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Can Church Street be Pedestrian-Friendly?

Congestion, commuters and parking challenge pedestrian safety on Church Street.

Some days, Susan Wilson dreads crossing the street. When she needs to get to the Vienna post office on Lawyers Road from Black Eyed Susan, where she works, Wilson looks not just both ways before she crosses the street, but five ways before crossing.

Traffic comes onto Church Street from both directions of Lawyers Road, traffic on Church Street turning left and right onto Lawyers, and traffic coming out of the post office.

"There's like four or five different pieces of traffic coming at you," said Wilson, of the Church Street-Lawyers Road intersection.

So when the Town's Transportation Safety Commission (TSC) began to examine pedestrian safety on Church Street, the action was a welcome one.

"Trying to cross Lawyers is almost impossible without getting hit," she said.

As businesses continue to develop along Church Street and as more commuters drive through Church to avoid traffic on Maple Avenue, pedestrian safety, as well as traffic congestion, is a growing concern for both businesses and patrons alike. Unlike other streets in Vienna, Church Street must balance pedestrian-friendliness, its proximity to the Washington & Old Dominion Trail, and its commercial and historic character, with limited parking resources and commuter traffic.

Those factors, as well as the intersection at Lawyers Road near the post office, make for one congested street.

"It's a great street, and when you deal with the large population, you just have to take extra care," said Barbara Werner, the owner of Black Eyed Susan.

TO BETTER pedestrian safety along Church Street, the TSC began advertising its monthly meetings to the public, so citizens could give feedback on a report it is creating for the Town on the subject.

Although the meetings have always been open to the public, recent meetings have discussed the possibility of opening up the section of Church Street where it connects with Pleasant Street. The TSC will determine whether to recommend that measure to the Vienna Town Council at its next meeting on May 25.

But concerns about pedestrian safety increased in late April, when a 13-year-old girl was hit by a car on Church Street. At the accident, which occurred on April 22, the girl ran out between cars, and the car that hit her was driving slightly below the speed limit of 25 mph.

While no one was seriously injured and the driver was not at fault, the accident rattled the employees of several nearby businesses, prompting one to contact the Vienna Town Council and the TSC to ask them to address pedestrian safety on Church Street.

"Everyone in the building felt that the safety issue hasn't really been addressed," said Jennifer Golden, attorney working with the MBH Settlement Group. Its offices are on 144 Church St. N.E., above Nielsen's Frozen Custard. Golden was the one who contacted the Town Council and the TSC.

The TSC, which had begun collecting data for its report on pedestrian safety, met with Golden and other Church Street employees on the issue.

In creating its report on pedestrian safety, the TSC looked at traffic figures for the street, particularly at the intersection of Church and Lawyers. According to TSC chair Rich Denbow, Vienna Police traffic data show that on Feb. 26, 2003, 7,788 vehicles traveled through the 100 block of Church St. during a 24-hour period.

Of those vehicles, the 85 percent traveled just under 33 mph. The speed limit is 25 mph. A total of 685 vehicles were traveling at 35 mph or higher, with 294 of those vehicles traveling at 45 mph or higher.

On Lawyers Road just north of Church Street, the police counted 14,289 vehicles traveling on the street during a 24-hour period. Of those vehicles, 85 percent were traveling just over 38 mph. A total of 2,426 vehicles were traveling at 35 mph or higher, with 400 of those traveling at 45 mph or higher.

"What it shows is that there are speed issues," Denbow said.

Several employees on Church Street observed that speeding was a problem on their street.

"People speed like crazy up and down Church," Golden said.

Matt Rankin, who works in the same building, agreed, citing that several of his colleagues had close calls both as pedestrians and as workers trying to drive out into Church Street traffic.

"People are just zooming by," Rankin said.

Werner, on the other hand, disagreed about speeding, arguing that the traffic congestion slows people down. Instead, she thought that the parking problems associated with Church Street affected both the street's congestion and safety in general.

THE CAUSES of the parking problems vary but can affect the safety of both pedestrians and drivers as they navigate into traffic, Werner said. Although turning Church Street into a commercial and retail area keeps the corridor thriving, the street has been ill-equipped to handle parking for both customers and for day-long employees. As a result, people park illegally, thus blocking sight lines.

"People just need to be more careful," Werner said. She encouraged people to use the parking lots for customers in addition to parking on Church Street and to watch their children as they stroll down the street.

In the town's zoning code, one parking space is required for every 200 square feet of floor area, according to planning and zoning director Greg Hembree. But if a developer follows the Church Street Vision guidelines, a building may have one parking space for every 600 square feet of floor area.

The intent of the guideline was to encourage builders to design the buildings on a pedestrian scale, Hembree said. The parked cars along Church Street would act as a buffer between the sidewalk and the busy street.

While the parking issue will not go away anytime soon, the Church Street employees favored ideas resolving the issue. All the employees who were interviewed liked the idea of a public parking area, especially since the town will make a park out of a Maple Avenue property near the Washington & Old Dominion Trail, and some further suggested better signage that would designate public and private parking areas.

"With a lot of shops now, there's a lot of traffic," said Rene Altamirano of Great Harvest Bread Co. He added that because of the traffic, he avoids coming onto Church Street from Lawyers Road on Saturdays.

In addition to parking, some employees favored "Yield to Pedestrians" signs on both Church and Lawyers, and raised crosswalks on Church, to alert commuters to both pedestrians and bicyclists.

"People don't jump out or cut corners," said Wilson, approving of the bollards that the Town placed on the crosswalks at Church and Lawyers. "If nothing else, it keeps people in their lane."

Whatever measures the TSC recommends that the Town Council adopt, Rankin said he hopes any study would include a plan that addresses the various factors affecting pedestrian safety and covers the stretch of the historic street.

"They need to make sure they get involved the appropriate licensed professionals," Rankin said.