In many areas, creating a more "walkable community" is about aesthetics and convenience. Along the Route 1 corridor of the Mount Vernon/Lee districts, it can be a matter of life or death.
"It has taken years for Fairfax County to think in terms of safe pedestrian ways. The object is to plan how to make it safe for people to walk instead of making it better for cars to fly," said Dana Kauffman, Lee District Supervisor.
He was one of several civic leaders and activists attending a Walkable Communities Workshop at the South County Government Center on Richmond Highway Tuesday morning. Conducted under the aegis of the National Center for Bicycling and Walking [NCBW] and funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Active Living grant program, the four hour session explored ways to make walking safer and more desirable.
"Route 1, as a corridor, is the most deadly in all of Fairfax County. More pedestrians are killed along Route 1 annually than any other stretch of road," said Christopher D. Wells, pedestrian program manager, Department of Transportation, Fairfax County.
"The corridor between Fort Belvoir and the Beltway contains seven of our most dangerous intersections. Most of the fatalities occur in the areas where the road is four lanes wide with no median strip," he explained. "And this is with 800 traffic signals."
CONDUCTING THE workshop with Wells and others from county government was Peter Lagerwey, an instructor for the NCBW from Seattle, Wash. That city has won countless awards for it efforts to better blend pedestrian and vehicle interaction.
"We don't walk or bicycle as much as we used to, partly because our communities are designed more around the automobile than pedestrian uses," Lagerwey explained. The object of the workshop was to explore ways to make walking safer, thereby encouraging more exercise by those that "are not fitness buffs," according to the presentation.
As for the Route 1 corridor, colloquially dubbed "The Highway," Wells stated, "We will be building a sidewalk on one side for the entire 16 miles. We are also trying to implement some quick fixes."
He pointed out the county is looking at the connections between transit use and pedestrian traffic. "The Board of Supervisors has identified the Route 1 corridor as generating the second largest transit rider group in the county," he noted.
"We've gotten about $2 million and we've tried to leverage more funds to do limited improvements on Route 1. But this is to do capital construction. It is not for transit," Wells acknowledged. "We'd like to invest $50 million in Route 1 improvements."
When asked about the potential widening of Route 1, as has been proposed by both the county and VDOT, Wells answered, "The proposal is to widen to six lanes with a possible increase to eight, depending on transit development." The additional lanes would be for bus, rail or light rail, according to Wells.
KICKING OFF THE session, Lagerwey presented an interactive slide show entitled "Building Blocks of a Walkable Community. It covered both basic principles and advanced concepts in creating such environments.
"The powerpoint presentation was extremely interesting and informative," said Robert Brubaker, executive director, Metroped. "And the people attending the workshop were exactly the ones we needed there."
According to NCBW literature, "Creating places for people to walk means more than just special trails...Creating an active community environment means taking a look at the broader scope of where there are, and aren't, opportunities to safely walk. It involves land use design, retrofitting the transportation infrastructure, funding, and much more."
With increased development along the Route 1 corridor, both in terms of residential and commercial building, the need for safe interaction between pedestrians and vehicles is increasing daily, according to authorities on the subject. It was estimated, during the workshop, that 40,000-plus vehicles per day now travel the corridor between Woodbridge and the Beltway.
Some of the development aspects working against walkable communities as outlined by NCBW include: lack of sidewalks; narrow walkway widths; missing curb cuts; poorly maintained and/or constructed walking surfaces; difficult and dangerous street crossings; and high speed, high volume traffic adjacent to schools, parks, shopping and residential areas.
FOLLOWING THE indoor presentations and discussions, the group was divided in two for a "walking audit" of subject areas along the corridor in the vicinity of the Government Center. One was lead by Wells and the other by Lagerwey.
In addition to experiencing first-hand many of the obstacles faced by pedestrians each day, the group was also asked to take notes of bad and good conditions they found.
At the conclusion of the "audit," they returned to the Center to "develop a consensus on desired improvements" and "agree on a plan for the next steps."
Brubaker noted, "One of the conclusions everyone seemed to agree upon was that the speed limit along the Route 1 corridor should be reduced to 35 miles per hour. That highway has far too much development along it for the present limit."
Another realization by the group was that there is just no money available for many of the improvements, according to Brubaker. "But the instructors offered a variety of suggested ways for some improvements to be made with very limited investment," he said.
Some of these included: putting crosswalks other than at intersections; increasing the visibility of crosswalks by more obvious paints; and encouraging more mixed use development in land use by combining basic shopping facilities with residential.
Brubaker summarized his reaction to the workshop by noting, "The more walkable you make a community the more walking people will do."