Fairfax Suburbanista

Making growth work in Fairfax

Archive for November, 2009

Getting to the parking lot

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on November 23, 2009

In-street crosswalk sign at Fair City Mall

Even people who drive for every trip have to cross the street. The motorists cum pedestrians at Fair City Mall now have a safer route to and from the parking lot thanks to the in-street crosswalk signs installed on the mall’s main internal street.

Weekend foot and car traffic is heavy on this street, and getting heavier as the mall brings in popular new stores such as Best Buy. In-street crosswalk signs are very effective in getting motorists to follow the law and yield to pedestrians at unsignalized crosswalks on neighborhood and other smaller streets. The city and the mall made a good move.

This will hopefully lead to the signs being installed at key crosswalks on the city’s public streets. The city has many trail crossings that get a lot of pedestrian and bicycle traffic. The crosswalk at Sager Avenue near Providence Square Condominiums is one example. These would be good candidates for in-street signs.

Posted in Walking | Tagged: , | 6 Comments »

Transportation money available — where’s Fairfax?

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on November 18, 2009

Fairfax is the largest school system in Virginia and maintains one of the largest school bus fleets in the country. But Fairfax has claimed very little available federal money to encourage safer walking and bicyling routes to school. Since 2005 Virginia has received $13 million in federal funds for its Safe Routes to School Program. Fairfax has received less than 1 percent of these funds. As today’s Washington Post reports, leaders are showing interest in encouraging more walking and bicyling to school. An excellent post by FABB puts an even finer edge on this issue. There is money on the table for transportation — Fairfax should be claiming it.

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The best exercise: right around the corner (if you can walk there)

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on November 17, 2009

Just what the Doctor ordered

Living near a walking trail is one of the best things you can do for your health. That’s the gist of Dr. Daphne Miller’s article in today’s Post, “Take a hike and call me in the morning.” Miller, a family physician and clinical professor at the University of California in San Francisco, begins the article with testimony from a patient that says everything about the importance of a good walking environment:

“I have a StairMaster right in my own basement, but honestly it’s been gathering dust there for years and making me feel guilty. . . . It wasn’t until I started walking the three-mile trail in the park near my house that I got serious about exercising.”

If more of us lived within walking distance of a trail, we’d be healthier and happier. Expanding the trail network is a major focus in several regions, as the article details. Public health advocates, and health philanthropies such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Mary Black Foundation, have really stepped up — so to speak — to build broad, effective partnerships for expanding access to trails and encouraging active transportation.

Trails are also good suburban politics. It’s hard to be against them. Fairfax City, where I live, has a strong and growing trail network. The city is very effective in getting trail easements to fill gaps in the network. Building the Cross-County Trail was a major “legacy” of Gerry Connolly’s reign as the Chair of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

But in a 400 square-mile county, not everyone will be able to live within walking distance of a trail. And when you need to go to the grocery store, dry cleaners, or doctor, a trail will probably not get you there. Commercial development is and will be concentrated along the county’s major roads.

Think of all the calories you'd burn off from that latte if Fairfax City had zoned this Starbucks to be a walkable destination, instead of a drive-through.

Adapting our streets and buildings to encourage more walking and bicycling is a tougher political fight than building a trail. To create walkable, bicycle-friendly environments in the suburbs, communities have to fight against rules and practices embedded in everything from zoning codes to road design standards. But this is just as important as, if not more important than, building trails. The places where we need to go — that doctor, grocery store, where we work, etc. — should be accessible on foot. That way, we are engineering physical activity into our daily lives. It takes Dr. Miller’s approach to trails one step further. It just becomes part of what we do.

In McLean, one of Fairfax’s older area with a solid pedestrian-oriented core, citizens have created a great blueprint for making that area more walkable. The recommendations include filling gaps in the sidewalk network — especially in key places such as near crosswalks — tightening curb radii, and setting and enforcing a speed limit of 25 mph in the downtown area. Most important, the blueprint focuses on implementing these recommendations and the district supervisor, John Foust, has pledged that they will be implemented. The blueprint also notes that fewer than 5 percent of current bicycle trips are for commuting to and from work or for going to school. But if the recommendations are implemented, the use of a bicycle for work, school, and errand trips should greatly increase.

Kudos to our trail system, and let’s keep working to expand it. But we’ll all be even healthier and happier if we can just walk or bicycle to the coffeeshop or grocery store.

Posted in Bicycling, Transportation, Walking | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

HSD

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on November 16, 2009

It doesn’t sound as good as HUD — but really, shouldn’t our federal housing program be called HSD: Housing and Suburban Development? That thought is prompted by the above-the-fold editorial in today’s Washington Post. “The FHA’s nose dive” takes the Federal Housing Administration to task for propping up the single-family housing market through imprudent mortgage insurance policies.  Meanwhile, Congress has authorized a $8,000 tax credit for first-time homebuyers. It seems that our economy is addicted to the credit cycle that is set in motion by the “purchase” of a home. And the land for those homes is in the suburbs.

Our local zoning laws already make it hard enough to build apartments. Fairfax City has an explicit “move up” housing policy that discourages the production of apartments. Well over 70 percent of Fairfax County’s housing stock consists of single-family homes or townhouses. But they are working in tandem with much larger forces that make single-family homes so much more profitable for developers than apartments. The FHA mortgage insurance policies will cover borrowers who put as little as 3.5 percent down on a house. If they default, the developer has already gotten his money. The bank gets its money. The buyer’s credit is ruined. We pick up the tab.

Apartment dwellers should be up in arms. They are subsidizing a massive public housing program. This has been going on for over 60 years. But now it is getting even more extreme.  FHA’s reserves have shrunk to less than 1 percent of the total loans it insures. China and the US’s economies are said to be joined at the hip; the one cannot prosper without propping up the other. Is the same true of our economy and the continued production of single-family housing?

Posted in Affordable homes | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

Getting across the street

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on November 10, 2009

Rte 7 ped

Route 7 near Seven Corners has many pedestrians, no sidewalks and no safe crossings

If you live in Fairfax and want to walk or bicycle to the 7-11, your job or to your child’s school, chances are you will have to cross a major road. To bicycle to our son’s elementary school, we have to cross both Route 236 and Route 50, plus a busy secondary road, Jermantown Road. During peak hours Route 236 and 50 have many turning vehicles and short walk cycles. The crosswalks are poorly lit, increasing the risk of collisions with pedestrians.

But these crosswalks are still a lot safer than on many other arterial roads in Fairfax County. Twenty two pedestrians were killed on Route 1 between 1995 and 2005, according to a 2008 report by the Coalition for Smarter Growth. Eleven pedestrians were killed on Route 7.  A lot of people live along these streets, and many of them don’t drive. Yet the streets lack sidewalks, lighting and safe crossings.

Virginia ranks last among states in spending on pedestrian and bicycle projects per capita, according to a report released yesterday by Transportation for America and the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership. The report,  Dangerous by Design: Solving the Epidemic of Preventable Pedestrian Deaths (and Making Great Neighborhoods), looks at pedestrian spending and safety, using a “pedestrian danger index” that computes the rate of pedestrian deaths relative to the amount of walking the residents do on average. For safety, the Washington area ranks 32nd among the largest 52 metro areas  (with 52 being the least dangerous) — better than many Sunbelt areas that have been mostly built in the age of the automobile, but worse than Virginia Beach and many comparable metro regions.  A 2008 report by the Coalition for Smarter Growth ranked Fairfax as the most dangerous county in the region for pedestrians, based on the same pedestrian danger index.

Fairfax County  recognizes the problem and is investing millions of dollars in better pedestrian design on its most dangerous roads. Earlier this year the $8 million Patrick Henry pedestrian bridge opened on Route 50 near Falls Church. But this may not be the best design solution.  Steven Offutt’s great post on the bridge showed that most pedestrians still cross on the street. Ultimately, the street itself has to be made more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly.

Making these roads complete streets that are safe and convenient for all users will require a major overhaul of VDOT’s current approach. VDOT does have a policy requiring routine accommodations for pedestrians and bicyclists as part of any major road construction and maintenance project. But sidewalks and bike lanes, however important, are only parts of complete streets. There are many tools such as bulb-outs, pedestrian refuge islands, express bus lanes and tighter curb radii that would correct the balance toward pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users.

There is no better place to use these tools than at Tysons Corner. If we don’t build complete streets on Routes 7 and 123, the success of transit-oriented development at Tysons will be limited. Will VDOT and other agencies involved in the redesign of these roads show more flexibility in making them pleasant and safe for walking and bicycling?

Posted in Bicycling, Central Fairfax, Fairfax Boulevard, Fairfax City, Transportation, Tysons Corner, VDOT, Walk to school, Walking | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Old Lee Highway: Fairfax’s Gold Coast?

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on November 5, 2009

Exterior_CivicGreen

The Sherwood Community Center will be a 4 minute bike ride from Old Town

George mason Sq3

The city is also planning to redevelop this patchwork of parking lots and older buildings into a public plaza

Just about a 10-minute walk from one another are two city projects that could help shift energies and activity from our malls to more genuine public spaces. George Mason Square in Old Town is bookended by two parking lots on North Street, with two old buildings and Kitty Pozer Garden in between. The city owns the parcel and will be seeking a development partner to reinvent this space as a public plaza with shops fronting Old Lee Highway. One enterprising citizen has started a Facebook group to organize support for a vibrant, pedestrian-friendly project.

Further down Old Lee, the Sherwood family has made a donation to the city that will allow it to build a community center in Van Dyck Park. Among other features, the community center will include bicycle racks with kid-friendly designs, including a potential bike-a-saurus rack.

George Mason Square could become a great “third place” where people could go to read the paper, talk to a friend, play chess, blow on their harmonica, or just watch the people go by. Kids could walk or bicycle to the Community Center and hang out with their friends without having to get driven around by their parents. It’s great that the city is focusing on creating attractive public spaces.

Just as important as the design of the spaces will be connecting these spaces so people can easily get to them on foot or by bicycle. Let’s say you’re shopping in George Mason Square and your kid wants to go the playground. Are you going to sit him or her in the backseat of the car and drive to Van Dyck Park, or take a 10-minute walk there, and maybe stop along the way at a redeveloped, pedestrian-friendly Courthouse Square? The latter would be a much more pleasant experience, and will create more business for the city. Or you could bicycle there, which would be much easier if the city striped bike lanes on Old Lee.

Posted in Fairfax City, Public spaces, Walking | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Tame this street

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on November 2, 2009

use thisFairfax County has done a nice job of planning the mix of buildings fronting Prosperity Avenue near the Dunn Loring Metro. The problem is Prosperity Avenue. It is too wide, and an 8-minute walk separates the two pedestrian crossings. The crosswalk at the US Immigrations and Custom Enforcement office is unsignalized. The county formerly had in-street crosswalk signs at this crosswalk, which were effective in getting motorists to yield to pedestrians. Without any signal or signs alerting motorists to the presence of pedestrians and their legal responsibility to yield at crosswalks, the intersection is now harder to cross.

The county has approved redevelopment plans on the other side of Prosperity, where the station is. The surface parking lot will be replaced by stores, giving residents on the newly urban Merrilee Drive and along the other side of Prosperity some places to walk to besides Merrifield Town Center. But residents are more likely to leave their cars in the garage if the county and VDOT design improvements to make Prosperity safer to cross, such as bulb-outs and a new traffic signal .

Posted in Transit, Transit-oriented development, Walking | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »