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Alexandria City Council votes for controversial bike lanes on Seminary Road

Lauren Jenkins, a cycling advocate who commutes by bicycle from the Seminary Road area of Alexandria, says drivers routinely exceed the speed limit.
Lauren Jenkins, a cycling advocate who commutes by bicycle from the Seminary Road area of Alexandria, says drivers routinely exceed the speed limit. (Patricia Sullivan/The Washington Post)

Previous versions of this story wrongly said both opponents and proponents threatened retribution at the polls over the proposal to add bike lanes to Seminary Road. In fact, only some opponents of adding the lanes said they would vote out City Council members who supported the idea.

The Alexandria City Council voted 4 to 3 Saturday for a controversial plan to trade traffic lanes for bike lanes on Seminary Road, despite protests from many residents who said it will worsen gridlock on a congested stretch of the highway just east of Interstate 395.

Instituting a “road diet” — essentially providing just one lane in each direction while adding a center turn lane and bike lanes in both directions — sparked heated disagreement, with some opponents of the lanes threatening retribution at the polls. Neighborhood associations said the change will force more cut-through traffic on their streets, while others, including a number of neighborhood residents, said they want to be able to walk or bike along Seminary between Inova Alexandria Hospital and the Virginia Theological Seminary.

Both sides agreed that the 25 mph speed limit on Seminary is widely ignored and more enforcement of speed limits is needed. They also agreed on the need for better sidewalks and pedestrian crossing signals. But whether the road should remain four lanes divided the community for more than a year.

Preschool teacher Nicole Radshaw told the council that she was hit from behind by a car while riding her bike on the street on Halloween in 2016. Lying on the road, she said, she was “shaking in pain and fear that I was going to be run over again.” She missed a month of work at her new job, her bike was totaled, and she went to a counselor to address her fear.

“I want to bike to work,” she said. “You need to change the design of the road.”

Some residents who have lived in the adjoining neighborhoods for decades said all the change will accomplish is to force frustrated drivers down their not-so-quiet streets, where they walk and their children play in their yards.

Carter Flemming, president of the Seminary Hill Association, said there’s been a false narrative that the choice is safety vs. speed on the road. She said the vast majority of residents supported leaving the four lanes in place, but a number of residents of her neighborhood contradicted the civic association’s stance.

The council split, too, with Mayor Justin Wilson (D), Canek Aguirre (D), Redella S. “Del” Pepper (D) and Elizabeth Bennett-Parker (D) supporting the “road diet,” while John T. Chapman (D), Amy Jackson (D) and Mohamed E. Seifeldein (D) opposed it.

“What we have seen is two very well-organized and very passionate groups with very different ideas about how we use the roads,” said Yon Lambert, Alexandria’s director of transportation and environmental services.

It’s a battle that has played out before in Alexandria, a 144,000-resident Northern Virginia city where many value the juxtaposition of a suburban lifestyle with urban amenities, and politicians are trying to alleviate congestion with policies that encourage people to walk or use bikes when possible. There were fights over plans to narrow a portion of King Street to accommodate bike lanes, and to reduce speed limits on Quaker Lane and Seminary Road.

The city claims victory in both instances; traffic has slowed down on both streets, and more bicyclists are using King Street than had in the past, Lambert said.

Both sides had petitions with more than 1,000 signatures in support of their positions.

“I bike to work every day along here,” said Lauren Jenkins, communications director for the League of American Bicyclists, who lives in a townhouse in the Seminary Hill neighborhood. She was not eligible to join the neighborhood’s civic association and voice her opinion on the road project because until this month the group restricted membership to owners and renters of single-family homes.

“Cars are going very fast, over the speed limit,” Jenkins said. “When I come up that hill, I see [on the speed metering sign] that I’m going 11 mph and cars are going by me at 42 mph.”

Others, like Kay Stimson, president of the North Ridge Civic Association, contend that trying to turn just a portion of a commuter route into a calmer street simply won’t work.

A better solution, Stimson said, is a “road toning,” by adding more buses to existing routes and monitoring their use, as well as better traffic studies. She and others reject modeling studies that show narrowing the road would result in delays of six or seven seconds, at most.

“North Ridge has three to five of the highest turnout precincts in the city. No issue has ever energized residents like this one,’  ” Stimson warned the council members.

The Seminary Road reduced-lane proposal supports Alexandria’s 2008 transportation master plan, the 2014 “complete streets” policy, the 2016 pedestrian and bicyclist master plan and the 2017 Vision Zero master plan, aimed at reducing pedestrian traffic deaths. But Stimson said resident opposition must be considered as well.

“We love our bike lanes and we’re all for pedestrian safety,” she said. “But this decision may be a tipping point for citizens. . . . It’s as though [the city] has a predetermined conclusion no matter what the citizens say, that they’re going to put us on a road diet.”

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