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Smooth Sailing on Arlington’s Roads? Sometimes.

Arlington's roads can present challenges to cyclists and drivers alike.

Silky smooth black pavement. It’s the kind of thing that brings a smile to my face, whether I’m behind the wheel of my car or leaning over my handlebars.  There’s nothing quite like the feel of efficient speed over land that a good road gives you. It’s something that both cyclists and drivers can easily agree on, I think.

Drivers and cyclists also tend to both dislike it when roads deteriorate. No one likes jarring potholes (or chipseal, for that matter). This common cause goes back a lot further than most might expect.

It was the League of American Wheelmen (now the League of American Bicyclists) that launched the Good Roads Movement in the 1880s. The Good Roads Movement literally paved the way for modern streets, as cycling advocates pushed for a shift away from the bike-unfriendly dirt roads of the time toward paved paths. (Remember this the next time some idiot yells “Streets are for cars!” out of his passing window.)

While the appreciation of good pavement and dislike of bad conditions are common to both cyclists and drivers, it’s the cyclists who face significant harm from bad or neglected pavement. Unexpected potholes or gravel in the bike lanes aren’t mere inconveniences, but threats to staying upright.

Twice in the last month I’ve witnessed bike crashes that were due in large part to poor pavement condition in Arlington. The first was with a group coming around a corner that was covered with gravel left over from recent paving work.  A brief loss of traction in a car can be unsettling, but that’s usually the extent of the consequences. In this case, a rider went down, taking two others with him.   Could he have prevented it by being a bit more aware? Probably. But if the paving crew working on the site had cleaned it up? It certainly would have been prevented.

The second was just this week, rolling back toward Ballston on Quincy Street. A car came up behind us, and a rider in front of me moved to the right to let the car pass. But his front wheel was caught by the ridge of a very poorly patched pavement cut that’s been there for months. He went down hard in the middle of the street, not only hurting himself, but certainly giving a good scare to the driver behind him — and thanks to her for stopping to check on him!

Again, the rider might have prevented this by simply staying in the lane until the pavement smoothed out for a safe shift of position. But once again, it would have been prevented for sure had the work crew not left the road in such dangerous condition.

I’m not sure why street construction crews — private or public — seem to get away with leaving our roads in such dangerous condition during and after street work.

In theory, Arlington County has inspectors checking up on how the street is left after a project is complete. But as anyone who rides over on Quincy or down Clarendon Boulevard lately can tell you, they’re not doing a very good job of it.

There are some bright spots with Arlington County Department of Environmental Services — the section responsible for the streets. They responded quickly and effectively to recent reports of dangerous potholes made through the Residential Maintenance Report Form. Just a couple of days after I let them know about a significant pothole on a bicycle route near Wilson Boulevard, they came out and patched it. They even filled in a few rough spots near it, improving thing greatly.

So the lesson is that cyclists need to take extra care on some of Arlington’s roads. But if those responsible for our pavement did a better job in the first place, it would be safer and more enjoyable for everyone. Cyclists and drivers alike.

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

Don September 10, 2012 at 11:41 AM
Next Arlington County Board meeting is this Saturday at 2100 Clarendon Blvd., 3rd Floor. Public comments start at 8:30 AM.
Don September 11, 2012 at 04:43 PM
I was in Old Town yesterday and Alexandria police officers on bicycles were patrolling in several areas. We need the same here.

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