To win the debate on a controversial issue, irrespective of the facts, just say “Lives will be saved under our proposal; people will die under yours.” No organization has done it any better than the Alexandria Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, aka BPAC.
Despite the fact that Alexandria’s 2017 traffic death rate was 80 percent lower than the statewide rate, they claim that we have a significant traffic safety problem. Using this faux crisis as predicate, they continue to advocate for (1) narrowing the major roads we all depend on, and (2) installing lightly-used bike lanes.
You would not know it by its name, but BPAC is not an advisory committee to City Council. It is a small private membership organization, essentially operating as a special interest group. Yet, it’s had disproportionate influence on city policy over the past 10 years or so. While positioning themselves as the leading voice for traffic safety in the city, they’ve driven Complete Streets and VisionZero – trendy and controversial movements – to become official city policy, embedded in the city’s Transportation Master Plan.
They seem to have achieved this through cozy relationships with the city government and city board representation that is grossly disproportionate to the size of their constituency. For example, two of BPAC’s most active members serve on the seven-member Traffic and Parking Board, which entertains recommendations from BPAC on everything from Complete Streets projects to the number of parking spaces in Old Town to making Complete Streets a permanent component of the City Code. And one of them also serves on the city’s Transportation Commission.
BPAC successfully pushed for unpopular speed limit reductions on major roads. At a meeting last year, the Traffic and Parking Board approved a BPAC-supported proposal to reduce the speed limit on Route 1. The decision affected tens of thousands of commuters, but only two citizens attended this consequential mid-summer board meeting, both speaking in opposition. Yet, with three members absent, the board approved the proposal 3-1 anyway. Shortly thereafter, the city manager announced the speed limit reduction in a press release.
The city’s Department of Transportation and Environmental Services (T&ES) sometimes behaves like as an extension of BPAC, particularly as it relates to Complete Streets and VisionZero. T&ES’s director is himself an ardent supporter of these programs and bicycle interests, and T&ES subordinates attend virtually every BPAC meeting. In the name of increasing safety on already safe thoroughfares, T&ES proposes BPAC-supported Complete Streets projects, always with new bike lanes or a shared road component. Their formal recommendations to the Traffic and Parking Board are often accompanied by a few letters of support, including one from BPAC.
T&ES analyses of Complete Streets projects can seem inordinately weighted toward road narrowing and new bike lanes. Take the proposed Seminary Road project. T&ES developed three alternatives and rated them against their own criteria, which are biased toward additional “safety” measures. Some important quality of life considerations like congestion, efficient traffic flow, and unsafe neighborhood cut-through traffic receive little or no weight in the ratings.
To justify their positions, BPAC and T&ES use a metric called “killed or seriously injured.” One does not equal the other, but BPAC and T&ES lump them together to prove that a dire traffic safety issue exists. Take last year’s killed/seriously injured statistic: five people were killed in tragic Alexandria crashes, but the reported killed/seriously injured number of 37 sounds just as serious as 37 deaths, and much worse than five. What they don’t report is that the overwhelming majority of traffic deaths and serious injury victims are drivers, their passengers, and motorcyclists, not pedestrians or bicyclists.
In a recent letter to the editor, BPAC’s chairman employed their favorite scare tactic, claiming that those five lives could have been saved “by simply improving the poor design of Alexandria’s streets,” and that “traffic violence claimed more lives than gun violence in 2018.” But reckless driving and excessive speed caused all five tragedies, not poor road design. Three occurred in late night crashes on the beltway or a beltway exit ramp. The other two were motorcycle riders who lost control. Not a single one was walking or bicycling on a city street.
Perhaps it’s time for residents of Central Alexandria and the West End to wake up to the game that’s being played. It’s in full view again with the BPAC and T&ES-supported proposal to narrow Seminary Road and add bike lanes, which is not likely to improve safety much, if at all, on an already safe stretch of road. But it does promise to negatively affect the quality of life of Central Alexandria and West End residents, further exacerbating congestion, increasing unsafe neighborhood cut-through traffic, and driving more frustration for busy commuters and parents at peak travel times.
It seems like the mayor and City Council are listening less to the majority of us than to a small special interest bicycling group that has coopted city traffic policy, related boards, the city code, and even the T&ES department. No wonder confidence in Alexandria government officials seems to be at an all-time low.