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Should Royal Street Become a Bicycle Boulevard?

Alexandria hires consultant to consider ways to encourage more bicycle traffic.

Pedestrians and cyclists mingle with motorists on Union Street, which was identified as a problem during the waterfront planning process.

Pedestrians and cyclists mingle with motorists on Union Street, which was identified as a problem during the waterfront planning process. Photograph from the Union Street Corridor Study

Potential Changes to Royal Street

  • Mini-circles could replace stop signs and require bicyclists and motorists to slow down and yield to traffic without stopping.

  • Two-way stop signs could reduce stopping points for cyclists.

  • Speed bumps or speed tables could include a bicycle slot to slow motor-vehicle traffic while allowing cyclists to pass through.

  • Signs could create a welcoming street atmosphere by encouraging all users to share the road.

source: Union Street Corridor Study

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Pedestrians and bicyclists clash with vehicles up and down Union Street, a concern for city leaders who want to find a way to move cyclists to Royal Street. The effort began as part of the waterfront plan, and now the city has hired a consultant to help make the effort a reality. In the next few months, Maryland-based Toole Design Group will present options to convert Royal Street into an "express route" through Old Town for through traffic on the Mount Vernon Trail.

"Generally the idea is to make it more attractive for bicycles," said Jonathan Krall, a member of the city's Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee. "One way to do that is to make it slightly less attractive for automobiles."

City officials describe a bicycle boulevard as a "priority bicycle street" that includes traffic-calming measures to reduce the speed of motor vehicles closer to the speed of bicycles. The Union Street corridor study explains that a bicycle boulevard "eliminates stops for bicyclists," leading to concern among some that the city might remove some of the stop signs along the northbound and southbound Royal Street. One of the recommendations specifically mentioned by the Union Street Corridor Study was two-way stop signs, which reduce stopping points for cyclists.

"One of the ways to encourage them to move away from Union Street is accommodate their lawbreaking by taking away the stop signs on Royal Street," said Poul Hertel, former president of the Old Town Civic Association. "To just simply take away stop signs on Royal Street is to encourage bicyclists to use it is as opposed to Union Street is like the perennial example of bringing out a cannon to shoot some doves."

CITY LEADERS say they are a long way from making any decisions and that the city staff is in the process of creating an inventory of bicycle conditions along several north-south streets in Old Town, not just Royal Street. The inventory includes what types of signs and signals are present, the condition of the pavement, route markers, driveways and curb cuts.

"Right now, all we are doing is cataloging what's there today," said Rich Baier, director of the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services. "The complaint came out of the waterfront planning process that there's so much congestion on Union Street."

That complaint led to the Union Street Corridor Study, which was completed in 2012 with the help of Toole Design Group. Part of that study involved observing the behavior of cyclists at the intersection of King and Union streets, an infamous spot clogged with pedestrians and motorists. During four separate 15-minute periods in 2012, only 18 percent of cyclists were compliant with the stop sign. The study also found that 57 percent of cyclists use Union Street while only 18 percent took Royal Street.

"A bicycle boulevard through Old Town would encourage cyclists to use that street as their primary on-street connection of the Mount Vernon Trail," concludes the Union Street Corridor Study. "It may encourage some riders on Union Street to switch to this parallel route."

THE CONCEPT of a bicycle boulevard dates to the late 1980s, when city leaders in Berkeley, Calif., coined the phrase. Since that time, many cities across America have — including Tuscon, Ariz., Minneapolis, Minn., and Portland, Ore. Creation of a Royal Street Bicycle Boulevard was first identified as a long-range project for the city in a 2008 transportation master plan. The project is estimated to cost less than $1 million and would take one to five years to complete. It was recommended by both the Pedestrian and Bicycle Master Plan as well as the Union Street Corridor Study.

"Why are people choosing Union Street? Why aren't they choosing Pitt Street?" asked Baier. "In order to understand that, we have to understand what exists there today."

One potential feature that some cyclists say would improve conditions involves traffic signals. In Old Town, the signals are triggered by automobiles. That means that cyclists have to press buttons configured for pedestrians to get a light. Some cyclists say they would like to see the city incorporate technology that would allow them to avoid using buttons designed for pedestrians.

"It is awkward for cyclists to get off the bike, put down the kickstand and go over and push the pedestrian button," said David Kaplan, a member of the advisory committee. "If they are in the roadway, there should be a way to pick up their presence and cycle the signal accordingly."