Greater Greater Washington

Crossing the street often unsafe in Fairfax

If you live in Fairfax and want to walk or bicycle to the 7-11, your job or to your child's school, chances are you will have to cross a major road designed more to move traffic than for your safety.


Route 7 near Seven Corners has many pedestrians but few sidewalks or safe crossings. Photo by the author.

To bicycle to our son's elementary school, we have to cross both Route 236 and Route 50, plus a busy secondary road, Jermantown Road. During peak hours Route 236 and 50 have many turning vehicles and short walk cycles. The crosswalks are poorly lit, increasing the risk of collisions with pedestrians.

But these crosswalks are still a lot safer than on many other arterial roads in Fairfax County. Twenty two pedestrians were killed on Route 1 between 1995 and 2005, according to a 2008 report by the Coalition for Smarter Growth. Eleven pedestrians were killed on Route 7. A lot of people live along these streets, and many of them don't drive. Yet the streets lack sidewalks, lighting and safe crossings.

Virginia ranks last among states in spending on pedestrian and bicycle projects per capita, according to a report released Tuesday by Transportation for America and the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership. The report, Dangerous by Design: Solving the Epidemic of Preventable Pedestrian Deaths (and Making Great Neighborhoods), looks at pedestrian spending and safety using a "pedestrian danger index" that computes the rate of pedestrian deaths relative to the amount of walking the residents do on average. For safety, the Washington area ranks 32nd among the largest 52 metro areas (with 52 being the least dangerous). That's better than many Sunbelt areas that have been mostly built in the age of the automobile, but worse than Virginia Beach and many comparable metro regions. The Coalition for Smarter Growth's 2008 report ranked Fairfax as the most dangerous county in the region for pedestrians, based on the same pedestrian danger index.

Fairfax County recognizes the problem and is investing millions of dollars in better pedestrian design on its most dangerous roads. Earlier this year the $8 million Patrick Henry pedestrian bridge opened on Route 50 near Falls Church. But this may not be the best design solution. Steve Offutt's great post on the bridge showed that most pedestrians still cross on the street. Ultimately, the street itself has to be made more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly.

Making these roads complete streets that are safe and convenient for all users will require a major overhaul of VDOT's current approach. VDOT does have a policy requiring routine accommodations for pedestrians and bicyclists as part of any major road construction and maintenance project. But sidewalks and bike lanes, however important, are only parts of complete streets. There are many tools such as bulb-outs, pedestrian refuge islands, express bus lanes and tighter curb radii that would bring the roads into a better balance toward the needs of pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users.

There is no better place to use these tools than at Tysons Corner. If we don't build complete streets on Routes 7 and 123, the success of transit-oriented development at Tysons will be limited. Will VDOT and other agencies involved in the redesign of these roads show more flexibility in making them pleasant and safe for walking and bicycling?

Douglas Stewart is a volunteer with Fairfax City Citizens for Smarter Growth. He also works for the Piedmont Environmental Council as their Grants Specialist, and is the Transportation Chair for the Virginia Sierra Club. 

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Its also a problem when people who aren't used to waiting for pedestrians (even at signalized intersections) at particular intersections never bother to check if anyone is crossing the street. A lot of my friends have completely different driving habits in DC (where they expect pedestrians) and in fairfax (where they don't). All of my close calls as a pedestrian or driver have been in Fairfax, not in DC or any other place with a lot of pedestrians.

Also I find it ludicrous that to cross 123 I get a walk/don't walk sign but to cross over University Dr. I'm on my own and have to hope the people speeding into right turns into GMU notice that I'm there first.

by Canaan on Nov 12, 2009 12:42 pm • linkreport

Don't forget Chicanes! and Woonerfs!

by JTS on Nov 12, 2009 12:47 pm • linkreport

Fairfax and VA can start by not rounding of every curb at an intersection. That would help, and not cost a dime, because most curbs are laid by developers.

Secondly, because the Dutch word "woonerf" is mentioned for the second time in a short period, a google streetview map of the woonerf that I grew up on (added to google maps this week).


View Larger Map

This is about as "good" as it gets woonerf-wise. Whether you like them or not, this is what it is. Complete integration of street, sidewalk and bike. Lots of short dead ends. And maddingly curvy roads, so that it is simply impossible to speed.

The biggest disadvantage? It was impossible to give directions, because there was no straight road to follow. Oh, the times I had to go get lost visitors :-D It happened quite often that some desperate and dazed visitor would ring the door bell and nearly burst in tears while asking for directions.

Zoom out a bit and observe that there is no straight road in sight. And the straighter ones are the ones where you can go a bit faster.

It's funny to look at the map now, because when I lived there (1980 or so) we were the edge of town, and had a wonderful view over the fields.

What you can't really see on the map is that bike routes are nearly completely separated from the "car" roads. When little Jasper biked anywhere, he only had to cross asphalt roads. He barely had to ride on them.

by Jasper on Nov 12, 2009 1:28 pm • linkreport

Here's an American woonerf from Aspen, CO. I bet this style translates more readily to Fairfax and the Greater Washington Area. Having lived in Delft, Netherlands for a while, I would love to see a few municipalities and/or developers try these out in our area.

by JTS on Nov 12, 2009 2:36 pm • linkreport

Instead of investing in useless projects like the ped bridge over Route 50 I wish the county would invest more in crosswalks and crossing signals. There is a six lane road I have to cross at 5am in the morning. For some reason Fairfax County planners don't figure peds will be crossing at that hour (I haven't been the only soul I've seen doing this). However the light is timed to give a pedestrian about 10 seconds to cross the road. I have to run (even though there is crosswalk) so that I won't be jaywalking and beeped at by impatient motorists.

By the way that intersection is Fairfax County Parkway and Sunrise Valley Drive.

by Joshua Davis on Nov 12, 2009 4:21 pm • linkreport

Adopting lower design speeds is a key to designing better multimodal suburban streets. With design speeds below 35 MPH (and ideally not above 25 MPH), context-sensitive design features such as narrower travel lanes and tighter curb return radii can be justified by highway engineers.

by Allen Muchnick on Nov 12, 2009 10:06 pm • linkreport

Um, Route 50 is a four-lane to six-lane major roadway that carries thousands upon thousands of cars every day in and out of Washington. And Fairfax County just spent millions of dollars for a bridge to improve the situation at an intersection where a few hundred pedestrians cross each day.

And you all think that means Fairfax isn't doing enough for the pedestrians and needs to slow down traffic on Route 50?

Sorry, but get a brain, morans.

There should be better transit options for those without cars, but EVERY road does not need to be pedestrian and bike friendly. Route 50 is a major artery in an area where the vast, vast majority of people are in cars. This isn't downtown DC.

by Sean on Nov 12, 2009 10:25 pm • linkreport

If you argue in favor of pedestrian bridges, prepare for a flame war: http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post.cgi?id=2312

by Arlingtonian on Nov 13, 2009 12:39 am • linkreport

Thanks Arlingtonian. Not looking for a flame war, and my views are covered in the other thread. FWIW, I agree with Matt @ 12:54 -- it's a long term problem.

by Sean on Nov 13, 2009 9:28 am • linkreport

Interestingly, the murder rate in fairfax county is usually 10-24 homicides per year.

It sounds like pedestrians in Fairfax County are in more danger from cars than they are from murderers.

It's ironic. We don't know how to prevent murder. But we do know how to prevent people from being killed by cars. After all, most drivers who kill pedestrians are not at all trying to (quite the opposite!), and most of them are tormented by their role in the pedestrian's death for the rest of their lives.

And yet every year we choose to let people die because we build poorly designed roads. And we choose to let drivers become unwilling murderers. It's just awful.

by anon on Nov 13, 2009 9:39 am • linkreport

@ Sean: Um, Route 50 is a four-lane to six-lane major roadway that carries thousands upon thousands of cars every day in and out of Washington. ... And you all think that means Fairfax isn't doing enough for the pedestrians and needs to slow down traffic on Route 50?

Ehm, so you think one bridge is enough for all those pedestrians that need to cross route 50?

Do we have numbers on the numbers of cars going over route 50 vs the number of pedestrians that cross it?

I would not be surprised if more people crossed 50 than that drive over it.

by Jasper on Nov 13, 2009 10:27 am • linkreport

Sean said, Not looking for a flame war,

How does the above statement fit with the following.

Sorry, but get a brain, morans.?

Such cogent commentary, how could anyone think you wanted a flame war?

by Rambuncle on Nov 13, 2009 2:48 pm • linkreport

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