News

Virus Adds Heft to W&OD Changes

By Brian Indre

THE NEED to socially distance makes adequate space on the trail all the more important. (Photo: News-Press)

The 1.5 mile section of the Washington & Old Dominion Railroad Trail (W&OD) that runs through the City of Falls Church is well on its way to adding dedicated cycling and pedestrian lanes by next summer, and is seen as all the more crucial given how the novel coronavirus is transmitted.

The new dual trail will consist of an 11-foot wide section for wheeled travelers, primarily bicycles, and a two-foot median which will be stamped asphalt that will be a red color and a texture similar to a rumble strip on the side of a highway. There will be an eight-foot wide section on the other side of the median for pedestrians. This design will be obvious to users and help keep cyclists and pedestrians separated and safe.

Keeping walkers and cyclists apart took on even more significance with the onset of the pandemic.

When Covid-19 struck, the trends of higher trail usage accelerated manyfold. Some of that is due to people opting for alternate modes of transportation for Covid safety. The W&OD gives locals the option to hop on their bicycle and be outdoors with fresh air, and avoiding high touch environments in public and private transportation, such as buses, metro, Uber, etc.

“Trail usage will always be higher post-Covid-19 than what it was before. Which will increase the demand for the dual trail model,” Executive Director of NOVA Parks Paul Gilbert said. “There is only so much money out there for trails, but when a trail becomes transportation it’s in a totally different category, which opens the doors to some nice improvements.”

Gilbert mentioned how it’s been an evolutionary change to think that a trail, which started purely as a recreational amenity and was used primarily on weekends, is now also a key component of the local transportation network.
Rush hour in the morning and the evening was really busy pre-Covid-19, according to Gilbert. Once the pandemic precautions do finally end and people resume traveling as much as they did before, Gilbert expects the new users will become more regular. And by regular, he meant beyond recreation alone — they are using the trail to go to work, run errands and use it as a substitute to hopping in the car.

It’s what makes the dual trails for cyclists and pedestrians all the more important for both safety as well as broader environmental considerations.
“We started to see a trend shifting with more commuters using the trail, which meant that the trail was getting too busy and there were a variety of issues where people were bumping into each other,” Gilbert said. “When we think about global warming and the societal changes that we need to make, we wanted the W&OD to be an appealing option, and not something that people don’t do because it seems overcrowded and unsafe.”

Gilbert explained that among a list of safety issues that have been addressed, the major item on that list was to separate pedestrians and cyclists, particularly at the most congested areas.

The W&OD has served Northern Virginia communities as a source of recreational use for decades; and throughout recent years there has been a noticeable uptick in people using it for transportation.

This added traffic has made it uncomfortable and even dangerous for pedestrians.

This expansion project will begin in Falls Church and most likely serve as a template for other communities with congestion problems along the 45 miles of trail to follow suit.