Arlington’s Missed Opportunity to Make Pike Bike-Friendly?

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 Great Columbia Pike Bike Gap

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.

What the Underpass Should Look Like (VDOT)

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).

A Dream Route From Barton to Rolfe

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.

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12 Responses to Arlington’s Missed Opportunity to Make Pike Bike-Friendly?

  1. Chris Slatt says:

    As part of the Pike Multimodal project, the County intends to build a 10′ wide sidepath along the north (westbound) side of the Pike all the way from the Joyce St intersection in the East to at least S Courthouse Rd in the west. I’ve submitted comments (and encourage others to do so as well) pushing hard for the sidepath to extend all the way to Wayne so that it provides a gap-free link to the 9th St Bike Boulevard.

    Project Website:
    Most recent presentation:
    On pages 33, 36, and 40 you’ll see the various call-outs to the 10′ north side sidepath.

  2. jd says:

    Unless you’re comfortable riding in traffic, cycling along the Pike will never get much better, since they can’t widen Columbia Pike AND add bike lanes.

    I pass under Washington Boulevard, twice a day, as part of my commute to D.C. Both times are on the road, not the sidewalk. In the morning, I am early enough that traffic is not an issue. Eastbound, the “problem” is motorists racing to get onto Washington Boulevard — this is the case even if you are on the sidewalk on the southern side of the Pike. I don’t see this changing.

    My only issue traveling westbound are drivers exiting southbound Washington Boulevard and turning right onto Columbia Pike at S Quinn St, since many motorists think “Right on red” means just slowing down, not stopping.

    A ten-foot wide sidewalk, on the north side of Columbia Pike sounds nice, but not if you are on the south side of the Pike and have to cross it to get to it. Westbound, coming down the hill past the Sheraton, motorists look for vehicles in the road and they’ll see a cyclist, but I am not as confident that they will notice for cyclists on the sidewalk. They don’t always look now, since the sidewalk past the Sheraton is an extra lane to the right of the two lanes of Columbia Pike passing under Washington Boulevard. In addition, that means motorists turning right, onto westbound Columbia Pike, will have to look to the right and many motorists rarely do that.

    • Ren says:

      I’ll just add that westbound, another issue that I directly observe is that whenever there is an accident or tie-up on 395, drivers try to get around it on the Pike and, oftentimes, drive like my three-year-old nephew runs after three pieces of birthday cake. I see the drivers pouring off 395 and driving like maniacs on the Pike. Cycling westbound on the Pike is sometimes not that bad (at least you don’t have to switch lanes like you do eastbound during rushhour) but when things on 395 are crazy, things get crazy and dangerous on the Pike too. 3-point turns all over the place, drivers who don’t believe cyclists have a right to be on the road, and have no clue what the speed limit it is or the fact that they should leave 3 feet when passing.

  3. Jerry Cowden says:

    I just want to thank all of you for taking the time to think about the “Columbia Pike problem” and offer solutions. I would very much like to be able to bike directly down Columbia Pike to DC and avoid the time-consuming detour through Ft. Myer. I’m glad the Washington Blvd. situation is being discussed but I think the Pentagon problem needs to be addressed, too. I understand the Pentagon has prevented completion of the recently installed new bike path along the south side of the Columbia Island marina lagoon from the new GW Parkway bridge because of security concerns. If this is true I think the Pentagon is wildly overreacting to a perceived security threat.

  4. jd says:

    “I understand the Pentagon has prevented completion of the recently installed new bike path along the south side of the Columbia Island marina lagoon from the new GW Parkway bridge because of security concerns. If this is true I think the Pentagon is wildly overreacting to a perceived security threat.”

    The Pentagon is a problem, but that’s because it is physically between the end of Columbia Pike and the bridges.

    If you’re biking down Columbia Pike, why would you want to go that way to get to DC? While I am not sure where the path would actually connect, it seems like it would involve riding through or around the parking lot on the south side of the Pentagon. That seems like a hassle. On the other hand, such a trail would make getting from the Mount Vernon Trail to Pentagon City easier.

    I find that taking the trail along the west side of the Pentagon is pretty easy. Once past the Pentagon, head down towards the (north) parking lot. At the bottom of the ramp/hill, make a left and head to the bridge over the Boundary Channel and Columbia Island. Take the tunnel under the Humpback Bridge and you’re on the Mount Vernon Trail. It can be tricky the first time, because the bridge is “hidden” on the Virginia side, but it’s easy and I can provide detailed directions. (The entrance to the bridge is behind the sign for the memorial grove.)

  5. pikespotter says:

    Thanks for the great comments. Blacknell wrote about the Pentagon connections recently:
    Here is an older ArlNow story on some of the County’s plans in that corner of Arlington:

  6. Jerry Cowden says:

    “If you’re biking down Columbia Pike, why would you want to go that way to get to DC? While I am not sure where the path would actually connect, it seems like it would involve riding through or around the parking lot on the south side of the Pentagon. That seems like a hassle. ”

    I’m hoping for as direct a route as possible from Columbia Pike to the 14th St. bridge (I-395 southbound). Going through the Pentagon’s south parking lot to connect to the currently truncated bike path on the south side of the Columbia Island lagoon strikes me as a more direct way of achieving this than zigzaging up to the Pentagon north parking lot, crossing the pedestrian bridge into LBJ Grove, and then making my way back down to the 14th St. bridge. I will admit, though, that the route you have suggested is better than nothing, which is what we currently have. So I will use your suggested route until the day something better comes along. Thanks.

  7. Ren says:

    Pikespotter, thanks for your great coverage of this issue.

  8. Pingback: Increasing Demand for Car-Free Living Is Opportunity for Pike | Pike Spotter

  9. Pingback: Tonight: VDOT Washington Boulevard & Columbia Pike Interchange Community Meeting | Pike Spotter

  10. Pingback: Draft Pike Neighborhood Plan Eliminates Current Direct Bike Route to Pentagon | Pike Spotter

  11. Pingback: County Scales Back Plans for Columbia Pike Bike Boulevards | Pike Spotter

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