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Arlington's Streets Aren't Always Under Arlington's Control

Who, exactly, is responsible for making the roads in Arlington safer for cyclists and pedestrians? The answer turns out to be more complicated than you might expect.

Anyone living in Arlington is used to the mishmash of jurisdictions and overlapping authorities that exist in the Washington metro area.

While these boundaries usually fade into the background, they can very much influence how we live. In Arlington, the matter of who controls our streets has a big impact.

Arlington County has committed itself to making streets here "complete streets" – that is, making sure streets serve not only drivers, but also pedestrians and cyclists.

This often involves making sure sidewalks are always available, that signal timing offers enough time for non-motorized users to cross an intersection, and that speeds are set to safely accommodate all forms of traffic. These policies have resulted in significant changes to streets like Wilson Boulevard over recent years.

The "complete streets" policies are part of Arlington's approach to transportation, but they've not been universally adopted. This is a problem when Arlington County wants to make pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly changes to streets that it doesn't control. While Arlington County controls a far greater percentage of the streets within its own borders than most counties in Virginia, many of its major roads belong to other entities.

Arlington County does not control Lee Highway, Fairfax Drive or the George Washington Parkway, among others. As a result, the county must go through a lengthy review process with the controlling entities whenever it wants to make changes to improve those roads.

For example, any changes to the signals at the intersection of Lee Highway and Lynn Street, or Fairfax Drive and Glebe Road – both rather dangerous sites for pedestrians and cyclists – require the approval and cooperation of the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT).

This is the case for even simple signal timing changes, like extending the cross time for pedestrians. This approval process is not only time consuming – it may not result in the outcomes desired by Arlington, as VDOT generally places less priority than the county on non-motorized users of streets.

Arlington County views these extra complications as so troublesome that it is sometimes worth taking on the expenses of ownership in return for authority over a road – as happened with Columbia Pike, last year.

Until Arlington County has control over all of the streets within its own borders, it will likely take much longer to make all of its streets “complete streets” and safer for all users.

Mark Blacknell is chairman of the Arlington Bicycle Advisory Committee, a member of the board of directors of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, and a League Cycling Instructor.

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