The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.

Posts about Routes To School


Walkers were left out in the cold after the blizzard

If you try to walk around in many parts of our region, particularly in the suburbs, it's easy to get the feeling that you're an afterthought, at best. Governments' actions in the recent "Snowzilla" blizzard show even more clearly how being "multimodal" is more lip service than reality.

Photo by Fionnuala Quinn.

In Fairfax County, sidewalks in neighborhoods and along major arterial roads were impassable a week or more after the storm. Schools in Fairfax, Arlington and other jurisdictions closed for seven consecutive weekdays, putting many parents in a bind. Children lacked safe routes to school and safe places to wait for buses.

This was no simple issue of having to prioritize; as Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova told residents, the Virginia Department of Transportation, which plows all of Fairfax's public roads, was not going to clear the sidewalks, and the county had no plan to either.

Continue reading my latest op-ed in the Washington Post.


If students were cars, schools would have opened sooner

Many of the region's schools closed for a full week after the recent blizzard, leaving parents to scramble for childcare and students missing out on valuable classroom time. That's what happens when your storm recovery efforts prioritize making it easy to drive rather than giving everyone a safe way to move around.

Photo by Fionnuala Quinn on Twitter.

The historic storm hit the DC area on Friday, January 22nd. By the time the last flakes fell on Saturday night, just about everything was covered in over two feet of powdery, slippery, transportation-crippling snow.

It was soon pretty easy to drive, but not get around by any other means

As crews throughout the region got to work on their respective snow clearing plans (impressive work for which they deserve a lot of thanks), roads became passable and then completely clear. In contrast, sidewalks, curb cuts, and bus stops were often blocked not just by snow, but also frozen slush.

Some of the area's bike trails were cleared, but access points were plowed in, and the network as a whole was not rideable. Metro returned to service, but getting to stations was a dirty, icy, boulder-climbing adventure and plowed-in bus stops left people waiting often in very busy streets.

Without good options, the only choice left for most people was to drive, clogging our already strained roadways that the remaining snow had narrowed.

As the week wore on and roads became clear, adults returned to work. But faced with the conditions that would have left children walking and waiting for buses in the streets, school officials decided there were not enough safe routes to school, and kept most of the region's schools closed for the entire week.

DC's 5th and Sheridan NW, the Tuesday after the storm. To the right on 5th (the street going left to right) is Coolidge High School. To the left is Whittier Education Campus. Photo by Julie Lawson.

This didn't happen randomly. Arlington is an example of why.

These conditions were a result the fact that our systems for clearing snow focus first on getting cars moving again. People walking and biking are, at best, an afterthought in the region's snow clearing plans.

For example, Arlington posts a clearly thought-out snow operations plan on their snow operations web page:

  • Phase I: During the storm, county crews keep the arterial and collector roads as functional as possible to make sure that emergency access like EMS, fire, police, utility trucks etc. could still get through.
  • Phase 2: Immediately after the storm, they keep working those major corridors, widening lanes so everybody else could start driving again, too.
  • Phase 3: When those are under control they start working their way into residential streets.
Arlington has no unified public plan for clearing the rest of the transportation network - the sidewalks, trails, curb cuts and bus stops that are necessary for people walking, biking and taking transit.

Private individuals are responsible for clearing the majority of sidewalks, and various agencies of the County government are responsible for some routes. Apparently, there are designated "safe routes to schools" that are meant to get priority in snow clearing, but those routes are not made public and are not given priority if the schools are closed. However, many stretches are left without anyone to clear them, unless the County chooses to on an ad-hoc, complaint-based basis.

For example, the stretch of sidewalk along Lynn Street between the intersection of Lee Highway and the Key Bridge is along National Park Service Property. After this storm it took more than a week before the snow and ice were clear along this stretch, which cut off the main sidewalk access between Rosslyn and DC.

Arlington's "Intersection of Doom," at Lee Highway and N Lynn Street, just south of the Key Bridge. People walking and biking would need to climb over this snow/ice mound to get to the iced over sidewalk that leads to Key Bridge. Photo by the author.

When this snow plan was implemented, the streets were cleared, but the sidewalks and bus stops students would have needed to get to school were covered, often in mounds of snow deposited by snow plows. Instead of forcing kids to walk or wait for buses in the street, officials closed most of the region's schools for the entire week after the snow storm, forcing students to lose valuable instructional time at the end of the grading period.

Meanwhile, the region began to get back to work. By Wednesday, after three full days of being closed to allow the region to focus on digging out, most business were open and workers were working.

There are other ways to do this

During and immediately after the late winter blizzard of 1996 that dumped about the same amount of snow as last week's storm, New York City shut down all streets in Manhattan to private cars. The only vehicles on the roads were emergency equipment, garbage trucks, transit vehicles and of course snow plows.

NYC-DOT knew it could never get the city up and running again quickly if they decided that their first priority was to make it possible for everybody to drive their cars again. Roads were opened to traffic only after the sidewalks and bus stops were clear. In New York this took two days.

Arlington could do the same thing: Clear just enough of the roadway to accommodate emergency and service vehicles and eventually transit, but not more. With virtually no cars on the roads, people could at least get around on foot without putting their lives in danger.

And because transit and school bus stops would be cleared and almost no traffic on the road, these buses could actually get through and run on normal schedules. All kids, walkers and bus riders alike, would have a safe way to get to school.

Arlington does transportation well… when it doesn't snow

Fortunately, a good model exists right under our own noses. Arlington's transportation program looks at mobility as a public right, and sees all modes as legitimate. This includes mobility for people in cars, but doesn't leave out people on bikes, people on transit and people on foot.

Arlington's snow operations planners should try looking at mobility the same way when they plan for snow removal.

In this storm we saw a snow removal plan focused on getting cars back on the road. That happened by Wednesday. But cars don't occupy desks at schools.

After snow storms, it'd be smart to prioritize getting schools up and running. Photo by Arlington County on Flickr.

Our public schools closed for a week because there wasn't a safe way for kids to get to them. We need a transportation system that serves the students, whether they drive, ride the bus, walk or bike to school.

We didn't have that after the recent blizzard, so we didn't have school.


Reducing school traffic would help rush hour congestion

Here's a simple suggestion to improve the morning rush hour: Get more kids to walk, bike, and bus to school.

Photo by The Bywaters on Flickr.

It is estimated that 20% of morning traffic congestion in Fairfax County is related to parents driving kids to school, and despite the availability of alternates, drop-off lines are only getting longer.

No one wins under the current system. Taxpayers pay too much for kids to get to school, parents lose valuable time serving as chauffeurs, and kids forfeit an opportunity to learn independence and healthy habits. And, of course, everyone suffers when traffic swells.

For the time being, there are almost no programs or policies in Fairfax that promote an alternative to the curbside drop-off. In fact, at several schools, principals prohibit students from walking or biking to school, even though Fairfax County has endorsed these options.

Within the county, elementary school students living more than a mile from school, and middle and high school students living more than a mile and a half, are entitled to bus service. Those within close proximity of their schools have the option to walk routes deemed safe by the county, with buses provided if the journey is deemed hazardous, no matter the distance.

And yet, despite these accommodations, according to Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS), nearly 60% of designated walkers and just over 30% of designated bus riders frequently use the kiss & ride method instead.

As a result, taxpayers pay multiple times for students to get to school. They pay teachers and administrators to staff large-scale kiss & ride operations, while at the same time they pay for the empty bus seats that students and their parents choose to forgo. Meanwhile, they also pick up the indirect costs associated with increased traffic congestion and on-road incidents.

There are many reasons why walking and biking to school benefit children and the community. Children develop independence at an earlier age, they get the health benefits of exercise, they are more alert in school, and they develop a lifelong healthy habit of walking or biking.

While there will always be many parents who need to drive children to school for a wide variety of reasons, FCPS can encourage more students to walk and bike by addressing the safety and logistical concerns of parents that lead so many of them to drive their children to school.

MWCOG is working to address this issue by experimenting with a new system called School Pool that will help parents find other parents to form bike trains, walking school buses, and regular car pools.

Likewise, FABB, Fairfax's bicycle advocacy group, and others are working with FCPS to develop a more streamlined process for applying for Safe Routes to School funds. FABB is also trying to communicate to parents the costs of driving kids to school, as well as the benefits of walking and biking.

If you want to learn more about Safe Routes to School activities in Fairfax visit the Fairfax Safe Routes to School Facebook page.


Are DC-area schools winter weather wimps?

I once asked a retired school superintendent who had worked all over the Northeast what was the hardest part of his job? Knowing all the challenges of running large urban school systems, I was surprised when he said it was the wrenching decision of whether to close schools for weather-related reasons.

Photo by Christina's Play Place on Flickr.

Closing schools means lost critical learning time and parents having to provide impromptu child care, often missing work. Keeping schools open can be dangerous for children and staff trying to get to school or resulting in them getting stuck at school. (The superintendent I spoke with recounted horror stories of a school full of people huddling in a gym with limited food and no electricity).

Suburban school systems are more vulnerable than DC. The city tends to get slightly higher temperatures and less precipitation, but more importantly, a densely settled city should require fewer and shorter motor vehicle trips to transport kids to school.

This is where people in walkable neighborhoods can get their gloat on. (I happily dragged a sled around the corner to pick up fresh groceries during the snowpocalypse of February 2010, while suburbanites survived on canned goods).

But even DC schools have teachers who live in the suburbs and students exercising choice who attend schools outside their neighborhoods.

As a New England native, I would say as long as cars and buses can move (albeit slowly), they can get to school. (The only hazard for kids who walk to school was the strong temptation to stop and play in the snow). That usually meant anything less than one foot of snow was fine. Black ice, the worst non-snow impediment, slows down vehicles but doesn't stop them.

There will be car crashes, but there are crashes every day on the roads. Just drive carefully. Be flexible on arrival times. Fear of power outage or actual power outage or loss of water is reason to close a school. Anything less, however, is just wimping out. If we can't find our way to school during messy but passable winter weather, we should re-evaluate our school density and planning.

What is your cutoff? When is it too cold or too messy on the roads to keep schools open?


Weekend video: The bike bus

A group of high school students in Orlando started riding to school in a big caravan, making the ride to school fun, healthy and sustainable.

Tip: Jeff.


Traffic on and around WAMU

On Wednesday, Diane Rehm talked traffic with Traffic author Tom Vanderbilt, Deputy US Secretary of Transportation John Porcari, and Brookings fellow Robert Puentes.

WAMU. Photo by Mr. T in DC.

They discussed how much of the increased congestion in recent decades comes from non-work trips, like parents driving kids to work where once they walked, and because land use became more spread out. Porcari touted big stimulus projects like freeways in Southern California, but also talked about how a "transportation system"—not just roads alone—and TOD are key to mobility. Tom Vanderbilt also added that traffic congestion isn't really that bad compared to many other nations and that 90% of roads are not congested 90% of the time.

Vanderbilt brought up the issue of congestion pricing, which Puentes said our international "competitors" are experimenting with (note the phrasing there). Porcari brought up the ICC as an example of congestion pricing, noting it's easier to do it for new facilities than existing areas like New York. The panelists also touched on the decline in carpooling, the pros and cons of roundabouts ("modern roundabouts," not the circles like Dupont), and distracted driving.

As for new infrastructure investment, Puentes noted that a lot of congestion comes from crashes blocking up the road network, and that we have to think bigger than just adding infrastructure. He said, "We have to stop thinking that we're going to be b able to build our way out of congestion." On transit, Porcari said that USDOT is encouraging new transit, streamlining the approval process, and trying to improve the cost effectiveness calculations.

Porcari arrived a few minutes late, saying that while he rode Metro to work, he "made the mistake of driving" to WAMU, two blocks from the Tenleytown Metro. When WAMU invites you to be a guest on a show, they offer a free parking pass. Not a Metro pass, just parking.

Before my last appearance on Kojo, I asked why they can't give out free Metro passes as well; the producer noted that it's easy for them to email out parking passes for their garage, but not to offer free Metro passes. Once Metro upgrades SmarTrip to allow people to check and reload their cards online, perhaps they should consider a program to let organizations email free ride coupons that people can redeem and load onto their SmarTrips via the Web site.

Support Us
DC Maryland Virginia Arlington Alexandria Montgomery Prince George's Fairfax Charles Prince William Loudoun Howard Anne Arundel Frederick Tysons Corner Baltimore Falls Church Fairfax City