About a month ago, Arlington bicycling advocate Mark Blacknell wrote a wish list of what he would like to see done to make Arlington more bike-friendly. His suggestion were, customarily, sensible and well-stated. (Similar idea here.) But for bicyclists along Columbia Pike, there is one vital item to add to the list: a safe, marked, efficient bike route to the Potomac River bridges. While a difficult challenge, the impending reconstruction of the Washington Boulevard overpass of Columbia Pike is once in a generation opportunity to raise cycling as a safe commuter choice for Arlington residents along Columbia Pike. Pike bicyclists should be fearful that this opportunity is being missed by the County.
The problem: Pike bicyclists to and from DC have no efficient trail route (on-street or off) to get from Columbia Pike to the bridges over the Potomac (same is true for Pentagon commuters) because of the lack of any safe way over/under Washington Boulevard. That is, from Courthouse Rd and Columbia Pike, the sole (County-sanctioned) bike route to the 14th Street Bridge is a length trip on on-street trails south to the westbound-W&OD trail, followed a northbound leg on the Mount Vernon Trail. Heading to the Memorial Bridge on official trails is hardly any easier, with the quickest route requiring either a stop-and-ID-check to the guards at Fort Myer, or a 180-degree route via the Arlington Boulevard trail. Each is miles longer than the direct route.
As a result, inbound commuters often choose to travel off-street on minor streets, and turn onto the Pike somewhere east of Walter Reed, then ride on the Pike roadway (across the on-ramp to Washington Boulevard), and cross the Pike at Orme St. to the on-street trail. This Columbia Pike Bike Gap is a hair-raising trip.
The County has some ideas to improve bike connections for these riders, including extending the bike trail along Washington Boulevard from Route 50 to the Pike. There also is a planned connector route from Arlington View around the corner of the Army-Navy Country Club. The Columbia Pike Boulevards Plan is designed to create two (mostly) on-street bike routes on minor streets that run parallel to the Pike. All are these are fine ideas, but they will not address the problem: Pike bicyclists are penned in by Arlington Boulevard and the Country Club/395, and the sole efficient route to DC is the Columbia Pike underpass of Washington Boulevard.
The bridge is in an awful state of disrepair, literally crumbling onto the sidewalk. It can’t be torn down too soon. But while the County has taken over maintenance responsibilities for the Pike (and, largely shirked those responsibilities), the bridge rebuild is a VDOT project. The seemingly good news: the plan is to create a 10 foot wide, mixed-use path on the Westbound side.
What is unclear, however, is how the County plans to utilize the new path. The Columbia Pike Bike Boulevards plan is, at its heart, a rejection of using the Columbia Pike roadway as a bicycling route (a possible function of the ill-advised trolley plan). Further, these two paths would end at S Cleveland St (on the south path) and S Wayne St. (on the north path). From the terminus of each path, how does a cyclist get to the connections near the Pentagon to DC?
To illustrate, imagine an eastbound, morning commuter to the Pentagon, who starts at the Pike & Glebe. She rides over to the 9th Street bike boulevard, which terminates at 9th and Wayne. At this point, she’s got two choices – turning right onto Wayne, then left onto the sidewalk on the Pike until she gets to the spot where the underpass path begins. After emerging from the underpass, she then goes back onto the sidewalk in front of the Sheraton, and turns left onto the on-street trail on Orme Street. Her other alternative is to cross back over the Pike at Wayne, and just ride in the street on the eastbound Pike (ignoring the new bike path on the underpass entirely). If instead she choose to use the 13th Street bike boulevard, her choices are pretty much the same from Cleveland Street: heading Eastbound on the Pike roadway, or crossing over to use the sidewalk/underpass path. Riding on the Pike remains the only relatively-safe choice for her.
That is, until and unless the County decides to create through-paths to Columbia Pike at Washington Boulevard, the new mixed-use path under Washington Boulevard will be of virtually no use to cyclists.
Officially, the County lists as a “near-term” plan (as of 2008) the following:
Designate and construct an on‐ and off‐street bikeway to link Columbia Pike at S. Rolfe Street with Southgate Road, the Pentagon, and Boundary Drive.
Sounds great. Except, despite the new bridge construction, the County website lists no specific plan to do this. So what should they do? Some options:
1. Gut the westbound Pike sidewalk from S. Wayne to S. Orme street, and install a wide, multi-use, paved right-of-way that takes some of the road currently used by cars. The legal and financial hurdles are probably insurmountable to this. Courthouse Road to Washington Boulevard may be more realistic, but still probably a pipe dream. (A Pike dream?)
2. At rush hour, convert the appropriate outside lane to a bus and bike-only lane. (As noted in a previous post, a bus-only lane would do far more to decrease transit-user time than building a streetcar would). Dodging buses isn’t easy, but unlike cars, at least they rarely sneak up on a cyclist. Note that this makes the planned mixed-use path pretty useless, other than as a nice passing point for Westbound motorists in the afternoon.
3. Build a pedestrian/cyclist bridge over Washington Boulevard. This may be even more fanciful that the first idea, but strangely it’s considered in the County’s long-term plan (search “Foxcroft‐Penrose Connector” on the plan).
4. This idea probably merits its own post, but the County missed a golden opportunity when it got its easement onto the Country Club in exchange for the right to build its new clubhouse. Rather than merely connect Arlington View with Army-Navy Drive, a path along the edge of the club from Barton Street to Rolfe St at 14th Rd. would have greatly aided non-auto travel in S. Arlington. Using Rolfe St to connect to an on-street path on the eastbound Wash Blvd underpass would have been a breeze. Adding a bike-friendly crosswalk across the Pike at Orme St would be all that’s needed to get most Pike commuters safely to and from DC.
Admittedly, none of these solutions are perfect. Yet to make bike riding an attractive choice for more commuters, a solution to the Columbia Pike Bike Gap must be found, and the construction of the new bridge should focus leaders to form a real plan.