Alexandria, VA

(Updated at 3 p.m.) Micro-mobility company Helbiz is poised to be the first company in Alexandria offering both e-scooters and e-bikes in Alexandria.

“Helbiz… has been awarded a permit to operate both its innovative e-bikes and e-scooters in Alexandria, Virginia, making it the only company to offer both transportation solutions in the market,” the company said in a press release. “This permit follows the launch of the company’s fleet of e-bikes in neighboring Washington, D.C. and highlights Helbiz’s continued commitment to offering eco-friendly micro-mobility solutions in the area.”

Gian Luca Spriano, a spokesperson for the Italian-American company, said it would be partnering with Alexandria’s Department of Transportation to ensure safety is prioritized and the company has met all the regulatory standards.

The press release noted that the company plans to operate 200 e-scooters and 200 e-bikes in Alexandria, deployed at some point “in the coming weeks.”

The e-scooters and e-bikes are accessible through the Helbiz app, in which users can locate, rent, and unlock the devices.

Photo via Helbiz/Twitter

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Even while the debate still rages on over the Seminary Road diet, the City of Alexandria is looking at other locations that could be altered to be more bicycle and pedestrian-friendly.

Several streets are scheduled for repaving, which the city uses as an opportunity to look at which ones could benefit the most from being redesigned with safety in mind, to align with the city’s Vision Zero plan — though some have questioned whether the redesigns make the streets safer.

According to a press release:

In 2011, City Council adopted the Complete Streets Policy. This policy required that street improvements be made for all roadway users as part of regular maintenance whenever possible. When streets are repaved, this provides an opportunity to upgrade parts of the street to better serve people of all ages and abilities by improving safety, access, and mobility.

Currently, the City of Alexandria is looking for community input on whether the following streets should be converted to “Complete Streets.”

  • Alfred Street (First Street to Church Street)
  • Cameron Mills Road (Virginia Avenue to Allison Street)
  • Morgan Street (North Chambliss Street to cul-de-sac)
  • Rayburn Avenue (North Beauregard Street to Reading Avenue)
  • Reading Avenue (Rayburn Avenue to North Beauregard Street)
  • West Street (Duke Street to Wythe Street)

The public feedback form for Complete Streets is available online until Friday, Feb. 7.

While individual changes would depend on the street being repaved, the City of Alexandria said changes could include:

  • Add or upgrade curb ramps
  • Add or upgrade pedestrian crosswalks
  • Roadway signage
  • Bicycle facilities, such as bike lanes or shared-lane markings
  • Speed cushions or other traffic calming devices
  • Changes to parking
  • Additional pedestrian crossing treatments
  • Minor signal timing changes
  • Lane striping modifications (i.e. striping a parking lane or narrowing travel lanes)

The city has a list of finished Complete Streets projects, but the list hasn’t been updated since 2017 and does not include, for instance, the completed King Street project that narrowed the street and installed new bicycle lanes.

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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It’s rare for a Facebook group to be the topic of discussion at the City Council dais, but Alexandria Residents Against the Seminary Road Diet is no ordinary page.

The group started as a small forum for drivers and residents to express their frustration over the city’s change to a portion of Seminary Road — reducing vehicle travel lanes from four lanes to two, with a turn lane in between, to allow for greater pedestrian and bicycle space.

The change led to traffic congestion for commuters, at least initially, as construction got underway. While the construction has mostly finished, the frustration in the group remains intense.

The backlash to the street change has inspired everything from banners along the street calling to “Retake Seminary Road” to a burger named after that and other Alexandria controversies.

For better or worse, the nearly 1,200 member group has become the digital hub of opposition to the changes on Seminary Road. City officials have been engaged in a long-running debate with residents in the comments section and the Facebook group took center-stage at a spat between two City Council members in a discussion last week about pausing work on Seminary Road.

The group was recently made private, meaning only those who join are allowed to comment and view posts, but while it was public it was extraordinarily active. Members would create numerous new posts every day, and those posts would in turn attract comments, often by the dozen.

There were a few frequent themes of those posts: photos of morning or evening rush hour traffic, links to news articles or videos about the Seminary Road changes, and ideas for how to pressure officials to change the road back to the way it was before.

The level of engagement on the page, and with the issue in general, is — to many — out of proportion to the actual stakes involved.

Chris Weymont, Bill Rossello and Keith Reynolds are the three administrators of the page, and each describes themself as a reluctant advocate drawn into a transportation policy argument.

“It started off on a Friday night with 10 invites and its grown exponentially,” Reynolds said. “I was a disgruntled resident. I thought it would gain a little bit of traction, but not this much. It continues to grow as people continue to find out about the page.”

While Reynolds said he set up the page to act as a forum to air complaints about the new Seminary Road changes, moderating the page started taking up more and more time. That was when Weymont and Rossello, two active early members of the page, were invited to join a small administrative team.

“I started to see some things going on that I didn’t like over a period of time, particularly after the King Street road diet,” Rossello said of his activism.

Rossello said he maybe gets on Facebook to post once or twice a year, but became involved with the page through neighborhood listserv Nextdoor and the Seminary Hill Association. Rossello said he was not active in local civic groups before becoming involved in the Seminary Road debate, but has since been elected to the Seminary Hill board and has been asked to become a member of the Alexandria Civic Federation.

“It grew out of angst a year and a half ago,” Rossello said. “Now I’m in the thick of it.”

Weymont joined later but has been one of the more active administrators in the group — weighing in on discussions and tagging relevant people. According to Weymont, the traffic issue has transcended every other partisan divide, with both avowed Democrats and die-hard Republicans standing side-by-side against the road diet.

“We’re not surprised in multiple ways,” Weymont said. “We know how badly the bike lobby and Mayor wanted this. When it comes to traffic, it’s a quality of life issue, for hardened Democrats and hardened Republicans.”

The group most commonly pointed to as the “bike lobby” is the Alexandria Bicycle & Pedestrian Advisory Committee (BPAC), a local volunteer organization that has been involved in promoting the road diet.

“We feel like we have taken back Seminary Road,” said Jim Durham, chairman of BPAC.

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A new bike campus is all painted and ready to go under the Alexandria side of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

The smooth pavement between the bridge pylons has long been a popular spot for bicyclists on the Mount Vernon Trail or visiting Jones Point Park, but the new signs and lanes on the ground can help new cyclists learn the rules of the road and practice in a safe environment.

At a grand opening ceremony, scheduled for Saturday (Dec. 7) at 10:30 a.m., instructors from the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) will be available to help teach cyclists of all ages about rules on the street and bicycling techniques. A ribbon-cutting is scheduled for 11 a.m.

According to the Facebook page:

WABA is excited to announce the completion of the Alexandria Bike Campus at Jones Point Park! The bike campus will serve as a dedicated space for people of all ages to learn how to ride a bicycle safely, comfortably, and confidently. WABA will be celebrating the completion of the Alexandria Bike Campus with a ribbon cutting on Saturday, December 7 at 11:00 a.m. at Jones Point Park in Alexandria, VA.

We invite you to bring your family and your bicycles to the ribbon cutting and to participate in a demonstration of the bicycle campus. WABA instructors will show how the campus can be used to teach new cyclists of all ages and how even experienced cyclists can learn and practice new skills. Our instructors will be at Jones Point Park at 10:30 AM – we hope to see you then!

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After years of relying on the Virginia’s SMART SCALE grant program to fund transportation projects, changes in the program’s scoring criteria could leave that well dry for Alexandria.

At a Transportation Commission meeting on Monday, Nov. 20, city staff warned that new criteria under consideration by the Commonwealth Transportation Board could shift transportation funding away from existing urban centers like Alexandria and instead favor less dense locales.

“Because road widening projects in other jurisdictions did not score well and were not funded, VDOT has been tasked with re-examining the scoring criteria,” staff said in a letter to the commission. “Many of the changes put transit, bicycle and pedestrian projects at a disadvantage, and projects in denser areas in general.”

The city received $57.2 million in funding in 2019 for the design and construction of bus rapid transit routes in the West End and $50 million for the enhancement of southwest access to the Potomac Yard Metro station. But changes would impact criteria used to prioritize which transportation projects should receive funding.

Staff told the commission at the meeting that the change they’re most concerned about is regarding land use in the scoring criteria. Currently, staff said the program scores existing land uses and densities as well as consideration of changes in density, while the new criteria would prioritize areas that are becoming denser rather than those where density currently exists.

“We feel that severely penalizes places like Alexandria that are already densely built,” staff said.

The criteria would also take into consideration traffic congestion on weekends, where currently projects are only assessed by rush hour congestion. That would hurt Alexandria, which has plenty of rush hour traffic but not as much congestion on the weekend.

“We feel that hurts areas suffering from regional congestion rather than local congestion,” staff said. “That makes it harder for projects in these areas to score well.”

Staff says the criteria changes would prioritize the number of crashes over the severity of crashes, so intersections that see more fender-benders would be ranked higher than intersections that have had multiple fatalities. This principle goes against the Vision Zero goals adopted by the city, staff said.

City staffers told the Transportation Commission that bus rapid transit projects and bicycle-pedestrian projects would be negatively impacted by the changes in criteria.

“The current list completely omits any mention of bicycles and bicycle safety, even as more people statewide are biking,” staff said. “[The Commonwealth Transportation Board] should include bicycle safety and infrastructure projects (such as striping for bicycle lanes, road diets, etc.) as eligible low-cost, high-benefit improvements.”

Staff encouraged the Transportation Commission to approve a drafted letter opposing the criteria changes. No action was taken at the meeting, so that commission members could make changes and sent the letter within the next week.

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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The Capital Bikeshare’s expansion in Alexandria has hit some serious snags that has resulted in at least a two-year delay in the arrival of new stations.

In 2017, the City of Alexandria approved 10 new Capital Bikeshare stations, which would have included a push into the West End and Potomac Yard. The plan was to install them in 2018, according to the Washington Post, but that didn’t happen. Then the city’s FY 2020-29 Capital Improvement Program cited summer 2019 as the proposed completion date, but that hasn’t happened either.

City staff say changes in regulations have resulted in the city being forced to secure new contracts and file more paperwork.

“The city did not install any new Capital Bikeshare stations this summer,” said Sarah Godfrey, public information officer for the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services. “In 2018, VDOT reinterpreted federal regulations governing bikeshare; as a result, every municipality with Capital Bikeshare in the state has been working to secure new contracts and comply with those requirements.”

Now, the city is trying to ride in tandem with Falls Church’s expansion plans.

“Falls Church was the first Northern Virginia municipality to get a new contract in place; we’re working on obtaining permission to ‘ride’ that contract and going through the normal grant processes to fulfill the federal and state requirements,” Godfrey said.

Whether that will be allowed is unclear. In emails between city staff and VDOT officials, obtained by ALXnow, VDOT staff called the proposed piggybacking “uncharted territory” and said that the timeline for that process was unknown.

VDOT staff also said earlier this year that the city still needed to submit documents showing the scope of work involved, a cost estimate for the project, and a document showing the locations of the new bikeshare stations.

“Once we’ve cleared those process and regulatory hurdles, staff will be working to get the… stations that were approved in 2017 installed as quickly as possible,” Godfrey said. “Staff will then begin planning and engagement for the next round of stations, pending approval for additional operating funds, which are considered annually by City Council during the budget process.”

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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A bike rodeo tomorrow (Saturday) will help celebrate the launch of the Mount Jefferson Traffic Garden, a small park designed to help teach children about traffic rules in a safe environment.

Plans for the grand opening include a cycling event for children hosted by the Alexandria Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, to include lessons about key bicycle skills like turning and hand signals.

The event is being held from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. at Mount Jefferson Park, located between the 300 blocks of Hume and Raymond avenues in Del Ray.

Local bicycle shops have also signed up to offer bicycle and helmet safety checks.

Adults are welcome, but the event is aimed at children ages 4-11.

Photo via City of Alexandria/Twitter

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The Bicycle Pro Shop location at 3240 Duke Street is closing down and moving its inventory to other locations throughout the region.

The store is in the midst of closing sales, offering 30-50% off on some items. There are a few mountain bikes left in the store, and a table full of miscellaneous bicycle accessories, but we’re told most of the bicycles are being shipped off to other locations.

The store has been located on Duke Street for ten years, but manager Christian Dent said increasing traffic on Duke Street started to hurt the business starting five years ago. The store is located right off the busy street with a very small parking lot. Dent said he heard from customers that many didn’t want to have to wait in very heavy traffic to get to the shop.

For the last year, he said the company looked around for another location in Alexandria, but couldn’t find anything suitable.

Most of the merchandise and staff will move to the chain’s Springfield location at 5230 Port Royal Road. Dent said the Alexandria store is likely to close for good sometime in mid-to-late November.

As an Alexandria police cruiser with sirens blaring passed by, presumably heading from police headquarters a block away on Wheeler Avenue, Dent noted that he’d miss the customer base in Alexandria but would not miss the noise from Duke Street.

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As Alexandria readies updates for its city-wide transportation plan, the city opened up the floor to other local government experts for lessons learned.

During a community forum last night (Monday) about Alexandria’s new transportation plan, city staffers hosted transit leaders from D.C. to Columbus, Ohio for a discussion on what Alexandria should focus on.

“This is a really exciting time to be in transportation,” said Director of Transportation and Environmental Services (TES) head Yon Lambert, who referenced the projects to build a new Metro station entrance at Potomac Yard, as well as Amazon’s headquarters and the new Virginia Tech campus.

Scooters Are Here to Stay

One new feature of the upcoming master transit plan, renamed “Mobility Plan,” will be the e-scooter program City Council members are considering expanding.

“When they first started they were like big toys,” said Jordan Davis, who heads the Smart Columbus smart city program in Columbus, Ohio and who noted that nowadays many people are using scooters for practical, routine trips. “So I think they’re here to stay.”

When asked by the moderator, about half the 80-member audience indicated they had used e-scooters and e-bikes.

(Data) Sharing is Caring

TES Principal Planner Jennifer Slesinger said one part of the new master plan will focus on smart mobility. Panelists encouraged planners to make real-time data a part of that.

Davis said said if cities publish provide real-time road condition data, navigation apps like Waze or Google Maps can help cut down on cut-through traffic — like the kind experienced on Taylor Run Parkway, Duke Street, and Seminary Road.

Hillary Orr, Alexandria’s Deputy Director of Transportation, previously told WTOP that the city plans to redirect cars out of neighborhoods and back to “arterial” roadways, and use sensor technology to allow buses longer green light time to prioritize transit riders.

Linda Bailey, who leads D.C. Department of Transportation’s embattled Vision Zero initiative, said real-time data could also allow cities to set up systems where delivery trucks can reserve and pre-pay for curb parking, and drivers can also tap into information about local parking garages.

“I have seen a parking garage that is never full just around the corner here,” she said of the Carlyle Place parking garage, adding that “information gaps” are one of the things technology addresses well.

You Can’t “Build” Away Congestion, But You Can Build Safety

Several panelists echoed the famous phrase that planners can’t “build” their way out of congestion problems.

“The only way out of our congestion is to get out of our single-occupancy vehicles,” said Atherton.

When residents asked what role ride hailing companies play in this, considering some studies show they increase road congestion, ride sharing service Via’s Greater D.C. Area General Manager said he’s “in favor” of congestion taxes like New York City’s new cruising tax to encourage more shared rides rather than single-passenger trips.

But experts said safety could be built: Atherton noted some simple solutions like sidewalks are “pretty nuts and bolts.” Bailey said keeping roads narrow and building fixtures like poles in people’s peripheral vision encourages motorists to drive slower.

The D.C. officials said everyone needs to “remember physics.”

“We need to look at force and mass in order to avoid and mitigate crashes to keep people safe,” she said.

Alexandria released a public survey this summer to guide the plans, which will last another decade, as Alexandria Living reported. Posters shared during Monday night’s meeting indicate that the new plan is being designed around the survey responses, in which residents asked for “safety, accessibility, and ease” in their transit modes.

But don’t hold your breath to see the new document: planning discussions are expected to continue into Spring 2020.

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Alexandria cyclists will be able to enjoy a leisurely, 13-mile bike tour of the city’s libraries this weekend.

The city’s seventh annual bike tour of libraries returns this Saturday, October 5 with a two hour ride departing from and returning the Charles Beatley Central Library at 5005 Duke Street. Families are encouraged to attend, although children under the age of 13 must be attached to their parent’s bicycle (with seats or on a tandem.)

Attendance to the event is free, but online registration is required.

Participants are asked to check-in between 9:30 a.m. and 10 a.m. at the library on Saturday, with the tour beginning at 10 a.m. The ride is expected to last until 12:30 p.m.

Cycling joining the tour are asked to bring their own helmets. Water and snacks will be provided, per the event’s webpage.

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The controversial vote to slim down Seminary Road may have passed, but the arguments over Complete Streets and the program’s future in Alexandria are just getting started.

At Agenda Alexandria, a group that meets monthly to discuss the top issues affecting Alexandria with a panel of experts, advocates on every side of the issue clashed over whether the “dieting” of Seminary Road was necessary and what the future holds for major Alexandria streets. At the group’s Sept. 23 meeting, a city official argued with local residents not just over the new bike lanes, but over changes to Alexandria’s transportation policies.

“Our paradigm in the past has been exclusively through the windshield,” said Nate Macek, chair of the Planning Commission. “Complete streets is about looking at [roads] for all users.”

Macek argued the Complete Streets program, which replaces some motorized travel lanes with extended sidewalks and bike lanes, right-sizes road infrastructure to cater to all modes of transportation.

“Complete streets are about roads for everyone, whether that’s biking, walking, or driving,” said Josephine Liu, vice-chair of the Alexandria Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee. “That’s also all ages: children, adults, senior citizens and people who may not be able-bodied.”

But for others, the Complete Streets program is a punitive measure against cars that disproportionately favors bicycles.

“It’s about reorienting the streetscape to accommodate every user,” John Townsend, Manager of Public and Government Relations for AAA Mid-Atlantic. “That’s what it is on paper, but oftentimes it doesn’t work out that way. It gives pride of place to certain modes of transportation and that becomes the inherent problem. There’s nothing wrong with accommodating the streetscape to make them safer or accommodate the maximum number of people, but it comes down to making choices and those choices involve who is in and who is out.”

Townsend argued that in terms of voices on the Complete Streets decision-making, cars are “the low person on the totem pole.” Drivers don’t have the same collective voice in city policy that cyclists do and thus their problems — like gridlock — get left by the wayside, Townsend said.

“There is a fanatic minority who want to get people out of cars, lower the speed limits and reduce the size of roads,” agreed Jack Sullivan, former president of the Seminary Hill Association. “They are being heard in the towers of power.”

While the conversation started with Complete Streets on Seminary Road, critics of the plan drove the discussion to other transportation issues across the city. Townsend argued the slimming down of Seminary Road is just a symptom of a broader problem: that transportation planners don’t account for real-world circumstances.

“The one size fits all approach to planning that comes out of the West Coast, goes to the District of Columbia, and then we try to make it fit in Alexandria,” Townsend said. “These planners stay in college and they lay on the grass and they smoke grass and they don’t know how real people live.”

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