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.
By Stephen Siegel
May 19, 2013