Collision Course

Are our neighborhoods safe for pedestrians and cyclists?

Photo by Liz Lynch

 

For nearly 19 years, crossing guard Amelia Edwards has braved rain, snow and speeding cars to keep local schoolkids safe from harm. She’s currently assigned to Nottingham Elementary and the intersection of John Marshall Drive and Little Falls Road—a spot that’s traversed by some 40 students, their parents and younger siblings each day.

It’s not an easy job. “When I first started here, there wasn’t much traffic,” recalls Edwards, who previously handled crossings at Tuckahoe and Taylor. “But now we get the motorists off 66 who use [Sycamore Street and Yorktown Boulevard] as a cut-through…and they don’t want to stop.”

Some drivers can be pretty brazen, even in a posted 25-mph school zone. “I had three run-bys the other day while I was in the street blowing my whistle for dear life,” says Edwards. “One waved at me and smiled.”

Welcome to life in Arlington, where the county’s goal of establishing a   healthy, environmentally friendly, walkable community predictably—and, at times, tragically—conflicts with the tightly scheduled, Type-A mindset of its residents and commuters. The most dangerous intersections, according to county data, are in Rosslyn, where cars, pedestrians, Metro users and cyclists all converge daily on their commutes to and from work. But the hazard spots aren’t restricted to Rosslyn.

Dean Bonney, who lives in East Falls Church and walks five miles a day, says he sees close calls on the roads “all the time.” Last year, after being told that his daughter was no longer eligible for bus transportation to Swanson Middle School, he stopped by the East Falls Church Metro station to observe the busy intersection that his daughter would be expected to cross on her way to school each morning. As he watched, “a car T-boned another car right there at Washington Boulevard and Sycamore Street,” Bonney says.

Careless drivers are only part of the problem. Arlington Forest resident Kathy Nadherny recalls watching a nearly invisible jogger dressed in dark clothing one morning, who came terrifyingly close to being struck as a distracted driver veered into the bike lane. “In the early-morning hours, many runners [take unnecessary risks]. They run solo, with headphones,” she says, and they don’t wear reflective gear.

Nadherny, a certified running coach, has experienced her own share of heart-stopping moments. A driver turning right on red once clipped her foot while she was in the crosswalk, knocking off her shoe. (Luckily, she was not injured.) She’s seen pedestrians bumped by speeding cyclists on local bike trails. She’s watched jaywalkers attempting to  cross multiple lanes of traffic, rather than walking a few more feet to cross at the crosswalk. “There are ways to get to the other side [of a busy road] without playing ‘Frogger,’ ” she says.

Impatience is the catalyst behind many accidents, says Arlington County Police Captain James Wasem, who oversees special operations, including traffic enforcement and school crossing guards. “The Washington metro area has a lot of mission-driven people here, and they can lose sight of their other responsibilities to be good drivers,” he says. “The niceties escape them. [They refuse to let anyone merge in front of them in traffic] because it means they get to work five seconds faster.”

Local drivers also tend to forget that Virginia state law stipulates that cars must stop for pedestrians in a crosswalk. Of the 292 pedestrians who were hit by a car in Arlington between 2010 and 2012, an unsettling 35 percent were struck as they were crossing at an intersection with the signal—a situation where they, not cars, have the right of way.

Nationally, nearly 5,500 pedestrians and cyclists died in collisions with cars in 2012, a 6 percent increase over the previous year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Ever since the arrival of Metro in the late 1970s, Arlington has been known for its adoption of smart-growth principles that encourage high-density, mixed-use development near transit. This emphasis on creating urban-style walkable neighborhoods, in turn, has affected many county infrastructure decisions. Unlike so many auto-centric locales, where transportation policy centers on cars and roads, Arlington considers Metrorail, Metrobus, Arlington Transit (ART) lines, sidewalks, bike lanes, trails—and potentially, trolleys—all part of its transportation network.

“We are focused on moving people, and moving people safely, as opposed to just moving vehicles,” explains Dennis Leach, Arlington County’s director of transportation.

It’s not that cars are unwelcome, adds Victor Dover, co-author of Street Design: The Secret of Great Cities and Towns (Wiley, 2014) and principal-in-charge of Dover, Kohl & Partners, the Florida-based planning firm that is helping with the redevelopment of Columbia Pike. “They just shouldn’t dominate the whole scene.”

This mindset has contributed to some significant changes to the local landscape. The formerly common “slip lanes” that once allowed drivers to roll through a right turn without stopping are disappearing. (Transportation researchers say slip lanes can be unsafe for pedestrians in that the design is intended to speed, not slow traffic.) Marked bike lanes now reinforce that two-wheeled vehicles are welcome on various county streets. Flashing beacons on busy roads help pedestrians cross more safely, and crossing islands provide midway points where walkers may pause, as needed.

In addition, more than three dozen Capital Bikeshare stations are now located at Metro stops inside the county (and near its 113 miles of bike trails), encouraging residents to adopt a “car-free diet”—at the very least, for errands and other short trips.

Without these alternatives, our rapidly urbanizing area would be choked in gridlock. On any given workday, nearly 300,000 transit trips start or end in Arlington, meaning that the 26-square-mile county is home to 40 percent of the daily transit trips in the state, Leach says. Each weekday, workers flood into Arlington by car, bus, bike, train or on foot, boosting the resident population from 220,000 to nearly 400,000.

And those numbers are only expected to rise in the years to come. The county expects its population to grow by 22 percent and its workforce to jump by 38 percent between 2010 and 2040.

With those figures in mind, county officials in 2011 approved a master transportation plan with an ambitious goal for the year 2030: Manage the transportation needs of all those new residents and workers, while keeping the total volume of car traffic within 5 percent of 2005 levels.

Fortunately, commuter habits are already trending in the right direction. Whereas 65 percent of county residents drove alone to work in 2001, that figure had dropped to 54 percent by 2010, according to Arlington County Commuter Services (ACCS), the agency that manages transportation demand in the county. As a result, traffic counts have fallen on heavily traveled roads like Wilson Boulevard and Clarendon Boulevard, which went from 16,400 vehicles during a 24-hour period in 1996, to 12,600 in 2012, according to Leach.

And while a significant proportion (40 percent) of Arlingtonians have historically chosen other options over driving solo to work, that figure climbed to 47 percent in 2012, according to county data.

The ranks of the car-free are even higher in transit-oriented areas such as the Rosslyn-Ballston and Jefferson Davis Highway corridors. Along the Orange Line, 40 percent of commuters drive alone, while 60 percent opt for transit, bicycling, walking, carpools or some other alternative. In the Pentagon City/Crystal City area, only 37 percent commute by car alone, compared with the 38 percent of their neighbors who take transit, the 12 percent who walk or bike, and the 13 percent who use carpools or similar options.

Still, the streets of Arlington aren’t always welcoming to those striving to get around without a car. The top concern among cyclists surveyed by ACCS in 2011? Sharing the road with aggressive or inattentive drivers.

Pete Beers has encountered his share of both. As a bike ambassador for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA), the Falls Church resident rides 330 days a year on local roads and trails. “I’ve only once been hit by a driver on purpose,” he says, but close calls are common. “I get hit by inattentive, careless drivers one to five times a year. Usually it is a little bump…no harm to car, bike or rider.”

Nevertheless, Beers thinks the roads might become a little safer if the police were writing a few more tickets. “To me, traffic enforcement needs to be improved for both bicycles and automobiles,” he says. “I ride between 11,000 and 13,000 miles per year…and I almost never see any kind of substantive traffic law enforcement. I see five or six people getting pulled over per year. I think I’ve only seen one cyclist ever stopped for a traffic violation, and that was when a group of 10 cyclists ran a red light in Rosslyn, and one guy got a warning.”

Fines and citations can certainly help, says Anne McCartt, senior VP for research at the Arlington-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, provided traffic laws are routinely enforced (and reinforced) with reminders, in the same way that sobriety checkpoints and “click it or ticket” seat belt campaigns remind citizens to keep it safe. “Enforcement is most effective if it’s publicized,” McCartt adds, “because what gets people to change their behavior is fear of apprehension.”

But few localities have the resources for unlimited enforcement, even when  traffic tickets are a source of revenue. In Arlington, where 12 of the county’s 365 police officers work in the traffic section, Wasem and his staff have adopted a strategic, data-driven approach to determining where to focus their efforts. “Many people think traffic enforcement is about raising money. It is not,” says the police captain, who has no qualms about disclosing the locations of Arlington’s red-light cameras. “It is about targeted enforcement, based on analysis so that we can reduce accidents in areas with elevated levels of collisions, in school zones, and in areas of community concern. It is not about volume; it is about intelligent use of resources.”

At the same time, Ashton Heights resident Mark Blacknell, who serves as president of the WABA, points out that one of the most significant threats to public safety is something that’s still perfectly legal for adult motorists in Virginia. “The only way we’ll really see a difference…is when it becomes culturally unacceptable to use a cellphone while driving,” he says. “We did it with drinking and driving, and we can do it with cellphones and driving. Both lead to unnecessary deaths, and there’s no reason we should accept that.”

Nationally, car accidents involving distracted driving killed more than 3,000 Americans in 2012, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Locally, three pedestrians died in Arlington that year as a result of collisions with cars. One of them was 30-year-old Shabnam Motahhar-Tehrani, who was struck on Christmas Eve while walking on a Ballston sidewalk, after a driver ran a red light and lost control of his vehicle.

Statistically, Arlington’s track record is better than many. As the county population has soared—and with it, the numbers of bike riders and pedestrians passing through its intersections—the frequency and severity of crashes has dropped since the early 2000s, when Arlington reported nearly 4,000 collisions annually. “The number of accidents and injuries is going down even as we add more users to the right of way,” says Leach. “As Arlington is getting more developed, it is getting safer.”

But not everyone feels comfortable going out for a walk or a family bike ride. “This is a great place to raise a family, except for the traffic,” says Tamara McFarren, who chairs the traffic and pedestrian safety committee for the Dominion Hills Civic Association. “Speeding is an issue. Patrick Henry Drive and McKinley Road are cut-throughs, and people just blow through our neighborhood.The speed limit is 25, and people hit 40 to 45 mph.”

For the past two years, McFarren has been working with her neighbors and the county to advocate lower speed limits, traffic-calming measures and other solutions. But success has been elusive. One initiative involved the county’s “Drive 25” program, a targeted campaign encouraging drivers to slow down to 25 mph on selected streets. Neighbors agreed to participate, but the actual results were disappointing.

“The data [the county] collected on Patrick Henry showed that average speed actually went up by 4 miles per hour,” says McFarren, who works as a management consultant in Springfield. “To me, that says ‘Yes, we have a problem,’ and the problem is getting worse.”

She’s explored other options—stop signs, speed bumps—but has found herself stymied by the complex and confusing web of rules that determine what can and cannot be done, depending on the type of street, its traffic volume, typical speeds and other factors. “Our hands are tied in both directions,” she says.

Meanwhile, accidents happen—like the one that tragically claimed the life of Louise K. Gabel in October 2010. A native of New York City who never learned to drive a car, Gabel taught in Arlington Public Schools (APS) for years, retiring at the mandatory age of 70, only to return promptly to Carlin Springs Elementary where she volunteered for another 19 years. “Her life was built on helping others,” says her son Jon, who lives in Annandale.

Gabel was making her daily 1.5 mile walk to school when she was struck by a school bus on a side street. She died six hours later.

Although such fatalities are mercifully rare in Arlington, many residents remain concerned about the safety of pedestrians—especially kids—on county streets. When Arlington Public Schools  decided to enforce its existing transportation policy in the summer of 2012, cutting bus service at a handful of schools and strictly enforcing the walking zone at others, many parents were incredulous at what they saw as a cost-cutting move that put children at risk.

Under the policy, families of elementary school students who live within one mile of school (and middle/high school students who live within 1.5 miles) are expected to provide their own transportation to and from school. That can include walking, biking, carpooling, or—yes—being driven by their parents.

APS insists that cost was not a factor. “The prime concern was the safety and security of students and knowing who was on a bus at any time in the event of an emergency or other incident,” explains Frank Bellavia, a spokesperson for APS, which hired a consultant in 2011 to evaluate its transportation operations and suggest efficiencies.

Not all parents find this explanation reassuring. “It doesn’t make sense,” says Jennifer Bauer, a Tuckahoe Elementary parent who lives in Leeway Overlee. “There are very few walks of a mile that are safe for a first-grader. We have so many major commuter routes—Lee Highway, Washington Boulevard, Carlin Springs Road. These are not roads that you want [young children] crossing.”

Although her own kids did not lose their bus service, Bauer nevertheless joined Safe Busing Now, a local parent group that sprung up in response to the change. “At Campbell, which starts at 8 a.m. and where kids eat breakfast at school, preschoolers and kindergartners who used to take the bus were walking to school before they ate breakfast,” she says. “At Jefferson [Middle], there were kids who were coming to school late every day because their parents were working and they had to walk their younger siblings to school.”

The announcement that the school system would begin enforcing walk zones also came as a surprise to the county transportation and police departments, which suddenly found themselves dealing with an unplanned surge in car and pedestrian traffic at many area schools.

“In many neighborhoods, the school is the dominant traffic generator,” says Leach. “And parents who are late for work are creating some of the worst hazards.” They get on their smartphones in an attempt to multitask. They turn right or left while walkers are still in the crosswalk. They park illegally on nearby streets. They speed through the neighborhood, hoping to make up the time they spent idling in the drop-off lane.

Scrambling to cover the most critical needs, the police department pulled beat officers, traffic cops, parking enforcement staff and county sheriff’s deputies to help staff school crossings for the first few weeks of school until it sorted out which intersections needed what level of coverage.

“Parents clearly wanted someone with authority helping their children cross the street,” says Wasem, the police captain. “We made a large effort to alleviate the concerns of parents who were worried about getting their students to school safely.”

County officials say that communication on transportation matters between the county and the schools has since improved. “I think the collaboration between the county and the school system is closer today,” says Leach, who sits on the APS multi-modal transportation committee and praises the school system’s decision to hire its first Safe Routes to School coordinator.

But parents like Bauer still question whether the school system is doing enough. “Pressing more and more people to walk without taking the steps to make sure people—especially children—are safe is just irresponsible,” she says. “Traffic is bad here. People drive really fast. They run red lights. This is a commuter landscape, and until they can do something about that, put kids on the bus.”

What will it take to make Arlington’s streets safer for everyone? For one thing, personal responsibility. County staff hope that their public safety campaign, called “Be a PAL” (the acronym stands for predicable, alert and lawful), will remind those who live, work or commute in Arlington to share the road.

“I believe most folks are law-abiding people who want to do the right thing,” says Wasem. “You just have to get them to understand the role they play in the larger community.” Educating residents about road safety can help, he says.

So can infrastructure improvements such as adding sidewalks and bike lanes, reworking intersections and extending public transit. Although 90 percent of Arlington’s residential streets have sidewalks, according to county estimates, “we are constantly retrofitting pieces of land to make them more friendly,” says Leach. “We take sections and rebuild the right of way with our own [county] dollars,” rather than relying on state or highway funding.

In Penrose, for example, the county recently added 27 feet of sidewalk on Eighth Street between Courthouse Road and Barton Street. It also rebuilt the I-395 underpass on Joyce Street near Pentagon City, providing a safer walking route to Columbia Pike and the Air Force Memorial.

Most of the time, local officials can execute such plans with relative ease. Of Virginia’s 95 counties, only Arlington and Henrico maintain and control their own secondary and residential roads, just as independent cities like Falls Church and Vienna do. That gives Arlington the freedom to modify certain roads to meet its walkability goals—for example, by building pedestrian islands or adding bike lanes—without needing state approval.

At times, though, Arlington’s street improvement options are more limited, particularly on high-volume state roads like Lee Highway and Glebe Road, where the right of way belongs to the Virginia Department of Transportation, giving the state, not the county, the final say in engineering decisions.

“The state’s view is that streets were invented for vehicles, without any friction,” Leach explains diplomatically (“friction” being the pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users Arlington is trying to accommodate). “We just do things a little differently.”

But the ultimate key to safer streets may be for everyone, including walkers, drivers and cyclists, to make smarter decisions where the rubber meets the road. “All of us do things that are unsafe, and we usually get away with it,” says McCartt, “until one day when we don’t.”

After working on this article, Alison Rice pays much closer attention to posted speed limits when driving. She has run, biked and walked in Arlington for 13 years.

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