Don’t ride a bicycle? Arlington County wants to change that.
The Virginia county is committed to getting as many residents as possible on a car-free diet1, and encouraging more of its residents to get around by bike is one way the county is achieving this goal.
Arlington’s BikeArlington team makes biking more accessible to its residents, performing outreach and education through numerous events year-round.
While many cities and counties around the U.S. have bicycle advocacy organizations (Toronto’s is believed to have been the first in North America, back in the late 1990s), BikeArlington is something different. The program is operated by the county’s Commuter Services bureau, whose mission is to reduce automobile congestion by incentivizing biking, walking, and transit.
By numerous measurements, BikeArlington is succeeding at its mission. Mobility Lab estimates that the work done by BikeArlington shifts 300 Arlington residents and workers from commuting by driving alone to commuting by bicycle each day. Within the region, only Washington D.C. has a higher share of residents who bike to work most days. Further, bicycle commuting increased an impressing 40 percent in Arlington between 2012 and 2013, according to the most recent U.S. Census American Community Survey.
These statistics only tell part of the story of BikeArlington’s success, however. The county is a much different place for bicyclists than it was five years ago, largely through the good work BikeArlington is performing. From the bike paths cleared of snow to the proliferation of Capital Bikeshare stations, Arlington is a much safer, healthier, fun place to get around by bike than ever before.
I sat down with the BikeArlington team — director Henry Dunbar, operations manager Tim Kelley, and events and outreach coordinator Erin Potter — to discuss the organization’s PAL campaign, the new PAL Ambassador program, and the state of bicycling in the county.
They repeatedly referenced an influential Portland study demonstrating the four kinds of bicyclists:
- strong and fearless, at less than 1 percent of bike riders
- enthused and confident, at 7 percent
- interested but concerned, at 60 percent, and
- no-way no-how, at 33 percent.
In 2015, BikeArlington is recommitting its efforts to reach this largest percentage of potential bicyclists, those who are interested in biking, but are concerned about safety. “Or rather the perception of safety, which is still very real to people, but requires a different outreach approach,” Potter clarified.
Kelley expounded upon this idea. “We’ve done a good job at getting our message out to avid cyclists, those who would ride a bicycle anyway. This year, we’re trying harder than ever to reach the 60 percent who have concerns, but would bike if those concerns were addressed.”
That’s where BikeArlington’s PAL program comes into play. It stands for predictable, alert, and lawful. It’s a marketing program that’s intended to “promote civility among users of all modes,” Dunbar said. The PAL message seems to be having an impact. It’s certainly resonating with Arlington’s residents, as you’ll see in my interview:
PG: How is BikeArlington making an impact in Arlington County?
Henry Dunbar: I think we can best measure our impact in what we see on the streets and in the community that we didn’t see five years ago. Today we see monthly organized rides just for families, and monthly maintenance clinics just for women, and trails free of snow, and the busiest Bike to Work Day pit stop [Rosslyn has had the most registrants for the past three years, out of more than 70 stops throughout the D.C. region], and the real-time public display of trail counts, and PAL messaging on police cars, and way-finding signs on trails, and a robust bikesharing network, just to name a few. None of those things existed five years ago.
PG: Tell me about the gestation of BikeArlington’s PAL campaign.
Tim Kelley: Chris Eatough [former director of BikeArlington] would get these ideas during bike rides. BikeArlington had always been really good at reaching people who are already biking. Those people are easy. We needed to think outside of the box, so based on Chris’s original concept, we started throwing around different acronyms. PAL seemed catchy, and it was certainly friendly, which is what we wanted to convey. The idea is that we’re speaking to all people across all modes to share the space and drive or operate your bike with care.
PG: Why is the PAL campaign important to Arlington County?
HD: It’s the cornerstone of what we do here. We want to promote civility. The infrastructure exists for everyone, not just bicyclists and not just drivers. Each one has a tendency to act a bit entitled at times.
PG: Describe the PAL Ambassador program.
TK: PAL Ambassadors started initially as an idea on the website. This year we wanted to step it up and put some more resources behind it. As I said, we were already reaching avid bicyclists, but we still had this issue of getting our message to people in cars. We thought about the best way to do that. We were aware of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association’s D.C. Bike Ambassadors program, so we explored that a little further and took some of the most successful components of that program. We created our PAL Ambassadors program with the help of WABA.
PG: Is this message connecting with car drivers?
TK: There is anecdotal evidence of that, yes. Pete, one of the Ambassadors, went out the other day with a sign that said “Put your cell phone down.” He said he got a lot of encouraging honks from drivers. So yes, we think the Ambassador program is connecting well with people across all modes.
Erin Potter: So far, we’ve had two of the “block party” outreach events for this new campaign. Fun and friendly volunteers meet up at an intersection and hold handmade signs with messages for evening commuters to see. Things like “PALS help everyone get home safe” and “Thanks for driving safe.” It’s addressing safety on many levels, most obviously by communicating positive safety messaging to the community while also shedding light on people who bike who are committed to being lawful, which is a concern for people who take a car as their primary mode. Interactions have been wildly positive, from folks smiling and waving to cheering us on. As the program continues, we’ll have more quantifiable measures of the program’s impact.
PG: How can Arlington be friendlier to bicyclists?
HD: We see the infrastructure as a big way to make Arlington more bike-friendly. More protected bike lanes in particular will help people feel safer as they bike.
TK: This will be the next infrastructure game changer. And again, this will help us reach that group of 60 percent of people who are interested but concerned.
PG: What can other communities learn from Arlington?
HD: Every community has their group of passionate advocates, but where Arlington really stands apart is that it has advocates within the county [government] who feel strongly about biking. It doesn’t hurt that, in Arlington, both the head of transportation and the head of transportation operations and engineering both ride their bikes to work. Two of our county board members are also regular cyclists as well. So they can get behind what we’re doing. Arlington is dedicated to serving all cyclists, including putting in the much-needed infrastructure like protected bike lanes that will make that 60 percent group of concerned cyclists feel safe.
PG: What’s BikeArlington working on for 2015?
HD: The PAL campaign is huge. We also have an initiative to promote some everyday cyclists to people who aren’t part of the 8 percent of avid cyclists. Bike To Work Day will be a huge success. We’ve already secured good weather for that, much better than last year. We’ll have a new pit stop in Shirlington.
TK: We have a couple of fun video projects in the works. Our Pi Day Ride will be a big event, on March 14, 2015 [3.1415, get it?].
EP: While our traditional education classes are still popular, we are looking to infuse educational content into a wide variety of events, giving Arlingtonians plenty of opportunities to give biking a try. We tackled winter biking with a sewing workshop, which had more women and families out than a traditional workshop. In March, we’re having a fun, seven-mile social ride with five stops for pie. We’re also running a lunchtime event in Rosslyn with drop-in fix-a-flat clinics and local routing advice. April will have a women-specific workshop called Zen Around the City, which connects biking to yoga and health. There will be more short, social rides and informal meet ups where people can meet each other and get questions answered. Biking is a social form of transportation, and we’re working to demonstrate that.
TK: We’re finding that getting people to commute by bike is actually a fairly large ask. So getting people on bikes for shorter trips, like the Pi Day Ride, will be good to reach these casual riders.
HD: Smaller, shorter, three-mile rides is much more of what we’re trying to focus on this year, to attract that larger group of 60 percent of potential cyclists. There’s safety in numbers. Increasing the number of cyclists in Arlington will make it a better, safer place to bike, and will get people to accept cyclists more. Whatever we can do to increase the number of cyclists is a victory for us.
Splash photo by the author. Arlington cyclists photo by M.V. Jantzen