Fuzzy goslings, unfuzzy maps, and dead ducklings

Today was a recovery day. My legs and back were sore from yesterday’s 38 mile ride. I suppose I should be used to this. Event rides in cities are a lot harder than the mileage indicates. They are filled with starts and stops and short hills.

Goslings Take Over DC

So today I rode Big Nellie to work. It was warm in the morning then downright hot on the way home. About a mile from work at the Memorial Bridge the trail was covered in goslings.  They didn’t seem to care that I was there and neither did the attending adults.

They had the decency to get out of my way.

Just the Thing for a Mapaholic

When I got home, I jumped in the car to fetch Little Nellie from the bike shop. The folks at Spokes Etc. turned around a cable and housing replacement in 24 hours instead of the promised 48 hours. Well done. Now Little Nellie shifts freely again.

While I was waiting for the mechanic to ring me up, I noticed this on the counter.

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No, not the electric bike demo. The new Fairfax County Bike map! Back in the winter I went to the Fairfax County Transportation Department offices to help with this project. The planners had set up a roomful of long tables. The tables were covered with draft versions of the map. Area cyclists like me were asked to annotate the maps. Mostly we looked for errors and wrote comments about bikeability.

I should confess here that I am a total mapaholic. So this map makes me very excited. (I know. Get a life, dude.)

I haven’t had a chance to look at it in detail but my cursory examination says FDOT did a great job on this. Congratulations.

Dead Ducks

Finally, there is some bad news to report. I have been complaining all spring that there has been a dearth of ducklings this year. I was really jealous when I saw a friend’s Facebook pictures of ducklings in the reflecting pool at the Lincoln Memorial. Well, I am sorry to say that they are probably all dead. A parasite has taken up residence there and it kills ducklings. The pool is being drained this week.

 

 

 

 

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Mapping Bicycle Hell

I attended an event at the offices of the Fairfax County Department of Transportation. The offices are located in the western part of Fairfax County, much too far to ride a bike to directly. That would be asking too much though. The most direct route to that section of the county cannot be traversed by bike because crossing the Beltway will get you killed. Fairfax County was designed for cars. From what I can see, it is choking to death on them.

It took me over an hour to drive there. I had lots of company. The entire time all I could think was people actually do this every day. They choose this. If I did this every day, I’d be a stressed out mess. (Okay, I’m a calm mess, but you bet the point.) Here’s my life coach advice for all you suburbanites. DON’T DO THIS!!!

Unbeknownst to me, Jeff G who lives a half mile from me came as well. He took Metro during Safe Track, a maintenance initiative designed to stop fires and other calamities on the system. Wind chills were in the teens. He stood on unheated platforms, transferred to a bus that got him close-ish to the event then walked the pedestrian-hostile streets in the dark. It was like a sequel to the movie Wild.

I took pity on the poor sod and drove him home afterward. He cried when he left the car.

At the WABA holiday party on Wednesday night, I met Gina who I have interacted with on the interwebs. Gina sold her house (with river access !) in Anne Arundel County Maryland. She moved to Arlington where she rents a duplex. She used to spend 3 hours a day commuting to work in DC. Now she rides her bike there in a fraction of the time. She got rid of her car. Gina is one happy camper.

It is safe to say that Gina will never live in western Fairfax County. I’m willing to bet that an awful lot of Ginas are turning their backs on places like Fairfax County. This does not bode well for the county. The people who run the Fairfax County government are gradually starting to realize this.

Fairfax County is updating its bike map. It is a vast geographic mess that no single person could actually get their arms around so the county Transportation Department invited bicyclists from all around the county to come and mark up street maps that Toole Design had drafted. It was a very productive session. (Alas, there were no doughnuts. Probably a good thing.)

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Once the new map comes out, I will be able to look at all the places in Fairfax County that I would never live or ride in and be grateful that I had enough foresight to buy a house near the Mount Vernon Trail over 25 years ago. The MVT has its problems (tree roots, ninjas, no snow plowing, rambunctious wildlife) but I’ll take it any day over driving Lee Highway trhough Merrifield at rush hour.

Fairfax County Gets with the Program

Richmond Highway in Fairfax County is an eclectic mix of old and new tied together with traffic jams. Old motels, high rise residential buildings, new hotels, and big box stores are intermingled with gas stations, trailer parks, garden apartments, office buildings, and a seemingly infinite hodge podge of other retail businesses. It offers a lot. I avoid it like the plague.

Fitful development replaced suburban blight in the 1990s. The Department of Defense relocated thousands of workers to Fort Belvoir and the County did a land swap that led to the construction of a residential city of sorts near Lorton, both on the southern end of the corridor. DC bound commuter traffic overwhelms the highway during rush hours. Transit is heavily used but is simply not enough to move all the people through and within the corridor.

So Fairfax County is developing plans to re-invent the corridor over the next 25 years. If it doesn’t do something, southeastern Fairfax County’s economy will choke on its own auto exhaust. Using bus rapid transit (until it can get Metro service) to reduce or mitigate car traffic, the county will develop a chain of mixed use communities, not unlike the Ballston to Rosslyn corridor in Arlington or the Town Center in Reston.

Today, riding a bike in this area is very unsafe. Pedestrians fare no better, with many being sent to hospitals and morgues each year. The plan calls for bicycle and pedestrian facilities along the highway. Input from bicyclists at prior meetings convinced planners to include bicycle and pedestrian facilities on feeder streets and in each of the mixed use communities. I heard no negative push back on these additions to the plan tonight.

How this all plays out over the next couple of decades is anybody’s guess. It is comforting to see that after decades of embracing car-based suburban sprawl, Fairfax County is finally moving toward more transit, sensible development, and livable communities. Will the county be able to stick to its plans as Arlington and Reston did? Time will tell.

Today’s News: Annoying, Depressing

Cement Truck Parking

The Mount Vernon Trail is one of the most heavily used trails on the East Coast. Ab28624928742_d40e68caa3_zout two miles from my house, the trail merges with Northdown Road. As
you can see from the picture, at this point, the trail and road are only one lane wide. It is in fact a trail not a road. That didn’t stop this cement truck driver from parking in the trail. I’d use the words “middle of the trail” but the truck obstructed the entire trail. Every last inch. Perhaps the driver thought “Hey, look at this trail. It’s the perfect width for parking my truck.”

Trail users had to dismount and make their way through the mud on the side of the trail. It was barely wide enough to get by.

I may be making a big deal out of nothing but this is the kind of disrespect that bicyclists and bicycle infrastructure routinely get, especially in places like Fairfax County. All this truck driver had to do was park where I was standing when I took this picture and trail users would have had free passage.

Death by Parking

Earlier today, a 92 year old driver was parking his SUV in an alley a block from the Mount Vernon Trail in Old Town, Alexandria. He hit a parking attendant, then he hit another man, killing him. How the hell you can kill someone in an alley that is about as wide as the trail in the picture above is beyond me. Why in the world does Virginia allow 92 year olds to drive?  Will somebody from the DMV show up at the funeral to explain this to the loved ones of the deceased?

I’m Walking Here

Meanwhile in the 400 block of North Union Street an SUV was parked perpendicular to a house. It’s front end completely obstructed the sidewalk. Sticking in the ground next to the front bumper was a sign that said “No Not Block Driveway.” There is no end to the entitlement mentality of the landed gentry of Old Town Alexandria.

$2.5 Billion for Nothing

On Friday evening at rush hour my family and I drove to Tyson’s Corner. (This is the first time I have driven to Tyson’s in a year. It will be the last, but that’s another story.) On the way we got on the Beltway at US 1, just west of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. Traffic heading to the bridge from Virginia was backed up for miles. In all six lanes. The bridge is only a few years old. The project to rebuild the bridge and the adjacent roadway and exits cost about $2.5 billion. The rationale was that this would relieve congestion. Trying to relieve congestion by adding more capacity is like trying to achieve happiness by buying more stuff. If only I had one more lane! If only I had one more HDTV!

The bridge was designed with the capacity to carry a Metro rail line. This has yet to be implemented. Already people are calling for the rail line space to be converted to car lanes.

 

Shamu’s Test Commute

I haven’t been on a bike since the Snowzilla storm. So today I went for a ride to see what my commute will be like next week. The day began with an impressive amount of black ice in my driveway. My solution was to do puzzles all morning. I managed to get all but the Scrabblegram which Mrs. RC and I have taken to doing. (Worst part is finding out that answers often include completely bogus words)

I used The Mule because it is my bad weather bike. I had to roll it through some snow in the back yard but that took all of three minutes.

Every street along my normal route to the Mount Vernon Trail was clear with the only problem areas where homeowners had shoveled snow into the street earlier in the day. Why people do this when they have a front lawn to throw the snow on is beyond me.

I arrived at the Mount Vernon Trail, took one look and gave up. It is a glacier. Just like it is every year. Thanks to the National Park Service, the only trail owner that doesn’t even try to plow or treat area trails. (They own significant real estate in the city. They don’t plow there either.)

I climbed up the hill to Fort Hunt Road, the only alternative to the trail. This took me to US 1. A trail connects US 1 to Washington Street in Old Town Alexandria. The first 100 yards of the trail were covered in plow residue. VDOT or Fairfax County couldn’t be bothered to clear the trail, I guess.

If you think that is too much to ask, you are wrong. Once the trail crosses into Alexandria city, it is totally clear. I tag on Alexandria a lot about being hostile to bicyclists but whoever is in charge of plowing did a great job here.

I took the streets through the western part of Old Town. I crossed over the rail line at Slaters Lane and US 1. The sidewalk here is also a bike lane. It was cleared quite adequately. Another round of applause for Alexandria.

I rode Monroe Street (kind of a melting mess) to Mount Vernon Avenue, the main drag through the Del Ray neighborhood. No problems. I made my way to the trail along Four Mile Run. The trail on the Alexandria side was impassible because of a creatively crappy plow job that ended in a snow bank.

I walked around this mess and hooked up with the Four Mile Run Trail on the Arlington side of Four Mile Run. Arlington done good.

Here I bailed out on the trails. I had gone 10 miles and I was tired. I spent the last week shoveling and eating. I feel like a whale and my shoulder muscles are still incredibly tight.

I headed back to Old Town via Potomac Avenue and its new side trail. All was clear sailing. Alexandria. I retraced my path to Fort Hunt Road and slogged my way up two hills trying hard to stay out of the sand and salt that had accumulated on the edge of the asphalt. Most roads in Virginia lack a paved shoulder so you can pretty much count on wrecking your drive train if you bike around here in the winter.

I made it home, a total of 20 1/2 miles. Not bad for my first day back. Tomorrow is supposed to be a 60 degree day. That should take care of the problem areas I discovered today. It will take a week of warm temperatures or a responsive and responsible Park Service to clear the Mount Vernon Trail. Alas, the smart money is on the weatherman.

 

 

I Bike and I Vote

Today was a pretty nice day to be a bike commuter. On the way to work Little Nellie asked me to take her picture at Dyke Marsh. So I did.

Foggy day on #mvt #dykemarsh

I don’t remember much about getting to work. That’s a good sign though. It means I was in my trance.

My body hasn’t adjusted to standard time yet. I woke up at 5:25 and my body said, “Let’s get going.” This meant that I could leave work a little early. About a mile from the office I spotted the Washington Monument bathed in a faint red glow so I stopped and took another picture.

DC aglow #mvt

I wasn’t planning on voting today. I am really, really sick of politics. And my area of Fairfax County is so Democratic that most of the local election results are a fait accompli. During the day, however, I read Bree’s blog post about biking to the polls. It’s important for everyday cyclists like me to show up at the polls, not so much for our vote, but simply to wave our political flag. This year it was a way to demonstrate my support for the brand new bicycle lanes on Parkers Lane which happens to be where the school that houses my polling place is.

One nice residual effect of the bicycle lanes is that drivers are going a lot slower. Unfortunately, one driver, apparently afraid he wouldn’t get to vote, came flying into the school parking lot as I was leaving. My vote won’t matter a whole lot to me if I am dead. It’s going to take more than bike lanes to change the culture in Fairfax County.

Take a Walk VDOT

It’s been a stressful week. I only rode to work twice as a result of little sleep. I reached out to a couple of friends and they gave me interesting advice about my stress. One friend, a single woman, whose father abandoned her family when she was growing up, told me to look out for number one. The other, a father with family issues that boggle the mind, told me that I need to put things in perspective, chill, and work the problem. As it turned out the problem worked itself and I was blissfully relieved of stress at 4 pm on Friday. Even my boss telling me that a project that I had worked on for months had all but crashed and burned didn’t phase me. I rode home with a smile on my face and a mild tailwind that felt like a gale.

Today was devoted to Christmas shopping. I ordered a few things online, then headed out to Potomac Yard to battle the crowds. I used my bikey knowledge of the roads to bypass most of the traffic. The parking lot was packed. I parked far from the store, walked in, and it was EMPTY. A sales clerk helped me pick out the stuff I was looking for and I was done in 10 minutes. I was all ready for some PTSD, but I left in a state of bewilderment.

I arrived home with time on my hands. The idea of riding for riding’s sake didn’t float my boat. What to do? I called Gold’s Gym to cancel my son’s idle membership. They said, “You have to come in and sign a cancellation form.” Really. You want to hassle me when I already told you I’m not doing business with you any more? Turning an annoyance into a plus, I put on my hiking shoes and headed out to Gold’s 1 1/2 miles away. I did okay for about a mile until I came to an intersection that was recently re-striped by VDOT. There were no crosswalks at all. Fail.

I ran across the street with another walker and his dog.

When I got to US 1 I pushed the idiot walk button and waited. I stopped counting the cars at 100 as they flew past me. And that was only in one direction.

Gold’s is at the back of a parking lot with no separate pedestrian access. If you want to walk at Gold’s you have to do it on a treadmill. Is this a great country or what?

After cancelling the membership, I retraced my steps. Rather than deal with the crosswalkless intersection I stayed on the far side of the street and walked a quarter mile to the nearest crosswalk.  Just before I reached the crosswalk I came upon this:

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Are you kidding me? The switchbox for the traffic light was plopped directly in the sidewalk. Look closely and you’ll see that the post for the traffic light is also anchored in the sidewalk. VDOT fail.

Incidentally, this is about 50 yards from where my wife was run over by an SUV back in 2011. You’d think they’d get their act together. You’d think wrong.

The Introverted Advocate

Myers-Briggs tests consistently show that I am an introvert with a capital I. My idea of hell on earth is being in a big reception and not knowing anybody. Another manifestation of hell on earth is US Route 1 in Fairfax County. To put two hells together I attended a long range planning meeting tonight on the future of Route 1. The meeting was billed as “Route 1 Multimodal Alternatives Analysis”. Sounds exciting, doesn’t it?

It’s actually a pretty interesting project. Route 1 has no rail rapid transit, is overwhelmed by car traffic, is a nightmare to ride a bike on or walk across, and is butt ugly. And the 15 miles of Route 1 between Alexandria and Route 123, just over the Prince William County line, is expected to see plenty of growth in the next 25 years.

The project is being done by a bunch of state and local agencies that recognize that planning for more car traffic which currently rules the road is a non-starter. Many years ago the people who planned Metro decided not to run the yellow line down Route 1. Everyone now sees what a mistake this was. The future will almost certainly include a rail (light or heavy) or bus rapid transit. It will also include something like six lanes for cars. Eek!

The meeting was held at the South County government center on Route 1 about 1 1/2 miles from my house. Normally, I had already ridden this stretch of Route 1 earlier in the day to fetch my car from a body shop. That was in daylight with no rain. The meeting was after dusk and rain was falling. I drove. Shoot me.

The perimeter of the meeting room was lined with posters explaining various aspects of the project. I saw the word “bicycle” twice. Once was on a board about the desire to build a healthy alternative to the current car-centric mess. The other was on a poster that showed the new bike lanes already being built along Route 1 through Fort Belvoir. I was not optimistic about the bicycle aspects of the project.

Project leaders gave a 30 minute presentation. For the first 20 minutes, the word bicycle was not mentioned once. In the last ten minutes, it was mentioned six times. The development team realizes that making the corridor bike and pedestrian friendly is a high priority. (There is nowhere to go but up.) One slide was dedicated to the fact that the bike routes near Route 1 are, to cut to the chase, an inadequate mess. When the presenter said that the bike routes in the area lacked “connectivity” I actually laughed out loud, because that’s the word I used on my comment form.

Fortunately the project planners are aware of successful retrofits to old infrastructure in Arlington, DC, Charlotte, and Richmond. They seem to intend to steal liberally from the best of these kinds of projects.

After the presentation I went up to the “connectivity” speaker to offer more bike comments. It turns out he’s a bike commuter (from DC to Arlington). He obviously gets it. Then I got interviewed by a reporter for the Patch online newspapers. I don’t know why she picked me out of the crowd. Maybe it’s the new “Interview Me” tattoo on my forehead.

After the presentation, the project staffers were aligned around the room next to their posters to listen to feedback. I went to one poster to make a comment about biking and the first thing I saw on the adjacent white board was “Make it more bike and ped friendly”! Somebody beat me to the punch. I hung around and chatted with some folks, explaining how much nicer a place it would be to live if you could access all that retail activity without driving.

So, with some irony, I left the meeting and drove home.

Part of me envies the planners because it’s a cool project with so much upside for making the area a better place to live. From 1970 to 1990, Fairfax County bought in to the idea that sprawl and haphazard development was good. Now that county residents have had 20+ years to experience the fruits of these policies, the county and state realize that they have a ton of work to do to make.

 

 

 

 

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.