Fairfax County Gets with the Program

Richmond Highway in Fairfax County is an eclectic mix of old and new tied together with traffic jams. Old motels, high rise residential buildings, new hotels, and big box stores are intermingled with gas stations, trailer parks, garden apartments, office buildings, and a seemingly infinite hodge podge of other retail businesses. It offers a lot. I avoid it like the plague.

Fitful development replaced suburban blight in the 1990s. The Department of Defense relocated thousands of workers to Fort Belvoir and the County did a land swap that led to the construction of a residential city of sorts near Lorton, both on the southern end of the corridor. DC bound commuter traffic overwhelms the highway during rush hours. Transit is heavily used but is simply not enough to move all the people through and within the corridor.

So Fairfax County is developing plans to re-invent the corridor over the next 25 years. If it doesn’t do something, southeastern Fairfax County’s economy will choke on its own auto exhaust. Using bus rapid transit (until it can get Metro service) to reduce or mitigate car traffic, the county will develop a chain of mixed use communities, not unlike the Ballston to Rosslyn corridor in Arlington or the Town Center in Reston.

Today, riding a bike in this area is very unsafe. Pedestrians fare no better, with many being sent to hospitals and morgues each year. The plan calls for bicycle and pedestrian facilities along the highway. Input from bicyclists at prior meetings convinced planners to include bicycle and pedestrian facilities on feeder streets and in each of the mixed use communities. I heard no negative push back on these additions to the plan tonight.

How this all plays out over the next couple of decades is anybody’s guess. It is comforting to see that after decades of embracing car-based suburban sprawl, Fairfax County is finally moving toward more transit, sensible development, and livable communities. Will the county be able to stick to its plans as Arlington and Reston did? Time will tell.

The Introverted Advocate

Myers-Briggs tests consistently show that I am an introvert with a capital I. My idea of hell on earth is being in a big reception and not knowing anybody. Another manifestation of hell on earth is US Route 1 in Fairfax County. To put two hells together I attended a long range planning meeting tonight on the future of Route 1. The meeting was billed as “Route 1 Multimodal Alternatives Analysis”. Sounds exciting, doesn’t it?

It’s actually a pretty interesting project. Route 1 has no rail rapid transit, is overwhelmed by car traffic, is a nightmare to ride a bike on or walk across, and is butt ugly. And the 15 miles of Route 1 between Alexandria and Route 123, just over the Prince William County line, is expected to see plenty of growth in the next 25 years.

The project is being done by a bunch of state and local agencies that recognize that planning for more car traffic which currently rules the road is a non-starter. Many years ago the people who planned Metro decided not to run the yellow line down Route 1. Everyone now sees what a mistake this was. The future will almost certainly include a rail (light or heavy) or bus rapid transit. It will also include something like six lanes for cars. Eek!

The meeting was held at the South County government center on Route 1 about 1 1/2 miles from my house. Normally, I had already ridden this stretch of Route 1 earlier in the day to fetch my car from a body shop. That was in daylight with no rain. The meeting was after dusk and rain was falling. I drove. Shoot me.

The perimeter of the meeting room was lined with posters explaining various aspects of the project. I saw the word “bicycle” twice. Once was on a board about the desire to build a healthy alternative to the current car-centric mess. The other was on a poster that showed the new bike lanes already being built along Route 1 through Fort Belvoir. I was not optimistic about the bicycle aspects of the project.

Project leaders gave a 30 minute presentation. For the first 20 minutes, the word bicycle was not mentioned once. In the last ten minutes, it was mentioned six times. The development team realizes that making the corridor bike and pedestrian friendly is a high priority. (There is nowhere to go but up.) One slide was dedicated to the fact that the bike routes near Route 1 are, to cut to the chase, an inadequate mess. When the presenter said that the bike routes in the area lacked “connectivity” I actually laughed out loud, because that’s the word I used on my comment form.

Fortunately the project planners are aware of successful retrofits to old infrastructure in Arlington, DC, Charlotte, and Richmond. They seem to intend to steal liberally from the best of these kinds of projects.

After the presentation I went up to the “connectivity” speaker to offer more bike comments. It turns out he’s a bike commuter (from DC to Arlington). He obviously gets it. Then I got interviewed by a reporter for the Patch online newspapers. I don’t know why she picked me out of the crowd. Maybe it’s the new “Interview Me” tattoo on my forehead.

After the presentation, the project staffers were aligned around the room next to their posters to listen to feedback. I went to one poster to make a comment about biking and the first thing I saw on the adjacent white board was “Make it more bike and ped friendly”! Somebody beat me to the punch. I hung around and chatted with some folks, explaining how much nicer a place it would be to live if you could access all that retail activity without driving.

So, with some irony, I left the meeting and drove home.

Part of me envies the planners because it’s a cool project with so much upside for making the area a better place to live. From 1970 to 1990, Fairfax County bought in to the idea that sprawl and haphazard development was good. Now that county residents have had 20+ years to experience the fruits of these policies, the county and state realize that they have a ton of work to do to make.