Residential parking sacrificed to bicycle lanes: Bike “wars?”

There are two sides to every story
Photo: Bettyx1138, Flickr Creative Commons

WASHINGTON, November 14, 2013—A recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) by George Mason law professor F.H. Buckley calls a plan to replace parking spaces with bike lanes in his neighborhood of King Street in Alexandria, Virginia a “war.”

As more cities in the U.S. invest in infrastructure to become more bicycle-friendly, certain residents and businesses feel that they are on the losing end.

SEE RELATED: Bicycles outsell cars in Europe, getting close in the U.S.

While many may claim they support alternate forms of transportation and bike-friendly communities, an individual’s views quickly change when they are forced to give up something that they feel entitled to, namely street parking close to their home.

In a study about bike lanes in Toronto, Andrew G. Macbeth, Manager of Operational Planning and Policy for that city’s Transportation Division states “loss of on-street parking is one of the most controversial issues associated with their implementation.”

Loss of parking has indeed become controversial on King Street, and Buckley warns readers across the country that they too will find themselves “losing [their] street parking, street by street, as roads are repaved.”

Part of Alexandria’s Local Motion program to encourage walking and bicycling, the city proposed adding a mix of dedicated bike lanes and shared use lanes on a one half mile residential stretch of King Street.

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Identified as “a bottleneck in the street network” by Greater Greater Washington’s Jonathan Krall, King Street is one of the four main roads between Old Town Alexandria and the west end.

The city’s plan would remove 37 on-street parking spaces in front of about 30 houses to make room for bike lanes.

The stretch of road in question is a residential street lined with single-family detached houses with generous front yards. All of these houses have at least a one-car garage or driveway that will fit at least one vehicle, but most accommodate more vehicles. Buckley’s driveway fits two vehicles.

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At a September 18 civil public meeting, residents opposing the bike lanes admitted that the street parking in question was “used almost exclusively for guest or service vehicles,” reported Greater Greater Washington (GGW).

While city planners, government, and cyclists applauded the move to create bike lanes—Alexandria was recently designated silver-level bicycle friendly status by the League of American Bicyclists—some residents of the street are up in arms.

Loss of parking a hot topic

Professor Buckley, a longtime resident of King Street, and like-minded neighbors, who claim to also be cyclists, argue against the bike lanes—and loss of extra parking spaces—in front of their houses on several levels.

Buckley argues that the bike lanes are unnecessary, as the two-lane road is too steep, few bikers use it (only eight per hour by Buckley’s observations, 13 per day, according to his wife, Esther Goldberg), and those who bike the street can use the sidewalk because there are few pedestrians.

“We have always shared the road. Cars, bicycles, parked cars,” says Goldberg, who has lived in her house on King Street for over 23 years. “There is simply no need to take away our parking spots for dedicated bike lanes.”

Professor Buckley also argues that over 15,000 vehicles use the road daily at high rates of speed, which is too dangerous for cyclists. “Cars speed by, and city buses plow through our red lights at 40 miles per hour,” he writes in the Wall Street Journal Op-Ed. He also told a local news channel that commuters will see more accidents along King Street should bike lanes replace parking spots.

Furthermore, writes Professor Buckley, “we’re really attached to our parking spots. We like to tell our friends to drop by anytime. We don’t want to send our plumbers to park a few blocks over, on streets that are already congested…And what about the occasional party? What do we tell our guests?”

But it’s more than just attachment to their parking spots, says Goldberg. Many of the young families who have recently moved in to revitalize the King Street neighborhood, she says, did so on the understanding that they would have extra parking on the streets for their carpools, children’s parties, and family get-togethers. 

“The neighborhood is experiencing a revitalization that would be totally destroyed if you turned King Street from a small town residential street into a highway where there are just ‘drive-throughs,” she said in an interview with Communities. “Because even if there were a sufficient number of bicycle riders on King Street—which there is not—they would just be driving through. It’s nobody who lives here.”

The city has set forth another proposal, which would preserve 10 parking spaces but still eliminate 27.

“It’s the same thing,” Goldberg told Communities. “Why is it necessary to take away parking spaces from people who have purchased homes on the basis of those parking spots?”

At the September 18 meeting, several residents also complained that bike lanes would reduce property values and increase already severely congested rush hour traffic.

Cyclists gaining enemies nationwide?

“The problems of a few hundred Alexandria residents wouldn’t deserve a great deal of attention if all this weren’t part of a growing national movement that pits local homeowners and businesses against cyclists and their trendy allies on city councils,” writes Buckley. “It happened in Washington, D.C.”

Buckley and Goldberg are the most recent voice of an opposition to the bike movement among residents and businesses alienated by city governments that give priority to bicycle and public transportation over automobiles. 

“As bicyclists become an ever more powerful lobby,” writes Christopher Caldwell in The Weekly Standard, “ever more confident in the good they are doing for the environment and public health, they are discovering—to their sincere surprise—that they are provoking mistrust and even hostility among the public.”

Buckley and Goldberg both charge cycling activists of being dishonest. According to Goldberg, during the two weeks that VDOT was taking data on how many cyclists use King Street, she observed more cyclists on the road than she had ever seen in her 23 of living on the street.

“Bike-riders don’t ‘share’ the road so much as take it over. Their wish is generally that the right-hand lane of any major or medium-sized road be turned into a bike lane or, at best, a shared-use lane,” writes Caldwell. “This would place drivers in a position of second-class citizenship on roads that were purpose-built for them.”

Another common argument raised against cyclists and bicycle commuters is that they make up less than two percent of the American population.

“There are probably a million dedicated cyclists in this country, bent on taking over a quarter or a third of the nation’s road space, built at the price of, let us repeat, trillions,” Caldwell writes. “They are ranged against the 200 million drivers who have a vague sense they are being duped.”

Both Caldwell and Buckley describe a highly organized and unscrupulous bike lobby.

“When you see the bike activists in your neighborhood, be warned that they tend not to play nice,” writes Buckley. “Our local gang misrepresents their numbers and talks of assembling a ‘critical mass’ of cyclists who will ride together up King Street.”

Goldberg complains cycling activists have turned cycling into a moral issue. “I resent people telling me how I should live my life more morally…They say biking is more healthy for you,” says Goldberg. “Well, please, you’re not my doctor, how do you know if it will be more healthy for me?”

The answer from the cycling community

Cycling activists have been quick to respond to Buckley’s op-ed. Tanya Snyder at DC Streets Blog compared Buckley to WSJ editorial board member, Dorothy Rabinowitz, an outspoken critic of New York’s bikeshare program; The Wash Cycle questions Buckley’s use of the word “war” to describe the loss of 37 parking spaces, especially on Veteran’s Day weekend.

The case for bike lanes and bike friendly streets has been made, and can be seen by the increasing number of cities expanding bike lanes and adopting bikeshare programs around the U.S. and the world.

“American cities are dense enough — and almost half of urban car trips short enough, under three miles — that cities from Denver to Miami are putting in bike-share programs,” writes Daniel Duane in a Sunday op-ed in The New York Times. “If there’s one thing New York City’s incoming and departing mayors agree on, it’s the need for more bike lanes.”

Very few people in New York or elsewhere agree with Rabinowitz’s statement that the New York bikeshare is “a dreadful program,” as she described it in an interview on WSJ live.

Local activists and cyclists argue that the case for a bike lane can also be made for King Street.

Alexandria has been working to become a bike-friendly city, with its city council voting this year to upgrade the Pedestrian & Bicycle Mobility Plan, a component of the city’s transportation master plan.

According to the Pedestrian & Bicycle Mobility Plan, “Alexandria is approximately five miles from the Potomac River to its western boundary with Fairfax County, and three miles across from north to south; a perfect size for making trips by bicycle.”

However, as mentioned above, King Street is one of the four main arterial roads between Old Town Alexandria and the west end, and bikers and motorists on that part of town must use King Street at some point to get from one side of the city to the other.

To implement the mobility goals of the transportation master plan—a plan that was voted on and is the result of the democratic process—regarding making it easier to make trips by bicycle throughout the city, King Street must become a safer route for cyclists. Currently the city has given the section of King Street in question a C and D rating for bicycle level of service, a measure of the level of comfort a regular cyclist would experience riding the particular road. 

Buckley agrees that traffic on King Street is too fast and speed needs to be reduced in order to make the street safer for cyclists, pedestrians, and motorists alike. Traffic calming measures (which Goldberg calls a euphemism for congestion), including reducing lane width and adding bike lanes have been shown to slow automobile speeds and reduce accidents.

According to Andrew G. Macbeth, reducing the number of vehicle lanes and adding dedicated bike lanes can significantly reduce opportunities to overtake and speed by motorists. Another study published in February of 2013 in Injury Prevention, cycling infrastructure, including bike lanes, significantly reduced accidents and injuries when compared with streets that have no dedicated bike lanes or sharrows.

One of the main arguments set forth by Buckley and Goldberg is that there are not enough riders to justify bike lanes.

“That few ride it is kind of the point,” writes The Wash Cycle.

A study of bicycle ridership in Toronto concluded that bicycle traffic increased by 23 percent on streets where bicycle lanes were installed. When asked, most new riders said that they did not ride before because they did not feel safe prior to the installation of the bike lanes.

Increased ridership is exactly what is expected on King Streets, not just because of the bike lanes, but because the city is planning to expand bicycle parking in the King Street metro station and Janney’s Lane, making it a cycling destination that will attract more riders.

Even at Buckley’s own tally of eight riders per hour, The Wash Cycle argues, it adds up to more daily riders than the drivers who park their cars in the 37 spots that will be eliminated.

According to GGW, Hillary Poole spokesperson for Alexandria’s Department of Transportation and Environmental Services confirmed that on average, less than three of the 37 spaces in question are filled. This parking data, however, was disputed at the September 18 meeting, with residents complaining that too little data was collected on weekends, reported GGW.

“One of the arguments for taking our parking away is that the spaces are empty a lot,” says Goldberg. “Well when the parking spaces are empty, they have a seven foot bike lane… I just fail to see the logic of it.”

Residents of King Street also complain that adding bike lanes will increase traffic. However, cyclists argue that they currently contribute to the street’s traffic problems because there is no dedicated lane for bikers, forcing them to ride in the car lane and hold up traffic, especially going up the hill. According to cyclists, adding a dedicated bike lane would eliminate this situation, allowing them to travel at their own speed without affecting traffic.

For now, the final decision on whether to install bike lanes on King Street has been delayed, and the final decision will be made by the director of Alexandria’s Department of Transportation and Environmental Services, Rich Baier. 

READ MORE: A World in Our Backyard by Laura Sesana


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Laura Sesana

Laura Sesana is a writer and DC, Maryland attorney, joining the Communities in 2012.  She is the author of Colombia: Natural Parks, and has also written several articles on literary criticism.  She writes about food, health, nutrition, women’s legal issues, and the environment.  

In addition to writing for the Communities, Laura also works as an attorney and legal content writer.


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