Snow Stopper: Arlington County's Trail Clearing Efforts Fall Short
Lots of Arlington cyclists ride right through the winter, but they're not getting enough help from Arlington County in dealing with the snow and ice.
As many of Arlington’s cyclists were reminded on Tuesday morning, snow and ice can make things far more complicated for the rider on a bike than the driver in a car. With just two points of contact with the ground, a slippery patch doesn’t just threaten the cyclist’s steering – it can take the bike right out from under her. For this reason, clear roads and trails are especially important to cyclists trying to navigate Arlington in the winter.
Unfortunately, the plow truck drivers clearing the streets usually seem as if they don’t think about cyclists at all. Bike lanes are often ignored or - worse - used as a convenient place to deposit plowed snow. This, at least, leaves cyclists with the option of simply riding in the cleared lane.
Cyclists who rely on the trails, however, face more challenges than those on the roads. While Arlington County does make some efforts to clear the trails, they’re prioritized well behind streets in terms of resources allocated. Arlington’s Department of Environmental Services is in charge of clearing County-controlled streets, and has a force of 150 workers to clear them. In contrast, the Department of Parks, Recreation & Cultural Resources has a single trail crew that is responsible for almost all of the trails within the County borders.
The trail crew focuses first on clearing routes to schools, then on paths to Metro stations, and finally on the remainder of the trails. In practice, this usually means that temperatures have cleared the trails by the time there’s available manpower to address the issue. Cyclists can't always rely on naturally rising temperatures, though. During last year’s multi-storm winter, some sections of the W&OD trail were iced over for weeks, forcing all but the most well-equipped riders to get off and walk (or avoid the trail entirely). Arlington hasn’t experienced the same crippling waves of storms this year, but many cyclists have reported dangerously icy trail sections long after recent snows. This isn't the fault of the existing trail crew - it's the fault of there only being one.
The lack of resources dedicated to ensuring clear and safe routes for cyclists is frustrating to many in Arlington. Further, it serves to undercut Arlington County’s oft-repeated claim that it treats cycling as a form of transportation on par with cars. In the end, the best approach for Arlington’s cyclists is to first take responsibility for their own ability to get around safely (e.g., ride on cleared roads, use tires appropriate to the conditions, and leave plenty of time for trips). After that, riders should let Arlington County know that it needs to allocate enough manpower and equipment to make its streets and trails passable for all users. Drivers aren’t the only citizens who deserve safe transportation routes.
You can report trail problems by writing to trails [at] arlingtonva.us. Writers should take care to be as specific about the location as possible.
Arlington’s new snow reporting tool can’t address trail problems (yet), but you can use it to report issues on streets.
You can reach all of the Arlington County Board members at countyboard (at) arlingtonva.us.