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.