If urban infrastructure had fashion trends, bike lanes today would be the leg warmers of the '80s. Leg warmers began as a simple functional piece of attire (they were originally used by dancers to keep their calves warm to prevent cramping) and became a necessary part of every teenage girl's ensamble.
In the past 10 years I have seen bike lanes installed in every condition, from the cycle tracks along Pennsylvania Avenue to converted shoulders on rural roads in Delaware. George Mason recently installed them along Patriot Circle and they have been used as part of a “road diet” in Reston.
Fairfax City has yet to hop on this bandwagon, but it has been discussed. So, should we? And if so, where do bike lanes make sense?
First, it is important to understand why bike lanes have been all the rage over the past few years. I mean, why not just use sidewalks or paths? Well, bike lanes function more like bike highways for commuters in that they don’t require you to slow down at every street crossing as you do when using a sidewalk or parallel path. It is important for bike commuters to be able to maintain a constant high rate of speed in order to make biking a more competitive alternative to driving (bikers should still stop at traffic lights and stop signs, though I realize many do not). Bike paths on the other hand are more desirable for leisure riders.
With this in mind, Main Street and Fairfax Boulevard both seem like corridors that could attract a lot of bicyclists. They are so jammed during rush hour that riding a bike can actually be quicker than driving depending on how far you are going.
There is currently no safe way for bikes to travel quickly on these routes and they often mix with traffic. Unfortunately, most of the street rights-of-way for main roads in the city are fully utilized with travel lanes, turn lanes and sidewalks. It would take a significant investment to add bike lanes to streets such as Main Street and Fairfax Boulevard because it would require moving curbs and adjusting medians.
Another potential corridor is Old Lee Highway. Although it doesn’t have the traffic congestion as the other two roads mentioned, it connects several potential bike trip generators, including George Mason University (via George Mason Boulevard), Old Town Fairfax, Fairfax High School, and the Vienna Metro. Not to mention that parking isn’t free at George Mason or the metro, which makes alternative transportation modes more attractive. A recent report from WMATA showed that the Vienna Station had the 10th highest number of bike commuters among all Metrorail stations.
Many communities also use bike lanes not just as a transportation mode, but as a traffic calming measure that takes advantage of unused right-of-way or under-utilized traffic lanes. In Arlington, several underutilized four lane roads have been converted to two-lane roads with on-street parking and bike lanes.
Two years ago, Lawyers Road in Reston was re-striped to remove two travel lanes and add a center turn lane along with bike lanes. This reconfiguration is expected to reduce vehicle accidents and “improve safety and enhance mobility for bicyclists and motorists." This is known as a “road diet” where increased capacity is replaced with improved functionality.
Some parts of Old Lee Highway have a dedicated right-of-way and even paving for additional lanes, a goal that has long since been abandoned. This makes it a good candidate for this type of reconfiguration. Bike lanes would encourage vehicles to slow down and create a buffer between traffic and sidewalks.
Even though the use of bike lanes has gone beyond their original intended purpose, they still provide the benefit of traffic calming if designed correctly and used in the right corridor.
What do you think about bike lanes? Are they useful, or just a trend? Where would you want to see them in Fairfax City?