Are people more courteous in blue states?

Over the last year and a half or so, I have taken up biking as a hobby again. Thanks to Bush’s Global Warming TM though we often get days during the winter that feel more like spring. Today was such a day: blue skies, temperatures in the 60s and low humidity. And since I had the day off, it was a good day for my first bike ride of the year.

I kept my bike ride modest: to Vienna, Virginia and back along my favorite bike trail: the Washington and Old Dominion Trail. The ride was about twenty miles altogether and took about two hours. It felt good to reconnect with my bike again. I mentally berated myself for not doing more of it lately. Our winter has been relatively mild so far and a bike ride is such an improvement over doing a workout at the local Gold’s Gym. In many ways when the weather cooperates, winter is the ideal time to bike. In the summer, I can return from a bike ride covered in sweat and with gnats and assorted tiny bugs all over my exposed arms, legs and face. Bugs are not a problem during the winter. The result is that when the weather is tepid in the winter like today, it is the optimal time for a bike ride.

I live in Fairfax County, Virginia. It is an increasingly cosmopolitan county just outside the Washington beltway. It is also turning from a county that tended to vote Republican to a reliably Democratic county. In general the further you live from the Beltway, the more Republican that Fairfax County becomes.

Consequently, by heading east on the W&OD trail toward Vienna, Virginia you move toward “blue” (solidly Democratic) territory. Head west on the W&OD trail and you move into “red” Loudoun County, (which is now showing signs of turning purple).

I have noticed real behavioral differences from the motorists I encounter depending on the direction I bike on the trail. The trail winds through a lot of suburbia in both directions. Therefore, bicyclists on the trail encounter many at grade crossings. (Fortunately, there are often bridges that take the trail over the largest roads.) Consequently, my fellow bicyclists and I have many opportunities to interact with motorists. The behavior I have experience has become so predictable that it is now beyond dispute in my mind: the further east I go into “blue” areas on the trail, the more courteous the drivers I encounter become.

On the other hand, head west on the trail and drivers can become ruthless. If there is a traffic light, you can usually cross safely but somewhat warily. If you have to cross a road by first yielding to the traffic, be prepared to pedal across the road quickly. The drivers are likely to try to accelerate if they see you trying to cross. I have also had drivers curse at me, even though my behavior was entirely lawful. The vast majority of them seem to drive their cars as if bicyclists do not exist. When they see us, they seem almost startled. “My goodness,” is what I imagine they are thinking, “It’s a bicyclist!” You would think we are Martians or something.

The W&OD trail crosses Hunter Mill Road between Reston and Vienna. While there are signs on the road asking motorists to yield to bicyclists, what really surprises me is that drivers routinely follow the law. Moreover, they do so quite happily. I nod or wave to them and they smile, nod or wave back. It is a nice feeling. The same thing often happens where the trail crosses Sunrise Valley and Sunset Hills Road in Reston. Once inside the Town of Vienna it gets even more courteous. It only gets a bit chancy crossing the major thoroughfare of Maple Avenue. Fortunately, there is a crosswalk there. Crossing Park Street or Cedar Lane in Vienna is not a problem. It is highly unusual for drivers not to stop for a bicyclist. Drivers in Vienna, as well as Falls Church, are very courteous and respectful of bicyclists.

Bike in “red” Loudoun County though and things can get dicey. Right now crossing Church Street is especially chancy, since the road is under reconstruction and you have to bike down to a traffic light. Further, out in Loudoun County, such as where the trail crosses Ashburn Road or Belmont Ridge Road it becomes just plain dangerous to be a bicyclist. This is SUV and pick up truck land and you are in something resembling country. The cars are going fifty miles an hour or more on a two-lane road. They really do not want to decelerate for some annoying bicyclist, particularly when they are coming swiftly over the top of a hill. I have learned the hard way to give drivers a lot of leeway out on the trail’s western side.

If you make it on the bike trail to Leesburg a bicyclist must be very careful. When you get your walk light, you had better hoof it quickly. The drivers are unlikely to be looking for you. From the looks of things, Leesburg does not get many pedestrians or bicyclists. I suspect the automotive culture is much more engrained in that city.

I have observed this phenomenon so many times now. I am starting to wonder if people are just naturally more courteous in blue parts of my state than in red parts. When I am in red territory, as a bicyclist I often feel that drivers do simply not see me. When they see me and especially if they have to modify their behavior by tapping their brake or something, watch out. That is when you are likely to get frowns, curses or their middle finger. Apparently, I am interfering with their high-speed automotive experience.

We all know that bicycles (with some exceptions) have equal rights to roads. The sad reality though is that bicyclists are wise to avoid riding on thoroughfares. It is just plain dangerous to do so. The shoulders are full of gravel, garbage and the occasional pothole, if we are lucky enough to have a shoulder at all. (They tend to appear and disappear depending on whether a housing development is nearby.) We bicyclists must exercise extreme caution when crossing any thoroughfare that is not in a residential neighborhood. It is nice to know though that my odds of survival seem to be much higher as I bike into “blue” territory. If safety were my primary concern, I would be better off limiting my biking to blue territory all the time.

A Governor with a Clue

Tim Kaine has only been governor of Virginia for a couple days, but he is already showing unusual common sense. Governor Kaine has proposed what has hitherto been unthinkable here in the Old Dominion: allowing counties to restrict housing growth until the transportation infrastructure exists to sustain it.

“Over the long term, the most important single change we can make is to reform the way we plan at both the state and local levels,” he said. “We cannot allow uncoordinated development to overwhelm our roads and infrastructure.”

Grasping this idea is not like trying to understand calculus. I am hoping that our new governor will prove adept at the power of persuasion. If history is any guide, this proposal will probably not get too far. With zero limits on campaign contributions for those running for state offices here in Virginia, candidates supported by business interests tend to have unfair advantages. Not surprisingly then, developers have enjoyed undue influence in our state government, and are often the largest contributors to state campaigns.

Predictably, developers and real estate agents are aghast by Kaine’s proposal. Two hundred of them are planning to come to Richmond to lobby against the governor’s initiative. The times though may be a changing at last. I live near the edge of Loudoun County, hitherto a reliable, solidly Republican county. Yet the citizens of Loudoun County picked Tim Kaine over his Republican opponent Jerry Kilgore by five percentage points.

Was it that the small but active Muslim community in the county that came out en masse for Kaine that made the difference? Or did Kaine’s message resonate with them? Most moved to the county in order to find affordable housing only to soon find traffic jams and crowded schools. Additional new housing keeps going up, but the infrastructure is not keeping pace.

Virginia is perhaps like most of the country. The philosophy of local governments has been to accommodate developers and worry about dealing with the overcrowded roads and schools later. Not that the counties had much of a choice. Virginia law left them with few options.

Tim Kaine though gets it and is the first politician of his stature to actually to promote sensible growth in the state. As you build houses, also build an infrastructure sized to fit all the people, cars and houses that will be placed there. That means creating four and six lane roads when the houses are put in, not decades later when the existing roads have morphed into giant parking lots. Developers, naturally, would prefer that local governments absorb these costs. They want to shift the true costs of creating new civilization to all taxpayers. This lets them keep their house prices artificially low. By the time these bills come due, they have moved on to literally greener pastures.

What would the premium be on a new house if it included the costs for the wider roads and bigger schools that are needed? My guess is that it would raise the cost of a new house by $50,000 or more. That suits me fine. I think this would provide powerful incentive to redevelop land near or in cities, where the infrastructure already exists. As many developers are learning, there is good money in building closer in. It would also discourage destroying our fast disappearing natural world.

Clearly, our nation’s population will continue to grow. Our residents have to live somewhere. Nevertheless, that does not mean those who choose to live in new developments should get a subsidy from taxpayers. If the true costs of these developments had to be paid up front, our choices might be much different.

Our current rate of population growth is not sustainable forever. Governor Kaine’s proposal is a sensible first step toward ensuring a better quality of life for the citizens of the Commonwealth. If proposals like his become more widely adopted, what we are likely to witness is a form of reverse cost shifting. Residents seeking cheap new houses are going to move to communities where house prices are artificially subsidized by local governments. This will just increase the cost pressures on these local governments. Eventually these governments will figure out that their communities are the ones getting screwed, and states with planned communities are benefiting by their lack of common sense. I hope that this will drive desperately needed controlled growth. In addition, I also expect that the quality of life of our citizens will improve.

Biking the W&OD Trail

East or West? On the Washington & Old Dominion Trail those are your choices. It is a 45-mile bike trail that stretches from Shirlington (in Alexandria, Virginia) to Purcellville, Virginia. There is no going north or south on the W&OD. Sitting on top of what used to be the Washington & Old Dominion Railroad the trail has become something of a bicycling Mecca for Washington area bicyclists.

Arguably there are prettier biking trails in our area. The C&O Towpath, which follows next to the C&O canal and the Potomac River is clearly more bucolic and four times as long. But it is not kind on the buttocks and was not designed with the bicyclist in mind. Except for places near Washington you don’t want to ride the C&O very far unless your bike has wide tires and excellent shock absorbers. Like riding a horse you can exit that trail more than a little saddle sore.

But not the W&OD Trail. It’s a ribbon of smooth asphalt. There are a couple spots where you might want shock absorbers. For example between Sterling and Leesburg there are two wooden bridges. Except at low speeds riding over their wooden planks can be teeth rattling. Happily though neither bridge is very long and you are soon back on pavement and cruising at high speed again.

Speed is the trail’s primary attraction for us cyclists. While not quite a biker’s superhighway, it comes close. No paralleling noisy major roads on the W&OD. Bikers get to cruise over many major road intersections. The trail’s bridges spoil us because eventually we also cross the old fashioned way: at intersections. Some intersections like the one at Sterling Boulevard are no fun at all to cross. Fortunately most of the crossings have a walk light. But just as most distance drivers prefer the interstate to regional highways, so we high-speed bicyclists want to travel nonstop too. Crossings like the one at Elden Street in Herndon, where there is no walk light, can be impossible at certain times of the day. It is often best to jog a block and cross at a traffic light.

But then there are occasional glorious miles of bucolic wonder. I haven’t made it to either extreme of the trail yet, but I am struck by about three miles of the trail between Hunters Wood Road near Reston and Maple Street in Vienna. It is three miles of no intersections. Houses, when they are seen at all, are way back in the woods. The trail straddles and crosses over Difficult Run several times. Woods border the northern side of this part of the trail. Northern Virginia is such a chronically overdeveloped place that it is simply a delight to find a few miles where you can feel the presence of nature instead of humanity.

But the trail’s success can bring a lot of humanity. If it is a weekend and the weather is gorgeous then you will likely find the trail busy. At those times it is harder to enjoy. On some weekends I have come close to experiencing traffic jams on the trail. This is because walkers and equestrians are also allowed to use the trail. And casual users of the trail often don’t read or take to heart the trail rules. Most learn pretty quickly to stay to the right and get off the trail if they need to stop. I consider myself a fairly high-speed bicyclist. But I can’t begin to compete with some of the bicyclists on the trail. They zoom past me when I am in 18th gear and really cranking on the pedals. Many of them won’t cut the casual user of the trail any slack. Some won’t warn you that they are coming. By the time they could get the words out of their mouth they would be past you anyhow.

My goal continues to be to make it to both ends of the trail. I have to bike three miles up the Fairfax County Parkway to get on the trail. I usually get on where it intersects the Parkway. From there the choice, of course, is east or west. I usually go the opposite direction that I traveled the last time. As soon as the trail allows I am in high gear and pressing the metal. Even on cool days it’s not hard to work up a sweat. I made it as far west as Leesburg on January 1st. Last autumn I made it to East Falls Church.

Mother Nature has slowed me down. Winter is not kind to us bicyclists. I went through the rest of January without favorable conditions for bike riding. A lot of snow needed to melt first. The elliptical machine in our basement was not much of a substitute for a bike ride.

We frequent trail riders probably share favorite spots on the trail. My favorite spot so far traveling east is the stretch that I already mentioned between Reston and Vienna. Heading west a stop at Goose Creek between Sterling and Leesburg is most welcome. Goose Creek is much more like a river than a creek. From the trail bridge its swirling waters are impressive and somewhat hypnotic to watch, particularly after a rainstorm or snowmelt. There is hiking adjacent to the bridge, if so inclined. But a few hundred feet away from the creek itself is perhaps one of the most unusual things you will ever see on a bike trail: the Luckstone Quarry. Most people in Loudoun County I suspect have no idea the quarry is even there. But for regular trail riders the quarry is a special treat. There is a lovely outlook along the trail looking south into the quarry. You can park your bike, sit on a park bench and enjoy the view. This is one view that is perhaps better experienced on the weekend. During the week it is a working quarry, and the noise of the trucks continually going up and down into the quarry can spoil much of its pleasure.

There are a couple downsides to the trail. While there are restrooms along the trail they are pretty much the chemical toilet type, so it helps to take care of Mother Nature before leaving home. And even the toilets are many miles apart. Still at least there are toilets if nature calls. There are also occasional watering holes. The Vienna and Smith Switch Stations have water fountains. There are places on the trail for those who want to dine. Naturally the closer you get to DC the more options there are. In Vienna, Herndon and Leesburg it easy to find food near the trail. Herndon perhaps does it the best, and seems to actually cater to its bike traffic. Passing through downtown Herndon the upscale Dairy Queen is hard to miss.

To anyone who appreciates the outdoors the other downside to the trail is the encroaching development. In the year I have been riding the trail, I am more than a little appalled by how fast the wild places of the trail are disappearing. They disappeared years ago in Fairfax County and now it’s Loudoun County’s turn. I remember in the 1980s I used to see lots of bumper stickers that said “Don’t Fairfax Loudoun!” What they meant was don’t take nice and undeveloped Loudoun County and turn it into another densely packed bedroom community like Fairfax County. But it’s clearly too late. Bulldozers are active along both sides of the trail. Housing developments in particular are springing up quickly. There are a couple miles between Sterling and Leesburg that sit between genuinely undeveloped land. But it’s clear that they won’t be there much longer. Sterling and Leesburg are joining in the middle, and regular bicyclists on the trail are watching it happen.

Yet I am very grateful for the trail and for the foresight of the last generation that found the time, energy and money to create this 45-mile long park. Open fully since 1982 I find it still to be a delightful ride. Riding the trail gets a tad boring at times, but it is almost always fun to ride on it. On the trail and largely away from the traffic I can escape into my own world. For a little while I don’t feel the press of humanity and its cares so much. Instead I often feel at one with the universe. Its sounds are the low hum of my bike’s tires on the pavement and the gentle roar of wind passing through my helmet.

Continue reading “Biking the W&OD Trail”

Fairfax County Turns Blue

Lost among all the election gloom for us Democrats was this story in the Washington Post. The county I live in, Fairfax County voted 53% to 46% for John Kerry. Fairfax County is a bedroom community in Northern Virginia largely outside the Washington beltway going about as far west as Washington Dulles International Airport.

What’s the big deal you ask? Simply that the last time a Democratic candidate won the presidential election in Fairfax County was 1964. Yes, it’s been forty years since my county voted yes to a Democrat in the Oval Office.

Why is this happening now in 2004? It is because this bedroom community is becoming more and more urbanized and cosmopolitan. In 1964 most of the county consisted of woods and farmlands. The only farms left in Fairfax County are run now run to show visitors what the agrarian life once looked like in the county. There is Kidwell Farm in Frying Pan Park just down the street from me run by the Fairfax County Park Authority. We also have the Claude Moore Colonial Farm in McLean that is run by a nonprofit organization.

Today in 2004 Fairfax County is a mixture of bedroom communities and high tech businesses. Pseudo cities like Tysons Corner and Reston draw huge numbers of skilled workers, most of who are in the technology business. There are still lots of single-family homes in my county. But what land is still available for development is more likely to be multifamily dwellings like condos, apartments and townhouses. If a single-family community is developed in my county it is likely populated with overpriced McMansions set eight feet apart. While not as expensive a place to live as San Francisco, housing is pretty pricey around here. My modest single-family house with three bedrooms would likely fetch $350,000 if I put it on the market.

But mostly the county is drawing the well paid, well-educated, highly literate and culturally sophisticated knowledge worker. You can see them all over the place in Reston. Surrounding Reston’s “Town Center” (an oxymoron, since there is no incorporated town of Reston) are increasing numbers of tall apartment buildings and condos. People are shelling out $300,000 or more for a condo within walking distance to the Reston Town Center.

And for what? For the buzz of the city I think. Yes, in many ways Reston is very much a city now. It feels like a city. The tall buildings are everywhere. We have Oracle. We have Microsoft. We have large international consulting firms. We have hundreds of national and international organizations and institutions headquartered here. Twenty years ago when I moved to Reston it was hard to get to, only half developed yet a cool place with lots of trees and walking paths in the woods. Thankfully many of the trees and trails are still there. But now there is also this significant urban presence centered around its downtown. Within easy walking distance of the Reston Town Center are all the essentials for the modern, upwardly mobile urban professional. The Starbucks are ubiquitous. In the Town Center there are trendy places to eat and drink, a first class mega-cinema, a Barnes & Noble, Best Buy as well as upscale stores and restaurants.

Fairfax County has also become a very diverse place. Forty years ago it was overwhelmingly white and largely agrarian. Today you have every hue in the human rainbow living here. Our population recently topped one million people. While we have our share of poor people they are increasingly hard to find. You have to go hunt them down along the depressed corridors of Route 1. In addition to a high contingent of WASPs we also have large numbers of Orientals, Indians, Muslims and Hispanics. I was surprised to find out that in my own community of Oak Hill nearly 10% of the residents are of Oriental ancestry.

Our increasing diversity and growing population density matters. We’ve gotten used to each other. As I mentioned some time ago I’ve become color expectant. It now feels odd for me to be in a crowd of WASPs. It is so peculiar that when it happens I feel like the odd man out, like I don’t belong, even though I grew up in a Wonder Bread community in upstate New York.

Over the course of my twenty years of living here in Fairfax County I have been forced through the course of ordinary life to encounter a plethora of different kinds of people. In the process I have gotten to know them and their various cultures. Because I live in an increasingly diverse county I am no longer shocked or surprised to find out a coworker is gay. In fact as I get to know people of different cultures, outlooks and sexual orientations I see them all as just folks. They seem entirely ordinary to me. And when I make friends with openly gay people issues like gay marriage suddenly take on new meaning. I can see with my own eyes and judge through my own daily interactions that they are no different from me in any way that matters at all. So the whole fuss about gay marriage seems increasingly bizarre to me. I don’t understand what motivates people to be upset about it. If they knew my gay friend Wilson for example like I know him they’d realize that all their fears are entirely specious. The world would not come to an end if he were allowed to marry. My marriage and no one in my community would be threatened in the least.

And I am not alone. My county is now full of people like me whose values have changed through exposure to a diverse culture. So really it is no surprise that in 2004 the demographics finally changed and we voted for a Democrat for president. I suspect it will be a long time before a Republican presidential candidate wins the vote in my county. Why? Because I live in a progressive county that is ten years ahead of much of the rest of the country.

And knowing this I feel better. I can see the trends and while certainly areas like the South will continue to grow, opportunities and excitement can often be found at or around major metropolitan areas like Washington D.C. Liberalism, which has its base in major cities is spreading out to suburban areas. Increasingly the red counties surrounding major cities are becoming purple, then blue. Fairfax County has joined nearby (and closer to DC) Arlington County in becoming a blue county. Much of the rest of Virginia will stay red but over time the demographics favor the Democrats. People move to places where there is energy, jobs and money. The more people in an area the more connections happen and the easier it becomes to move from job to job. This energy builds on itself. As people move in they begin to adopt many of the values of their community. The long-term prospects for us progressives are positive, and certainly not as bleak as the pundits would suggest. Come live in Fairfax County and find out for yourself.