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Is Alexandria Serious About Pedestrian and Bike Safety?

Alexandria is supposed to be committed to making the streets safer for their most vulnerable users, but does the reality match the rhetoric?

Does your city or county claim to care about making the streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists? Does it have an ordinance that calls for Complete Streets, which accommodate all users, not just those in giant Land Rovers? If it has such a policy on the books, does it back up these words with action?

The Metro D.C. area actually has a policy on the books in favor of Complete Streets. It’s about as strict as a diet incorporating large helpings of cheesecake, but it’s better than nothing—if only a little. You would be amazed at how many senior planners in the region fail to appreciate the importance of protecting those who refrain from using motorized transport.

But rather than looking at the region as a whole, let’s focus on just one jurisdiction: Alexandria. Is this city serious about protecting those who walk, run, or bike? Is it putting major budgetary resources into the effort, perhaps the truest measure of commitment?

Alexandria does not have a Complete Streets ordinance, but merely a Complete Streets policy. It was argued that this would allow for greater flexibility in planning, but that also means less impetus for compliance. So is the city complying with its own policy?

The Del Ray neighborhood will soon be the beneficiary of a Complete Streets pilot program to see what works and what doesn’t. That would be logical if this concept were new, but it’s actually only new to Alexandria. Other jurisdictions have implemented Complete Streets policies for years.

More ominously, recent accidents involving pedestrians and bikes versus vehicles have taken place in locations such as Braddock Road at Beauregard, on West Glebe Road at Valley Drive, and on Duke Street at I-395. Two of these incidents included fatalities. So is it wise to only focus on Del Ray?

All of these areas were flagged as needing attention in the City’s Bike/Ped plan back in 2008. The Duke Street interchange is supposed to get some minor pedestrian upgrades, eventually. The stretch of West Glebe Road between Valley Drive and Four Mile Run was also slated for some sort of improvement, but the City went ahead and repaved it last year without investigating possible improvements such as a Slaters Lane-style road diet. Incidentally, the impetus behind Slaters Lane came after pleadings from private citizens who pointed out the importance of this connection to one of the region’s most important bicycle commuter routes, the Mount Vernon Trail.

What about the major projects around the City? Are non-motorized commuters getting some protection where big money is being spent on transportation? A major reconstruction of the eastern section of Eisenhower Avenue will be include a bike lane, but only on one side of the street. Westbound cyclists will face a choice of riding between pedestrians or tangling with impatient Maryland-bound commuters.

In the much-discussed Beauregard Plan, cyclists are again expected to share space with pedestrians along the busiest roads. In the 1990s, this was considered perfectly acceptable planning. The Washington and Old Dominion trail running through Northern Virginia was built with this design standard. Unfortunately, an elderly woman walking on this trail was recently struck by a cyclist and succumbed to her injuries. That’s why many jurisdictions now adhere to a design standard that separates cyclists and pedestrians, something I personally observed being implemented 20 years ago in the Netherlands.

Moving beyond implementation, what do we see in the area of funding? After all, if there’s no money to implement fixes, all the Complete Streets policies in the world won’t really matter. In Alexandria, funding for traffic calming measures to protect pedestrians was eliminated for several years and only recently restored. The current capital budget calls for just under $8 million over 10 years for Complete Streets. Is that a significant amount of funding? Well, it’s twice the budget for public art, but the grand total budget for absolutely everything is over $1 billion. That means Complete Streets get less than 1 percent of the city’s capital funding.

Granted, other issues may be considered by Alexandria’s policymakers to be more vital and require big budget layouts. Bus rapid transit systems, Metro, the schools and other capital-intensive projects consume a large portion of the city’s revenues, and quite rightly. But is each line item within the budget worth forcing kids to walk in the street to catch their bus on Hilltop Terrace at Upland Drive? Do those projects warrant delaying installation of ramps for those with mobility impairments at intersections such as King Street and Callahan Drive, where I once witnessed a man in a wheelchair roll into King Street, stop suddenly with an obvious look of despair, then turn around because there’s no ramp on the other side? The city has plans to fix both of these, but not one shovel full of dirt has been turned in the years since they were brought to staff’s attention.

Trouble spots like these abound in Alexandria. The entire West End, laid out during the heyday of the car, is full of roads that encourage speed to the detriment of public safety. In one particular case of ironic design, Duke Street adjacent to the pedestrian-friendly Cameron Station is engineered to maximize vehicle speed by barring pedestrian access (with a wrought-iron fence, no less) except at the main entrance on Cameron Station Boulevard. Landmark Mall is effectively cut off from surrounding high-density residential areas thanks to a moat of high-speed roadways. Pedestrians trying to cross I-395 on King Street must traverse a narrow sidewalk in the median between lanes of high-speed traffic. The list is endless.

Is Alexandria serious about tackling these issues? Has the city really embraced the concept of Complete Streets? City staff is requesting funding for a new bike/ped plan to replace the 2008 plan. Is more planning a viable substitute for action, or is it meant to distract from a lack of results?

That is for you, dear reader, to decide.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Bruce April 09, 2013 at 01:05 PM
Well put Kevin. The city has made progress from 20 years ago when the bike budget was $15,000 per year with no staffing. But they are not keeping up with the rapidly increasing demand for safe routes for walking and bicycling. Without citizen involvement, I am not sure anything would have happened. Time is past due for the city to take more of a leadership role in vigorously promoting these cost effective forms of transportation without be pushed into it. So, let's move to quickly finish the last plan before we use the excuse of needing a new plan before fixing many of the simple things you pointed out. The citizen based Bicycle and Pedestrain Advisory Committee has a long list we can add.
Jonathan Krall April 09, 2013 at 01:49 PM
Alexandria says it wants to shift to transit, but keeps building extra road capacity. They should do one or the other, because doing both is a waste of taxpayer money. Bike lanes are cheaper than general traffic lanes and are more effective at getting people to transit. Wide highways, like the planned 6-lane Eisenhower Ave, are dangerous for pedestrians and make walking unpleasant. Trying to accommodate cars and transit by doing half-measures of both is a waste of money. We need to scale back on the pavement and use they money that is saved to make transit work.
Jerry King April 09, 2013 at 01:52 PM
Excellent Article Kevin. We have made progress in the last 14 years I have been involved but we are still way behind the power curve. Does the city, state or federal government allocate an appropriate share of transportation funds to support pedestrian and bicycle modes of transportation? No, but just enough to say they did. Considering the amount of funds needed to support these modes of transportation it is such a miniscule amount compared to supporting auto traffic. Yet all these governments talk about how they want to move people without cars, yet ignore the easiest and healthiest modes. It seems an uphill battle educating our leaders and public.
James Durham April 09, 2013 at 04:32 PM
All good points. One has only to look next door to see the results that can be achieved when elected officials and senior staff establish a true multi-modal culture, not a car-first, multi-modal culture. Commitment to safer vehicular speeds and improved bike and pedestrian safety led to a recent Road Diet with new bike lanes. See N. Harrison Street Complete Street Project on Arlington's web site for details. Arlington has also achieved significant traffic count reductions on major roads since 1996: Lee Highway (-10%), Washington Boulevard (-14%), Clarendon Boulevard (-6%), Wilson Boulevard (-25%), and Glebe Road (-6%). See Martin Di Caro's article in Transportation Nation, "How a D.C. Suburb Avoided the Capital’s Traffic Nightmare" for the actions that led to this success. City leaders embracing a true multi-modal culture (that leads to actions) will be key to Alexandria's future.
Scooby's Doo April 09, 2013 at 04:48 PM
Something not mentioned is who owns & maintains the roads in question. Alexandria can plan to its hearts content, but if its a VDOT road then implementing any kind of design that does anything other than maximum vehicular "throughput" is probably a challenge.
Allen Muchnick April 09, 2013 at 06:57 PM
Alexandria does not need a new bike/ped plan. Rather, TES should report annually on a series of pedestrian and bicycle transportation performance measures, including mode shares, crashes, and the numbers and miles of new facilities created.
Adam Froehlig April 10, 2013 at 12:18 PM
The only roads in Alexandria that VDOT actually owns/maintains are the Beltway and 395. While there are other "primary routes" within Alexandria (i.e. Route 1, 236/Duke St, Rt 7/King St, etc), the city has jurisdiction over those other routes.
Fred April 10, 2013 at 02:00 PM
The City should first improve bicycle access to Braddock Road Metro. Every bike that enters from the West makes an illegal left turn, rides against traffic, or rides on the sidewalk. When the Yard fills up this will be a nightmare.
Kevin H. Posey April 18, 2013 at 12:56 AM
Allen- great suggestion, and one that I will follow up on. Thanks!
Kevin H. Posey April 18, 2013 at 12:57 AM
Bruce- I agree. Citizen involvement is apparently the only way progress will be made on this issue. The squeaky bike wheel gets the grease.
Kevin H. Posey April 18, 2013 at 01:02 AM
Jonathan- You're spot on. The fundamental problem is an apparent inability to make a choice. We hear that the City wants to encourage transit, yet plans to widen a road near TWO Metro stations to accommodate more cars. In essence, the City wants to make everyone happy, but inevitably will fail (that road will fill up and cars will spill over into surrounding areas in Old Town).
Kevin H. Posey April 18, 2013 at 01:04 AM
Jerry- I'm afraid you are correct. The funding for non-motorized users is so low compared to our needs that it raises questions about the sincerity of the City's efforts. The question citizens should ask is where is the resistance at City Hall coming from?
Kevin H. Posey April 18, 2013 at 01:09 AM
James- I agree that Arlington has had first-rate leadership on this issue. Leadership is what it takes to get things done. Frankly, it's up to Council to raise Alexandria's performance when it comes to protecting pedestrians and cyclists. They must send a clear, and stern, message to staff that this is of utmost importance. Otherwise, Alexandrians will remain at risk.
Kevin H. Posey April 18, 2013 at 01:11 AM
Sadly, the area around Braddock Metro shows signs of the City's past emphasis on the car. The widening of the underpass turned this stretch into a mini-highway. Luckily, drivers are usually paying attention to the amber crossing signals, but the overall design is far from pedestrian and cyclist-friendly.

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