January 7 2019 Town Council Meeting — Three MAC-relevant items, updated 1/7/2019 for a better discussion of Capital Bikeshare

The 8 PM Vienna Town Council meeting on Monday 1/7/2019 will have at least three items relevant to MAC zoning and the future of Maple Avenue.

First, they are going to ask Fairfax County to pay for updating the Town  building codes.  You can read my discussion of that here.   My interpretation is that Town staff have already decided that mixed-used (i.e., high-density housing) construction is so “desirable” for Vienna that the Town needs to expand the areas where such buildings can be placed and make it much easier to redevelop (i.e., to pack in more people).

Opinion is divided about the true intent behind re-writing the building codes.

Some have suggested this is a purely technical exercise in updating the existing code to the modern era, e.g., adding more types of business to the list of allowable land uses.   In other words, just a set of clean-ups of old law.

But the Town staff’s write up of it (see linked page above) suggests something more along the lines of what I wrote in the first paragraph.  The write up is nothing less than a sales job for more high-density housing in Vienna.  And it is being pitched to Fairfax as a path toward more economic development.  That suggests to me that this will be probably be used to make MAC-like construction the “by right” construction in the Town’s commercial and industrial zones.

So the jury’s out on that one.  But given the Town Council’s history on quashing dissent on MAC projects, I’d bet for my interpretation.  Best guess, Town staff will take this as an opportunity to make MAC-like high-density housing (“mixed use”) the “by-right” development in the commercial and industrial zones of Vienna.  If that happens, the Town will no longer be required to have public input in these new developments.  Best guess, they’ll set that up before the redevelopment of the Giant Food shopping center is announced.  That way, they can stifle public dissent on what will surely be the most controversial MAC development.

Second, they are going to commission a study of traffic on Maple Avenue.  I have my writeup of that here.  They’ve phrased it as a “multi-modal” transport study — so it will include not just cars, but also pedestrians, bicyclists, and those taking mass transit along Maple.  But as far as I can tell, that’s pure smokescreen.  As anyone who has walked along Maple can tell you, maybe 99% of the people who move down Maple do so in a car.  (See the end of this posting for my pedestrian count on my most recent walk down Maple.)

Third, they are going to ask for Fairfax County funding for (what I read as) a study to see where to place Capital Bikeshare bike racks around town.  To me, as a long-time avid bicyclist — a person who biked daily to Metro from my Vienna home for close to a decade — I think the likely impact of that will be more-or-less zero.  Other than adding a few racks of Capital Bikeshare bikes around Vienna, which I guess will make us look like we’re trying to be green.

Before you think I’m just blowing smoke there, read up on the recent history of Capital Bikeshare, and pay some attention to the cost numbers.  Per Wikipedia: “In May 2011, it cost $41,500 to install a station with six docks and $49,300 each for larger stations with 14 docks. Each bicycle cost about $1,000, and the annual operating cost per bike was $1,860.”

(Just to put that in perspective, an Uber from Vienna Metro to Whole Foods should run about $13 (with tip), based on several interactive websites that I checked.  So the annual operating cost per bicycle would buy just over 140 Uber rides from Metro to the middle of Vienna.)

Capital Bikeshare’s cost to the user is … variable, depending on how you want to use it.  The rates appear set up to keep the bikes available.  In other words, it is set up with the idea that you would travel from one bike dock to another bike dock.  It is not set up to allow you to bike directly to some desired destination and then return the bike later.  E.g., if you buy a day pass, keeping the bike out of a bike dock for more than 90 minutes incurs a charge of $8 for every half hour.

Suppose, for example, we had Capital Bikeshare at the Vienna Metro, and you wanted to use Capital Bikeshare to get from Vienna Metro to meet friends for a two-hour get-together at Whole Foods.  If there’s no bike dock convenient to Whole Foods, and you keep the bike out of a dock that entire time, between the travel time and the time spent with friends, if you got a one-day pass, that Capital Bikeshare ride would cost you between $30 and $38, depending on how fast you can pedal.  That’s roughly the cost of Ubering to Whole Foods and back.

By contrast, if you could put the bike in a bike dock at Whole Foods (and so make it available to others), your cost would be just $8.  The upshot is that Capital Bikeshare is an expensive way to get around town unless you can bike from one dock to another.

So the main problem with this isn’t the high level of subsidy required to support it, it’s that it’s not a good model in a spread-out suburban area.  We already have a lot of obstacles to bicycling here in Vienna.  We have virtually no bike lanes and we have increasing amounts of bicycle-unfriendly brick pavement (thanks to the Town Council).  Not many people want to bike around town, particularly during rush hour.  Scatter a few Capital Bikeshares bike docks along Maple, and that will only be enticing if you happen to want to go to a location where there is a bike dock.

So this is a system that is mostly good for dense urban areas, where destinations are densely packed, and you have bikeable low-speed streets.  Areas like downtown DC.  There, individuals who don’t have immediate access to a car can find Bikeshare a viable option for short one-way trips.  It’s a fine way to (e.g.) get from work to a restaurant, say.  Because odds are there’s a bike dock within an easy walk from both origin and destination.

But in the Town of Vienna, I don’t see much demand for these.  And the map of current Bikeshare docks bears that out.   For reference, the Vienna Metro has just under 5,200 car parking spaces, and more than 120 bike rack/locker spaces.  With that in mind, traveling down the Orange Line, right now:

East Falls Church has 12 bikes available.

West Falls Church, Dunn Loring, and Vienna don’t have bikeshare:

Over on the Silver Line, there’s a cluster of racks around Tyson’s Corner, with the one shown being representative of the typical size:

The odd thing is, even when the Town has filled up Maple with high-density MAC housing, the argument for Capital Bikeshare bikes is minimal.  The reason is that if you are serving people who literally live on Maple, and they like to bicycle, they’ll have their own bicycle.

And their own helmet.  The one thing that people ignore with Capital Bikeshare is that you need to bring your own helmet.   As a dedicated helmet-wearer (i.e., a bicyclist who has had a couple of bad crashes), I won’t bike without a helmet.  And so, even if I used Capital Bikeshare, I’d have to anticipate the need to bring my helmet along.

No matter how you slice it, the number of bikes involved here is quite small.  Helmets are (or at least should be) an issue.  This is a great model for a target-rich densely-populated urban area (Washington, Arlington) with low-speed traffic and bike lanes.  But not so much for areas like Falls Church or Vienna.  For the present, at least, this is more of a look-good, feel-good exercise than any sort of a realistic attempt to remove congestion from the streets.

So, how few people actually walk along Maple?  I occasionally walk the entire length of the street, and I’ve decided to count the number of people that I pass as I do the round trip from my house to East Street.

On 12/31/2018, around 3:30 in the afternoon, I passed a total of 12 people, on the roughly 2.6 mile round trip.  It was about 50 degrees and sunny.   That works out to a little less than one person for every 1000 feet of sidewalk.  Yes, it was a quasi-holiday, but that’s fairly typical in my experience.

So we sure have a crying need to install great big broad sidewalks all along the length of Maple.  You wonder how those of us who routinely walk down Maple can stand the crowding.