The traffic legacy of the W&OD railroad, 10/2/2018

Posted on October 2, 2018

Few people other than avid bicyclists know this, but to some degree, the awful traffic on Maple is a legacy of the W&OD railroad.  That railroad cut Vienna in half about a century ago.  And today, Vienna is still very nearly cut in half.  For a roughly 4.5 mile stretch, the W&OD road bed prevented roads from crossing Fairfax County in an East/West direction.  And now, for that entire 4.5 mile stretch, the only  roads that cross the W&OD are a handful of streets in downtown Vienna.  And of those, the only one that can handle any traffic is Maple.

The black line below is the part of the W&OD trail that is not crossed by roads.

As a consequence, the ghost of the W&OD acts a like a funnel for traffic.  If you ask Google to get you to Tyson’s Corner without using I-66, the entire area between these two blue lines (below) shows the catchment area for Maple Avenue — the area for which passing through Vienna is the shortest route from A to B. That’s the “funnel” created by the legacy of the W&OD.

Anything south of due west of Tysons gets funneled here:


And anything north of 123, ditto:

In essence, everyone who lives between Lawyers’ Road (northern boundary) and 123 (southern boundary) finds Maple Avenue in Vienna to be the quickest non-interstate road to Tysons and beyond.  Best guess, using some map and population websites, the catchment area for Vienna Maple Avenue contains at least a quarter-million people.  If those people want to get from where they live, to Tysons and points east, without using I-66, then Maple Avenue is their shortest route.

Car drivers may not be aware that the W&OD cuts Vienna in half, but avid Vienna bicyclists soon realize it.  It is VASTLY easier to get across town on a bike than it is in a car. That’s because a variety of bike and pedestrian trails cross the W&OD and so fill the gaps between the roads that do not connect.  So as a bicyclist, you have multiple alternatives to Maple for getting east-to-west across Vienna.

My preferred east-west route involves Valley Drive — totally irrational by car, but completely logical by bicycle.  This route is about 0.8 miles longer — but vastly nicer — than trying to bike down the length of Maple.

And it works because a sidewalk, but not a road, connects Valley Drive to Dominion Drive, adjacent to the W&OD.


Any number of little paths — some on the map, some not, connect Vienna across the W&OD and create routes that are not car-accessible. E.g., as a car driver, you think of Tapawingo and Follin as existing in completely different parts of town.  But actually, they are adjacent — for bicyclists.

My only real point to this is that this is an un-fixable flaw in the Town of Vienna.  The road network developed after the W&OD came to town.  This effectively produced a barrier to east-west road traffic along a 4.5 mile stretch of  (what used to be) the W&OD.  The only usable road that pierces that barrier is Maple.  And we now have a quarter-million people on one side of the barrier, many of whom want to reach the other side without using I-66.  And that’s why rush hour on Maple is what it is.