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Cycling from Clarendon to Rosslyn: The Danger Spots

The Rosslyn-Ballston corridor is filled with cyclists. Unfortunately, it requires a bit of work to navigate safely.

Arlington is, , an oasis of bike friendliness when compared to near by jurisdictions (cough, Fairfax, cough).  However, even Arlington sometimes comes up short.   This is the unfortunate case along one of Arlington’s most travelled routes – Ballston to Rosslyn.  As any regular rider knows, there are a few particular spots along that route that demand careful attention for safe passage.   While the details may be mundane, the big picture is important: careful navigation of these intersections is important to the personal safety of any cyclist in the area.

The trip from Ballston starts out well enough – Fairfax Drive has wide bike lanes and less traffic than Wilson Boulevard.  For this reason, it’s a recommended route on the .  Unfortunately, those bike lanes disappear at the intersection of Fairfax Drive and 1oth Street (in front of GMU Law School).  The expectation (as marked out on the map) is that cyclists will continue along Fairfax Drive by taking a left.  This puts the cyclist on the street that is more often thought of as the place where you park when you drive to Northside Social.  While this street is far preferable to Wilson Boulevard (which gets very narrow at this point), it leaves a cyclist with a confusing array of options at the end.  Since the street ends in a U-turn, a cyclist is asked to 1) transition to a sidewalk, 2) cross a one-way street that invites high-speed turns by cars, and 3) somehow move back into the street by one of two cross-walks on the other side.  This set of choices leads to so much uncertainty – not only on the part of cyclists, but also pedestrians and drivers – that an inherently unsafe intersection is the result.  It’s not clear what the rules of the road are here, so any cyclist passing through this intersection is well-advised to assume nothing and proceed very carefully.

The next tricky spot on the trip is almost the opposite of the last – it’s predictable in its danger, and is almost always the result of a clear violation of the rules of the road.  As a cyclist proceeds down Clarendon Boulevard, the hill down to Courthouse starts just after passing Fillmore Street.  Unfortunately, this also marks the start of a segment of Clarendon Boulevard in which a cyclist must simultaneously watch for: 1) car doors being flung open into the bike lane; 2) Whole Foods-destined left-turners creating traffic that darts into the right lane; and 3) Starbucks-focused drivers who don’t think twice about cutting off anyone else to get to their beverage of choice.  It’s a test for anyone – driver or cyclist – on that stretch of road.  But the stakes are higher for cyclists, who should make themselves visible and predictable while passing through here.

The final spot is the one for which there seems no easy solution – the transition at the bottom of Rosslyn from Lynn Street (or the Custis Trail) to the Key Bridge (or Mount Vernon Trail).  This intersection is almost the perfect storm of conflict – exit ramps from freeways, high-volume pedestrian traffic, and bikes approaching from every direction, on and off the street.  All, of course, are legitimate users of this intersection.  Unfortunately, there’s a daily demonstration there that plenty of each kind of user assumes themselves to be superior to the other two.  Until all of the government entities involved with that intersection – Arlington County, Virginia Department of Transportation, and the National Park Service – cooperate to come up with a design that better separates these users, cyclists are well advised to be keenly observant and err on the side of yielding.  That advice may rub some the wrong way, but it’s better to be alive and annoyed than dead and right.

In fact, that may well be the guiding principle for most of these intersections.

Beth April 06, 2011 at 08:29 PM
I find the series of intersections at Wilson/Fairfax/Clarendon/Washington to be a total mess. I end up switching around among acting like a cyclist (bike lane, hand signals), pedestrian (sidewalks, crosswalks) and driver (take up my own lane). It would be nice to have a clear-cut way to get around safely at these areas!
Geof Gee April 06, 2011 at 11:06 PM
You're describing one of my commuting routes. Making the left into the "Northside Social parking lot" when one is heading down Wilson is a poor choice unless you're walking the bike at the crosswalks, IMO. The morning lights are timed such that if instead you make a left at Wilson Blvd. the light at the intersection of Wilson and Washington Blvd. will either be red or turning red. So there is usually very few moving cars on the ~0.15 miles between 10th ST and Washington Blvd. You even get a chance to peek into the Tranquil Space studio on the right. You'll have to wait for the green and then cross Washington Blvd with the rest of traffic. I'm trying to remember the timing for the lights in the afternoon/evening; but it escapes me at the moment. I'm not sure who your audience is ... but I would tell anyone in the bike lanes to be careful at all of the forks on Wilson Blvd. heading towards Rosslyn since the lanes keep them to the right of potentially right turning traffic; lots of right turning traffic around Courthouse. Again, when heading to Rosslyn, I would suggest to anyone is the bike lane that as they leave Courthouse and start heading downhill that they consider that the bike lane ends abruptly before the road narrows at 16th S/Rhodes St.
Mark Blacknell April 07, 2011 at 03:45 PM
@Beth - I agree. As Geof describes below, I opt to go straight down Wilson - no transition from road to crosswalk to road. However, the narrowness of Wilson at that point leaves some riders distinctly uncomfortable. @Geof - It may be a poor choice, but that's the route that the County has created (which I wish they hadn't done until they properly addressed the exit into Clarendon Circle). I'd never really thought about how the signal timing there could create an ebb in traffic, if you're turning from 10th. I suppose the less-than-confident rider then has the challenge of moving from the bike lane on the right to the left turning lane in fairly short order. I'm not really a fan of coming back down Wilson (from the intersection with 10th) in the evening rush hours, as the seasonal positioning of the sun has drivers squinting straight into it (and not necessarily seeing you on the bike). So I almost always opt over to Fairfax Dr (which has a slightly different alignment & the sun is often obscured by Ballston buildings, anyway).
Mark Blacknell April 07, 2011 at 07:54 PM
Tales from the Sharrows has another take on how to get through the Fairfax Drive/Clarendon Circle intersection: http://talesfromthesharrows.blogspot.com/2011/04/ride-in-47.html

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