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Archive for the ‘Bicycling’ Category

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.

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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 »

A step forward — maybe

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on October 29, 2009

Gallows and Strawberry toward 29

Local control might help make crosswalks such as this one at Merrifield Town Center more pedestrian-friendly.

If you’ve ever tried walking or bicycling on Gallows Road, you know it’s hardly a pleasant experience. The road is extremely wide, has narrow sidewalks, and is very difficult to cross as pedestrians try to beat cars moving and turning in every direction. It could be much different. Threading through some major destinations including Fairfax Hospital, Exxon-Mobil’s world headquarters, and the W & OD Trail all the way to Tysons Corner, Gallows could be a great corridor for walking, bicycling and using transit. In fact, some of the county’s major development initiatives, such as Merrifield Town Center, Dunn Loring, and Tysons Corner, are planned along this road.

But Fairfax doesn’t have control over the design of Gallows Road. The Virginia Department Of Transportation does. Even as county officials decide how to best plan development so more people can walk, bicycle, and use transit, the most important factor — whether they can safely cross the street — is out of their hands.

This could change. As Kali Schumitz of the Fairfax Times reports, Fairfax County has initiated a study of options for taking over road maintenance and construction from VDOT.  Fairfax wants to wrest more money for transportation from Richmond and control that money themselves. But local control of roads could also help make the county more walkable and bicycle-friendly.

In all Virginia counties but two, VDOT controls both the primary roads like Route 123 and Route 50, and secondary roads that connect with primary roads. Arlington and Henrico Counties have taken over control of their secondary roads, although VDOT still controls the primary roads. Fairfax is looking to do the same thing.

Local control certainly is no panacea. Fairfax City controls all of its roads, and they are hardly pedestrian paradises. Wherever they work, transportation engineers are trained in the same places and follow the same rigorous and generally auto-oriented discipline. And even if Fairfax did take over its secondary roads, VDOT would still control the arterial roads that are the biggest barriers to pedestrian and bicycle access.

But local control of secondary roads would enable Fairfax citizens and groups to hold their local officials more accountable. Right now it is too easy for our elected officials and transportation department to pass the buck to VDOT. With local control, they would have to walk the talk — and we would have to make them.

Posted in Bicycling, Fairfax City, smart growth, Transportation, VDOT, Walking | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Greasing the chain

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on October 7, 2009

Tysons Tour Apr 07Earlier this week Fairfax County took the first step toward a bicycle master plan. The County Board of Supervisors approved a motion by Supervisor Jeff McKay directing the staff to study the development of a bicycle plan and provide recommendations for funding and creating the plan.

Fairfax County currently has very few bicycle projects in its countywide transportation plan. Less than 2 percent of the funds in VDOT’s Six-Year Transportation Improvement Program for Northern Virginia are for bicycle and pedestrian improvements. If it is not in these plans, it will not get built.

Washington DC approved a bicycle master plan in 2005.  Bicycle projects are now integrated in the city’s transportation plan, guiding decisions about design and funding for projects. Bicycle use in the city has soared. Without the plan, many bicycle projects would not have gotten into the city’s funding and construction pipeline. The bicycle master plan took a lot of work, and some money. But it is paying off.

With the budget constraints, Fairfax County cannot fund a bicycle planning effort. But the approval of a study of a bike plan greases the chain for a bicycle planning process when funding gets less tight. Fairfax Advocates for Better Bicycling, which has been campaigning for a bicycle master plan, recognized this and worked with Supervisor McKay to get the process started. The District of Columbia used crack consultants to do their bicycle master plan, and the high quality and precision of their work surely has helped legitimize the plan and get it implemented. Still, the county might want to consider getting started with the resources it already has and not wait too long before beginning the plan. Despite the incessant hand-wringing about Virginia’s transportation woes, new money for transportation is coming within the next couple years through the federal transportation reauthorization. We need to be prepared with specific bicycle and pedestrian projects to take advantage of the opportunities.


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Boulevard, or auto sewer?

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on September 25, 2009

This is a boulevard?

This is a boulevard?

When you take the future Silver Line to Tysons Corner, chances are you’ll end up walking along either Leesburg Pike or Chain Bridge Road. All of the four planned Metro stations will be on either Leesburg or Chain Bridge. They will be the most important streets in a redeveloped Tysons Corner. For Tysons to become a real place, people on these streets will need to feel comfortable  bicycling, walking, sitting with a friend and drinking coffee, window-shopping and doing the many other things that support a vibrant urban environment.

Fairfax County’s draft comprehensive plan for Tysons Corner recognizes the importance of redesigning these pedestrian- and bicycle-unfriendly roads.  Complete streets principles are honored in theory. But the proposed design will not create a more  inviting environment for people who want to experience the pleasures and amenities of a city. Above is one of the proposed “Boulevard” cross-sections for Chain Bridge Road  and Leesburg Pike. There would be four car travel lanes in each direction and a median. A tree buffer is planned between the sidewalk and the road. The local service lanes that currently exist on Leesburg Pike would be eliminated. These currently serve slower-moving traffic and are good for bicycling. There are no bicycle lanes.

Arlington has more created complete streets to complement transit, such as here at Courthouse. Photo courtesy digitaldefection, http://www.flickr.com/photos/digitaldefection/

Arlington has created complete streets to complement transit, such as here at Courthouse. Photo courtesy digitaldefection, http://www.flickr.com/photos/digitaldefection/

The median will be literally overshadowed by above-ground Metro tracks. That will make it even harder to redesign Leesburg and Chain Bridge as complete streets. In fact, the major players in the rail project — including the Metro Washington Airports Authority, VDOT, Washington Metro and Fairfax County — seem resigned to the rail corridors becoming dark, impersonal and pedestrian-unfriendly places where the only safe crossings will be the station bridges. That’s certainly the impression given by the latest visual renderings.  SAIC, which is moving its national headquarters to Tysons, is planning to build its own bridge to get employees across Leesburg Pike.

Isn’t there a better way to balance concerns about traffic flow and accommodating the Metro rail with creating a more pleasant urban environment?   In Arlington, the major thoroughfares on the Rosslyn-Ballston transit corridor carry a lot of traffic but also include on-street parking and bike lanes. Let’s hope we can find a better design for these key streets in Tysons.

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Connecting University Mall to George Mason

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on August 28, 2009

Tweaks to the Roanoke River Road/Braddock Road intersection would improve bicycle and pedestrian access to University Mall

Tweaks to the Roanoke River Road/Braddock Road intersection would improve bicycle and pedestrian access to University Mall

The owners of University Mall near George Mason have filed applications to add retail space and modernize this lively but somewhat aging shopping center. One critical improvement would be to improve pedestrian and bicycle access across Braddock Road. George Mason University now bike lanes on its Braddock Road/Roanoke River Road entrance (as well as on the University Drive entrance), making it a lot easier to ride from campus onto the Braddock Road and Ox Road trails. But getting across Braddock Road to the shopping center by bicycle or on foot is a challenge. There is a lot of right-turning traffic and the bike lane veers right, right into the path of this traffic. Experienced bicyclists trying to cross will move from the bike lane to the through lane, but it is a tricky maneuver. In a recent summer late-morning ride I watched several right-turning vehicles approach the intersection and turn without braking, which is easy to do because of the wide curb radius. Bicyclists and pedestrians heading to University Mall have to cross Roanoke River Road to reach the striped crosswalk, and then cross again at the Patriot Square office complex. The crosswalk is excellent, with ample crossing time — kudos to VDOT — but getting there is tougher than it could be.

More and more students, administrators and faculty are living on or near the George Mason campus, and the university is also building a hotel for campus guests. With all the new permanent and guest housing, many more people in the George Mason community will be living car-free or car-light. The campus has a parking crunch and is working to encourage more pedestrian, bicycle and transit use. With a supermarket, cinema, bar and the redoubtable Brion’s Grill, University Mall is a big destination for Mason students and employees. Making it easier to walk and bicycle to and from the mall is a critical step. The rezoning application is a key opportunity to make it happen.

Other news for this area is more sobering. Fairfax County is studying a grade-separated interchange for the Braddock Road/Route 123 intersection. This extremely expensive project would isolate George Mason from University Mall, slice up the Ox Road bicycle trail, and encourage more traffic and inefficient development in southwest Fairfax and other parts of the area. Traffic at this intersection is certainly bad, but spending so much money to make the area even more car-dependent and less pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly is not the answer.

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Blaming the victim

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on August 11, 2009

Pedestrians and bicyclists face difficulties even on "downtown" streets such as Main Street in Fairfax City (pictured here) or Maple Avenue in Vienna.

Pedestrians and bicyclists face difficulties even on "downtown" streets such as Main Street in Fairfax City (pictured here) or Maple Avenue in Vienna.

Within the past few years, several bicyclists and pedestrians have been killed or injured in collisions with cars in downtown Vienna. The Town of Vienna is reacting by planning an educational campaign that tries to alter bicyclist and pedestrian behavior. The town is also considering enacting new restrictive laws for bicyclists. They’re blaming the victim, and avoiding the main reasons these accidents occur and many Fairfax residents feel unsafe riding or walking.

Situated right on the W & OD Trail, Maple Street attracts many bicyclists despite its bicycle and pedestrian-unfriendly design, with its many curb cuts and turning movements, wide curb radii, fast-moving traffic, and lack of bikeable shoulders or bike lanes. Many bicyclists, including me, choose to ride on the sidewalks. But bicycling on the sidewalk is more dangerous than bicycling on the street. Bicyclist-pedestrian collisions are more likely, and it is much harder for motorists to see bicyclists at intersections and curb cuts, which is where most bicyclist-motorist collisions occur.

Vienna’s “Eye to Eye” campaign stresses “defensive riding” with the message that bicyclists should make eye contact with motorists at intersections, curb cuts, and other areas where conflicts are possible. Vienna is also considering enacting a law that would require bicyclists riding on sidewalks to yield to motorists (current Virginia law requires motorists to yield to pedestrians at unsignalized crosswalks). The town is also considering requiring bicyclists to use audible signals at greater than 50 feet away when approaching a pedestrian on the W & OD Trail and on sidewalks.

Fairfax Advocates for Better Bicycling ably explains the shortsightedness of the town’s approach in a recent blog post. As FABB Chairman Bruce Wright says, “More motorist education and enforcement is needed to make cycling safer in the Town. A more bike-friendly Vienna is the best way to improve bicyclists’ safety in Vienna.” Right hooks are rarely the fault of bicyclists, and motorists should be responsible for seeing bicyclists and yielding right of way when making right turns onto stores and at intersections when the light is green. The larger problem is a lack of bicycle facilities on Maple Avenue, forcing bicyclists to use the sidewalk. Is the Town looking for a solution that accommodates all users, not just motorists?

The Vienna Town Council is holding a public hearing at 8 PM on August 17 to discuss proposed changes in the Town code relating to bicycling on the sidewalk. If you live or work in Vienna and care about this, come and speak out.

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Connecting the dots

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on August 7, 2009

Fairfax County’s fragmented street network is a big reason why getting from one place to another — by car, bike, on foot, or any other means — is so stressful. A case in point is the new Merrifield development (pictured above left). The shops, restaurants and apartments at Merrifield Town Center are within easy walking and bicycling distance of the homes and offices on and near Arlington Boulevard. They are also within easy walking and bicycling distance of the Dunn-Loring metro station. But both Dunn-Loring and Arlington Boulevard have inefficient street systems that funnel all traffic to major roads.

As part of the Merrifield rezoning, Merrilee Drive will be connected to Eskridge Road, which will make it easier for Dunn-Loring residents, office workers and transit users to enjoy the amenities of Merrifield. A thornier problem is to connect Eskridge Road with Williams Drive and Arlington Boulevard. A few properties, including the Four Seasons Tennis Club (pictured on right), separate Eskridge and Williams. The medical staff and other office workers and visitors on Williams Drive are just 10 minutes away from Merrifield Town Center by foot — and within bicycling distance of the Dunn-Loring station — but private properties, a parking lot and a fence separate them. That just funnels more car traffic onto Arlington Boulevard, Gallows Road, Prosperity Drive and the Beltway.

Fairfax County looked closely into connecting Eskridge and Williams as part of the Merrifield rezoning, but stopped short when many property owners opposed it. But even if a connecting road cannot be built, one would think that the county could work with property owners to acquire easements for a trail connecting the two roads. It would be good for business in Merrifield, connect the many residents and workers in this area with amenities, and reduce the traffic burden on the roads.

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Street grid near Fairfax Boulevard would be good, but don’t make it an island

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on August 3, 2009

Fair Lakes Market CommonsLast week Fairfax City Councilmembers briefly discussed a critical step in the implementation of the Fairfax Boulevard master plan — a more connected, walkable and bikeable street network. The city recently enacted a new commercial real estate tax dedicated exclusively to funding transportation projects. The first priority for this new money is to build a street network in the “Northfax” section of Fairfax Boulevard near Route 123. While the plans are still in a very early stage, and redevelopment proposals have not yet even been formally submitted, a dedicated funding source makes it likely that redevelopment in Northfax will move relatively quickly.

The Fairfax Boulevard master plan recommends a “8/10/10/8” design of new local streets — 8 feet for on-street parking on each side, a 10 foot travel lane, and wide sidewalks. The recommended design would resemble the street pictured above, at the Market Commons development in Fair Lakes — creating a pleasant place to walk, ride your bike, and spend money at local businesses.

It would be great to have new walkable streets in Fairfax City in places that are currently taken up mostly by surface parking. Doing this, though, will be easier than implementing the main aspect of the master plan, which is taming Fairfax Boulevard itself. The recommendations in the master plan call for a pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly boulevard with five travel lanes and two access lanes for local traffic. The “5-2” design would make Fairfax Boulevard a much more pleasant place to walk along. It would also make the street easier to cross, so that local residents could more easily get to places on the Boulevard on foot or bicycle rather than adding to the traffic. But city council members and developers are skeptical about the 5-2 design.

Without a more ambitious redesign of the Boulevard, the local streets will be nice places to go, but — like Market Commons and many other new developments in Fairfax County — they will be islands of livability surrounded by inhospitable wide roads.

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Want to walk or bike to rail? Tell Metro

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on July 23, 2009

Even those of us in Fairfax lucky enough to live within walking or bicycling distance of a Metro rail station often choose to drive. The roads can be difficult to cross and have fast moving traffic intimidating to many bicyclists, and sidewalks are often missing.

If you have ideas about how to improve conditions for walking and bicycling, let Metro know by responding to its online questionnaire. Metro is doing a study of pedestrian and bicycle access that will feed into recommended improvements and projects for its 10-year capital needs program. At last night’s workshop at the Metro headquarters, the project consultants, Toole Design, presented the initial outline of the study. Toole is a highly respected consulting firm that helped the county with the excellent Fairfax County bike map. The project manager, Dan Goodman, bicycles to the Metro — a prerequisite for doing good bike planning.

Both Franconia-Springfield and Vienna are priority station areas in the study, where Metro will be looking to make relatively small, “bang for the buck”  improvements that can increase bicycle and walking trips. If you’ve tried to walk — or drive, for that matter — to the Franconia-Springfield station, you know how poor the access is there. This is the paradigm for brutalist transit design. The area is going to have stunning growth, mainly because of military base realignment, which could be an opportunity to redevelop its pedestrian- and bicycle-unfriendly streets. Approval of the redevelopment of the Springfield mall is imminent, which will help, although the nearby arterial roads will remain barriers to good access.

The Vienna station has a lot of things going for it, especially the Metrowest project, and Metro’s focus on strategic improvements is one more good sign. But the glacial pace of the Metrowest development is frustrating. Although it was approved more than three years ago, ground has not yet been broken. The residential developer, Pulte Homes, is having the same trouble finding money from lenders as most other developers.

Even with the eventual development of Metrowest, the station area could still become just an oasis of walkability surrounded by the pedestrian and bicycle deserts of Nutley Street and Route 29. Getting the Virginia Department of Transportation on board with changes to these roads is important to improving pedestrian and bicycle access. This is even more important at the future stations in Tysons Corner. It’s also important for making the Merrifield development work near the Dunn-Loring station, where Route 29 and Gallows Road form barriers between the growing numbers of residents and the Metro station.

Will Metro’s study address these more systemic issues? To what extent can the study foster better coordination with Fairfax County and VDOT to improve these obscenely wide roads and make them safer for walking and bicycling?

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