Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Walkability

Retail


Chick-fil-A's proposed Van Ness drive-thru is denied

A key review board has denied Chick-fil-A's controversial request for a drive-thru in Van Ness. But it might not have the last word.


An early rendering of the planned Chick-fil-A in Van Ness.

At its meeting on Thursday, April 28th, the five-member Public Space Committee voted unanimously to deny Chick-fil-A a permit to widen an existing curb cut for a drive-thru at 4422 Connecticut Avenue, which is now the site of the Van Ness Burger King.

The committee, which has five members from various DC government agencies, made its decision based on testimony from Chick-fil-A, Van Ness community members and representatives, and District Department of Transportation (DDOT) and Office of Planning (OP) staffers. Ryan Westrom of DDOT and OP's Tim Maher recommended against approving the curb cuts, concerned that the increased drive-thru traffic projected by Chick-fil-A would result in more conflicts between pedestrians and drivers.

Chick-fil-A says it'll stop traffic backups, but not persuasively

There is already a drive-thru here for Burger King, but it gets little traffic. A Chick-fil-A would draw much more. To try to prevent traffic backups, the store plans to have three to four employees taking orders on iPads on the north driveway, more employees at another station for taking cash in the back, and another area on the south driveway with a door for more staff to deliver the food. They also mentioned using the rear parking lot for overflow, assuming there would be available spaces.

"What would prevent a back up onto Connecticut Avenue?" they were asked. Chick-fil-A had a ready response: They would hire an off-duty police officer to direct traffic. Matthew Marcou, the chair of the Public Space Committee, raised his eyebrow at this, and quipped, "DDOT can't get any for other projects."

Chick-fil-A also promised to have additional staff on hand to quickly handle orders if a surge in drive-thru business was causing backups. ANC 3F Commissioner Sally Gresham said promises of "self-monitoring" – which Chick-fil-A representatives continued to stress – were not enough. The city had no enforcement mechanism, she testified, if Chick-fil-A did not uphold its agreements.

Community groups and experts oppose the drive-thru

Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3F voted unanimously in February to oppose Chick-fil-A's drive-thru. Steve Gresham, a member of an ANC committee formed to study Chick-fil-A's application, testified about flaws in the drive-thru system, such as the lanes being too narrow to accommodate employees taking orders. And during peak hours of business, he said, cars could be blocking the sidewalk at either the entrance or exit of the drive-thru more than half of the time.

ANC 3F hired Karina Ricks, a former chair of the Public Space Committee, to consult. She stated in written testimony that the drive-thru did not meet regulatory muster. Ricks also said the drive-thru would create an unsafe environment for pedestrians and bicyclists – conditions that would run counter to DDOT's moveDC, the long-term DC transportation plan, and the goals of Vision Zero to reduce all traffic fatalities and serious injuries in the District to zero by 2024.

In addition, she said, the city was making substantial investments in Van Ness, in planning and implementation, to create a vibrant, walkable commercial area.

The Chick-fil-A can thrive without a drive-thru

Dipa Mehta, a co-chair of the economic development committee of Van Ness Main Street, presented research showing a safe, walkable environment is a key ingredient to fostering economic development. The car traffic generated by Chick-fil-A would be detrimental to the business climate at Van Ness, she said.

Chick-fil-A has stated in the past that the Van Ness location does not currently generate enough pedestrian traffic to support its business. However, I as a Van Ness Main Street board member testified that Chick-fil-A was underestimating the chain's potential to attract walk-in customers from the immediate area, given the large number of high-rise residential buildings nearby.

Marcou asked Chick-fil-A about pedestrian traffic in Tenleytown, where Chick-fil-A is building a restaurant without a drive-thru. The answer: They had not done a pedestrian count there.

Though comments on Forest Hills Connection articles about Chick-fil-A's plans indicate at least some residents support a drive-thru, the opposition has been more outspoken and organized. A Ward 3 Vision petition opposing the drive-thru collected 366 signatures. In addition, The Northwest Current published an open letter to Mayor Bowser from several signatories, including the owners of Bread Furst and Acacia Bistro, and co-presidents of the Hastings Condo Association, representing the building just north of the site at 4444 Connecticut. They asked for Bowser's support in opposing the drive-thru.

Only one resident testified in support of the Chick-fil-A drive-thru. However, he explained that he had business ties to the location. He said similar driveway situations exist in nearby locations – at the Park and Shop in Cleveland Park, at the Whole Foods in Tenleytown, and at the Tenleytown CVS – and pedestrians adjusted.

Committee member Reg Bazile cut him off. "Those locations are not similar," he said.

Marcou recommended that Chick-fil-A continue to pursue a Van Ness location, only without the drive-thru element. Chick-fil-A also has the option of going to court. That's what a citizens' group did in 1980, when a Burger King franchisee sought and received permits for the drive-thru in 1980. The court sided with the franchisee.

Van Ness Main Street President Mary Beth Ray said the community would support the restaurant without the drive-thru. "Our research has shown how wildly popular their food is, and we hope [Chick-fil-A's] interest in Van Ness goes beyond the drive thru," Ray said in an email. "Van Ness is open for business."

This originally ran on Forest Hills Connection.

Retail


These storefront maps show which parts of US cities are most lively

These maps show nearly every retail storefront in central DC compared to those in New York, Detroit, and other cities. Since retail streets are usually the most lively streets in a city, the maps offer a nice proxy illustration of urban vitality.


Storefronts in DC, New York, and Detroit. Image by City Observatory.

These maps are from City Observatory's Storefront Index report, and are part of a series of 51 such maps of the largest US metro areas.

In general, the more red dots you see in a small area, the more lively that part of town will be. More stores, after all, mean more destinations for people to visit.

Here's the DC map in greater detail:


Image by City Observatory.

You can easily see retail streets like U Street and H Street, and bigger clusters like Georgetown and Dupont Circle. On the other hand, primarily residential neighborhoods are mostly blank.

Unfortunately the data clearly isn't perfect: The retail complex in Columbia Heights seems to be missing, as are the giant gift shops in the Smithsonian museums, and some neighborhood corner stores.

Still, the maps are an instructive illustration of urban vitality in general. You can see patterns here, and those patterns are real.

Zooming out to the regional scale, downtown areas outside the District like Bethesda, Silver Spring, and Alexandria become prominent.


Bethesda and Silver Spring are the clusters at the top. Alexandria is at the bottom. Image by City Observatory.

Compared to other US cities, DC looks decently lively. The country's dense, transit-oriented cities like San Franicsco and Boston fare well (New York is a crazy outlier), while economically disadvantaged cities like Detroit and sparser more suburban-style ones like Raleigh show fewer stores, indicating less urban liveliness.

Of course, retail storefronts are a simplistic way to look at this. New York's streets have a lot of stores because New York is tremendously dense, so there are lots of customers to support them. On the other hand Tysons Corner has a lot of stores because it's a big suburban mall that people drive to from miles around.

Even suburban malls offer a sort of liveliness, however. So while these maps may say little about walkability, they are a good proxy for liveliness.

Links


Worldwide links: MTA riding solo

New York's MTA is cancelling its membership in a league of nationwide transit agency, North Korea let outsiders get a look at its metro system, and Denver just opened a rail line to the airport. Check out what's happening around the world in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Baptiste Pons on Flickr.

MTA, unsubscribed: New York MTA, the country's largest transit agency has cancelled its membership with APTA, the country's largest transit advocacy group. Citing a lack of support on commuter rail and legacy transit issues, the MTA will stop paying its $400,000 a year in dues, which are a huge part of APTA's budget. (TransitCenter)

Riding Dear Leader's Metro: North Korea wants people to see the positive side of the country. Previously, the government only allowed visitors into their two most lavish subway stations, but it recently opened up the line to visitors from the US, who took numerous pictures and video of the capital city's metro. (Earth Nutshell)

Rocky Mountain ride: Denver's commuter rail line to the airport begins service today after 30 years of planning. Local observers believe it will change the way locals think about their city. (Denver Post)

Walkability tradeoffs: When looking for a walkable neighborhood to live in, what are the important things to consider? This column says you should think about how long you plan to be there, whether you'll ever need a car, if you're ok with an older house, and how much solitude you'll want. (Washington Post)

Are we too efficient?: As technology advances and makes life in cities more efficient, from routes we take to groceries we get delivered, there is something to be said for being able to still get lost. Marcus Foth believes that increased efficiency, while good in theory, could lead to surroundings filled with things and places you already knew about, which could deprive us of life's interesting quirks. (City Metric)

Urbanization of people, not capital: African cities are growing so fast that capital hasn't been able to keep up, creating an informal economy based on street vendors subject to extortion. Additionally, dysfunctional property markets are leading to uneven growth and massive traffic jams. More formal institutional structures could support these growing urban places. (Mail and Guardian Africa)

Transit Trends on YouTube

I co-host a web show called Transit Trends with Erica Brennes of Moovel. This week, we talked about technology and transportation:

Roads


Rockville misses the forest for the trees with its plan for an 18-lane mega main street

Rockville Pike could one day become a 252-foot-wide mega boulevard with 12 car lanes, 4 bike lanes, 2 bus lanes, and over 50 feet of landscaping. But in designing a street with more than ample room for cars, bikes, and buses, planners abandon any hope the street will be walkable.


The plan for Rockville Pike. Image from Rockville.

Everybody gets a lane!

Rockville Pike is one the most important retail strip highways in the Washington region. Like most 20th Century retail roads, it's designed for cars, and it carries a lot of them.

Rockville wants to make it a more urban main street, so planners there are drawing up a redevelopment plan. It's a laudable goal, and it's not easy on a high-traffic state highway like Rockville Pike.

At first glance, this plan has all the components of a good complete street design: Tree-lined sidwalks, protected bikeways, a center-running dedicated busway. Every mode gets all the street width it could possibly want.

And why not? Why go through the political headache of forcing the community to make the difficult choice between fewer car lanes versus bikes or BRT if you can fit everything in? With a mega boulevard like this, everybody gets what they want, and nobody loses. Right?

Wrong.

Walkability loses, and it's the most important factor

At 252 feet wide, the new Rockville Pike will be practically impossible for pedestrians to cross. It will take multiple traffic light cycles and multiple minutes for anyone to cross.

Instead of a main street, Rockville will have a barrier. And that is a big problem for the rest of the plan.

Transit oriented development doesn't work unless it's walkable. If Rockville Pike is too wide, development on one side of the street will be effectively cut-off from development on the other side. Riders won't be able to easily access the BRT stations. People will drive for even short trips. The concept of a community where people don't need to drive everywhere will break down.

If you can't walk, other multimodal options don't work. Pedestrians are the linchpin to the whole thing.

To be sure, some level of compromise is always needed. If walkability were the only factor that mattered, all streets would be pedestrian-only. We add in car lanes, bike lanes, and transit because we have to make longer trips possible, and that's a good thing.

But there's a balance, and 252 feet veers so far to accommodate long distance travel that it seriously sacrifices short distance walking. In so doing, Rockville undermines the very foundation on which its redevelopment plans rest.


The Rockville Pike plan is wider than Paris' famously wide Champs-Élysées. Photo by Justin.li on Flickr.

Make pedestrians a priority

The Pike needs to be narrower. Assuming the sidewalks, busway, and three general car lanes each direction are sacrosanct, that still leaves a lot of potential fat to trim.

Are the service roads really necessary if the plan also includes new parallel local streets? Do we really need redundant bi-direction bikeways next to both sidewalks? Could we possibly reduce the 74 feet of various landscaping, buffer, and turn lanes?

These would be difficult trade-offs, to be sure. But there are massive negative consequences to an uncrossable mega boulevard.

If Rockville wants the new Pike to work as multimodal urban place, pedestrians need to become a priority.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Retail


Walkability's next hurdle in Van Ness: A Chick-fil-A drive-thru

Chick-fil-A has plans to put a drive-thru store on Connecticut Avenue in Van Ness. But neighbors are saying the site's business plan doesn't mesh with the neighborhood's aspirations to be more walkable.


Rendering of the Chick-fil-A proposal. Except where noted, all images from DDOT public space permit application.

Chick-fil-A plans to take over the property at 4422 Connecticut Avenue NW, just north of the UDC campus and Van Ness Metro station.

Today, the space is occupied by a Burger King, which also operates a lightly-used drive-thru. The site is sandwiched between a dry cleaners and a heavily-trafficked car wash that already caters to Maryland commuters, causing traffic backups on Connecticut Avenue spilling over to nearby Albemarle Street.

Plans for the Chick-fil-A site include a new sidewalk cafe enclosed by a low retaining wall where today there is unappealing empty pavement, new landscaping and signage, and a renovation of the existing driveway.


Rendering showing the proposed sidewalk seating.


Today's existing conditions.

Neighbors are up in arms over the Chick-fil-A proposal. They see a popular driver-oriented fast food restaurant as decided step backward for the neighborhood. Van Ness has made significant progress toward being a more walkable, pedestrian-friendly neighborhood.

In the past few years, neighbors have established Van Ness Main Streets to fight for better walkability, a suburban-style parking-in-front shopping center has redeveloped across the street from the Burger King, and UDC built a new student union that bring will bring to life dead pedestrian plaza once the landscaping is ready.

Increased traffic volume is the problem, for people and cars alike

At the heart of the concern are Chick-fil-A estimates that the drive-thru will see three times as much traffic as Burger King does today. That's more than 90 vehicles per hour during its projected busiest period, Saturdays at midday.

Most of those 90-plus vehicles will be crossing the Connecticut Avenue sidewalk twice (entering and exiting the drive-thru). If Chick-fil-A can keep the line moving, that means a vehicle will be traversing the Connecticut Avenue sidewalk roughly three times per minute, roughly tripling the odds of pedestrian/motorist conflict.

If Chick-fil-A doesn't keep the line moving, it could see traffic backups similar to, or compounding, the ones that are already happening today at the car wash.


On sunny weekends, the line for Flagship Car Wash wraps around the block. (Left: The line at Connecticut Avenue; Right: The line continuing on Albemarle.) Photo from Forest Hills Connection.

In response to the expected traffic increases, Chick-fil-A presented a detailed traffic study and plan to ANC3F at its February 23 meeting. To keep traffic from backing up onto Connecticut Avenue at the busiest times, it would send out employees armed with tablet computers to take orders, collect payments and deliver food to waiting motorists.

In a perfect world, the plan might work. But new Chick-fil-A stores have caused significant traffic chaos in other communities. Bellevue, Washington, had to change traffic patterns and hire police to handle all the business that a new Chick-fil-A attracted.

And while Chick-fil-A presented this plan for dealing with auto traffic, so far, it hasn't addressed concerns about conflicts with pedestrian traffic.

Chick-fil-A's drive-thru plan depends on moving cars into and out of the drive-thru quickly. The chain's drive-thru in suburbs and exurbs rarely have to deal with pedestrians, if at all. But here, drivers will have to wait to turn into the drive-thru and wait again upon exiting for an opening not only in car traffic but in pedestrian traffic.

DDOT will weigh in on the issue

As is standard process for many projects across the District, to move forward with its plans, Chick-fil-A has applied to the DDOT public space committee for two use-of-public-space permits. One permit covers the elements making up the sidewalk cafe seating. The other permit covers the plans to close, renovate, and reopen the driveway. The committee is currently scheduled to hear the application on March 24.


Inset of driveway plan from public space permit application.

Residents have started a petition against Chick-fil-A's plans, and ANC3F has voted unanimously to oppose Chick-fil-A's application for the driveway. 3F's resolution calls on DDOT's Public Space Committee to reject Chick-fil-A's application, as "A busy drive-thru in the neighborhood now would represent a major step backward."

DDOT's design standards on minimum distances between driveways represent what may be the strongest argument for the ANC and other voices in the community to advocate against the drive-thru.

The DDOT public space committee could deny the driveway permit thanks to it not meeting the minimum distance requirement. But they could also choose to approve the permit. Ultimately in situations like this one, the committee is the final decision-making body, and has discretion to weigh whatever arguments for and against the permit however it likes.

A version of this post first ran on Forest Hills Connection.

Pedestrians


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.

Transit


Walking and transit score high in Virginia's transportation rankings

Scores that evaluate transportation projects in Virginia recently came out, and many of the highest belong to projects focused on walking and transit. That's because they provide the most bang for taxpayers' bucks.


West Broad Street and Oak Street in downtown Falls Church. Image from Google Maps.

In Northern Virginia, projects that focused on improving walking conditions and transit service came out on top in statewide rankings for cost-effectiveness. These included:

  • Sidewalk work in downtown Falls Church between Park Avenue and Broad Street (#2 statewide)
  • More marketing of transit and carpooling in the I-66/Silver Line corridor (#3)
  • Improving crossings at several intersections on Broad Street in downtown Falls Church, including at Oak Street (pictured above) (#8)
Passed in 2014, a state law commonly known as HB2 requires Virginia's Department of Transportation to use an objective and quantitative system to score transportation projects. The idea is to make planning more transparent, but high score doesn't guarantee funding nor does a low score preclude it.

In the most recent rankings, 287 transportation projects from across the state received two different scores, one based on the total projected benefit and one based on the benefit divided by the total funding request.

Each of the projects above would cost between $500,000 and $1 million, while most other projects would cost many times that amount. For total project benefits, the addition of High-Occupancy/Toll lanes to I-66 outside the Beltway has the highest score, but it requires a $600 million public investment.

Here's more detail about the law

Virginia law requires that "congestion relief" be the primary metric in scoring projects in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. Scores also account for a project's environmental impacts, how it fits with local land use plans, and what it might do for economic development.

Three agencies developed the evaluation system: Virginia Department of Transportation, the Office of Intermodal Planning and Investment, the and the Department of Rail and Public Transportation.

The agencies have posted a wealth of data on the HB2 website. You can search for projects in various ways, including by jurisdiction. Data points such as whether or not a project has bicycle facilities, and how it is coordinated with nearby development projects, are posted in an easily navigable format.

What do you think of the analyses? Is there a project in your area that scores higher or lower than you would have expected?

Roads


Reston wants urban street grids around future Metro stations

Fairfax County wants to make it easier to walk, bike, and drive in Reston, especially to current and planned Silver Line stations. A new street grid and three ways to cross the Dulles Toll Road are part of the plan to make that happen.


Image from Fairfax County

The county's Department of Transportation recently kicked off the Reston Network Analysis, which is focused on finalizing the grid of streets necessary to support the coming development around three new Metro stations in Reston.

Ideas for near the stations include new bike lanes, adjusted traffic signals, and re-striped roads, as well as realigned or wider roads. It's also possible that Fairfax will build new roads in these areas.


Proposed bike facilities in Reston. Image from Fairfax County.

One of the Reston-wide improvements is the Soapstone Drive Overpass , which will provide another connection across the Dulles Toll Road and a new way to get to the Wiehle-Reston East station.

There will also be a Town Center Parkway Underpass to provide an additional connection across the Dulles Toll Road to help relieve Fairfax County Parkway and Reston Parkway. It will also provide a direct connection from the transit-oriented developments to the north and south of the Reston Town Center station.

A November presentation also mentioned a South Lakes Drive Overpass. The connection would be similar to the Soapstone over pass, allowing for pedestrian, bikes, single-occupancy-vehicles and busses to cross the Dulles Toll Road without using Wiehle Avenue or Hunter Mill Road.


The Reston Transportation Study Area. Image from Fairfax County.

The study will also look at ways to improve four specific areas: Reston Parkway from Lawyers Road to Baron Cameron Avenue; Fairfax County Parkway at Spring Street; Fairfax County Parkway at Sunrise Valley Drive; and Rock Hill Bridge, which connects Loudoun County and Fairfax County over the Dulles Toll Road.

These areas are under consideration because they are important parts of Reston's transportation network and are currently over capacity or will be after the redevelopment around the Metro stations occurs. The study will also look at how to make it easier to bike and walk in these areas.

The Hunter Mill Supervisor has appointed the Reston Network Analysis Advisory Group to help staff develop and test ways to make the street grids better.

In 2015, the Fairfax Department of Transportation presented a report that summarized existing conditions by looking at traffic counts from mid-2015. Among the key findings in the report:

  1. During evening commutes, the intersection of Wiehle and Sunset Hills rates an "F" for level of service
  2. The planned grid of streets will make pedestrian access and mobility near transit stations better
  3. The report also published baseline vehicle volume levels near current and future Silver Line stations
For future trips that come from more density around the coming Metro stations, the goal is to cut vehicle trips within a quarter mile of the stations by 45%.

Members of the public can learn about and comment on the project at a meeting on Monday, February 1 from 7-9 pm at Lake Anne Elementary School, which is at 11510 North Shore Drive in Reston. You can also contact project manager Kristin Calkins at Kristin.Calkins@fairfaxcounty.gov.

Pedestrians


Pedestrian deaths tripled in Fairfax County. Bad road design didn't help.

Eleven people on foot died in crashes in Fairfax County in 2015. That continues a rising trend since 2012, when the number was just four. What's going on?

NBC4 reporter Adam Tuss talked to some people about what's going on. A leading hypothesis in the story is that more people are walking around. That seems likely, but one element is missing: how poorly Fairfax's roads are designed for walking.

A number of people in the story talk about newcomers. One driver says, "I definitely worry about people who aren't from here," who try to cross when they don't have the light or not at a crosswalk. The subtext sure sounded like, "... people aren't familiar with the way we haven't designed roads for pedestrians in Fairfax County."

Just look at this intersection where Tuss is standing, the corner of Gallows Road and Route 29. It's about 0.6 miles from the Dunn Loring Metro station. And it's huge.


Image from Tuss' report.

That Target is part of the Mosaic District, which was designed to be walkable and transit-oriented. The interior is beautiful, but to get there from Metro requires walking along a not-very-hospitable sidewalk on 6- to 8-lane wide Gallows, and then crossing this monstrosity, 9 lanes on both Gallows and 29.

VDOT widened both roads in 2011 in a project billed to "increase safety, reduce congestion and enhance bicycle and pedestrian access," but which prioritized car throughput over other considerations. (This recent article from Joe Cortright effectively summarizes the mindset that would let VDOT think this would "increase safety.")

At least there are sidewalks, though, and you can legally walk directly along the road. That's not always true elsewhere in the county, like at Tysons Corner. Some sides of many intersections there were never designed for people to cross on foot. Only a lot of people are, now that Metro goes there.


Tysons Corner. Photo by Ken Archer.

Lucy Caldwell of Fairfax Police told Tuss, "We have situations that have occurred near Metro [stations], where people sometimes don't want to take that extra few minutes, and they cross where they shouldn't be crossing." If someone has to walk a few minutes farther to cross a road, most of all near a Metro station, you haven't designed it right.

To its credit, Fairfax officials are trying to gradually fix these spots, but there's a long way to go.

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