Some Suggestions for Improving Everyday Cycling in Fairfax County

A recent comment to the blog from South Lakes Mom asked me if I was attending the Fairfax County Bicycling Summit at George Mason University (GMU) on November 4. I don’t plan on going since the focus of the summit is improving cycling in and around Tysons Corner, 23 miles from my house by bike.  I have been in or through Tysons Corner about 10 times in the last 30 years. (Most of my visits were to a VW dealer to get my  Golf repaired because the repairmen at the dealer near my home were incompetent.) Whether in a car or on a bike, I avoid it like the plague. I commend the County and the Fairfax Advocates for Better Bicycling (FABB) for trying to improve life in Tysons. No matter what they accomplish it will have no practical relevance to me.

The apparent reason for holding the summit at GMU is that it has lots of meeting facilities and it is centrally located in the county. It is also 25 very cycling unfriendly miles from my house. Go ahead, try and ride cross county from Mount Vernon to Springfield or beyond. I advise that you notify your next of kin before heading out.

But let me stop kvetching and add some suggestions, in no particular order, for better everyday cycling in my part of Fairfax County. Before I begin, let’s set a basic ground rule. I am talking about everyday cycling. Riding a bike to the store, the library, the farmers market, the pool, or the office. I am not talking about the Tour de Fairfax. The objective is to make cycling to these places as safe and convenient as driving. Here’s my list. It goes to eleven.

  1. Put a flyover bridge or a traffic light at the intersection of the George Washington Memorial Parkway and Belle View Boulevard. This is a primary connecting point to the Mount Vernon Trail and the intersection has one of the highest rates of vehicular accidents in the DC region. The Parkway is owned by the National Park Service which is more concerned with esthetics than safety.
  2. Allow bike commuters to park in Belle Haven Park (and other National Park Service lots) along the Mount Vernon Trail. Bike commuters currently run the risk of being ticketed so instead they park on the opposite side of the Parkway and have to make a crossing at grade at rush hour.  These parking lots are empty during the week. The Park Service could auction off slots for half the spaces and use the funds for improvements to the trail or parks. All that is needed is a “Yes”.
  3. There is no viable, route connecting Mount Vernon to the Lee District from the Beltway to south of Fort Belvoir.  The only way I know of involves riding over Beacon Hill which is reasonable only to Claudio Chiappucci and Fausto Coppi (and Coppi is dead).  There is a right of way through the northern edge of Huntley Meadows Park that would make a  wonderful, flat trail connecting US 1 to Telegraph Road. Since the county is now plowing up the edge of Huntley Meadows Park near the western terminus of this right of way so that motor vehicles can travel more conveniently, how about showing cyclists a little love. Oh, and to make my case, let’s take the responsible Fairfax and VDOT officials for a ride on the current, on-road route, South Kings Highway, a hilly, high-speed, two lane, shoulderless monstrosity. After their funerals maybe we could get some traction on this idea.
  4. Other than the Mount Vernon Trail there are very few north south bicycle routes in southeastern Fairfax County.  This is a shame because the Hybla Valley area is the lowest income area of the county and cycling is the cheapest form of transportation for distances over one mile. Start by thinking of ways to build trails with switchbacks to get over Beacon Hill from all directions.
  5. Speaking of the Mount Vernon Trail, how about a little plowing and sanding during the winter months? When left unpaved, the trail becomes a long series of icy foot prints that make the trail unusable to everyone.
  6. Connect the US 1 connector trail to something. ANYTHING. This trail connects the Mount Vernon Trail to US 1. Then you are on your own.  Was it designed by Sarah Palin?
  7. Fix the sensors embedded in the road at the traffic light at the Belle Haven Country Club so that users of the trail can get onto Fort Hunt Road without having to run the red light.
  8. How about some shoulders on the roads! And while you’re at it PAVE them! VDOT seems to think that  shoulders are bad road design.  Sometimes (e.g. Fort Hunt Road) the shoulder appears then disappears. When there is a shoulder it is sometimes paved and sometimes not. 
  9. Elected officials should be required to get to their offices by bike once per week. Pretty awful, right. Then have them ride to Old Town Alexandria on the Mount Vernon Trail. See the difference? There shouldn’t be one!
  10. A general note about bike trails: sidewalks are not bike trails. Slapping asphalt over unimproved soil makes for a lousy sidewalk and a lousier bike trail. Don’t try to impress the cycling community with the many miles of slapdash “trails” built in this fashion in the last 20 years. They are worse than worthless; they are dangerous. Stop building them.
  11. The recent addition of bike trail along Fort Hunt Road near the Belle Haven Elementary school is well intentioned and a big improvement over the slapdash trail it replaced. It will get very little use by everyday cyclists because it is too steep and narrow and has too many curves. If you have to ask why, imagine designing  a road for your car that mimics these design features. You wouldn’t drive it. If you think it costs too much to build a better alternative, you have two possible results. Either nobody will use it and you’ve wasted your money. Or, you can build it right a second time after the county gets sued by somebody who loses it on the steep, curvy descent.

If you can sense the tone of impatience in my words, you can see why I have little tolerance of the advocacy process. These changes should patently obvious. Many of them have been suggested and ignored by our elected officials for decades. So lets start with one or two. Can we agree to do that? Then do a couple more next year.