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Roads


Fairfax's answer to neighbors' transit plans: Light rail, streetcars, and BRT

Not to be outdone by its neighbors' aggressive plans for rail and BRT networks, Fairfax County has an impressive transit plan of its own.


Fairfax County's proposed high quality transit network. Image from Fairfax County.

DC has its streetcar and moveDC plans, Arlington and Alexandria have streetcars and BRT, and Montgomery has its expansive BRT network, plus of course the Purple Line.

Now Fairfax has a major countrywide transit plan too, called the High Quality Transit Network. Top priorities are to finish the Silver Line and the Bailey's Crossroads portion of the Columbia Pike streetcar, but that's not the end of Fairfax's plans.

County planners are also looking at several other corridors, including Route 1, Route 7 (both east and west of Tysons), I-66, Route 28, and Gallows Road/Dolly Madison Boulevard.

Both rail and BRT are possibilities for all those corridors. Some may end up light rail or streetcar, others bus. Route 1 and I-66 could even include Metrorail extensions.

In addition to all that, Fairfax County Parkway is slated for HOT lanes, which could make express buses a more practical option there.

As the DC region continues to grow, and demand for walkable, transit-accessible communities continues to increase, these types of plans are crucial. If our major arterial highways are going to become the mixed-use main streets of tomorrow, transit on them must significantly improve.

Fairfax is undeniably still spending a lot on bigger highways. Planners' inability to calm traffic on Routes 7 and 123 through Tysons, for example, indicates roads are still priority number one. But it takes a plan to change, and this is a strong step forward. So good on Fairfax for joining the club.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Demographics


By 2040, DC's population could be close to 900,000

The latest future population projections forecast that by 2040 the District of Columbia will have a population of 883,600. That would far eclipse the historic high of 802,178, from the 1950 census.


Projected population increase from 2010 to 2040, in thousands. Image by COG.

Despite that growth, DC would still rank as only the 4th most populous jurisdiction in the region, behind Fairfax, Montgomery, and Prince George's. But the next 26 years could narrow that gap considerably. Demographers project that only Fairfax will add more people than DC. Prince George's will add fewer than half as many.

The forecasts come from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG), which is sort of a United Nations for local governments in the DC region.

COG's forecast report has a treasure trove of fascinating demographic info, not only about population, but also jobs and households. For example, by 2040 COG's demographers expect DC to have over 1 million jobs.

Of course, these are only projections. Nobody can predict the future with 100% accuracy. COG's forecasts often fail to predict the biggest peaks during booms and lowest dips during busts. But all in all they've historically been reasonably accurate.

So get ready for more neighbors.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Public Spaces


Lipstick can help the Tysons pig, a little

Fairfax County is considering dressing up the Silver Line's mammoth concrete pylons with murals. The idea could help animate the otherwise bleak, gray structures.


Mock up of a possible Silver Line mural. Image from the Tysons Partnership.

Ideally the Silver Line would've been underground through Tysons Corner. But federal rules that have since changed prevented that, forcing the Metro line above ground, onto a huge elevated structure.

That wasn't the end of the world, but it did condemn Tysons to some unnecessary ugly.

So why not dress it up? Murals can unquestionably make big gray structures more colorful and interesting. They're easy to implement, don't cost very much, and help a little. There's not much down side.

Murals are, however, still just lipstick on a pig. They don't solve the underlying deadening effect of bare walls. For example the Discovery building mural on Colesville Road in Silver Spring is surely better than bare concrete, but shops & cafes would've been better still.

And Tysons' murals won't be as effective as the one in Silver Spring. Colesville Road is basically urban, basically walkable. The block with the mural is the weakest link on an otherwise lively urban street.

But in Tysons, the Silver Line runs down the middle of Leesburg Pike, one of the most pedestrian-hostile highways in the region. If murals are added to the Silver Line, they may become the best and most interesting part of the streetscape, as opposed to the worst.

So by all means, Fairfax County should absolutely do this. Murals are a great tool to cover any large blank structure. But what Tysons really needs is walkable streets with lively sidewalks.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Development


How can Virginia balance traffic flow with a sense of place on Route 1?

A study of Virginia's Route 1 finds that people want "to create destinations, ... not a throughway." They also want better pedestrian and bicycle safety, and really want transit, but they also want to see traffic flow faster. What's the best way to balance these?


Route 1 today. Image from the study.

If this major public investment can succeed in creating walkable, livable transit communities along the corridor, the state and localities need to find ways to keep vehicle speeds down and not force people to cross long distances. They can start by designing roads to create a sense of place instead of inhibit it.

In fact, building better places could also speed up traffic flow, by making it possible for more people to get to local shopping without driving, or by taking other roads in a street grid instead of all piling onto Route 1 itself.

How fast and wide should Route 1 be?

The study assumes that the speed limit would remain 45 mph and lanes would be 12 feet wide. A road built for speed will create a less comfortable environment at center median transit stations. It will increase the distances pedestrians have to cross. And it will reduce the sense of connectivity between transit-oriented neighborhoods on either side of the road. Perhaps the speed will impact transit ridership as well.

There's a history here. A few years back, VDOT proposed reducing posted speeds to 35 mph, but faced a huge public outcry and the local supervisors made VDOT drop the proposal.

Bicycles struggle to find a place

The study also looked at ways to accommodate bicycles. Options included on-road bike lanes or an on-road cycletrack (among others), but the 45-mph road and wide lanes essentially forced the study team to select an off-road, 10-foot shared-use path for both bikes and pedestrians. This will almost certainly spark concerns about the impact on pedestrian safety, on the efficiency of bike travel, and the risks to bicyclists and pedestrians crossing intersections.

1997 British study on the relationship between vehicle speed and pedestrian fatalities shows that higher speeds mean more pedestrian fatalities.


Graph via WashCycle.

State and local officials should authorize the consultants to study an alternative with a 35 mph posted speed, 11-foot lanes, and on-road cycle tracks, to evaluate if this approach will not only smooth out and maintain good traffic flow, but will improve safety for all users, while enhancing the walkable, transit-oriented centers that the community seeks.

Will housing remain affordable if transit improves?

Until recently, the Route 1 corridor in Fairfax and Prince William hasn't seen the same level of investment as other parts of the two counties. It hasn't moved beyond aging strip malls, an unsafe pedestrian environment, deteriorated streams, and plenty of traffic.

This is also an area with an important supply of affordable housing, and many are concerned that the promise of new transit investment will increase land values and eliminate existing market-rate affordable housing.

Given that Fairfax County's commercial revitalization corridors are also the location of most of the county's affordable housing, the county needs a proactive approach when planning major new transit investments in these corridors. That must preserve affordable housing in good condition and include new affordable units in new development projects.

Unfortunately, the county has severely cut back its housing trust fund, and its inclusionary zoning policies for affordable units don't apply to buildings over four stories. The study should consider how new transit will affect property values and the current supply of affordable units. The county needs to commit to a robust housing strategy for the Route 1 corridor like the one Arlington adopted for Columbia Pike.


Potential development at Beacon Hill with BRT or LRT.

Change is indeed coming to the Route 1 corridor. The demand to live closer to the core of the region and expansion at Fort Belvoir are already driving new investment, including the recently-completed Beacon of Groveton, the Penn Daw development, and upgraded strip shopping centers.

Long-time residents are hungry to see more change come sooner. Many at the meeting pressed to move the transit project forward as soon as possible. That's a challenge given the lead times required to plan, fund and build major new transportation projects. Fairfax and the state should make this transit corridor a top priority. They also must support investment in Metro's core capacity so that the rail system can handle the new riders.

The study team should complete the traffic analysis by the end of April; the economic, land use and funding analysis will follow by the end of May; and they will recommend an alternative by July. The next public meeting is in June. In the meantime, take their survey and make comments on this form.

Transit


Bus rapid transit, light rail, and a longer Yellow Line are choices for Route 1

Better transit could one day come to Virginia's Route 1 between the Beltway and Woodbridge. A transit study looked at transit options and narrowed down the choices to curbside or median Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), light rail, or a hybrid of BRT and extending Metro's Yellow Line.


Transit alternatives for Route 1. Map from the study.

The study presents a wealth of data and a thorough analysis, but raises key questions, including what speed limit is appropriate for a more transit-oriented Route 1. A new high-capacity transit system would transform the corridor, but there would be challenges to ensure a safe pedestrian and bicycle environment and preserve affordable housing.

Transit alternatives

The study considered 8 transit options before eliminating streetcar, enhanced bus, express bus, local bus, a Yellow Line extension all the way to Woodbridge, and monorail. The 4 alternatives that remain for further study are:

  • Curbside Bus Rapid Transit (including a stretch in mixed traffic from Pohick Road to Woodbridge)
  • Median Bus Rapid Transit (with a shorter mixed traffic section in Prince William County to Woodbridge)
  • Median Light Rail Transit
  • A Metrorail-BRT Hybrid, extending the Yellow Line to Hybla Valley and then switching to BRT.
The evaluation considered ridership, estimated capital, operations and maintenance costs, cost per rider, and land use. All alternatives terminate at Huntington Metro, both to simplify the analysis and because Alexandria has raised concerns about extending transit up Route 1 into the city.


Ridership and preliminary costs. Chart from the study.

The study looked at 3 land use scenarios:

  • A baseline forecast for 2035 from the regional Council of Governments model;
  • 25% more growth based on what a BRT or LRT line would likely generate;
  • 169% more which is necessary to support Metrorail service.
Conceptual illustrations for one development node, Beacon Hill, show how much development would correspond with each level of transit.


The Beacon Hill area now.


Scenario 1: 2035 COG projection.


Scenario 2: Growth with BRT or LRT.


Scenario 3: Metro-supporting density.

For the road itself, the study rejects widening Route 1 to four lanes in each direction, as well as converting existing lanes to transit-only. That leaves a recommendation for three general lanes in each direction as well as transit in a separate right-of-way.

What transit do you think should go in this corridor? In part 2, we'll talk about how to create a sense of place and what this plan means for housing affordability.

You can also give the study team comments through a survey, but because the questions are limited, either add explanatory comments or make more extended comments on their share-your-ideas form.

Development


See where property in Tysons grew much more valuable

Between the years 2000 and 2014, assessed land values in Tysons rose from approximately $4.3 billion to over $11.8 billion in value. These maps show you where:

Assessed values in 2000 (left) and 2014 (right) in Tysons Corner.

Much of the change occurred in redeveloped properties and new commercial headquarters such as Capital One, Freddie Mac, Hilton, Gannett, and Northrup Grumman. New residential neighborhoods such as Park Crest, homes along Gosnell, and the Gates of McLean also increased the overall value of the region.

The images above are looking from the south side of Tysons. The Beltway is the large gap to the center right of the image. Route 7 intersects from the lower right and runs to the upper left of the image. Route 123 is farther in the background running near parallel to the horizon.

What do you notice that's interesting?

Transit


Columbia Pike streetcar would generate $3 billion more benefit than enhanced bus

A new return on investment study shows that for the proposed Columbia Pike streetcar, the additional benefits of rail over buses far outweigh the additional costs.


Watering can image from Shutterstock.com.

Streetcar opponents in Arlington have been arguing that better buses on Columbia Pike could provide as many benefits as streetcars, for much lower cost. This new study shows that claim simply isn't true.

Although streetcars on Columbia Pike will cost $200 to $250 million more than enhanced buses, rail will return $3.2 to $4.4 billion in economic benefits, compared to only $1.0 to $1.4 billion for bus.

This means the $2.2 to $3 billion worth of additional benefits from streetcars are approximately 10 times as great as the additional cost.

Arlington commissioned this new study to analyze the economic costs and benefits of streetcars and enhanced buses on Columbia Pike in a side-by-side, apples-to-apples way. The study also takes into consideration new data that's come out since previous studies, leading to more realistic forecasts.

An independent firm, HR&A Advisors, conducted the study. They took several steps, including literature reviews, case studies, and interviews, to establish the study's credibility as not advancing a predetermined outcome.

Enhanced bus isn't BRT

Streetcar opponents had hoped this report would demonstrate stronger benefits for buses, citing analysis from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) that examined the benefits of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) projects around the country.

The Columbia Pike study found that while many BRT projects do indeed have strong returns on investment, the conditions in those cities cannot be replicated on Columbia Pike.

Labels for transportation projects matter, and "enhanced bus" is not the same as "BRT." While the enhanced bus option on Columbia Pike would mean longer buses and off-board payment, these improvements wouldn't be enough to see the gains of true BRT. According to HR&A, citing the benefits of "full BRT" on Columbia Pike makes for "flawed comparisons."

The bus option costs more than earlier studies assumed

Although the streetcar option is more expensive than the bus option, the difference isn't as great as previously believed. The return on investment study notes some additional costs for enhanced buses that weren't a part of previous analysis.

Since the bus option would bring new articulated buses into the corridor, that would require building a new operations and repair facility for the buses somewhere nearby. Previous studies only counted a cost for a maintenance and operations yard for the streetcar, not for bus.

Also, adding more heavy 60-foot buses on Columbia Pike would require repaving the roadbed using more durable concrete, to handle the weight of the new buses. Previous studies assumed the streetcar would require roadbed and track construction, but didn't for the bus alternative. They had instead projected that buses would use the existing roadbed for no additional cost.

Enhanced buses are a good tool in many corridors, but the claim that they can provide equal benefits to streetcars on Columbia Pike should be put to rest once and for all.

Public Spaces


What should "West Falls Church" be called?

In the Census-Designated Place of "West Falls Church," there are no town centers, no major landmarks, or no prominent geographic features, and the Metro station of the same name is 3 miles away. So what should we call it instead?


West Falls Church and surrounding communities. Map from the Fairfax County Department of Communities and Neighborhood Services.

The challenge with renaming West Falls Church is that the area is best described as what it isn't. It isn't Seven Corners, Merrifield, Dunn Loring, Tysons Corner, Baileys Crossroads or Annandale. These places are all Census-Designated Places (CDPs) whose names are well known, and residents and non-residents alike would have some sense of the general location of each one.

If it were just used for census reporting purposes, the name West Falls Church wouldn't matter very much. But, the Census Bureau's own edict is for CDP names to be meaningful. And as residents and visitors have grown to rely on sites like Google Maps and Wikipedia for wayfinding and information, West Falls Church's online presence is more worrisome.

Perhaps this is an opportunity to create a name that would evoke some sense of place for the area, and could become as well-known as Tysons Corner. So, it looks like we have five years until the next census to come up with a better name and convince the stakeholders.

South Falls Church

If, as Fairfax County officials suggested, my fellow residents did want the words "Falls Church" in the name of the CDP, then the only logical (and geographically correct) name would be South Falls Church. This name certainly has some historical precedence, according to Wikipedia:

Following the Civil War, local African-Americans established prosperous communities in an area then called South Falls Church, along Tinner's Hill and elsewhere.... A local setback for blacks occurred, however, in 1887 when white Falls Church residents successfully gerrymandered heavily black South Falls Church out of the town limits. This was never reversed, and caused the boundary of the future City of Falls Church to follow South Washington Street.
"South Falls Church" violates the Census Bureau's policy of prohibiting of "cardinal direction + adjacent town name" because it is not currently in "local use." However, it has historical precedence and significance, and is geographically correct! And, we have five years to bring it in to local use!

West Falls Church

I would like to immediately rule out "West Falls Church." In addition to the geographical inaccuracy of the name, it does not meet the Census Bureau's criteria. There are no landscape features, schools or signs that use this name. I was able to find one retail center (and a dental practice there) that uses the name. But, if you asked residents of my CDP, "Where is West Falls Church?" the answers would, almost without exception, direct you to or near the West Falls Church Metro station.

Jefferson

In my fourteen years here, no resident that I've met has ever identified this entire area as "Jefferson," but unlike "West Falls Church," it doesn't cause confusion and there's no geographical ambiguity. "Jefferson" is used throughout the CDP, in the Jefferson Village neighborhood, shopping center, and park, as well as Jefferson Fire Station, Thomas Jefferson Library and Jefferson Avenue.

JV's Restaurant, the most famous bar/restaurant/honky-tonk in the CDP (and, I would argue, in the entire Metro DC region), is an abbreviation of Jefferson Village as well. Evidently, most of the establishments in the Jefferson Village Shopping Center were named Jefferson, such as the Jefferson Theatre, pictured here in 1949 (notice JV's Restaurant immediately to the left of the theatre):


Photo by jbb23927 on Flickr.

In Fairfax County's Comprehensive Plan, the CDP area is part of the Jefferson Planning District, although the planning district also includes the Idylwood CDP and parts of other CDPs (see Map 3). In the Comprehensive Plan, there is also a Jefferson Village Conservation Plan for an apartment complex located near Arlington Boulevard and Graham Road.


The Jefferson Planning District, with dotted line added to show West Falls Church's boundaries. Image from the Fairfax County Comprehensive Plan.

Lastly, I've seen references to the use of "JEfferson" as the telephone exchange name for local numbers, back when this was in fashion. Several exchanges in the eastern part of the CDP do begin with 53x (where the "53" can be translated to "JE" on a telephone dial).

How to change the name

Whether "South Falls Church" or another name is selected, Fairfax County could make some very simple changes to help give us a sense of place. The Thomas Jefferson Library, Mosby post office, and Jefferson fire station could all get the new name. We could add signs marking the entrance to the area on Arlington Boulevard, at the intersection of Graham Road and Lee Highway, and on Annandale Road. We could encourage businesses to adopt the name, and create South Falls Church (or whatever name) citizens' and business associations. Finally, we could simply encourage local residents to begin using the name.

What name do you think would be best?

Public Spaces


Where in the world is West Falls Church? Apparently, it's south of Falls Church

I live in Fairfax County, immediately south of the City of Falls Church and west of Seven Corners. Recently, I was checking out my neighborhood on Google Maps and noticed the words "West Falls Church" just south of Arlington Boulevard, between the Beltway and Seven Corners.


Image from Google Maps.

I started to report this to Google as an error, since their "West Falls Church" designation was due south of the city of Falls Church, and 3 miles from the West Falls Church Metro station. But first, I thought I'd search Google Maps for "West Falls Church VA."

An outline appeared, covering the area from the Beltway to Sleepy Hollow Road, and from Lee Highway to the north to Holmes Run to the south. Clearly, someone had defined this area as "West Falls Church." (As an aside, searches for "West Falls Church VA" on Bing and Mapquest return much more sensible results: the intersection of West Street and West Broad Street in Falls Church City, near the Metro station.)

What is a Census-Designated Place?

A quick search on Wikipedia showed that "West Falls Church" is the name of the Census-Designated Place (CDP) outlined on Google Maps. Before the 2010 Census, the CDP had been named "Jefferson," presumably after Jefferson Village, a neighborhood in the CDP but certainly not the focal point for the entire area.

For the 2010 Census, the Bureau established the following criteria for CDP names:

The CDP name should be one that is recognized and used in daily communication by the residents of the community. Because unincorporated communities generally lack legally defined boundaries, a commonly used community name and the geographic extent of its use by local residents is often the best identifier of the extent of a place, the assumption being that if residents associate with a particular name and use it to identify the place in which they live, then the CDP's boundaries can be mapped based on the use of the name.

There should be features in the landscape that use the name, such that a non-resident would have a general sense of the location or extent of the community; for example, signs indicating when one is entering the community; highway exit signs that use the name; or businesses, schools, or other buildings that make use of the name. It should not be a name developed solely for planning or other purposes (including simply to obtain data from the Census Bureau) that is not in regular daily use by the local residents and business establishments.

So, what was the process to rename the Jefferson CDP? According to a representative from Fairfax County's Department of Community and Neighborhood Services, in 2009, citizen committees, elected officials, and county staff came together to find a new name:
Because the mailing address for the entire Jefferson CDP was Falls Church, citizens in that CDP told us that they wanted the name changed to Falls Church. Unfortunately, a CDP cannot have the same name as an incorporated city or town that is adjacent to the CDP. After negotiating with stakeholders and the Census Bureau, the name 'West Falls Church' was accepted.
Subsequently, I found out that not only is a CDP not allowed to have the same name as an adjacent town or city, but also it is not allowed to be called the town or city name prepended with a cardinal direction unless that term is in "local use." The CDP residents (which, I was told, included Census Bureau employees) involved in the 2009 process were intent on having the CDP name include "Falls Church" so they opted for the term "West Falls Church."

While this term certainly is in "local use," it is not used to describe this CDP, but to describe the area around West Falls Church Metro, or the area of Falls Church City west of the intersection of Broad and Washington streets. I did find the "Shops at West Falls Church" (and a dental practice there) that is in the CDP, but even it is on the very northern edge of the CDP, at the intersection of Lee Highway and West Street.

So, what do you think should "West Falls Church" be called? In my next post, I'll propose some alternatives.

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