Fairfax Suburbanista

Making growth work in Fairfax

Posts Tagged ‘Tysons Corner’

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 »

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 »

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.

Posted in Bicycling, Transit-oriented development, Tysons Corner, VDOT | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Getting Tysons right

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on September 15, 2009

Will Tysons Corner become a real place, with a mix of homes and shops, restaurants and offices that people can walk to? The debate about density reported in today’s Washington Post is important. But it shouldn’t be the only issue.

As the Post’s Lisa Rein reports, Fairfax County planning staff are recommending densities for a redeveloped Tysons Corner that are lower than those recommended by the Tysons Land Use Task Force, a group of Tysons landowners and local civic leaders that created a vision document for Tysons Corner last year. There would be fewer people living and working right near the four planned Metro stations if the staff recommendations were implemented. That could discourage developers looking to build well designed, truly transit-oriented urban buildings and places. The Rosslyn-Ballston corridor in Arlington has very dense office and residential developments right next to the Metro stations, and density greatly tapers off the farther you get from the stations. The staff recommendations would have much lower maximum densities near the stations.

Planning staff say that you can create a walkable and livable place at the densities they recommend, with buildings set close to the street and a vibrant urban environment. Higher densities, they suggest, will require more transportation infrastructure to move so many people around — including extremely expensive large-scale highway and road improvements. The companies that own the land closest to the four Metro stations naturally want as much density as they can get, and want the higher densities envisioned by the Tysons Land Use Task Force.

To put things in perspective, the staff recommendations still would leave Tysons Corner with more office, retail and housing space than the planned full build-out of Arlington’s Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, which is roughly the same size. The main questions should be, “How will this space be allocated?” and “How will the buildings and surrounding streets be designed?” Arlington’s success suggests that you can develop extremely densely on the land closest to the Metro stations without increasing traffic. Traffic in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor has not increased, because so many more people are walking, bicycling, and using transit.

There may actually be no “magic formula” for the right density levels. But higher density near transit does not mean more traffic, if the buildings and streets are well designed. Will the major thoroughfares such as Route 7 and International Boulevard be designed so that they are easier to walk across and bicycle on? Will they be designed so that people actually want to walk there?

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

Doing well by doing good

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on August 13, 2009

Getting citizens involved early produces better results. Image courtesy of urbanreviewstl.com

Getting citizens involved early produces better results. Image courtesy of urbanreviewstl.com

Both Fairfax and Prince George’s Counties are considering revamping their land use planning processes to make them more transparent and less cumbersome. At their June retreat, the Fairfax Board of Supervisors heard a staff presentation recommending an overhaul of its cumbersome, piecemeal Area Plans Review process. A Washington Post article today reports that Prince George’s is looking at streamlining its development review process, and making it simpler for laypeople to understand how to participate in the process.

If the jurisdictions follow through, this is good politics and even better planning. Land use politics is a minefield, and it can be extremely difficult for well meaning elected officials to make the best decisions for their communities when they face a clamor of angry citizens campaigning against change (think health care reform). Citizens are often left in the dark about development proposals until they have already well advanced. If you can’t steer change, you fear it.

Fairfax County has put a lot of effort into engaging citizens on specific development proposals and large-scale projects, such as the redesign of Tysons Corner. But the land use planning process tends to be highly technical and oriented toward landowners rather than citizens. Staff reports on rezonings are long on technical language and short on pictures. Unless you are one of the handful of citizens with the dedication to serve on a land use advisory committee and wade through the meetings and verbiage, your only opportunity to influence the development process is to speak at a public hearing — by which time the outcome has usually already been decided.

Fairfax’s Area Plans Review process exemplifies the problems. Landowners who want to develop their land in ways not currently permitted by zoning generally have to go through an Area Plans Review. Planning staff and citizen advisory committees review the proposals and make recommendations to the Planning Commission. If approved by the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors, the recommendations are incorporated in the comprehensive plan. Then the developer must apply to rezone the land.

But often the process doesn’t please anybody. The developer is unhappy because the process takes so long. Citizens are unhappy because the information they receive is packaged abstractly, relating to density, type of usage, and other things that don’t really represent to a layperson what the development will do. And the process is not well advertised, so that even the few citizens who do learn of rezoning proposals have little or no influence because the process by then is so far along.

So kudos to Fairfax for looking at a new approach. Here are some recommendations:

  • Provide visual representations of different development proposals and possibilities, so citizens can better choose and communicate what they like, and don’t like
  • Identify both “off-limits” areas where there will be little or no new development, and areas where new development will be concentrated — such as transit areas and major commercial corridors.
  • For priority development areas, get consensus on basic development principles and then provide incentives and a “fast track” for development proposals that meet these principles. Arlington has done this, so can Fairfax.

Posted in Planning, smart growth | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Tysons plan under review: Send your comments

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on July 10, 2009

Will the Tysons plan tame Rtes. 123 (pictured here at Scotts Crossing), Leesburg Pike and International Boulevard?

Will the Tysons plan tame Rtes. 123 (pictured here at Scotts Crossing), Leesburg Pike and International Boulevard?

The Comprehensive Plan for the redevelopment of Tysons Corner is being refined and public comments are due next Friday, July 17. One key to successful redevelopment will be taming Route 123 and Route 7 so that pedestrians and bicyclists can navigate them safely. All four planned Tysons Metrorail stations are located on either 123 or 7 (the picture shows the site of the Tysons West station), but currently both roads are highly forbidding to pedestrians and bicyclists. Yet the Virginia Department of Transportation’s plans for Route 7 have minimal pedestrian facilities — a 6-foot sidewalk — and would make bicycling even worse than on the old Route 7 by eliminating the service roads and providing no suitable replacement for local traffic or for bicyclists.

The “Straw Man” Comprehensive Plan has street design guidelines for the secondary streets and includes plans for an internal street grid, which will be critical steps forward to making Tysons more walkable and bicycle-friendly. But the elephant in the room are Routes 7 and 123, and the plan needs to address this. VDOT’s designs  are overwhelmingly focused on moving more automobiles. Yet it will be hard to achieve truly transit-oriented development unless these two streets are designed to encourage street-level activity. Do you really want to shop or meet your friends at a place where you get off the station and have to sweat just to cross the street?

The Comprehensive Plan language that is adopted will strongly guide future rezonings, so it’s imperative to get needed language inserted now.

Posted in Bicycling, Transit, Transit-oriented development, Transportation, Tysons Corner, VDOT, Walking | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »