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An Ongoing Conversation: Making Rosslyn Safer for Cyclists, Motorists

Recent car-bike collisions a sign 'something has to happen.'

“Whoa! Whoa! Right there!”

A car was turning right onto Lynn Street from the I-66 off-ramp at Lee Highway. It almost hit a man on a bicycle.

“We almost had a demonstration!”

And so began a gathering of about 40 cycling enthusiasts and various Arlington County officials, including Police Chief Doug Scott, Monday night on the corner of Lee Highway and Lynn Street – .

For more than an hour, the county’s volunteer Bicycle Advisory Committee heard plans and promises for bettering the intersection. They asked questions, made suggestions and waded through the finer points of Virginia law.

And every so often, someone would point toward the northeast corner of the intersection at a cyclist narrowly avoiding being hit by a car.

While the night was categorized as the beginning of a dialogue between cyclists, police and county officials, three items stood out:

  • Scott personally committed to more police enforcement at the intersection, beginning this week.
  • Arlington’s urban transportation director, Dennis Leach, pledged the county would review existing signs at the intersection and determine whether improvements could be made.
  • Everyone was made aware of an Oct. 5 public input meeting on two projects that include the intersection, projects that could potentially make it safer for pedestrians and cyclists.

But it’s not as if the night solved everyone’s problems – or anyone’s problems. Not immediately. And there was concern that as Arlington continues to promote itself as a pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly community, the number of people using the intersection is going to dramatically increase.

“This intersection is going to be more congested a year or two from now,” said Steve Offutt of Westover. “There needs to be some thought as to how we resolve this as the number of cyclists doubles.”

Who's on first?

Thoughts and actions often aren’t on the same timetable.

There was plenty of grumbling about improvements being proposed over a decade ago that, even though the money’s been available, still linger in the bureaucratic process. David Goodman, the county’s bicycle and pedestrian program manager, said part of that was because parts of the projects were initially given informal nods by the state and then later rejected – forcing the county to go back to the drawing board.

Complicating the matter is that Arlington doesn’t own any of the property in the area in question. It’s an amalgamation of land under the jurisdiction of the Virginia Department of Transportation, the District of Columbia and the National Parks Service.

“It doesn’t get much harder than that,” Leach said. “When you’ve got that set of institutions overlaid, it’s real challenging.”

About 2,000 cyclists pass through the intersection each day, he said.

'Something has to happen'

Since January 2008, seven collisions involving bicycles and automobiles have been reported at the intersection, plus one involving a pedestrian. Three of the car-bike crashes happened this summer. Several people in the crowd said dozens, if not hundreds, had gone unreported.

The latest crash, on Aug. 10, left cyclist Paul Tate with hospital bills and a warning ticket for failure to obey a sign, according to a county memo obtained by Patch.

Scott said that collision has received more scrutiny than any other in years. It has been reviewed by five levels of supervisors, and each determined Tate was at fault – that he was in the best position to avoid the crash.

The police chief admitted, however, that there was no way to gauge the cyclist’s speed. One person said Tate was forced to make a split-second decision as to whether he would try to swerve around an out-of-nowhere vehicle in front or back – and he chose the latter. Tate was not present Monday night, officials said.

Warning tickets carry no penalty and no fines. Tate is free to pursue civil action against the driver. But the incident still angered Arlington’s robust cycling community.

The Lee-Lynn intersection “has always been a problem,” said Mark Blacknell, chairman of the all-volunteer advisory committee.

He referenced the three recent bike-car collisions at the intersection and said, “This is a sign that something has to happen.”

Personal Responsibility

One point of contention is that Virginia is a “yield state.”

That means drivers are required to yield, but not come to a complete stop, when a pedestrian or cyclist is in the intersection.

According to state law, pedestrians on a crosswalk “shall be given the right-of-way by drivers of all vehicles.” State law further stipulates that cyclists have all the rights and responsibilities of pedestrians. But then it defines a bicycle as a vehicle. Any changes would have to be made by the General Assembly.

“Just because you have the right of way doesn’t mean you can walk out in front of a car,” said police Capt. Jim Wasem, who heads the department’s patrol section.

“What we’ve been advising people is to take responsibility for your own safety.”

The refrain was repeated as day became night.

“This is a dangerous intersection. There’s no other way to describe it if you’re a bicyclist or pedestrian,” Scott said. “I’ve run through this area. I don’t bike here.”

Cyclists were advised to do their best to make eye contact with drivers. Several said they would raise their hand when approaching the intersection in order to get the attention of oncoming motorists.

'A tricky thing'

As police reminded cyclists that they were the ones best able to control their speed, one young woman in the crowd muttered under her breath, “Isn’t that like telling a girl not to wear a short skirt or else she’s asking to be raped?”

Last year, Arlington police participated in a statewide concentrated traffic enforcement program and focused on the Lee-Lynn intersection.

Over five days, 450 warnings were issued, predominantly to pedestrians and cyclists.

“If I’m a cyclist, and I’m familiar with this intersection… I’m going to bring my speed down,” Scott said.

Police, too, are worried about making the problem worse.

Pulling a vehicle involves flashing lights, which often distracts other drivers. And this is an intersection where they don’t want to add to the distractions.

The bottom line, Scott said, is both cyclists and drivers have yield responsibilities.

“Right of way is a tricky thing,” he said.

Short- and long-term

Arlington County Board Member Jay Fisette, a cyclist himself, talked afterward about common ground, but it was clear he wasn’t entirely comfortable with the answers that were being given.

“At some point, we have to realize there has to be some clear indication of right of way,” he said.

“The law does not speak to speed. I totally appreciate and agree that there’s a common-sense element to crossing an intersection. But my understanding is once you step off the curb, you have the right of way.”

Fisette said he might support a speed limit for bicycles – if that was ever possible to measure and enforce.

“I want to be in a place that encourages cyclists and pedestrians to keep biking and keep walking, and not have to worry that a car can interrupt them,” he said.

Scott said he was convinced the long-term solution would come from engineering.

But, “Until that is in place, we’ve got to pay as much attention as we can to this intersection,” he said.

Hurry up and wait

On the engineering side, the Lee-Lynn intersection has been under scrutiny for at least 11 years, said Goodman, who acts a liaison between the cycling committee and the county manager’s office.

One proposal eliminates the left-most northbound lane on Lynn Street heading toward Key Bridge. Doing so would give pedestrians and cyclists less distance to go at the crosswalk and improve their visibility to oncoming traffic.

The idea is somewhere in the morass of the DOT’s review process.

The county, too, wants to widen the northeast corner of the intersection and clean up the “mess” of tree limbs and poles that clog a driver’s line of sight.

Delaying traffic would be difficult, Goodman said, because any proposal that backs up traffic coming off the interstate wouldn't be approved by DOT.

Some mentioned an overpass or underpass for those on foot or bicycles. While not impossible, Goodman said, the structures would have to be quite long so the incline would comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act – and the required length would put the entrance-exit point on one side on National Park Service land, an obstacle in itself.

Any improvements are still a year or two from implementation, Goodman said.

'An ongoing conversation'

In addition to increased enforcement, police will continue their education campaign, Wasem said.

“There’s room for everybody here,” he said. “We just have to find the right balance.”

Beth Gilbert of Ballston rides her bike to Crystal City during the week and passes through the Lee Highway-Lynn Street intersection every morning and afternoon during rush hour.

“There are things that can be done,” she said. “I’m sure there is a simpler way than all-car or all-bike.”

Blacknell, who writes a weekly cycling column for Patch, said the night was a first step in a longer process.

“We opened the lines of communication a little better,” he said. “I don’t know if any problems were solved. This is an ongoing conversation.”

Geof Gee September 13, 2011 at 02:45 PM
"Pulling a vehicle involves flashing lights, which often distracts other drivers. And this is an intersection where they don’t want to add to the distractions." Am I the only one that thinks that this is just plain silly? One, perhaps it does distract some drivers. But the typical person compensates by driving slower and being careful in other ways which will slow down traffic. Two, I thought that the idea was to get drivers' attention at times to change their future behavior. Isn't this why we pull over vehicles speeding or behaving recklessly?
Jason Spencer September 13, 2011 at 02:49 PM
The problem of the right-turning traffic was brought up a few times -- particularly regarding how multiple cars turning ended up blocking each other's view (especially of those coming down Custis). There seemed to be a fair number of people who said they've seen three cars turning right at the same time, despite what lane they're in, which further complicates the problem. Jason
Steve O September 13, 2011 at 04:13 PM
Perhaps that's why the preponderance of warnings went to peds & bikes. Not because there were more of them behaving poorly, but because it was easier for the police to target them.
Nancy September 13, 2011 at 08:04 PM
Great article and comments. I also would add that, in my experience, cars tend only to look for other CARS before turning -- thus if a car is turning right onto Lynn St., the drivers tend to look only to the left for cars coming into the space where they are trying to turn, and not straight ahead or to the right where pedestrians and/or bikes might be approaching from. This behavior is a problem not just at the Lee Hwy/Lynn St intersection, but all over. Also, speed headign east on Custis is a problem -- mostly because that section of the trail is a steep downhill so one really needs to brake for awhile before the Marriott to avoid excessive speed. Of course, if one does that, then one often nearly gets slammed into from behind by another cyclist choosing to take full advantage of the downhill. Perhaps this issue is broader than just the intersection, but about the design of much of the Custis Trail overall. I have seen many, many near misses at the intersection of the Custis and entrance to Key Bridge Marriott as well.
Phil September 15, 2011 at 03:56 PM
I agree that the problem is bikes travelling East. The set of lights are obviously times for East bound vehicular traffic. That means that if you make the light by the Marriot you are extremely unlikely to make the Lynn st light without going too fast and even then you would hit it at the end of the cycle when cars are going to insist on making the turn (of they aren't going to make it). going East you just have to accept you are going to have to wait the cycle at at least one of these lights.

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