All it takes to understand the volume of traffic on Alexandria’s King Street is to walk west of the Metrorail station and stand a few minutes on the curb.
Cars, trucks, buses and highway-bound semis accelerate up the slope toward Janneys Lane. Another mixed fleet, which sometimes includes emergency vehicles, barrels downhill toward Old Town. About 12,750 vehicles per day use the 30-foot-wide street, at speeds averaging about 34 mph, despite the 25 mph speed limit.
Pedestrians, separated from traffic by only a curb and, in some places, parked cars, walk warily along the sidewalks on both sides of the street. An occasional bicyclist — either 12 or 24 per day, depending upon whom you ask — will risk the ride.
The city of Alexandria, in what it says is an attempt to improve safety for drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists, plans to remove 27 of the 37 on-street parking spots in front of those King Street homes to make way for bike lanes for seven-tenths of a mile.
The plan, underway since summer, has not met with universal acclaim.
“My brave little neighborhood of King Street in Alexandria, Va., has calmly met the challenges of the Revolution, the War of 1812 and the Civil War, but now we’re seriously annoyed,” wrote Frank Buckley in the Wall Street Journal in November.
Buckley, who has lived along King Street for 23 years, called a bike lane “an attractive nuisance — a dangerous situation like a hole that people fall into.”
Rich Baier, the director of the city’s transportation and environmental services department, decided in December that a compromise version of the street project would go forward. All that postpones it is the weather; as soon as temperatures warm enough for crews to re-stripe the street, the project will commence.
But residents intend to ask the City Council on Saturday to overturn Baier’s decision.
Baier said he’s required by city policy to increase safety for all users whenever streets are resurfaced. The way to handle speeding vehicles, he said, is to narrow the lanes and install a variable speed sign. The way to improve pedestrian safety, he said, is to install dedicated lanes for bicycles to take bicycles off sidewalks.
“One mode [of transportation] that isn’t provided for is moving along at 3 or 4 miles per hour, while another mode, weighing two tons, is going 30 to 35 miles per hour,” Baier said. “Where is the safety issue? Where we have the greatest differential in speed.”
Under Baier’s plan, the traffic lanes would narrow from 15 feet wide to 10.5 feet. Bike lanes on each side would take up either four or five feet. The on-street parking was rarely used, a city survey found, averaging between three and four vehicles parked there on the 14 separate times that the surveyors looked. Each home along the route has at least one off-street parking spot, and most have more than one, Baier said.
But residents were adamant about the necessity of retaining parking. So, after multiple community meetings, Baier and his staff came up with a compromise: Ten of the 37 on-street parking spots could be saved by shortening the bike lanes and requiring riders to mix with vehicular traffic at the easternmost and westernmost ends of this section of King.
“Our preference was to have a bike lane the whole way, but what we heard from residents was to return the parking,” Baier said.
Aaron Eastman, who lives near the Metrorail end of the street, said he’s not just upset at the loss of parking, but he’s also now worried about safety.
“We thought this was worse than the first [decision]. Why are bicyclists merging into traffic?” he said from his doorstep, his infant daughter on his hip. “Physically, there is literally no room for bikes here.”
Just west of King Street, there’s a quiet network of neighborhood streets. None are entirely parallel to King, but a combination of them could provide an almost complete alternative, Eastman noted.
“Just using signage, the city could map out a bike route only one-tenth of a mile longer, without going down King. We think it would be considerably safer,” he said. The scofflaws who exceed the speed limits can be handled more directly. “If your goal is to minimize speed, enforce the speed limit.”
Bicyclists and supporters of Alexandria’s “complete streets” movement rallied to support the addition of bike lanes along King Street, particularly at a November hearing of the Traffic and Parking Board. Forty-eight of the 60 speakers were in favor of the lanes, and the board voted to defer the project to get more community consensus.
Baier, in an interview Friday, said that adding improvements such as “high-visibility” crosswalks, a flashing beacon and signs for alternative bike routes, as well as retaining some of the parking spots, addresses the residents’ concerns. He spent hours walking, driving and bicycling the street, he said, and hired a professional engineering firm to review the city plan.
“This is a main roadway, to main destinations in the city of Alexandria,” Baier said. “I am not trying to rush this thing. We’re trying to be sure the process is transparent. My main concern, throughout all this, has been safety.”