The Mayor’s rhetoric on traffic, 9/5/2018

If you want to know how the Mayor views your concerns about traffic, there’s no better place to start than to look at the Mayor’s own words, here:

“The majority of traffic on Maple Avenue is regional commuter traffic to and from Tysons. One of the challenges with this cut-through traffic is that it often leads people to think: “We can’t allow commercial improvements because it might lead to more traffic.” I have to believe that citizens want successful businesses along our main commercial corridors and don’t want to see dilapidated properties that diminish our tax base and vibrancy of our commercial districts. I think we can find solutions to improve pedestrian access so that we don’t give up on the Town’s commercial areas and allow cut-through traffic to deter positive redevelopment along Maple Avenue and Church Street.

Mayor Laurie DiRocco”

Just take a minute to read that a couple of times.  You obviously will have your own interpretation.  To me, as with more-or-less everything that the Town says about MAC zoning, this is both misleading and fundamentally confusing.  But once I cut through the rhetoric, to me this says that the Mayor is bound and determined to ignore the issue of traffic.  And so, if you expect her to take your concerns seriously, I think you’re going to be disappointed.

Let me take that paragraph apart, one sentence at a time.


“The majority of traffic on Maple Avenue is regional commuter traffic to and from Tysons.” 

Fair enough.  We don’t actually know where the traffic originates from or goes to.  But on the chart below, it appears clear that most of the traffic on Maple enters and exits at the Town boundaries.   On a weekday, Vienna itself only add/subtracts a net 5000 cars to the flow (34,000 – 29,000) or about 2500 cars during a typical morning or evening rush hour.  (I’m skipping a lot of detail here, about what you can and can’t say from figures like these, but none of it much matters here.)

But let’s be clear about something:  The majority of everybody’s traffic is just like that.  Every Northern Virginia locality faces this exact same situation.  This is the way all major roads in this area look.  That’s easy enough to see by looking at VDOT data for local cities and towns.  In all the urbanized areas around here, the traffic consists of people passing through town to get to somewhere else.

It’s not as if Maple Avenue is even the tiniest bit different in this regard. So, to be clear, if having a lot of people drive through your town is an excuse for dismissing traffic as an issue, then nobody in Northern Virginia has any reason to talk about traffic. 


“One of the challenges with this cut-through traffic is that it often leads people to think: “We can’t allow commercial improvements because it might lead to more traffic.””

The first big problem with that statement is that it pretends that MAC zoning is about commercial improvements.  It’s not.  It’s about housing,  housing, and more housing.  It is so much about housing that the Town is considering mandating a minimum amount of commercial space on each MAC property.  And the new housing, by itself, raises serious traffic concerns if a significant fraction of the property along Maple is redeveloped.

Was that clear enough?  Even if these new MAC projects merely replaced existing retail with new retail — even if they generated zero additional retail-related trips —  THEY WOULD STILL GENERATE SUBSTANTIAL ADDITIONAL TRAFFIC DUE TO THE ADDITIONAL PEOPLE WHO WOULD BE LIVING ON MAPLE AVENUE Hate to have to shout, but a lot of people seem completely deaf to this point.

The second problem is that it’s a false dichotomy.  It assumes that the only way to handle whatever problem the Mayor sees on Maple Avenue is via MAC zoning and more traffic.  Just consider, for one moment, how much traffic the two assisted living facilities that appear to be in play now will generate.  Fact is, they will generate almost none.  So the idea that we must tolerate increased traffic as the price of economic progress seems well, fuzzy at best.


“I have to believe that citizens want successful businesses along our main commercial corridors and don’t want to see dilapidated properties that diminish our tax base and vibrancy of our commercial districts.” 

This is a two-fer: it’s a false dichotomy plus a boogieman.  If we don’t allow MAC zoning, we’ll end up with a run-down Maple Avenue.  I don’t see that, myself.  But more to the point, how do you reconcile this view of Maple Avenue with the traffic and the full parking lots that we all face trying to do weekend shopping in Vienna?

I am reminded of the great Yogi Berra: “Nobody ever goes there anymore — it’s too crowded.”


“I think we can find solutions to improve pedestrian access so that we don’t give up on the Town’s commercial areas and allow cut-through traffic to deter positive redevelopment along Maple Avenue and Church Street.”

Ah, for reals?  This is the solution for the increase in traffic?  Pedestrian access? That’s just wishing the problem away.  The solution is that traffic won’t be a problem if people will just walk to Maple instead of driving there?

(Plus this is yet another false dichotomy and boogieman combo (“give up on the Town’s commercial areas”).  But in this context, that’s a minor point.)

Let me just focus on the Mayor’s solution here — that “pedestrian access” is how we’ll deal with the increased traffic from these big new MAC buildings.

First, this  ignores the objective reality that Maple and the Town of Vienna are just about as “walkable” as it gets.  We already have great “pedestrian access” to Maple Avenue.  See the green area in the map below?  It doesn’t get much greener than that.  So the idea that existing traffic would fall due to improvements is kind of silly.  More-or-less anybody adult in the Town of Vienna who wants to walk or bike to and along Maple can do so now.

But in addition, the Town’s actual policy directly contradicts this.  If you want to know the truth, follow the money.   This is the Mayor who is planning to spend around $8.4 million to build not one, but two large parking garages in downtown Vienna.  One on Mill Street, and one at the Patrick Henry Library. 

So let’s be crystal clear here — you don’t walk to a parking garage.  You plop down two new parking garages in your downtown if you expect … wait for it … a lot more people to drive there.  That’s pretty much the definition of traffic.

Finally, there’s the whole “destination retail” aspect of MAC zoning.  That was literally written into the law.   All the retail space must, by law, be upscale-retail with 15′ ceiling and glass front and back walls.  And the Town is only now getting around to mention “community-serving” retail in proposed amendments to MAC.

I’m pretty sure people aren’t going to be walking to the “destination retail” on Maple from, say, Oakton or Tysons.  So once again, the rhetoric is inconsistent with the reality.  The Town Council wants and has planned for destination retail that, practically speaking, can only be reached by car.  Then they talk about pedestrian access.  That’s not a solution, that’s a way of avoiding any serious discussion about traffic.

If you still don’t quite grasp how ludicrous “pedestrian access” is in this context, try imagining this.  Get a burger at McDonald’s (adjacent to the soon-to-be MAC-zoned Chick-Fil-A), then stroll up Maple to pick up some groceries at Giant Food (another property that seems to be in play for MAC redevelopment).  Add a couple of small kids to the picture while you’re at it.  Now ask yourself:  Have you ever done that?  And, no matter how nice the new sidewalks will be, does this seem plausible to you?  If not, then you realize how ludicrous it is to try to dismiss citizen concerns about traffic by talking about pedestrian access.