the scoop on the candidates.

Elections for two seats on the Arlington County Board are on November 3rd. The results will have big implications for the county. Here's a rundown of where Arlington's candidates stand on issues related to I-66, bike safety, and transit.

Photo by Mrs. Gemstone on Flickr.

This is the first time since 1975 where two seats are open on the five-member Arlington County Board. Meet the candidates:

  • Katie Cristol, though a newcomer to the Arlington political scene, won the most votes in June's heated Democratic primary.
  • Christian Dorsey, the second Democratic nominee (he finished behind Cristol in the primary), is a long-time political activist in Arlington, though he has been less visible in recent years.
  • This is Audrey Clement's fifth attempt at securing a County Board seat, though this is her first as an Independent rather than under the Green Party label.
  • Mike McMenamin has had two failed campaigns under the Republican banner, but is hoping to follow in John Vihstadt's footsteps and launch a successful campaign as an Independent this year.
  • Of note: there are no incumbents. Mary Hynes and Walter Tejada were both up for re-election to the Arlington County Board this year, but 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 the two open seats.
Arlington's board has undergone massive turnover in the last four years. After this election, Jay Fisette will be the only active board member who was also around at the start of the 2012 session. Will this be a new board finding a new way forward? Will it search out and implement "Smart Growth 2.0," as departing chair Mary Hynes suggested? Or will it slide back toward the car-dependent policies some of its neighbors are known for?

On Friday night, all four candidates participated in a candidate forum sponsored by the Coalition for Smarter Growth, Arlingtonians for a Clean Environment, the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, and the Sierra Club's Mount Vernon Group, all organizations that can comfortably be described as pro-urbanism.

Here's what the candidates had to say:

What to do about I-66

Virginia's Department of Transportation has long wanted to widen I-66, and Arlington has a long history of fighting it. VDOT finally agreed to do a study that would not just examine widening, but also a range of ways to make traveling inside the I-66 corridor easier.

The results of that study formed the basis of the current VDOT proposal for I-66 inside the beltway: High Occupancy Toll Lanes during both peak travel periods in both directions, the toll money going toward multimodal travel solutions. Also, a a commitment to only widen if the conversion to tolls and multimodal solutions were insufficient to handle congestion on I-66.

Photo by Adam Fagen on Flickr.

Dorsey says that the current VDOT plan needs more work and that he is still waiting to see more data on what effect it will have on traffic. He also is concerned that the tolling project is just a setup for pushing through a widening of the highway.

Cristol, the other Democrat, says she still has a lot of questions about the proposal such as what multimodal solutions the tolls will fund, what impact it will have on Arlington's local streets and whether tolling the non-peak direction is truly necessary.

Clement supports focusing on better enforcement of the existing HOV rules via "high tech cameras" that can "definitively determine the number of occupants in a car" and stated that if enforcement is insufficent to improve congestion on I-66, that it should switch to HOV-3.

The other Independent, Mike McMenamin expressed support for widening I-66 and stated that Arlingtonians must face that widening is inevitable.

Build more protected bike lanes?

Protected bike lanes are the new gold standard in bicycle infrastructure, as they're the kind of thing that makes biking attractive and pleasant for everyone, not just the bold or athletic. DC has been moving forward with a network of protected lanes, and Montgomery County has put forth a bold vision for White Flint and is working on a county-wide plan.

Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

Arlington, on the other hand, has a bike plan from 2008 that still thinks sharrows are an exciting new innovation in bike infrastructure, and there's no concrete plan to update it.

Cristol supports building protected bike lanes "where possible" throughout the community but also stressed that community engagement is key to bike lanes' success.

In contrast, Dorsey admits that he has a lot to learn when it comes to bike infrastructure, and is open to what people's experiences are. He isn't fully convinced that it's necessary to protect cyclists from cars and noted that he spoke to some cyclists in DC who said they preferred riding in traffic over riding in protected bike lanes.

Clement supports more lanes, but says she's against building more trails because it would require cutting down trees.

McMenamin says he would consider protected bike lanes on a case-by-case basis and that their impact on drivers is a major concern for him.

How to expand transit

With the Columbia Pike and Crystal City Streetcars cancelled, Arlington is re-examining what the future of transit is for the County as a whole and for Crystal City and Columbia Pike specifically. Will it be Bus Rapid Transit? Personal Rapid Transit? Metrorail expansion?

At the forum, all four candidates spoke in favor of improving Arlington's transit network, though McMenamin tempered his remarks by asserting that transit is important but not enough; Arlington, he said, also needs to increase its parking supply.

Photo by Cliff on Flickr.

Both Cristol and Dorsey spoke at length about a transit network that supports car-free living by serving trips beyond the regular commute. They also spoke about the current state of Metro and how important it is to turn Metro around, while acknowledging that Arlington cannot do so alone.

Clement wants a reversible lane on Columbia Pike to speed buses in the peak direction of travel and an extension of Metrorail from the Pentagon to Skyline. Beyond that, she claims that Metro's problems are the direct result of Congress cutting the transit benefit.

Transit-oriented development and parking

Arlington has been a leader in Transit-oriented Development, concentrating growth around its Metro stations to create a series of "urban villages." The county has seen great success, growing its population and tax base without large increases in traffic congestion.

McMenamin says Arlington needs to get "smarter about smart growth" because in his mind, more cars join the road when places get denser.

Clement has issues with Arlington's development practices, but for a different reason, saying that while she likes Transit-oriented Development, Arlington has engaged in too much "densification," which has, in her estimation, increased land values and therefore housing prices.

Dorsey says that Transit-oriented Development is important, but that there are certain types of residential units that can support reduced parking requirements and others, such as large family units, cannot.

Cristol says "stopping development doesn't solve our problems," that "growth is better than stagnation," and that the key to parking reductions is to put alternative transportation options in place.

Arlington residents should be sure to cast their votes in the County board race on November 3rd. What stands out to you? Which candidates are getting your vote? What smart growth messages are getting through to candidates, and which issues do urbanists need to do a better job on?

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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".

Do you have a question? We'll pose it to the Greater Greater Washington contributors and post appropriate parts of the discussion. You can suggest questions by emailing Questions about factual topics are most likely to be chosen. Thanks!

Did you enjoy this article? Greater Greater Washington is running a reader drive to raise funds so we can keep editing and publishing great articles every day. Please help us be sustainable by making a monthly, yearly, or one-time contribution today!

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Contributions to Greater Greater Washington are not tax deductible.


Why monorail pods are not a serious solution for Columbia Pike

The designers of a monorail-like personal rapid transit (PRT) system hope to sell their technology to Arlington, to replace the cancelled Columbia Pike streetcar. It's a terrible idea.

America's most successful PRT system, in Morgantown, WV. Photo by Jen & Elwood on Flickr.

PRT tries to combine the best aspects of private automobiles and public transportation. It uses car-sized pods that each carry just a few people at a time. Passengers arrive at a station and, rather than wait for a bus or train headed their way, they hail a pod-car. The pod-car then carries them to their destination via an elevated monorail track. Theoretically the PRT pods do this without stopping at intermediate stations.

PRT advocates say it provides point-to-point transit, meaning it goes everywhere a car can go, since, theoretically, a city could build elevated lanes atop any street.

It's a compelling theory, which is why it's been kicking around the periphery of the transit planning industry since at least the early 1970s.

Unfortunately it doesn't work very well. It turns out that combining the convenience of personal cars with the efficiency of mass transit results in something that's neither convenient nor efficient.

PRT is less convenient than cars

The basic idea of PRT is to build an elevated lane for special pod-cars that can only drive on that lane. The pod-cars could run on wheels or tracks, but the key characteristic is a small vehicle on its own elevated lane.

Meanwhile, the great thing about personal automobiles is that you can drive one anywhere there's a road. PRT and transit both compromise that convenience by only offering service along routes, or PRT tracks.

In theory, PRT compensates for that inherent inconvenience by offering a dedicated elevated lane that can whiz pod-cars by faster than shared road lanes. But dedicated, elevated lanes are inherently expensive to build. Much more expensive than a normal surface street.

That means that unless we are willing to build an expensive duplicate infrastructure of new elevated lanes over every street in Arlington, by definition PRT cannot go everywhere roads can go. In turn, that means we have to prioritize the most important streets and design routes that carry people along only the most important paths.

In other words, we have to build a transit network.

And since elevated tracks are expensive, we can only build PRT on the most important, high-ridership corridors. Which brings up another problem:

It's all about transit capacity

What happens when the new pod-car lane fills up?

PRT advocates like to show pretty renderings of little pod-cars whizzing over highway traffic without a care in the world. Those pictures rely on an assumption of low ridership. If more people rode the pod-cars, there would have to be either more pod-cars (leading to pod-car traffic jams), or much bigger pod-cars (ie buses for the pod-car lane).

PRT doesn't change the basic math of congestion. One commuter takes up the same amount of physical space in a PRT pod-car as he or she would take up in a personal car, bus, or train. So by definition, PRT's capacity is lower than transit, simply because PRT uses small vehicles.

And since we can only afford to build PRT in corridors with heavy transit demand, that means PRT's low capacity is a real problem.

Theoretically PRT compensates for its low vehicle capacity in two ways, compared to buses: By running more pod-cars more often, and by giving its small vehicles their own elevated lane, which moves faster than buses on surface streets.

But on Columbia Pike buses already come extremely frequently at peak times. At that ridership level, smaller vehicles that come more often are not practical. The number of passengers on the line simply requires bigger vehicles.

Meanwhile, elevated lanes are great. But transit can have its own lane too. And transit on a dedicated elevated track will always have higher capacity than PRT.

So if Arlington is going to go to the trouble and expense of building a new elevated track atop Columbia Pike, why settle for low-capacity PRT? At that point, go ahead and make it elevated light rail. Columbia Pike is already long and straight and perfectly suited for that kind of high capacity transit in the first place.

Also, a lot of transit users on Columbia Pike are transferring to or from Metro. One Metro train unloading at the Pentagon could easily have hundreds of people waiting to board a PRT pod, which would lead to huge delays for those passengers and the system overall.

This is the inherent problem of PRT, and is why there are so few examples of it in the world: We can only afford to build elevated tracks on high-demand corridors, but on high-demand corridors, we need the capacity of transit.

We already know what the good solutions are

Of course, PRT is impractical since elevated lanes are expensive. But it's interesting to note that there is already a transit system on Columbia Pike today that does sort of accomplish the same goals as PRT: Capital Bikeshare.

Capital Bikeshare stations in the vicinity of Columbia Pike. Image from Capital Bikeshare.

Of course, Capital Bikeshare doesn't run automated pod-cars along dedicated elevated lanes. Instead, it runs manual-powered bikes along surface bike lanes. But in many ways, it's a low-tech and low-cost PRT system.

And Capital Bikeshare is great. We should have more of it. But it hasn't eliminated the need for transit on Columbia Pike.

Kudos for thinking outside the box, but let's move on

It's been nearly a year since the Arlington County Board canceled the Columbia Pike streetcar. Arlington residents are justifiably upset that there's still no solid Plan B. Given the county government's slow progress, residents deserve credit for thinking outside the box, and being open to new ideas.

Sometimes new ideas even prove worthwhile. The idea of a Georgetown gondola elicited eye-rolls at first, but people seem to be warming to it as Georgetown's unique set of issues come into focus.

Even CaBi was a bit of a risk, but the program has worked because it fills a gap in demand for transportation around town for certain types of trips. But the issues on Columbia Pike are not the same issues that PRT or CaBi can solve.

Just being an out of the box idea doesn't automatically make something smart. Often, such ideas have failed to take hold specifically because they're impractical. Moreover, proposals like this can muddle conversations that have already been plagued with confusion and misinformation that led to the demise of the streetcar program in the first place.

That's the case with PRT.

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Want a stress-free bike ride? In Arlington, there's a map for that.

Arlington has a new map for cyclists that ranks streets by "comfort level." It illustrates the places where even kids or senior citizens would feel safe biking, helping people to avoid busy or fast roads. It also gives policymakers a tool for making the county's bike network even better.

All images from BikeArlington.

A comfort map takes into consideration the volume and speed of car traffic, hills, and other issues to show the streets that are the easiest (or most comfortable) to bike on, regardless of whether or not they have bike lanes. It's an attempt to illustrate a more honest assessment of the in-person usability of the streets, for biking.

There are five possible rankings on Arlington's map: "easy," "medium," "difficult," "strongly discouraged," and "prohibited/major car route." BikeArlington staff created the ranking criteria based on surveys to find out what people thought was important.

Ratings of "medium" and "difficult" went to routes where only experienced cyclists would be able to confidently bike them. The county's various trails got an automatic "easy" rating.

Bike lanes alone don't guarantee comfort

Bike lanes didn't get automatic "easy" ratings because a lot of them are still difficult to ride in.

For example, while Hayes and Eads Streets in Crystal City got "easy" ratings, Wilson and Clarendon Boulevards were rated "medium." That's because the former has protected bikeways that separate bikes from moving cars while the latter has bikeways that aren't protected.

The full comfort map.

You can't get everywhere comfortably

Arlington's focus on understanding and illustrating where people riding bikes feel the most comfortable is commendable. This is a neat and useful map.

But it also highlights how much work is left to do. For all the comfortable bike routes in the county, there are also huge gaps.

Few of Arlington's major commercial main streets have comfortable bikeways for much of their length. Many are even blacked out as places where cycling is "strongly discouraged." But those are the places people want to go, and the routes that connect one part of the county to another.

Alternate routes often aren't easy to come by. Even where they do exist, they often involve lengthy detours or circuitous hopping around.

This map provides a valuable tool, but it also clearly illustrates how Arlington's bike network is still a long way from complete. County officials have their work cut out for them.

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To bike across the Potomac, most use the 14th Street Bridge or Key Bridge

Most cyclists cross the Potomac River on either the 14th Street Bridge or Key Bridge. Even more people might use these bridges if there were more ways to get to them by bike.

Graph by the author.

On the average July weekday this year, each carried around 2,000 riders: it was 2,028 for the 14th Street Bridge, and 1,950 for the Key Bridge. The Roosevelt Bridge saw an average of 474 cyclists per July weekday.

An average of 3,013 cyclists used all three bridges on weekdays during the first seven months of 2015. This equals an average of 1,352 cyclists on the 14th Street Bridge, 1,338 on the Key Bridge and 324 on the Roosevelt Bridge.

This data comes from Arlington County.

Cyclists can also cross the Potomac River on the Chain Bridge, Memorial Bridge and Woodrow Wilson Bridge, but there is little data available on exact use.

Cycling peaks during the summer

Bike commuting across the Potomac is most common during the relatively pleasant late spring and summer months. An average of 4,453 cyclists crossed the river on the three bridges during weekdays in July.

People used the Potomac crossings least during the winter. An average of 973 cyclists used the bridges on weekdays in January—about a fifth of the number that used them in July.

Cyclists face treacherous conditions during the winter months when the 14th Street Bridge path and the Mount Vernon Trail, which connect to all three Potomac crossings, are not plowed.

Interestingly, the annual Cherry Blossom Festival in March and April does not result in a spike in weekday cycling traffic across any the Potomac. This could be because bike commuters prefer to avoid the crowds around the Tidal Basin where they access the 14th Street Bridge in DC. It could also be that many have yet to resume cycling after a winter hiatus.

Better connections to the 14th Street and Key Bridges would serve a lot of cyclists

The 14th Street Bridge connects to the Mount Vernon Trail in Virginia, where cyclists can easily continue on to Crystal City, Ronald Reagan Washington National airport and Old Town Alexandria. Ideas for better connections include ones to the Pentagon and Long Bridge Park, potentially as part of the Long Bridge replacement.

In the District, the bridge drops cyclists just south of the Jefferson Memorial. From there, they have to ride on the sidewalk or with traffic across the Mall to reach the city's protected bikeway network. Ideas to improve the connection include extending the protected bikeway on 15th Street NW to Constitution Avenue, adding signage to the route and widening the off-street path.

The Key Bridge is well connected to the Custis Trail, Mount Vernon Trail and Rosslyn in Virginia. But on the District side cyclists either have to ride with traffic on congested M Street or descend two sets of stairs to reach the Capital Crescent Trail and K Street. The Georgetown Business Improvement District's Georgetown 2028 includes some improvements to the District side, as well as a new crossing to Roosevelt Island.

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