First ride: Northern Virginia opens new '66-parallel' bike and walking trail Three of the new trail's 18 miles are crammed in between eight lanes of interstate traffic and a sound wall. Local riders, runners and advocates see it as an imperfect compromise.
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First ride: Northern Virginia opens new '66-parallel' bike and walking trail

Parts of the new 66 Parallel Trail place you right between a sound wall and eight lanes of I-66 traffic. Jordan Pascale/WAMU hide caption

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Jordan Pascale/WAMU

Fairfax and Prince William counties are getting 18 miles of new bike trail this summer — the only problem is some of it rides between eight lanes of I-66 traffic and a sound wall.

It's a setup some on the internet have called "urban hell."

The "66 Parallel Trail" runs from near Dunn Loring all the way out to Centreville. Resident complaints about having bike riders and other people strolling behind their homes pushed the new path next to I-66 for certain stretches. About three miles of the trail ride directly next to the interstate which carries up to 80,000 vehicles a day.

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The rest of the trail, about 15 miles, parallels the interstate but weaves behind sound walls or meanders slightly away from the highway.

In reality, riding on the mile-long stretch between the Vienna Metro and Cedar Lane is not the best or most scenic bike ride you'll ever have. In fact, it's not a very pleasant ride, but it's not as bad as the pictures make it out to be.

And it does provide direct connections to places people want to go, like two Metro stations, parks, neighborhoods, schools malls, shopping districts, and more.

But in this reporter's experience riding, certain criticisms of putting the bike lanes next to the highway bear out:

Yes, it is loud. On a recent ride, traffic noise reached 85 decibels. Behind the sound wall, it was 65 decibels. The CDC says that noise "above 70 decibels over a prolonged period may start to harm your hearing."

Yes, you do smell some exhaust — it's likely worse during rush hour.

No, there is no shade (granted it was a beautiful 68-degree morning, but I wouldn't want to brave that asphalt heat island effect on a Virginia summer day).

The design isn't unprecedented. The Custis Trail follows much of I-66 through Arlington County, but elevated stretches and sections that ride through trees get riders away from the most unpleasant aspects of highway riding. The 66 Parallel Trail leaves traffic more in your face than on the Custis.

But cyclists who advocated for the trail back when the interstate expansion was in the works in 2014, say while parts of the trail don't have an ideal design, it's better than nothing.

"I think we have we are very lucky to have a trail incorporated into this project," said Sonya Breehy, president of the Fairfax Alliance for Better Bicycling. "There was very limited right of way in some sections... where the trail is literally feet, a few feet, off of people's back doorsteps.

"So that compromise is certainly not ideal — I mean, nobody wants to ride on the shoulder of a road — but it allowed this project to happen and (riding on the interstate side) is not for the entire duration of the trail."

Breehy notes that the trail network was missing this east-west connection. The Washington & Old Dominion trail heads north, and other trails go south, but "this is going to provide that east-west connectivity right through the heart of Fairfax County," Breehy said. She said the trail can facilitate longer loop rides with the Fairfax County Parkway, W&OD, the Cross County trail, and more.

It's also a fairly uninterrupted ride as you don't cross highway ramps or many streets.

Officials held a ribbon cutting for part of the trail at the nearby Vienna Metro station parking lot on Wednesday.

About four miles opened today, running along I-66 from Route 123/Chain Bridge Road to the Vienna Metro station to Cedar Lane. The rest will open on a rolling basis through late summer.

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeffrey McKay says the trail will transform I-66 into a multi-modal corridor.

"It might seem weird that somebody suggested 'when you're doing 66, we need to do a bike trail,'" he said. "I don't think it's weird. I think it's actually fundamental that whenever we build infrastructure in Fairfax County, we need to be thinking about multimodal connections — how people can bike, how people can get away, to and from work or wherever they're going without necessarily having to get into their car.

"Literally, our quality of life depends on it, the environment depends on it. Our mental and physical health depends on it."

McKay said in order to build confidence in people biking, you have to have safe, alternative routes.

"You got to have something someone can look at and say, 'I feel comfortable riding on this. I feel like I can safely do this. I'm going to use this with regularity,'" he said. "And certainly this infrastructure that you're about to see accomplishes that."

Others have concerns.

"Beautiful day to inhale brake dust, get your eardrums blown out, potentially die in a fatal crash, and lose an eye or other body part to flying debris," a commenter wrote on a Reddit post about the trail. "I can't believe someone would f***ing greenlight that project."

Jenna Krall, an assistant professor in the College of Public Health at George Mason University studies traffic pollution and notes that, indeed, biking or walking along a busy interstate might not be the best thing for your health.

"The first thing I'm thinking about (when biking next to an interstate) is the increased exposure to these pollutants that we know to be harmful," she said.

Vehicles create harmful particles from brakes, tires, and degrading roads. Meanwhile, tailpipes spew nitrogen oxide gases. She adds that all of that pollution is associated with asthma, cardiovascular and respiratory effects, and negative birth outcomes.

"The second thing that I'm thinking about is that we know when you are walking or biking, you're breathing faster than if you were sitting in a car, which means not only are you close to these pollutants, but you're actually getting more into your body at a quicker pace than if you were sitting in a car."

Krall said more research needs to be done on the effects of short vs. long-term exposure to pollutants. She said it's hard to quantify what a few minutes next to the interstate does to a body, but she says research shows that the bulk of an average person's exposure to pollutants comes during commuting.

"Any proximity to traffic is a risk," she said. But she notes that sound walls do a good job of keeping pollution out of people's backyards. So the bulk of a cyclist or runner's exposure will be focused on highway-bound stretches along 66.

Krall does ride her bike a lot but said she's not inclined to ride those sections of the bike path.

"Me personally? No. I am concerned about the high levels of pollution along that roadway. I would probably need a really good reason to ride that stretch," she said. "The other stretches that are on the other side of the sound barrier, I think I'd feel a little bit more comfortable."

Derek, a runner who didn't want to give his last name, was unbothered by the conditions along the trail.

"I love how nicely paved it is, but it seems like a very well-maintained trail... little noisy, but I'm glad to have something close by and nicely paved and flat — perfect for running and biking."

Does the interstate bother him?

"Eh, no, at least not on an easy run day like today where the weather is this nice... Maybe on a tempo run or when I need to focus more. Yeah, probably then it would."

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