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With its new plaza, Tysons begins to feel urban

Metro's Silver Line isn't the only indication the transformation of Tysons Corner is clearly underway. Further undeniable evidence: The Plaza, a popular new urban-style open space at the front door to Tysons Corner Center mall.


All photos by Dan Malouff except where noted.

The Plaza (that's its official name) is on the north side of the mall, near the pedestrian bridge from the Tysons Corner Metro station. Three new high-rises are under construction around the plaza, tightly enclosing the space like a genuine city square.


The Plaza and its surroundings. Original photo by Macerich.

The pedestrian bridge to the Metro station isn't open yet, because the high-rise it connects is still under construction. But when all is said and done, The Plaza will become the main entry point to the mall from the Metro. In a very real sense it will become the center of this emerging urban neighborhood.

Befitting Tysons, The Plaza is a thoroughly contemporary update on the classic city square. There's no marble statue in the middle, no grand fountain like in Dupont Circle. Instead, there are padded couches, small-scale artistic flourishes, and outdoor games.


Couches (left), and sculpted birds (right).


Ping pong (left) and corn hole (right).

The first plaza-fronting retail, a Shake Shack, opened earlier this week. More is coming soon.

One crucial difference between The Plaza and a traditional city square is who owns it. This may masquerade as civic space, but it's clearly private property. Security guards patrol the square, and you can bet homeless people aren't welcome to sleep on benches.

But still, The Plaza is a big step forward for Tysons. It's a genuine gathering place, and people are using it. Even without the Metro connection, plenty of other people were hanging out nearby when I visited last weekend. It's not the kind of place that a mere 20th Century office park would support.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Roads


Why is Tysons walkability and bikeability so bad?

Virginia officials have known for years that Metro was coming to Tysons. Yet when the four stations opened, commuters found dreadful and dangerous walking and biking conditions. Why?


The south side of Tysons Boulevard and Galleria Drive. Photo by Ken Archer.

The Fairfax County DOT has been making some progress. There are two crosswalks at the intersection of Route 123 and Tysons Boulevard, which FCDOT recently installed. But at the opposite corner, there are no crosswalks. This is where Ken Archer described pedestrians running across nine lanes of traffic without any crosswalk.


The intersection of Tysons Boulevard and Galleria Drive. The Tysons Corner Metro station is now on the southwest corner. Image from Google Maps.

According to FCDOT director Tom Besiadny, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) will not allow a crosswalk across what is now a double right turn lane. FCDOT has been discussing shrinking it to only a single lane, but that requires negotiating with VDOT, which takes a general stance of suspicion if not outright opposition to any change which slows cars.

(Update: Martin Di Caro reports that VDOT has specifically refused to let Fairfax shrink the double right lane until it conducts a six-month study about the traffic impact of the change.)

In a press release, the Coalition for Smarter Growth said these "show the challenges of retrofitting auto-dominated suburbs." It goes beyond just adding a crosswalk; even if FCDOT had one at every corner, there are still curving "slip lanes" for cars to take the turns at high speed. A more urban design would have just a basic square intersection, and with fewer lanes.

Fairfax plans a more comprehensive grid of streets to take some of the traffic volume off of the existing streets, but it will always be a struggle to make intersections smaller or slower versus continuing to design them for maximum car throughput. Even now, VDOT is continuing to widen part of Route 123 further.


Around Tysons Corner station. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

According to Navid Roshan of The Tysons Corner blog, VDOT also refused a request to lower the 45 mile per hour speed limit on Westpark Drive in a residential neighborhood.

It's not just VDOT, however. Bruce Wright, the chairman of Fairfax Advocates for Better Bicycling, pointed out in a comment that many fixes for cyclists were in the Tysons Bicycle Master Plan created in 2011, but which Fairfax County has still not adopted. The plan will go to the county planning commission in October and then the Board of Supervisors.

The original plan called for a first phase of improvements by 2013, most of which are still not done. Those projects were all small, short-term items like adding sharrows and signed bicycle routes, adding enough bike racks at Silver Line stations (which are already almost out of space), and setting up Transportation Demand Management programs with nearby employers.

Roshan created a petition to ask Fairfax and the state of Virginia to prioritize fixing these problems. He points out that all of the improvements together cost less than some of the studies Virginia is doing around adding new ramps to and from the Toll Roadto move cars faster.

They shouldn't ignore traffic, but if Tysons is going to become an urban place, that means building roads that work for all users instead of maybe squeezing in a poor accommodation for pedestrians and/or cyclists as long as it doesn't get in the way of car flow.

The Fairfax County Planning Commission's Tysons Committee will meet tonight from 7-9:30 at the county's (not very transit-accessible) Government Center, 12000 Government Center Drive, Fairfax. The committee will discuss amendments to the Tysons Comprehensive Plan.

As Wright said, the county has been pushing developers to include better bicycle and pedestrian accommodations as they develop or redevelop parcels, but people riding the Silver Line now can't wait for development years down the road. Fairfax and VDOT missed chances to make the roads walkable and bikeable before the Silver Line opened, so there is no time to waste to fix these problems urgently.

Pedestrians


Many Silver Line riders have no way to safely reach their offices

Tysons now has four Metro stations, but workers trying to get from those stations to nearby offices often have no choice but to cross wide, high-speed roads without any crosswalks.


The south side of Tysons Boulevard and Galleria Drive. Photo by the author.

I saw several Tysons Corner workers walking across streets with up to 9 lanes of traffic in order to take the Silver Line this morning, due to the continued lack of crosswalks in Tysons. It's a matter of time before a Silver Line rider is struck by a car in Tysons Corner.

At the Tysons Corner station, the entrance north of Route 123 (the side with most of the offices) is on the west side of Tysons Blvd between 123 and Galleria Drive. There's no legal way to walk east on Galleria Drive, because there are no crosswalks on the south or east side of the intersection of Tysons Blvd and Galleria Drive.


There are no crosswalks from Tysons Corner station for workers walking east along Galleria Drive. Base map from Google Maps.

Many Silver Line riders therefore walked across nine lanes of traffic on Tysons Boulevard.


The south side of Tysons Boulevard and Galleria Drive. Photo by the author.

My company's office is at 7900 Westpark Drive along with dozens of other tech companies. The main topic of conversation around the office this morning was the safest places to jaywalk to get to the Silver Line.

I've endured the lack of crosswalks in Tysons Corner for years as a pedestrian, but assumed that Fairfax County would add crosswalks before the Silver Line began operation. The county needs to create safe pedestrian pathways immediately, rather than waiting until someone gets hurt or killed.

Transit


The Silver Line's opening day, in 41 photos

Metro's new Silver Line is officially open and carrying passengers. Enjoy this photo tour of the new line and opening day festivities.


All photos by Dan Malouff, Matt Johnson, and Malcolm Kenton.

Metro's star-studded ribbon-cutting ceremony featured US Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, and seemingly every other dignitary in Northern Virginia.


Left: Anthony Foxx, Terry McAuliffe, and Sharon Bulova. Right: The ribbon-cutting.

Once the gates at Wiehle station opened, riders rushed in to catch the first train. Cheers erupted as the "doors closing" chime sounded for the first time, and the train sped forward.

The first train took off from Wiehle-Reston East station shortly after noon, and moved east through Tysons on its way to Largo. GGW's troop of partiers exited at East Falls Church to double back and tour each of the five new Silver Line stations individually.

McLean station

The ride between East Falls Church and McLean station offers a champion view of the Tysons skyline, and McLean station itself.

Metro's tracks swoop gracefully into McLean station.

The station is elevated over Capital One Drive, and features an angular starburst-shaped platform canopy. The mezzanine is one level below the tracks. The sidewalk is one level below that.

Construction transforms the landscape outside the station, except a lone ball field.

Looking west, the growing skyline around the Tysons Corner station looms.

Tysons Corner station

Tysons Corner station is situated between Tysons' two gargantuan shopping malls and its tallest buildings (so far). The platform canopy is a futuristic gambrel-like shape.

Tysons Corner station uses the gambrel roof instead of the starburst because the mezzanine is above the tracks, rather than below. That same pattern repeats at other stations along the line. Mezzanine below tracks gets a starburst, while mezzanine above gets a gambrel.

The mezzanine commands an impressive east-facing view.

On the north side, Tysons Boulevard runs perpendicularly under the station. It's so similar to how Colesville Road runs under Silver Spring that it's easy to imagine Tysons Corner one day being just as urban.

On the south side, Chain Bridge Road is a highway that most people will use a bridge to cross.

At sidewalk level below the station, it's reminiscent of Silver Spring.

The south facade includes a prominent public art piece.

Just past Tysons Corner station the Silver Line enters a brief subway tunnel, to pass under the crest of a hill.


Subway portal.

Greensboro station

The next station west is Greensboro, which also uses the gambrel-like roof.

High walls block out noise from car traffic on Leesburg Pike, to either side of the station.

Like all new Silver Line stations, Greensboro sports updated WMATA branding: More colorful signage and silver fixtures, rather than Metro's original 1970s-era brown.

Looking west, there's a great view of Leesburg Pike and the next station, Spring Hill.

Spring Hill station

Spring Hill uses the starburst roof, like McLean.

Spring Hill is the final station in Tysons. From there, it's a five-mile ride through the Fairfax County suburbs to Wiehle-Reston East.

Wiehle-Reston East station

The terminal station feels like a nicer-looking twin of Vienna, set in the median of the Dulles Access Road instead of I-66.

The gambrel-style roof looks great here.

One key difference from Vienna is that Wiehle's commodious mezzanine includes publicly-accessible restrooms. All five new Silver Line stations have them.

South of the station, a pedestrian bridge crosses the Dulles Toll Road and lands in an unassuming bus depot, with office building parking lots beyond.

North of the station, impressive transit-oriented development is already sprouting.

On the north side, the station entrance is set in a plaza atop the roof of a parking garage. The ground floor of the garage is Wiehle's main bus depot, taxi stand, and bike parking room. To access the garage, go through the glass house.

Beyond Wiehle, the Silver Line will eventually extend to Dulles Airport and Loudoun County, but for now it's just a bit of train parking and construction staging. For a tour of the six stations that will make up Silver Line Phase II, check back in 2018.

Transit


Virginia commits to fund the Columbia Pike streetcar

The Commonwealth of Virginia will dedicate funding for up to half the cost of the Columbia Pike streetcar project.


Photo by Fairfax County on Flickr.

Virginia Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne announced $65 million in dedicated streetcar funding today, above and beyond state money Arlington and Fairfax had already hoped to receive.

More state funding means Arlington and Fairfax won't have to rely on the cumbersome federal New Starts funding process. That will speed up construction by a year, and save at least $25 million in costs.

Arlington County Board Chair Jay Fisette has repeatedly said that Arlington would not finance the project using homeowner property taxes. This new money guarantees Arlington can stick to that promise.

Transit


Join us to ride the first Silver Line train

The first Silver Line train taking passengers on the new tracks will leave at noon on Saturday, July 26. Let's ride together!


Photo by wfyurasko on Flickr.

We'll be congregating at the new Wiehle-Reston East station leading up to the noon train. Since this spot is not Metro-accessible at that time (but will be after), we've set up this form to organize carpools as well as get a count of how many people to expect.

We'll ride the train from Wiehle to East Falls Church together. Then you can keep going back to your part of the region, or turn around and head back to Wiehle. If you want to see the new Tysons Corner stations, part of the group will be getting off the train at each of those stations, then exploring the station until the next train arrives.

So mark your calendars and RSVP here!

Fairfax County is trying to determine what buses could take you from a Metro station to Wiehle that morning. The Fairfax Connector 505 bus currently runs from West Falls Church to Wiehle, but won't anymore after the Silver Line opens, and Fairfax is switching the bus schedules at the start of the day. According to Nick Perfili of Fairfax County, officials are working on planning how to have some service to Wiehle that morning. We will post the information when it's available.

Then, do a pub crawl!

Also, Payton Chung is organizing a Silver Line-based pub crawl beginning at 4 pm (with a clever Old West theme):

The long awaited RAIL-ROAD linking the NATION'S CAPITAL to the Province of FAIRFAX to its West has at long last been completed!

The "SILVER ROUTE" will see passenger trains leave LARGO through WASHINGTON to RESTON.

To celebrate this Most Momentous Occasion, a PUB CRAWL shall call upon the Most Esteemed Saloons located along the new "SILVER ROUTE."

Gathering within the Prosperous Village of EAST FALLS CHURCH at 4 P.M. at Chasin' Tails, 2200 Westmoreland St., overflowing next door into One More Page Books. Then, in a scant 12 Minutes, avoiding the Dangers of the Road, arriving at 6 P.M. at Clyde's, 8332 Leesburg Pike, near GREENSBORO. After a Short Stroll through the "Walkable, Sustainable, Urban Center" of Fairfax, the Crawl will conclude at 8 P.M. at Wasabi Sushi, at the heart of the dazzling TYSONS CORNER Center.

Come One, Come All!

See you on the 26th!

Transit


Which Metro stations are physically "walkable"?

Anyone who's seen the area around a variety of Metro stations knows that some are very walkable and some are not. Is there a scientific measure of that? Metro planners crunched the numbers to find out.

Metro rider surveys have shown that most people are willing to walk up to about a half mile to get to a Metro station. Research in other cities also has settled on the half-mile zone.

But the land within a half mile of a station is not the same all across the system. You can't walk in any direction; there are things in the way, whether buildings, rivers, or highways. Where there is a good grid of streets near the station, it's possible to reach a lot by walking up to half a mile. Elsewhere, most of that half-mile radius circle actually requires a longer walk.

Landover, for instance, is right next to a highway. There is only one road leading to the station's parking lot, and no connection over the highway to the nearest residential neighborhood. At Takoma, on the other hand, the street grid lets riders reach many commercial streets and neighborhoods with a half-mile walk.

Metro planners calculated the percentage of land within a half mile you can reach by walking a half mile. It's little surprise that the worst stations are mostly in Fairfax and Prince George's, two jurisdictions that did not try to locate their stations in walkable areas or, during Metro's first few decades, work very hard to plan transit-oriented development around them.


Images from WMATA.

Which stations and jurisdictions fare best and worst?

The worst stations in DC appear to be Fort Totten, a station in the middle of a federal park, and Rhode Island Avenue, a station hemmed in by strip mall development and lacking a good street grid on most sides. (The pedestrian and bicycle bridge over the railroad tracks to the Metropolitan Branch Trail may improve that station's score once it opens.)

In Arlington, it's National Airport (no surprise there; you can't walk on most of an airport) and East Falls Church (but the county has a plan for that area). The Rosslyn-Ballston corridor in Arlington, most of DC (especially in the L'Enfant city) and Montgomery County (particularly inside the Beltway) fare well.

Alexandria is very mixed, with two stations hemmed in by the Beltway and in areas with weaker grids. Prince George's stations are generally more unwalkable than walkable, with College Park the biggest exception. In Fairfax, only Huntington gets anywhere close to a good score. It will be interesting to see how the Tysons stations rank once they open, now and in the future.

The planners also found that the walkability rank correlates very strongly with a station's morning peak ridership. This makes sense, because at the vast majority of stations, even when there is parking there is not that much compared to all the capacity of the trains that pass through. The stations which get a lot of use are those with many people living or working nearby.

There's more to walkability

It's important to note that this is one of several measures of walkability. This analysis computes the size of a station's "walk shed," or how far you can physically get by walking. That is a necessary first step to making a place walkable.

While the Metro planners excluded highways, this analysis still treats roads the same, even though some have no sidewalks, or are multi-lane high-speed roads that are intimidating and unsafe to walk on. But since most of the time good street grids go hand in hand with safer streets to walk on, that shouldn't affect the results much.

More significantly, when people talk about walkable neighborhoods, they are generally thinking beyond just the literal ability to walk. Walkability also includes whether there are amenities such as stores, parks, and more that you can reach by walking. The WalkScore tool computes these in its scores for an area.

Some Metro stations are in places which are physically walkable, but where there isn't much to walk to except for the houses immediately nearby. Glenmont or Forest Glen might be good examples. On the other end of the scale, Prince George's Plaza has a terrible walk shed, but there are lots of stores right near the station.

Regardless, this analysis says something important, and something that's most directly under government planners' control. If jurisdictions want their Metro stations to thrive, a critical first step is making sure people can get to them from the immediate area without having to drive and take up a scarce (and expensive) parking spot.

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