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Cycling’s Challenge: The Windshield Perspective

Arlington County temporarily shuts down a major walking/cycling commuter route with no detour.

No doubt many regular readers of this column will be expecting me to tee off on last week’s inexplicable and unannounced closure of a very busy part of the Custis Trail — with no detour.

It sent cyclists and pedestrians onto Lee Highway against traffic. The drivers themselves had no warning that the lane in front of them would be filled with cyclists and pedestrians simply trying to get to their own destinations. It was more than half a day before the county, in response to complaints, put a detour in place.

Some, quite understandably, see this as a failing of Arlington County to follow through on its promise to be a cycling- and walking-friendly community. And, I suppose, in a way it is a failure. But it’s not a failure of intent. I’m sure no one in the county offices planning the curb replacement considered, and then affirmatively rejected, putting a safe detour in place. I suspect, rather, that the need for a detour never even occurred to whoever planned the replacement.

People who don’t ride or walk much simply don’t appreciate what an important role infrastructure makes to those who do.

When you’re encased in a climate-controlled box that is insulated from sound, buffered from surface conditions, and protected against impact, you tend to get what’s called a “windshield perspective.”

While the windshield perspective is certainly common — most people in this country have it, I’d say — it’s also isolating. It tends to reduce empathy to those using the streets in different ways. It limits the ability to fully appreciate the considerations that go not just into using our streets, but also into planning, building and maintaining a fully functioning transportation network. 

So the lack of a detour on the Custis? I’m sure it wasn’t a conscious choice. Instead, it was almost certainly the product of a collection of individuals who don’t ride or walk much. Just like the construction crew that doesn’t think twice about leaving a dangerous lip on the road, this crew apparently didn’t think that closing a small section of sidewalk was a big deal. 

So how does that change? Well, there’s the obvious approach — improved project management, in which mandatory consideration of the impact of a project on cyclists and pedestrians is part of every construction project.

There’s also the long term — and much more difficult — approach. It's the one that gets real results. It’s about making sure that staff who work on our transportation infrastructure don’t just understand that it’s for different modes of travel, but also actually use those different modes of travel from time to time.

There is no substitute for getting out from behind the windshield. This is especially true when you’re working on infrastructure that serves thousands of daily users who have already gotten out from behind theirs.

Peace on Earth('s streets), and goodwill toward all (users).

The windshield perspective is also on full display here, at the Washingtonian magazine’s blog. I don’t think it’s malicious at all, just... well, WashCycle can take it from here

Is your child getting a new bike for Christmas?  Please don't throw away his or her old one! Arlington's Phoenix Bikes, Alexandria's VeloCity Co-op, or the internationally focused Bikes for the World will happily take your old bikes. And if you're in the seasonal giving spirit, they'd even more happily take your cash support.

Finally, I want to thank Arlington Parks and Recreation's Susan Kalish for responding to last week's piece on snow removal here. As a small point, I don't think anyone's asking for salting — though it may not be inappropriate in the concrete canyon leading through Rosslyn. And while I take and appreciate the point that Parks and Recreation is still looking for solutions, it's been more than two years since this issue was formally raised with Arlington County. Perhaps the recent change in leadership will finally bring action.  

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

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