Fairfax Suburbanista

Making growth work in Fairfax

Posts Tagged ‘Walking’

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.

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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 »

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 »

Less pretty, more functional please

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on October 8, 2009

Vienna Maple LawyersDon’t let the pretty bricks fool you. This crosswalk in downtown Vienna is no fun if you have to walk on it. Wide curb radii make it much more difficult to cross because a)they lengthen the walking distance, and b) motorists are encouraged to take turns without stopping or looking for pedestrians.

For years Vienna and Fairfax have been trying to revitalize their downtowns and make them more walkable and bicycle-friendly. But there’s a big disconnect with conventional traffic engineering wisdom. Getting more automobiles through the road faster trumps everything. Traffic calming measures such as squaring off intersections get in the way of this engineering priority.

One issue is institutional. VDOT controls the roads in Fairfax County.The agency is not accountable to local communities. Local control over roads could lead to more flexible, pedestrian-friendly designs. Although pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly design of Routes 7 and 123 will be critical to making Tysons Corner work as a transit-oriented community, VDOT shows little sign of flexibility in its auto-focused approach. This is one reason Fairfax County is looking into taking control of its roads.

But that’s not the only issue. Even county and local transportation divisions tend to narrowly focus on automobile “throughput.” Engineers are trained to move cars efficiently. Pedestrian and bicycle-oriented features are not familiar concepts to many traffic engineers. Local elected officials hear complaints about traffic all the time, and usually it is from a “windshield perspective.” So they, too, are often pressured to look for short-term, auto-oriented solutions rather than a more balanced approach.

In addition, often our elected leaders themselves have a windshield perspective. It can help to take them on walks and bicycle rides to broaden their perspective.

Until a better balance is struck between the needs of pedestrians, bicyclists, transit users and motorists, Vienna, Fairfax and other communities will not be able to attract a critical mass of people to revitalize their downtowns. One good step would be for VDOT and local transportation divisions to train all their engineering staff in the Complete Streets approach to street design.

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Stop neighborhood silos

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on August 19, 2009

I should stop being surprised by the inefficiency of Fairfax’s streets. Fairfax Gateway on School Street and Route 123 is one of Fairfax City’s newest townhouse developments. It is a five-minute walk from George Mason University. Give the city and the developer credit for the handsome brick quasi-rowhomes that front School Street and can be entered from the sidewalk. School Street looks a lot better with this new addition, and the recent opening of a gourmet delicatessen  across the street may add some sorely needed foot traffic.

Gateway FairfaxGateway Fairfax2The main subdivision, however, is a standard pod. There is only one entrance, onto School Street. The end of the subdivision is a one-minute walk from the Metro 29K GMU-Pentagon bus stop. Is there a sidewalk connection? Of course not. A break in the forest, though, suggests that some residents and commuters might be bushwhacking. This could become a dirt footpath soon.

The new Kendall Square townhomes on Kingsbridge Street near the Vienna Metro station have the same M.O. Nice street-oriented design, but only one entrance and no connection to Blake Lane or Fairfax Boulevard.

VDOT’s new rules encouraging more connected streets may lead to fewer neighborhood silos for larger subdivisions. But these new roads are private roads that will be maintained by the developer. They will continue to be built unless local officials press for more connected streets as part of the rezoning process.

Traffic will flow much more efficiently with interconnected streets. Landscape architects have long since woken up from their love affair with curvilinear streets, and traffic engineers are finally coming to recognize that connected street grids are more efficient for getting from Point A to Point B than the once-hallowed “street hierarchy.” But the urge to build cul-de-sacs persists. Serious question: Do most people really (still) want these? Is the real estate industry still finding such a strong desire for streets to nowhere in their market research?

For all the money that has been spent on transportation in this area, it’s not getting easier to walk, bicycle or drive between Fairfax City and GMU. By closing University Drive to car traffic, the city has eliminated a connection that worked very well for driving, bicycling and walking. In recent rides along University Drive I’ve never seen anyone there. It’s become not only “car-free,” but pedestrian- and neighbor-free too. The newly opened George Mason Boulevard, running parallel to University Drive, is a thorn in the side of residents of the Crestmont subdivision, who are pressing for sound walls. The city has spent a lot of money on a project that is simply moving cars somewhere else, and not creating a better environment that will encourage more walking and bicycling.

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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.

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