Are bike lanes safe?

WASHINGTON– After more than six hours of debate, the Alexandria City Council unanimously approved a plan to add bike lanes on King Street on Saturday.

The plan adds lanes west of the King Street Metro Station between West Cedar Street and Highland Place. The decision culminates months of hotly contested debates between bicyclist advocates, city planners, and local residents concerned about the impact on parking and access to their homes.

“It’s unfortunate that a topic of this sort has become so divisive. As Alexandria has committed itself to become an eco-city, we’ve always been attempting to identify opportunities to be more multi-modal, whether that means walking, biking, pushing strollers, jogging, cars, buses, light rail or all of the above,” says Alexandria Mayor Bill Euille.

The key issue that both sides debate was safety. Do bicycle-only lanes increase or decrease safety on King Street in this residential neighborhood? Should bicyclists ride on busy King Street, or use The George Washington Masonic National Memorial?

“Everybody agrees that there is a speeding problem. What we’ve heard is that the traffic is moving too fast. No one moves into Alexandria expecting to live on a street where we have speeding and we don’t address that issue,” says Rich Baier, Alexandria transportation director.

Transportation officials say the average speed on King Street between Cedar Street and Highland Place is 33 to 35 miles per hour, even though the speed limit is only 25 miles per hour. Baier says adding bicycle lanes will slow down drivers and add a buffer to keep pedestrians safe on the sidewalk.

“Bicycle lanes will go a long way towards making this more of a residential-based street than an arterial road,” he says.

Alexandria resident Sue Gunter agrees with the bike lanes because she thinks it will make pedestrians safer.

“Because there’s no bike lane on King Street right now, some bicyclists who ride down to the Metro station regularly use the sidewalk. While walking, I’ve frequently been startled by a bicyclists being behind me. A bike lane will solve this because bicyclists will no longer need to use the sidewalk,” she says.

Resident Scott Binde says he’s a bicyclist, but does not currently ride on King Street.

“This plan would change that. Bicycles, pedestrians and cars would each have their own space, making movement for all predictable and safe,” he says.

Patrick Earl, who teaches at T.C. Williams High School, says he drives and bikes to work from Takoma Park, Md.

“I see both perspectives and by far the safest situation for me as a biker is to have a dedicated bike lane. But also, I feel much more confident passing a biker who is in a bike lane than when there is a blurred area,” he says.

But Lisa Beyer Scanlon of the Taylor Run Citizens Association believes that bike lanes are a bad idea. She thinks only expert bicyclists should use King Street, and adding bicycle-only lanes could lead to more crashes.

“To use bikers as a buffer is just wrong. They’re people, they’re human beings. Having a car hit them first, so they don’t hit a pedestrian is not our idea of a buffer. Let’s say there’s a 100 bikes an hour. If we build these lanes and they do come, there’s never going to be a full lane of bikes going through there. So there will never be a complete buffer,” she says.

“Complete streets for our neighborhood include sharrows, they do not include dedicated bike lanes,” adds Scanlon.

Sharrows stand for shared arrows placed in the roadway to let drivers know that they need to share the road with bicyclists. Sharrows are popular in the District of Columbia, as well as Arlington. Montgomery County is also looking to add sharrows to help with their launch of Capital Bikeshare last fall.

Scanlon also opposes the plan because it would mean parking spaces would go away. Originally, about 27 spaces would have been removed, but a compromise to add sharrows between Highland Place and Janneys Lane mean that 10 of those spots can be saved.

“Instead of getting rid of the parking, we think that parking is the safest part of the street and provides a better buffer for people riding on the sidewalk,” she says.

Baier says on average, only three out of the 27 spots are filled at a time on the street. He says the spots are underutilized and thus do not create a buffer. He adds that removing the parking spots should not create a parking problem for residents in the area. Scanlon agrees parking is underutilized, but recommends throwing out the resident-only parking rules and opening the spots to the general public.

Other residents like Amy Lehmkuhler and Lynn Lawrence, are also worried that it will be more dangerous to pull in and out of their driveways with bicycle lanes, especially with fewer parking spots.

“In order to safely access our home on the hill, we must back into the driveway, so that we can face the speeding traffic when entering onto King Street. If this is passed, we the people, when we pull out, we will be in both of these lanes,” says Lehmkuhler.

“I’ve watched as neighbors have tried to negotiate getting in and out of their driveways in heavy traffic. I just cannot imagine how bike lanes would be an improvement at this location. These lanes will make an already difficult stretch of road even more hazardous to navigate, resulting in potential injuries to bicyclists and residents alike,” says Lawrence.

Resident Louise Welch says the bicycle lanes will make life more difficult for her and her husband.

“My husband is disabled and on oxygen. Taking away this 7 foot lane and replacing it with a 5 foot bike lane means he cannot even picked up in front of our own home, where we have lived for 35 years,” says Welch.

Others like Jake Jakubek believe the bicycle lanes are important for attracting new business and younger residents. Jakubek is the Vice Chair of the Alexandria Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee.

“If people are demanding better pedestrian infrastructure, better bike lanes and better transit, then we need to cater to those demands. If we don’t provide for the amenities that this generation of people feels is important, we will be left behind. Public transit use is at the highest level it’s been since 1956,” says Jakubek.

Stewart Schwartz of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, also testified in favor of the plan, calling it a sensible way to promote commuters not to use their cars.

“The consensus among elected officials and the business leaders is one of transit- oriented, walkable and bikeable communities. It is the most feasible and effective means for managing our region’s growth and traffic that is only getting worse. Certainly this is really key to Alexandria’s competitiveness in the future,” says Schwartz.

In the end, the Council unanimously approved the bike lanes proposal. Transportation officials will update the Council on the progress of the project in 2015.

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