Autumn on Lake Audobon

Autumn on Lake Audobon
Autumn on Lake Audubon, Photo by Alison Kamat

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Arlington County considers reducing "complete streets" funding while Fairfax County continues blindly down the pathway.

Martin DiCaro, WAMU, reported late yesterday afternoon that Arlington County leaders are considering cutting special funding for pedestrian and bicyclist pathways, in part as a reaction to sluggish property tax base growth.  While the debate has just begun in Arlington, it is in fact important that the most densely developed, most alternative transportation mode-focused community in our area is having this discussion.  

On the one hand, it is important that pedestrians have walkable access to all mass transit and major retail areas in and around a high-density community.  As has been well documented here in Reston, the walkway to the south side entrance to the Wiehle Metro station remains incomplete from the corner of Wiehle and Sunrise Valley Drive and all the neighborhoods off Sunrise Valley, and the walkway to the corner was completed just as the station opened.  The good news is that those added sidewalks have been funded and should be in place within a year or two after the Silver Line opened.

On the other hand, there are tremendous limits to the number of people who physically can or are willing to walk or bike to transit, work, shopping, or elsewhere.  One of the major constraints is age and handicap.  While healthy people in their 20s and 30s may be interested in walking or biking to their nearest Metro station, that willingness rapidly dissipates with age and its associated physical limitations.  Weather--as we can see by the six inches of snow that is falling on Reston today--is also a major barrier to walking and biking.  Indeed, it is a major safety issue on days like today and more than just a nuisance when it is merely raining heavily.  Finally, the conversion of auto lanes on streets to bike lanes (vs. adding a bike lane at the outside edge of a street) means lowering the overall transportation usage and capacity of a street, especially because of the limited number of people who can or will walk or bike significant distances. 

Meanwhile, here in Fairfax County and Reston, the focus over the last few years has been on increasing pedestrian and bicycling access generally.  The County has reduced the driving lanes on Lawyers Road and Soapstone Drive from two to one lane in each direction, creating a bike/pedestrian lane out of the former second lane in each direction.  (Interestingly, I don't believe any similar action has been taken on the north side of Reston.)   Reston Association, pressed perpetually by its pedestrian and bicycling advisory committee, keeps trying to add pathways to its properties, some of which are definitely necessary to connect with the prospective (if still unfulfilled) high-density growth around our Silver Line stations.  Both need to be sure they are doing something that actually enhances access for pedestrians and bicyclists to important community focal points (the "road diet" on Lawyers does neither and the Soapstone actually reduces overall transportation access to the Wiehle Metro station) and are not just some form of feckless behavioral modification attempt at taxpayer/dues payer expense.

A major research paper by GMU's John McClain and Alan Pisarski (Connecting Transportation Investment and the Economy in Metropolitan Washington, 2012) highlights that over the next 25 years "81% of the growth in all types of trips is auto, and the overall change by purpose is close to zero."  Pedestrian and bicycling will increase about 12.9% and transit, unfortunately, only about 6.1%.  So the bulk of county spending, whether in Fairfax or Arlington, should most wisely go to the areas where demand will be greatest.  That does not mean that spending should be cut all together on pedestrian/bicycling routes, but the spending  should not (a) constrain either physically or financially auto travel (e.g.--"road diets") or (b) go beyond essential links to key transportation and high-density work, retail, and residential hubs. Investment in pedestrian and bicycle lanes/paths elsewhere would be a waste of money. 

For those interested in DiCaro's article and broadcast, please click here.

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