By Andrew Olsen
In honor of National Bike Month, let’s explore the history of bicycling in Falls Church City, locally and in a national and global context. Biking and walking help make Falls Church a friendlier, more sustainable, and more livable City. But ours is a tale of two cities, one that has been a national leader on the cutting edge of such sustainable and healthful practices for its residents and one that is playing catchup to places like Arlington, DC, and Fairfax. By understanding the history of biking, we can help the City shape policies for a more sustainable future.
The “safety bicycle” we know today was invented in 1887. Falls Church presumably saw some of the bicycle craze that swept the US in the late 1800s and benefited from the advocacy of early bicyclists calling for the paving of roadways. By the 1920s the automobile became the future of transportation and bicycles started to be seen as children’s toys or transportation for those who could not afford to drive.
Changes in the 1960s and 1970s shaped Falls Church City and bicycling nationwide. The growing popularity of cars was causing a record number of deaths of people walking and biking (including many children). The same trend was occurring in Denmark and the Netherlands, where people reacted to this “child murder” with a national effort to create safe, separated places for people of all ages and abilities to safely ride and walk. The US dealt with the problem by making it even more difficult to bike and walk, passing laws that changed roadways from shared spaces to the exclusive domain of cars. In 1968, the W&OD Railway was closed to make way for I-66 and more cars. The railroad’s closure allowed activists to push for one of the first rails-to-trails projects in the US. A trial section of the W&OD Trail opened in 1974 in Falls Church City. The Village Preservation and Improvement Society turned out to support this cutting-edge new trail by sponsoring plantings along the trail in 1976-77. The full W&OD Trail was completed in 1988 thanks to its popularity in the City. The W&OD was well-timed: the 1970s saw a growing focus on exercise and the environment which led to a boom in the popularity of bicycling. US bicycle sales shifted towards adults again and bicycles outsold cars.
The national bike boom of the 1970s faded, the City’s population shrank from its 1970 peak, and there was a quiet period in the 1980s. In 1987, when the City announced a plan to widen sidewalks on Broad Street to revitalize the area, resident Craig Day gathered advocates to push for a W&OD bridge over Broad Street. The W&OD’s popularity had become dangerous where it crossed Broad Street. Signs tried to re-route trail users to the light at West Street, but people preferred the direct route. Some criticized the proposed bridge for its impact on views and the idea that it would allow bicycle riders to speed through the City rather than have to stop, and perhaps shop. The local advocates prevailed and the bridge was completed in 1992. It was later named Citizens’ Bridge, as “a testament to small-town government.”
Changes in the City accelerated in the 21st century, with population growth above the 1970 peak turning a suburban village into a place with more urban density. Changes also came to the national view on safe bicycling. In 1974, John Forester had published “Effective Cycling,” which became the guide for bicycle infrastructure. Its theory was “vehicular cycling” which stated that bicycle riders should act like cars, mix with traffic, and did not need special bike lanes. Vehicular cycling claimed that drivers could be taught to drive safely and people could be made confident enough to ride their bikes on main roads. Engineers and planners were taught this in their professional education. Federal design guidelines, based on vehicular cycling, made it nearly impossible to build bicycle infrastructure that is common in Europe. However, vehicular cycling didn’t work. Only a small portion of people, 3-5 percent and mostly men, are brave/foolish and excited enough about bicycling to ride this way…or see bicycling as the only means of reliable transportation they can afford.
This changed in the 2010s, when New York City and Portland partnered with the Dutch and Danes on how to increase bicycle use in their cities. They ignored the federal guidance and built bike lanes that were separated from traffic – protected bike lanes. People started riding. Those people on bikes stopped at local businesses far more often than drivers did. New York and Portland went on building more protected bike lanes and low-stress bicycle boulevards. They imported the Vision Zero concept from Sweden. Vision Zero is based on the idea that people will make mistakes, so the way to make roads safer and more welcoming is mainly with design. The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) codified what New York and Portland had built so other cities could follow suit. NACTO and bicycle advocates abandoned “vehicular cycling” in favor of “all ages and abilities”.
With a densifying City and an increased regional and national awareness of the untapped potential in walking and biking, Falls Church kicked off a bike/pedestrian planning process in 2010. The plan was going to remove obstacles in sidewalks, add missing sidewalks, build a bicycle lane network, and establish safe routes to school. This planning marked a shift in thinking of bicycles as a toy for Saturday recreation on the W&OD to a mode of transportation to cultivate. After two years of work, the plan did not get off the ground. Concerns about removing all on-street parking on Lincoln Avenue and Hillwood Avenue grew into strong resistance to the plan. With emotions running high, the plan was abandoned rather than modified though the thinking provided a foundation for later work.
The 2014 Mobility for All Modes chapter of the City’s Comprehensive Plan emphasized the City’s goals for supporting bicycling and walking for transportation while holding car traffic steady. This led to the creation of a Bicycle Master Plan in 2016. Key to its passing was a late-breaking addition to prioritize car parking. The 2010s saw a flurry of improvements to the City’s bike infrastructure – a long way from “all ages and abilities” but progress, nonetheless.
In 2014, the Economic Development Authority sponsored the addition of bicycle wayfinding signs to link the W&OD to downtown and “sharrows” painted on the street. In 2017, bike lanes were painted on Hillwood Avenue, S. Maple Street, and Roosevelt Boulevard. In 2019, the City brought the Capital Bikeshare program to the City and has continued to grow the number of bikeshare docks available. The City Council invited shared electric scooter operators into the City, but no scooter operators took the offer.
Thanks to this investment and national trends, bicycle commuting in the City grew from 0.2 percent of commuters in 2011 to 1.6 percent by 2019. Even more importantly, bike commuting grew from zero women in the Census count to 0.5 percent. Worldwide, low female representation in bicycling tends to indicate that streets are perceived as unsafe. During this time, an increasing portion of residents started to work from home and work from jobs in Falls Church City. If half of those who lived and worked in the City biked to work, this would be one of the leading US cities for bike commuting. 2020 and the pandemic scrambled commuting in general, including biking, which is often a “last mile” solution to get to the metro or bus. However, interest in bicycling for recreation soared in 2020-21 as a Covid-safe activity.
Since Covid, bicycle safety improvements have gained momentum in the City. The long-planned Dual Trails on the W&OD were completed by NOVA Parks in 2021 – another first for the region and a world-class bike facility. They are likely to be replicated in Arlington. Matching crosswalks are coming in 2024. Bike Falls Church was founded in late 2021 to advocate for bike/walk infrastructure and help build a bike friendly culture. The City added “sharrows” to the bike route on West Columbia St. in 2021 and repainted them on Park Ave. in 2022, though the effectiveness of “sharrows” is increasingly in doubt globally. Virginia passed new bicycle laws in 2021 allowing bicycle riders to ride two abreast and cars to change lanes when passing people on bicycles.
The future of bicycling in Falls Church City will be what we make it. We host a world-class bicycle path. Will we continue to be content with a few sharrows on our local roads, or could our two-square-mile City become a place where the majority of kids can enjoy the freedom and exercise of riding to school, where retirees feel they can walk or bike to appointments on Broad Street or Tinner Hill, and where families on the W&OD don’t just ride through this City but stop off to eat and shop.