OUTSIDE THE BOX: The Double-Edged Sword of a Central Location

By Stephen Siegel
Falls Church Times Staff
December 15, 2013

I’ve often said that we are blessed here in Falls Church City with a central location, convenient to Washington, to the Metro, and to the employment and retail mecca of Tysons Corner, as well as to multiple major highways.

I’ve also often said that many things in life are a double-edged sword, meaning that there are both good and bad things about them.

The truth of both assertions was on display last week at the monthly meeting of the Citizens Advisory Board on Transportation (CACT).

The CACT is a group of volunteers, aided by a City transportation planner and advised by the City’s traffic engineer, to attempt to find ways to improve safety on residential streets. Options in their toolkit include a variety of traffic calming techniques, from narrowing roads to speed bumps.

At the meeting, residents from different sections of the City expressed concern about cut-through traffic on their streets. In two of the cases, it was the first time I became aware of the problems these residents were having (the third case was about my street).

The two roads that were new to me were Pennsylvania Avenue (no, not that one), which runs between Great Falls and Broad Street, and Whittier Circle, a very narrow street that fronts a park and runs through a townhouse complex on Hillwood.

Despite those streets being narrow and at least theoretically quiet, residents of both streets said they were suffering from large amounts of cut-through traffic. On Pennsylvania, city statistics showed a massive increase in traffic counts in the last 10 years, from around 600 per day to over 1,000. On Whittier, residents said traffic prohibited from entering nearby Cherry Street, which has a rush hour through traffic restriction, has resulted in enterprising drivers using their street as an alternative.

None of the traffic using these streets is violating the law — with the possible exception of speeding. But that doesn’t make it any more desirable.

One can easily understand why drivers have discovered both roads. In each case, they are turning from a Virginia state highway onto an exclusively residential street, showing the aforementioned evidence of our central location — as well as its downside.

In the case of Whittier, it was discovered because the most logical alternative, Cherry Street, has a sign prohibiting through traffic at rush hour, northbound in the morning and southbound in the afternoon.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that prohibiting traffic on a logical cut-through like Cherry would lead to nearby streets being used instead. It’s what might be called “the toothpaste effect.” You squeeze it here, it moves over there.

It’s not obvious why or when the through traffic on Cherry was prohibited, although one long-time resident of the area told me last week that it originally was implemented to prevent construction traffic from using the street when the two big bank buildings in Seven Corners were being built.

On Pennsylvania, a quick look at the map, or a drive down the street, shows that it can easily be used to get from busy Great Falls, a state highway, to the City’s commercial core of West Broad Street.

Adjacent streets no doubt have the same problem, such as Virginia Avenue, which also connects Great Falls and Broad, albeit with a little jog at Park. Little Falls Street already has speed bumps, providing evidence of a problem, and residents of the next parallel street, Maple Avenue, already complain about traffic using their street to avoid heavy North Washington.

We know from experience that there are similar problems in other City neighborhoods as well, such as on East Columbia. The question is, can, or should, we do anything about it?

I’d say it depends on the situation. Some streets, by their nature, are going to be difficult to reduce the volume on; Columbia is popular because it connects Washington and Sycamore/Roosevelt. Cherry is, or would be popular if it didn’t have the rush hour restriction, because it connects Broad, Hillwood, and Rte. 50. That doesn’t mean, of course, that we shouldn’t do what we can to make sure drivers proceed at an appropriate speed.

But little streets like Pennsylvania and Whittier seem to cry out for a solution. The question is what? Some residents suggested they’d like to cul-de-sac their streets; that might be appropriate to protect their residential character from the ever-increasing urbanization of our area. But the result of making Pennsylvania a cul-de-sac would be more traffic on the adjacent streets. There’s that toothpaste effect again.

On Whittier, re-opening Cherry to rush hour through traffic would solve their problem, but at the expense of the residents of Cherry Street, who wouldn’t like the change one bit.

There’s no easy answers. But the questions are worth thinking about.

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

December 15, 2013 


19 Responses to “OUTSIDE THE BOX: The Double-Edged Sword of a Central Location”

  1. Brian Williams (Falls Church City / EDA Member) on December 16th, 2013 6:34 am

    Good, important topic. This is not only relevant in terms of our location, but also how we handle increased density. There will certainly be even more cars going on the streets you mention in the coming years, though supporting efforts to make the city more walkable/bikable can help reduce congestion. To me, the key issue to focus on is reducing the speed of the cars.

    A few comments about North Virginia Ave., specifically:

    – It has no sidewalks, making it especially dangerous. It’s a common pedestrian route, though, and people often walk right down the middle of the street. As long as cars are traveling slowly, this isn’t as bad as it sounds (though I’d prefer a sidewalk).

    – The slope of the turn from Great Falls onto N. Virginia is way too gradual, allowing drivers to make the turn without slowing down. Even if it’s unintentional, the result is they come up the street too quickly. If the city could adjust the road to make the turn sharper, drivers would be forced to slow down to make it, which would help. I wonder if other streets could benefit from similar modifications.

    – Street parking actually helps slow traffic a lot. Again, on N. Virginia both sides of the street often fill up down toward the library end such that cars driving in both directions need to stop to inch by each other in the limited space remaining.

    There’s been talk of making N. Virginia one-way, but as you point out that just punts the problem to a neighboring street. I agree, there are no easy answers.

  2. Dave Hagigh (F.C.) on December 16th, 2013 8:18 am

    Frankly I don’t see why any street should be blocked off and don’t know why certain ones (Cherry, Roosevelt St. by Oakwood Cemetery) still are today. No doubt it was from a long a time ago when those residents asked for the restrictions. It’s not that hard to see. If we don’t want more traffic (i.e. Harris Teeter) then don’t do anymore development. It’s silly for anyone to say we need more commercial tax revenue and then to complain about the cars that come with it. Everyone loves foot and bike traffic but let’s face it, car traffic is what most people use. And that’s not changing anytime soon.

  3. Susanna Schnably, Falls Church on December 16th, 2013 9:57 am

    Regarding why Cherry St. between Rte. 7 and Hillwood is restricted during rush hour, if I recall correctly, it came from the time that Whittier School was on the property where the houses and townhouses are now. It had to do with safety for the school, I thought. I may be incorrect.

  4. Michael Volpe, City of Falls Church on December 16th, 2013 10:19 am

    I served on the Citizens Advisory Committee on Transportation in the early 1980s when “cut through” traffic was a major concern in certain neighborhoods. We asked the City to use mechanical traffic counters to measure the traffic flow on many neighborhood streets, and we found huge spikes in traffic flow during morning and evening rush hours on two streets in particular, 1) Roosevelt Street between Broad Street and Sycamore – traffic trying to avoid congestion in Seven Corners, and 2) Cherry Street between Hillwood and Broad Street – traffic avoiding congestion on Washington Street or trying to access the East Falls Church Metro. The City agreed to place the “Do Not Enter” signs and the spikes in traffic flow during rush hours ended.

    I assume the City and the CACT revisit these and other traffic flows on a regular basis. We considered but did not place restrictions on other streets such as West Street, Lincoln Avenue, and Hillwood Avenue. I would not endorse cul-de-sacs or other permanent blockages to neighborhood streets as they can be very confusing to emergency responders.

  5. Brian Rye on December 16th, 2013 11:47 am

    An observation from a relative newcomer. Falls Church seems to be unusual, relative to a Clarendon, Old Town Alexandria, etc., in that the shops and restaurants in our City core are not anchored by Metro stop but are instead along major connector roads (Routes 7 and 29), which seem to feed into the cut-through problems exacerbated by the I-66 restrictions. I don’t know that there’s a way to magically make the problems go away, but then again, I’m certainly not a city planner!

    Our situation seems to be more akin, on a smaller scale, to that of Georgetown, which is in the midst of all kinds of planning (a gondola???) to address its issues.

  6. Dennis Szymanski on December 16th, 2013 5:40 pm

    Susanna, by the mid-80’s the old Falls Church HS was no longer in use and the building(s) vacant. This url will shed a little more light on what structure(s) occupied the site. https://sites.google.com/site/fallschurchcbc/cbchistory

  7. vlfrance on December 17th, 2013 6:18 am

    As a city resident, I cut through Pennsylvania to get over to Lee to commute in to work and then the reverse for the commute home. If not Pennsylvania then Oak or Virginia or Little Falls or Maple or or or… Because of street parking on Pennsylvania, traffic generally slows if a car is approaching in the other direction. I know it is never slow enough for the parents with small children on that street and surely many speed if there are no impediments.

    I believe the problem is more about speed as far as safety is concerned on many of these streets. I personally believe 25mph is too high a speed within our neighborhoods and I generally, drive maybe 20 (the significant other is impatient with me on this…). If the signs posted lower limits, I doubt it would slow anyone down.

    Many of our streets are cut throughs because of our unique location. I believe those who cut through or speed are mainly city residents, our neighbors. We also have the problem of our city stop signs being treated as yield signs. Boy, oh boy, if the police sat at the intersection next to us, revenue would be increased by ticketing for speeding, then braking madly towards the stop signs just to roll on through. How someone can pick up so much speed on a section of six houses I do not know.

    The offenders, from what I have seen of speeding and stop sign running (I cannot account for who is cutting through anywhere) are a variety of people and many minivans – just saying. Let’s just hope that these same people are remaining vigilant of their surroundings.

  8. Victoria Kwasiborski (22046 & Vienna, Austria) on December 17th, 2013 8:41 am

    To offer an across-the-pond perspective, I think some of the traffic/speed problems in the US have to do with our transportation culture; US driver’s licenses are a too easily achievable commodity. Here in Austria, the process for a new driver to obtain their driving license spans two years and includes the “regular” driving course, four improvement courses, and a day of training (plus a chat with a “drive psychologist”). The cost for all of this averages €1700 ($2300).

    Fines are steep and enforced. The minimum fine for a DUI (0.01 BAC for the first two years of a license, 0.05 BAC after that) is €300 and loss of license. €90 on the spot fee for driving and using your mobile. €50 on the spot fee for speeding (there are “speed radar” warning signs on the major roads, and at least in Vienna, a whole bunch of Polizei with nothing better to do than train their radar devices on the Porsche SUV set (our version of the Minivan Mom) who try to whip through neighborhoods.

    All of that said, Viennese drivers can be aggressive and impatient, having to maneuver narrow streets with their wide SUVs and crossovers, trams and buses coming and going, etc. However, there is huge respect for the pedestrian, unparalleled to what I experienced in our years in FCC. I have become so accustomed to courteous drivers allowing me to cross that I fear I will be killed when we return to the US.

    The traffic light system here could be something for the US to consider, as well. Rather than going directly from green to red, the green light will blink five times before turning red. The driver “knows” whether they will make it through the intersection or no, and so there is little red-light running (fines are steep). Pedestrians do their part, as well, and generally do not cross against the light. Traffic safety works both ways.

    I know some of my comments will be quantified with, “Vienna has excellent public transportation.” But that misses the point. Excellent public transportation may not change anything if there isn’t a cultural change, as well.

  9. FC resident on December 17th, 2013 9:59 am

    If you don’t want traffic on your street, live on a private road or in a rural area. We live in a suburb (exurb?) of a major metropolitan area. Our city is bisected by a major state highway (Rte 7) and, as the article notes, provides easy access to several major interstates.

    The issue in my mind is not traffic, it’s enforcement. FC police generally do a good job, but I really do not see enough enforcement in “trouble areas,” like the Stop sign at W Annandale/Gundry that everyone seems to ignore, or the 25 mph speed limit in much of the City. There are lots of options to consider–stop sign cameras, unarmed traffic enforcement officers (DDOT uses this in DC), etc.

    More importantly, it would be nice if those driving through FC would simply take a deep breath and drive safely.

  10. TFC on December 17th, 2013 12:24 pm

    One thing that may help in the future. The City is upgrading the traffic signals and will have a networked system that will allow them to synchronize lights and generally mess around with timing. Maybe if drivers find smoother going on the main roads that will help relieve some of the cut-through traffic? I drive through all the neighborhoods to avoid Broad St.

  11. Dennis Szymanski on December 17th, 2013 12:37 pm

    TFC, I had to chuckle. Back in the 90’s, my daughter went to extraordinary lengths to avoid Broad St while driving from Hillwood Ave up to GMHS.

  12. TFC on December 17th, 2013 3:18 pm

    It’s funny, I avoid going to Vienna if possible. Maple Ave is terrible. I know there are all kinds of side roads but I don’t know enough of them. I learned a couple of them but last time I tried to use them there were all kinds of signs…don’t do this..don’t do that with days and times listed. Jeeze Louise, it took me too long to just digest the signs.

  13. Gary LaPorta on December 17th, 2013 4:58 pm

    Install tollbooths, give residents and persons who work in the city bar-coded window stickers. Anyone else who leaves the main roads, pays the toll. Yes, the toll booths would have gates on them. That would slow down the traffic and make some revenue for the city.

  14. Andrea Caumont, Falls Church City on December 17th, 2013 10:00 pm

    Thanks for the post Steve, and it was nice to meet you last week after the meeting. I submitted the original request for traffic calming on Pennsylvania and have been shepherding our street through the lengthy CACT process. The suggestion of turning Pennsylvania into a cul-de-sac was made in jest, though I doubt few parents on our street would object if the CACT would like to implement the idea! Cobblestones have also been suggested. 🙂

    I agree that reducing the speed of vehicles is key. I thought our speed data was pretty compelling – it showed 30% of vehicles exceeded the speed limit with some going as fast as 45 mph. But the CACT said it paled in comparison with the data they had seen for other streets like Lincoln Avenue. I haven’t seen that data of course, but I think Pennsylvania is different from Lincoln in its narrowness. I also disagree with the implication that our street should have no remedy because others have it worse. I would hope that there is a right-sized solution for every street with a valid grievance that takes its unique characteristics into account. In our case, the fact that we have heavy pedestrian and bike traffic as well as 13 very young children on the street and more on the way.

    I imagine the CACT will be receiving more of these traffic calming requests as the City population continues to rise and more young families move here for the schools. In fact, some members expressed concern early in the process that they would be inundated with requests should they agree to listen to ours. They’re certainly not in an easy position having to balance the wishes of disgruntled residents with the traffic needs of the City as a whole.

    I’ve found the members of the CACT and the City Transportation office to be smart, thoughtful and willing to listen, so I am hopeful that they will help us to find a solution – happily, they voted to move our case forward last Wednesday.

  15. Rena Marsh, City of Falls Church on December 26th, 2013 6:05 am

    As a longtime Winter Hill resident, I am surprised that S. Virginia Ave is not noted as a huge cut through. I am almost run over everyday as I cross the street to walk my dogs. I would like to see speed humps in our neighborhood. I have seen cars going around the circle near Hampton Court on two wheels it seems. The speed should definitely be reduced from 25 to 15mph. S.

  16. E.K., Falls Church on December 30th, 2013 8:58 am

    I appreciate what contributor Dave Hagigh has presented very clearly. Does anyone remember this line from the Kevin Costner movie “Field of Dreams”? “If you build it, they will come.”

    It seems to me that this obsession with development has turned Northern Virginia into a virtual parking lot (Rt. 7, Rt. 29, Rt. 50, I-66, the Beltway) – this is why neighborhood streets have become cut-throughs for local and non-local traffic.

    People are searching for alternative ways to get around, to destinations that the Metro system cannot and does not get to, and they are frustrated. (Is any reader still offended by the “traffic calming / pedestrian / bicycling safety” ideas?)

    Problem: Cut-through traffic on residential streets.

    Potential solution: Follow the example of our neighbor Old Town Alexandria, where the streets are alternating one-way only. All of Old Town Alexandria is laid out that way – residential and the light industrial. And yes, many of those streets have “speed bumps”, although those are not as effective as may be believed.

    Problem: Drivers speeding through neighborhoods. (The speeding is likely drivers who are impatient because they’re trying to get from point A to point B.

    Potential solution: It is entirely possible to plan to leave location A early enough to reach destination B on time, so there is no reason to have to speed.)

    Problem: Increasing development leads to increasing crime. And with two Metro rail stops, one at each end of the City, we’ve invited those elements to travel in from DC and Maryland, and return from whence they came when they’ve completed their “activities.” (Most all of us, I’m sure, are reading the crime reports each week, so we cannot pretend that “we had no idea of any of this.”)

    Potential solution: Slow down development?

    Problem: No consideration for traffic congestion with new development.

    Potential solution: Slow down development?

    The City has every right to demand that any developer wishing to do business with the City establish a fund to help pay for measures to mitigate the traffic that the project is going to impact. Perhaps the City needs to learn to say “No” if developers balk at such a request. (I work in a municipality, and they are very strict with how business is conducted.)

    Problem: Ever-increasing traffic volume due to development. We should have learned by now that widening I-66, as an example, does not work. The reason for the daily backup on I-66 westbound between Manassas and Gainesville? We have four lanes, and – uh – oh, we had to narrow it back down to two lanes.


    Potential solution: Slow down development?

    Problem: With Tyson’s Corner about to give birth to itself on top of itself (to occur sometime over the next decade), that is going to encroach onto our doorsteps, and we cannot claim ignorance about this.

    Potential solution: Slow down development?

    We cannot accommodate the volume of people here already.

    We do not have the land space to spread out and we cannot go vertical, due to air traffic control routes in and out of National and Dulles Airports, plus helicopter traffic (military, civilian, medevac, and law enforcement.)

    Mixed-use developments? Really? As one example, I don’t see much activity in the Pearson Square project (remember that one?), either in the establishments or the residences. How many “ground floor retail” businesses have come and gone – these being in these highly-touted “mixed-use” developments? All along West Broad Street, right down the middle of “Condo Canyon” as I have heard it referred to. I just cannot see the fascination with continuing on with ideas that don’t work.

    I suggest we try a new approach – actually solve the problem instead of exacerbating it.

  17. Lou Mauro on December 30th, 2013 12:49 pm

    Well said, E.K. Do not expect anyone in an official capacity to do anything about it. Our City planners, economic and financial “experts” and City Council-members are the most tunnel visioned, unrealistic, environment-be-damned suckers for developers imaginable (and that’s saying something) and have been for 15 years. They could not be more in the pocket of developers if they were on the take. Happy New Year everyone!

  18. Re Rena on December 30th, 2013 1:48 pm

    Rena, if drivers are not heeding the 25 mph speed limit (and the $200 residential speeding fee/signage), what makes you think 15 mph will make a difference?

    Maybe speed humps will help a bit, but they’re also annoying for ALL drivers and cyclists, and they’re not cheap. Enforcement is the answer. The police/sheriff occasionally set up Stop sign traps at Gundry/W Annandale and should also focus on speeding within Winter Hill.

    Also, I’m not saying you’re guilty of this, but many people cross the street at places other than the corners/crosswalks and do not look both ways. Obviously this doesn’t excuse reckless driving or speeding. But it’s worth noting that pedestrians don’t *always* have the right of way — they, too, must follow the rules of the road.

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