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Bicycling advocates skeptical of lanes proposed on Merrifield’s Ellenwood Drive

Ellenwood Drive at the Jersey Drive intersection in Merrifield (via Google Maps)

(Updated at 3:40 p.m.) Fairfax County hopes to get a head start on its annual street paving and restriping efforts this year, thanks to the D.C. area’s warmer-than-usual winter weather.

The county and Virginia departments of transportation program will kick off next month in Merrifield with the proposed addition of bicycle lanes on Ellenwood Drive from Route 29 to Route 50, along with crosswalks at two intersections.

“Because of the warmer winter weather, VDOT recently began repaving some streets during the winter on short notice,” an FCDOT spokesperson said. “The Ellenwood Drive project was selected for this accelerated schedule, which also helps reduce the repaving backlog.”

The street’s two travel lanes will narrow to 10 feet to make room for the 5-foot-wide bicycle lanes, which would be separated from the curb by 7-foot-wide parking lanes, according to a presentation from the Fairfax County Department of Transportation.

Ellenwood Drive proposed bicycle lanes cross-section (via FCDOT)

In addition to linking two key thoroughfares, Ellenwood Drive is a good candidate for on-road bicycle lanes, because it has wide travel lanes, on-street parking and sidewalks on both sides, and the lanes can connect to trails on both ends, FCDOT says.

The Arlington Blvd service road at the southern end of Ellenwood has a trail connection to Armistead Park. In addition, the upcoming Fairfax Landing neighborhood’s developer is constructing a 6-foot-wide asphalt trail that will extend the Armistead Park Trail north to the Route 29 service road.

Per the presentation, parking reductions will be limited to the loss of two spaces at Ellenwood and the Route 29 service road.

However, the Fairfax Alliance for Better Bicycling (FABB) says more parking likely needs to be sacrificed to build bicycle lanes that are actually safe and comfortable to use.

“If you keep on-street parking, your options are very limited to add safe bicycling routes,” FABB board member Shawn Newman said. “Our preferred option would be to remove the parking on one side of that street and to add in buffered bike lanes, so a bike lane with adequate space next to it in order to provide bicyclists space between them and the vehicle.”

While the restriping program has resulted in some good, safe lanes, the new facilities are often similar in design to the lane proposed on Ellenwood, Newman says. The lack of buffers puts bicyclists at risk of either getting hit by passing vehicles or “doored” when people exit their parked cars.

FABB says it was a “challenging decision” to come out in opposition to the county’s proposal, given the group’s mission of advocating for more bicycling infrastructure, but the board feels the planned design would make the lanes a “net negative” for cyclists.

“They look good on paper, but they’re hard to use in reality, and they don’t encourage people to bike more,” Newman said. “What they end up doing is drivers see them, and they see them empty, and they’re like, ‘Why don’t people use the bike lanes?’ Because they’re not comfortable or safe, the end.”

Ellenwood doesn’t have room for the design option suggested by FABB, and it wouldn’t be allowed by VDOT, according to FCDOT spokesperson Robin Geiger. She noted that the proposed design is similar to other bicycle lanes in the county and complies with Federal Highway Administration guidelines.

“Hearing from the community and community partners like FABB is very important in the development of bicycle and pedestrian facilities throughout the county,” Geiger said. “Although not all suggestions are able to be implemented, the input from bicyclists and others who use bike lanes and pedestrian pathways is critical for successful outcomes.”

FCDOT has also proposed painting crosswalks at Jersey Drive and the Arlington Blvd service road. The former will introduce parking restrictions for 11 spaces — one on the west side of Ellenwood and 10 on the east side — while the latter will “repurpose” about eight spaces on the west side.

FCDOT and the Virginia Department of Transportation will discuss the proposal at a virtual public meeting today (Tuesday) at 7 p.m. Comments will only be accepted at the meeting and online through the project page until noon on Friday (March 3).

“Pending community input, the project is scheduled to be repaved within the next few weeks,” FCDOT said.

The department says working with VDOT to add bicycle lanes and crosswalks when it repaves and restripes roads allows it “to increase driver, bicyclist and pedestrian safety with road and crosswalk improvements while minimizing the financial investment in restriping work.”

The 2023 program will take place from spring to November. Most of the planned changes haven’t been announced yet, since the public meetings aren’t scheduled until April.

Photo via Google Maps

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