Cyclists who commute to Tysons look forward to Fairfax bike plan

By Kafia A. Hosh
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 29, 2010; 7:45 PM

On a crisp, gray morning, Chris French maneuvered a bicycle through Vienna's neighborhood streets on his way to work in Tysons Corner. A narrow curve on Old Courthouse Road was the toughest spot, and some frustrated motorists squeezed past him. But a school bus driver drove patiently behind French, who was cycling about 14 mph from his home in Oakton.

"Rarely do I see somebody wait for me," he said after the ride, his face slightly red but with no sign of sweat.

Biking to work is a choice offered mostly in cities. And in traffic-choked Tysons, where the car is king, it can be a challenge. The area has few public biking facilities. And lately, making the ride tougher is the construction of the Metrorail line to Dulles International Airport and the Capital Beltway's high-occupancy toll lanes.

As part of efforts to redevelop Tysons into an urban downtown, Fairfax County is forming a long-term plan to add bike lanes, trails and other facilities to the area.

The Tysons portion is the first phase of an effort to create a biking infrastructure across the county. The plan is scheduled to be released in February and will require the approval of the Board of Supervisors.

Those who bike to work in Tysons say the plan is a welcome relief.

Right now, "it's a challenge, and a lot of them have to be pretty confident road cyclists to get to work," said Jeffrey Hermann, project manager for the county's bicycle master plan.

"We want to expand beyond those people and make it sort of an everyday, every person" thing, he said.

Cyclists occupy an awkward zone between pedestrian and driver. Yet that zone could soon be ideal for traversing Tysons, an area torn between a car-centric present and hopes of a denser, more urban future. Even though parts of the transformed Tysons probably won't soon meet the goal of complete walkability, they will at least be cycleable.

The plan includes bike racks and lockers at the four Metrorail stations being built in Tysons. It recommends connections to the Washington and Old Dominion Trail and a trail parallel to Route 7. Construction of bike lanes on Gallows Road is scheduled to begin in the spring.

The plan might consider shared lane markings and bike-safety questions on driver's license exams.

Until the changes take place, cyclists must ride through construction zones. Many once used Route 7's service roads, which have closed to make room for a rail line down the median.

"Conditions weren't great before, but they're a little bit worse now - with the prospect of them being much better once the construction is over," said Bruce Wright, who chairs Fairfax Advocates for Better Bicycling and helped shape the bike plan.

Michele Schachter bikes 14.7 miles each way from her Dupont Circle home to work at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

It's a mostly smooth commute that takes her through Rock Creek Park, along the Custis Trail and the Washington and Old Dominion Trail and to a wide sidewalk on Gallows Road. But the last stretch gets tricky.

Schachter loops around Tysons Corner Center and then gets on the Westpark Bridge, which is being widened as part of the HOT lanes project. There she must avoid dips in the pavement.

A car's tire "probably wouldn't even feel it," she said, "but if I hit that thing I would be dead!"

Despite the challenges, several Tysons employers encourage biking to work, sowing the seeds of a future in which cyclists will be more common.

Booz Allen Hamilton, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Freddie Mac and Science Applications International Corp., where French works, all have bike clubs.

Booz Allen recently installed lockers next to its bike racks so cyclists can store their gear.

Schachter said her office has showers and lockers, as well as pumps, tire-repair kits and bike racks. She works earlier hours to avoid riding in the dark.

Her bosses "think it's hilarious," she said of her commute. "But they're so supportive."

It takes Schachter about 70 minutes to get to work, less time than using Metro, which would involve taking two trains and a bus.

French said he is looking forward to the changes and hopes the new bike lanes will be sufficiently wide, because motorists pass him too closely.

"I could extend my hand and easily touch their car; that's how close they are," French said.

Schachter doesn't own a car, so she said the bike improvements are important for her. She said she would like to see connections between trails and office complexes.

Lack of such connections is "what deters people" from biking, she said.

For the most part, the cyclists say that drivers are patient and aware of them, but they have had some close calls.

As Schachter crossed Gallows Road one afternoon, a car making a right turn bumped into her. She was not hurt, but the driver took her to buy a new tire.

"He jumped out of the car and said, 'Oh, I'm a biker, too; I'm so sorry,' " Schachter recalled.

French gets honked at occasionally, and some motorists try to pass him on two-lane roads. "You're definitely outnumbered and outweighed," he said. "You realize how small you are."

It seems that French will be relying even more on his bicycle. His Honda Civic needed repairs after being struck last week by another car as it sat parked on a neighborhood street.

"I guess that inconvenience won't be so great," he said with a faint smile.

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