OUTSIDE THE BOX: Is Walkability Just a Pipe Dream?

By Stephen Siegel
Falls Church Times Staff
May 19, 2013

There has been a lot of talk over the years about how to make Falls Church City more walkable. Residents and activists have different reasons for promoting it; some just like to walk places, while others hope improving walkability can reduce the negative environmental impacts associated with motorized transportation.

But is this just an impossible dream?

The Little City is blessed with a great location. It is near two Metro stops, convenient to Interstate 66 and Interstate 495, and has superb access not only to the region’s traditional employment center of Washington, but to the area’s new employment center of Tyson’s Corner.

However, that central location comes at a price. Thousands of commuters come through town each day on their way to somewhere else. They take Broad Street traveling between Alexandria and Tysons. They take Lee Highway between Fairfax and Washington. And they use West Street to go between the former and the latter.

All of this travel causes congestion, and that congestion is surely compounded by the carpool restrictions on I-66 and the Arlington Strangle, where three lanes drop to two as Fairfax gives way to our eastern neighbor. I can’t prove it, but the brutal reality of I-66 must cause traffic to spill over into Falls Church City.

And they don’t just spill onto Route 7. Heavy traffic there, backing up from West to Shreve in the afternoon, for example, causes drivers to spill into residential neighborhoods as they seek to get where they’re going a little bit sooner.

Commuters illegally cut through the West End Shopping Center, Rite Aid, and Taco Bell to avoid Broad Street congestion or the light at Broad and West. They barrel down Park Avenue, making it difficult to exit City Hall at times, a police officer says. They illegally cut through the Applebee’s parking lot to speed their way north on Washington Street. I’m sure readers are aware of others.

There doesn’t seem to be much we can do about Broad Street. It’s a state highway, meaning the state limits the City’s authority there. A while back, some city officials got the idea of restricting through trucks on Broad, but that idea was vetoed by Richmond.

Some of the streets that feed into Broad are major problems as well. Trying to cross Broad on foot at West is like taking your life in your hands. Impatient drivers turning from southbound West to westbound Broad frequently don’t stop before turning right on red, and they turn in violation of the signs that say No Turn on Red When Pedestrians Are Present.

City planners put together an enormous pedestrian plan to address some of these issues, but the entire thing was put on hold because of the controversial idea of prohibiting parking on Lincoln and Hillwood avenues.

Planners insisted the restrictions were just a thought for the future, but that item had the unfortunate effect of causing a lot of good ideas to be shelved. Perhaps the City Council could bring the pedestrian plan back, sans the parking restriction, or consider approving small pieces of it at a time.

It doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing: we don’t need to emulate Washington’s bad habit of stuffing every legislative wish list item into a bill, making it an Omnibus bill in Washington lingo, also known as a “Christmas tree.”

Still, even though we hear a lot of advocacy for improved walkability, I wonder how deep that desire is among local residents.

A brief discussion emerged a few months ago after a pedestrian was hit by a car on West. Several commenters suggested putting a crosswalk there, at Ellison, but several others thought that was a terrible idea, fearing that it would back up automobile traffic.

That seems dubious to me; there aren’t enough pedestrians to really cause traffic to back up. It’s not like we have George Mason University here, so pedestrian traffic is quite irregular.

But even if it did cause small backups, is that really such a terrible thing? Cars sometimes pile up about three deep at the Washington & Old Dominion Trail if several people are crossing in short order. However, that’s nothing like how many back up at the Broad Street light during peak times, when the total back up could be 15 or more cars.

Besides, waiting an extra 30 seconds at the W&OD doesn’t seem awful, either. And I have to say that after 10 years living in Chicago, where drivers are quite disrespectful of pedestrians, I find that I actually enjoy stopping for people out for a run, walk, or stroll.

It’s like my good deed for the day. The pedestrians like it, and it exerts a calming influence on me, kinda the opposite of what happens if you race to make a light. Northbound West Street drivers heading for Broad at 45 mph, I’m looking at you.

Outside the Box is an opinion column. Read it every Sunday in the Falls Church Times.

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May 19, 2013 

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19 Responses to “OUTSIDE THE BOX: Is Walkability Just a Pipe Dream?”

  1. Suzanne Updike on May 19th, 2013 8:48 am

    Thanks for writing about this issue! It was disappointing to see the draft pedestrian/bike plan just fade away once there was some controversy. As our population (and car traffic) continues to increase, the idea of “complete streets” becomes more important. People need a safe place to walk or bike!

    While some of the specific ideas in the draft plan were unpopular, surely compromises could be made rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We do need to think about street parking and we do need to think about trees.
    But let’s get plans in place so we know what’s to come. VPIS plants street trees — wouldn’t it be helpful to know where future sidewalks are coming so the trees could be planted in locations that wont be dug up for a sidewalk?

  2. Gordon Theisz, Falls Church on May 19th, 2013 1:44 pm

    As I understood it, the ped plan was indeed to be implemented in pieces and with great input from local residents. It is unfortunate that it was shelved entirely. I would like to see Council bring it out for another look, and start fixing the pedestrian situations that were prioritized in the report.

  3. Gary LaPorta on May 19th, 2013 3:06 pm

    I believe some relief is coming with the Inter-modal Transportation Center and the for South Washington Street where additional lights are planned as well as will marked crosswalks. This plus the construction of the Reserve at Tinner Hill will help improve the walkability on S. Washington.

    I am hopeful that we can do something similar with the Harris Teeter, the Northgate and the Hilton Garden Inn sites.

    I understand from City Hall that the light at West Broad and Pennsylvania is pretty much ready, finally. I hope it has nice crosswalks and pedestrian controlled lights.

  4. Tim Stevens on May 19th, 2013 7:54 pm

    Another well written article, Stephen. Walkability will increasingly become a positive influence on housing values (amongst other values), and so the more we can do to improve our walkability, the better. Having more places to walk to is also part of the formula to success, which means giving a priority to mixed use developments that include a good selection of retail establishments. I’ve experienced an increase in my own walking and biking as more commercial establishments have opened in our City.

  5. Mike D. on May 19th, 2013 9:51 pm

    You people keep talking about bicycles…are you kidding me..are you going to drive your bicycle with your wife to go into DC for a dinner date on Friday night…I don’t think so! Stop kidding yourselves. The reality is that I-66 in Arlington and Falls Church is atrocious and will get worse every year until the State takes people’s homes under eminent domain and widens 66 and also until they get a medium speed rail to run from DC all the way out to Haymarket…probably needs one to run all the way down Route 50 as well…look at Loudoun and Western Prince William.those people will keep coming into DC…unless we move the Pentago and other big federal employers..if they don’t traffic will get worse. So all those goody goody too shoes in Arlington who thought it was great to have only 2 lanes on 66 are getting their own now…get a grip folks! Live in reality!

  6. Steve Lethbridge on May 20th, 2013 4:41 am

    Thanks for this and all the other pieces you have been writing Stephen. I appreciate your informative and balanced approach. Too much of what I read regarding Falls Church City is from “the sky is falling” point of view. My family and I love living in this community warts and all.

  7. Peter Oppenheimer on May 20th, 2013 8:27 am
  8. Brian Rye on May 20th, 2013 9:19 am

    One challenge to a more walkable Falls Church is that the city center is not within walkable distance of either Metro stop. In a Clarendon or Ballston or Pentagon City, young professionals who commute into DC or the Pentagon don’t need a car, nor do folks coming into those areas for dining or entertainment. Conversely, if you’re coming to Falls Church to work or to visit the State Theater and eat at any of our great restaurants on Broad Street, you probably aren’t taking the Metro. And while the Gateway project might be considered walkable to the EFC Metro (especially if Arlington ever gets around to building a second entrance to that Metro), those who live in the apartments on top of the Harris-Teeter and Tinner Hill projects will need cars to get wherever they’re going.

    One other domino I can see falling: once the Silver Line is up and running, the WFC Metro (along with the Vienna and Dunn-Loring stations) will be a lot less attractive, as the number of orange line trains during peak times will be cut in half. By comparison, the EFC Metro will be fine and might even see a slight increase in the number of trains, given that both the silver and orange lines will go through there. Thus, given that the wait list for EFC parking is the most crowded in the entire Metro system, I bet you’ll see even more people drive and park (illegally?) on Columbia/16th or various side streets each day to get close to the EFC station.

  9. Steve on May 20th, 2013 10:15 am

    “One other domino I can see falling: once the Silver Line is up and running, the WFC Metro (along with the Vienna and Dunn-Loring stations) will be a lot less attractive, as the number of orange line trains during peak times will be cut in half.”

    Nope.
    http://www.wmata.com/about_metro/board_of_directors/board_docs/120612_4ASilverLine.pdf

  10. Steve on May 20th, 2013 10:25 am

    “You people keep talking about bicycles…are you kidding me..are you going to drive your bicycle with your wife to go into DC for a dinner date on Friday night…I don’t think so!”

    14,500 people participated in bike to work day last Friday, and that number has been increasing annually.

  11. Brian Rye on May 20th, 2013 10:36 am

    “Nope.”
    http://www.wmata.com/about_metro/board_of_directors/board_docs/120612_4ASilverLine.pdf

    Current number of orange line trains going through each hour: 19
    Number of orange line trains going through after silver line is implemented: 11
    Number of orange + silver: 21
    (table at the bottom of page 5)

    So WFC, Vienna, and Dunn Loring will see the number of hourly trains decline from 19 to 11 during peak hours, while EFC will see the total number of hourly trains increase from 19 to 21.

  12. Hillel Weinberg on May 20th, 2013 11:00 am

    I walk up and down Broad Street frequently and am concerned about the state of the “sidewalks.” The brick pavers are in terrible shape in many places with edges sticking up and in other places are simply not laid flat — people who are not paying CLOSE attention are likely to trip and fall. In other places planting intrude far into the space above the sidewalk, forcing pedestrians to use only a portion of the walkway. Whose responsibility is it to maintain the walkways?

  13. steven mcmahon on May 20th, 2013 2:00 pm

    The merchants need to participate too, many times I have ridden my bike to perform errands and there is no place to lock your bike. I have complained many times to CVS to put a bike rack out front, they have the space, but they refuse. Not sure if it is a city issue or if CVS’s issue. This would help in making decisions of when to ride or hop in the car.

  14. Bob Burnett on May 20th, 2013 3:00 pm

    An enlightening read on the subject:
    “Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time” by Jeff Speck

  15. @ steven mcmahon on May 20th, 2013 3:35 pm

    I’ve taken my bike to the CVS on Broad St. I agree that a bike rack right outside would be nice, but there’s a rack (or some similar sturdy equipment) near the entrance to their parking lot (on Broad St.) which works just as well.

  16. Andy Rankin (Falls Church) on May 20th, 2013 4:19 pm

    Hillel, I think the maintenance of the sidewalks is the City’s responsibility. The encroaching plants are the responsibility of the property owners (I think). In the past I have notified the City (via the online comment box: http://www.fallschurchva.gov/commentbox/?&inlid=150) about problems with bushes overgrowing the sidewalks and fairly quickly the problem was resolved. I don’t know if the City took care of it or if they contacted the property owner – but I was impressed with how quickly the problem was fixed.

    Steven, I think the City could probably do more to make public bike racks available – but obviously businesses could get involved as well. Maybe we should coordinate a lobbying effort to try and encourage CVS to do something?

  17. Erik Pelton, Falls Church on May 20th, 2013 4:51 pm

    As I wrote two years ago (http://fcnp.com/2011/11/10/guest-commentary-support-the-little-city-by-shopping-local/) there are major advantages to a community that supports more pedestrian and bike access and that encourages residents to “Shop Local.” A recent study in NYC also documented the tax revenue growth from bike lanes. (http://kottke.org/13/05/protected-bike-lanes-good-for-business)

    I believe that if we could implement the following in FC in the next few years we would see many more people coming to spend their money here, and many more residents taking advantage of the local establishments and avoiding their cars:
    - More bike racks
    - A bike share program
    - A shuttle running between the two Metro stations and a few stops across town. Yes, I know George was a failure. But a small shuttle built around bringing workers and shoppers into The Little City (and back to Metro) would have direct fiscal impact in terms of increase tax revenue and increased attraction to new businesses.

  18. Linda Garvelink Falls Church City on May 20th, 2013 5:58 pm

    One area that needs “walkability” attention is Roosevelt Street, the connector between Broad/Rt 7 and Roosevelt Blvd, passing Oakwood Cemetery. There are no shoulders and walking through the cemetery is restricted (no dogs), leaving no option for dog walkers but to walk on the road.

    I second the concern for the state of sidewalks on Broad as well as many other areas. Furthermore, the entire city is very dark after sunset.

  19. Ron Lay, Falls Church on June 5th, 2013 2:14 pm

    Thanks for this great article! Yes, we want to encourage walking whenever possible.

    I am wondering if there are any thoughts regarding when cross walks will return on East Broad? (they were covered when the streets were resurfaced).

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