Fairfax Suburbanista

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Archive for the ‘Walking’ Category

Whether it’s DC or Fairfax, everyone should be safe

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on December 11, 2009

A naive person would think that being able to cross a street safely should be a basic right. But even in the most walkable city in the region, it can be a challenge. As Ashley Halsey III reports in today’s Post, the District has finally done something to make new York Avenue Northeast easier and safer to cross without getting stuck in the middle. They’ve retimed the crossing cycle at Bladensburg Road to 30 seconds, which is the amount of time it takes to cross the eight-lane intersection at an average walking pace. During the first day of the new cycle, the District experienced the traffic engineer’s worst nightmare. As Halsey reports, “Wednesday’s evening rush backed up from the intersection to Florida Avenue, 1.8 miles.” The District Department of Transportation is working to adjust the timing while giving pedestrians enough time to safely cross the entire intersection.

Would you feel safe crossing this street, or want to buy your holiday presents here?

When even the region’s core city has to contend with irate motorists to protect the safety of its citizens, it’s a reminder of how far the whole region has to go. In Fairfax City, we’ve taken some forward steps. At Fairfax Boulevard and Walnut Drive, for example, the city has created a dedicated “Walk” cycle with red at all intersections to prevent conflicts between pedestrians and turning vehicles. The city has also re-timed signals at its T-intersection on Chain Bridge Road and Judicial Drive to give pedestrians a dedicated crossing time. But there’s a lot more to be done.

In downtown Fairfax, the Old Lee/North Street intersection must handle huge volumes of east-west traffic while enabling pedestrians to safely cross. The intersection is the center of downtown activity. Main Street Marketplace, the library, and an office complex are on three corners; the future George Mason Square retail redevelopment is on the fourth. Currently the city allots 15 seconds for crossing the intersection. That is a brisk walking pace. It is a better timed signal than it was before the two-way reconfiguration of North and Main Streets, but the city should add at least five seconds to the cycle, allow a diagonal crossing, and reduce the wide curb radius.

Whether it is Fairfax or Washington DC — if cities want to attract people to live and spend their money, they need to make their streets inviting and safe for people on foot.

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

Changes are afoot — let’s speed them up!

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on December 7, 2009

Mount Vernon Avenue in Alexandria has been redesigned to make bicycling and walking safe and pleasant.

Check out Scott Polikov’s excellent article in citiwire.net for an encouraging view of the changes afoot in state transportation departments. Last week the Texas became the first state to adopt the The Institute for Transportation Engineers’ and Congress for the New Urbanism’s Manual for Walkable Urban Thoroughfares as an accepted set of guidelines for street design. Polikov, a Fort Worth-based planner, also commends the Virginia Department of Transportation for its policy to encourage interconnected streets.

Last Tuesday, Charlotte,  North Carolina received a National Award for Smart Growth Achievement for its urban street design guidelines, which it adopted five years ago and has already implemented on 20 streets and at 10 intersections.

Are the dominoes falling, as Polikov suggests? Maybe, but they’re heavy dominoes with a bit of glue underneath each one. Adopting the guidelines is just the first step; Texas now  has to figure out how to incorporate them in the Department of Transportation’s various manuals and programs. State DOTs have layers upon layers of staff expertise and established processes that support more conventional auto-oriented practices.

The  Virginia Department of Transportation is changing, but the changes are not as fast as the pace of change in Fairfax communities. Tysons Corner is  poised to get four rail stations by 2013. Fairfax will need to make Routes 7 and 123 into more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly boulevards to take advantage of transit and attract businesses along these streets. But VDOT and the Metro Washington Airports Authority’s plans for 7 and 123 have barebones pedestrian accommodations and discourage at-grade crossings for pedestrians. Nor do they have bike lanes.

Following the example  of Texas and adopting the Walkable Urban Thoroughfare guidelines would be a great step for VDOT. So would a program of trainings in “complete street” design practices for VDOT and FCDOT engineers. VDOT and FCDOT could start by focusing trainings for staff working on projects in Fairfax County designated revitalization areas, such as the Richmond Highway Corridor.

Posted in Transportation, Uncategorized, VDOT, Walking | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

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 »

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 »

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 »

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 »

More is better

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on October 28, 2009

Last night Fairfax City heard a request by the developer of Ratcliffe Hall to downscale an already approved development near Old Town from 154 to 114 homes. The developer, Jaguar Homes, is also seeking to add 57 surface parking spaces. While the City Council and Planning Commission haven’t formally approved the request, the amendments will likely go through once Jaguar works out a few tweaks. That will continue an unfortunate trend toward fewer rather than more homes being built within walking distance of downtown Fairfax. But this isn’t the usual story of anti-neighbors blocking denser urban development.

Ratcliffe Hall was approved in early 2005 when the economy was humming and the developer saw a strong market for “active adult communities.” The development site, a 10-acre forested area along Main Street, lies right between several neighborhoods and Old Town and the County Judicial Center. The site is bisected by a stream. Most neighbors who testified supported the project. Jaguar had already built the pedestrian-oriented Providence Square condominiums in Old Town Fairfax, near Main Street Marketplace. The plan for Ratcliffe Hall was to front Main Street with 36 townhomes and provide 118 condominium units inside a single building on the other side of the stream. Now Jaguar wants to replace the 118 condos with a more conventional townhouse subdivision layout, consisting of 26 townhomes and 52 condo units. They want to replace underground parking with cheaper surface parking.

If there’s a silver lining, it’s that the city has an opportunity to improve pedestrian and bicycle access. With a few tweaks, the new residences could be better connected to the trail network and Old Town, and the new trail could provide better pedestrian and bicycle access for surrounding neighborhoods. Several city council and planning commission members pressed Jaguar to work with surrounding landowners to ensure that the trails are connected and flow into nearby destinations such as the Post Office. More townhomes will also likely bring a more varied mix of residents, including families.

Still, the proposed changes in both density and design are disappointing. Forty fewer residential units are a lot for a city struggling to add a critical mass of people and patrons to its downtown mix. Two new downtown restaurants have already closed. The new design is very inward-looking, with buildings oriented toward the parking garages and an internal “plaza,” instead of encouraging residents toward a shared public space — which the stream valley trail could be, with some changes in design.

Posted in Fairfax City, Planning, Walking | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Inviting public spaces

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on September 10, 2009

Is this supposed to be a real public space -- or just eye candy for cars?

Is this supposed to be a real public space -- or just eye candy for cars?

Despite some artfully designed new residential developments, replete with moats, trails and gazebos, you don’t see many people walking or just enjoying the public spaces in Fairfax City. The plaza in Old Town does attract a fairly broad array of people — old, young, parents and little kids, businesspeople and lawyers, etc. But the public spaces near Farrcroft and Gateway Fairfax, well designed as they are, attract very few people. I’ve never seen anyone sitting on the benches along the trail that runs by Farrcroft. Nor have I ever seen anyone at the cupola pictured to the left, at Gateway Fairfax.

And maybe this, too, is by design. Are these supposed to be real public spaces — or just nice things to look at from your kitchen window, or out your windshield?

If the city were serious about creating more inviting public spaces, there would be benches and something to look at besides a pretty cupola at this space. A sculpture, perhaps. And there would be more places worth walking to. Students and residents might stop here on their way back from Bernie’s Delicatessen to eat their sandwiches. The staff of the nearby Inova branch or Sunrise Assisted Living Center might eat lunch or drink coffee here.

The presence of more people would have a civilizing effect on Chain Bridge Road as it changes from a 55-mph highway to what Fairfax hopes to become the “southern gateway” into the city. That, in turn, might spur a redesign of this section of the road so it is easier to cross and a more pleasant road to walk along. The nearby recently renovated Fairfax County Public Safety Center, while not perfect, is now a much more pleasant place to walk along. The city, with cooperation from state transportation officials, could build on this to make Chain Bridge Road a more inviting pedestrian corridor.

To its credit, the city’s Comprehensive Plan calls for a mixture of homes, stores and businesses in the area along Chain Bridge Road. However, a development proposal would amend the plan to place only homes on nearby School Street. If the city wants to create real public spaces and get more feet on the street, it should stick to its plan.

The redevelopment of Fairfax Boulevard will be the real test of the city’s commitment to vibrant public spaces. The first major parcel to be redeveloped will likely be the Fairfax Shopping Center on the Boulevard. The draft master plan envisions breaking this parcel up into a street grid that would connect with Eaton Place and extend University Drive, creating a local travel lane similar to what already exists further west on the Boulevard, widening the sidewalk and bringing storefronts up to the streets. The developers have indicated a much more automobile-oriented plan, including a grass berm that would divide the boulevard from the stores. This would just be more eye candy. If the city wants to create a place where people will want to actually stop, enjoy themselves and purchase things, they should hew more closely to the draft master plan.

Posted in Planning, Public spaces, Walking | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »