Pedestrian-friendly? 3/4/2019

(This map was generated by walkscore.com.  You can check out the walkability of your neighborhood by visiting their website and typing in your address.)

Town government has repeatedly said that MAC will make Maple Avenue more “pedestrian-friendly”.  But that’s … questionable, at best.  And in some key cases, I am almost sure that MAC-redeveloped property will make Maple less safe for pedestrians.

The Town tells you that you’ll get broader sidewalks.  That’s true.  But there are a few things that come along with those broad sidewalks that the Town just keeps forgetting to mention.  So let me list them here.

With MAC redevelopment, more vehicles will cross the pedestrian path along Maple. Because Maple Avenue will now be a housing district, a large number of these will be commuters, with trips clustering at the AM and PM rush hours. In at least one case so far, what is now a simple driveway will become a three lane road, expressly to allow two cars at a time to attempt to turn onto Maple, while driving across the sidewalk.   The Town is also encouraging walls, fencing, planters, and other visual obstructions in that (now broader) sidewalk area.

Let me make this concrete by discussing 444 Maple West/Tequila Grande.  For the past four years, my daughter walked past that on her way to and from Madison High School.  Let me compare the way it is now, to how it will be.

There are two driveways there now.  They are broad, with no visual obstructions to speak of.  Pedestrians are easily and starkly visible against an open, uncluttered background.  And pedestrians can clearly see any cars attempting to exit onto Maple.

As importantly, at the time when kids are walking to and from Madison, virtually no cars use those driveways for Tequila Grande or Wolf Trap.  Tequila Grande does business at lunchtime and dinnertime.  Wolf Trap has a few cars per hour entering or exiting.  If there is an AM rush there, I’ve never seen it.

So, in terms of pedestrian safety, for an uncontrolled sidewalk crossing, on Maple, I think this is about as good as it gets.  When my daughter walked to school, I worried about the Maple/Nutley crossing.  But it never even occurred to me to think about any accident risk from walking past Wolf Trap/Tequila Grande.  And that’s because the pedestrian accident risk there is negligible.

(I went looking for hard data on this, courtesy of the Virginia DMV’s interactive traffic crash data, and validated that there had been no pedestrian-related accidents on this stretch of sidewalk for as far back as the data were reported — 2014).

After redevelopment, there will be just one driveway on Maple instead of two.  In the AM rush hour, the builder estimated there would be 150 cars per hour in and out of that property.  That includes “bypass” trips (people stopping in on their way down Maple.)  Although the split between the Maple and Nutley driveways was not specified, my guess would be that most of that would be using Maple Avenue.

To put that traffic volume in perspective, the developer also modeled what AM rush hour traffic would be for a grocery store roughly twice the size of Whole Foods.  That estimate was 213 cars in and out.

So, in a nutshell, after redevelopment, this driveway will function much more like the driveway at Whole Foods.  Well, like Whole Foods if it were full of commuters heading off to work.  Two cars at a time may exit and turn onto Maple, with a third lane for incoming traffic.  And in the morning, this will actually be busier than (an estimate of traffic for) the Whole Foods entrance.

Compared to Whole Foods, the new 444 Maple West driveway will cross a broader sidewalk, sure.  But with sight lines obstructed by the building (just over 20′ from the curb), as well as benches, planters, and other visual clutter adjacent to the pedestrian path.

There’s no way that’s safer for pedestrians.  Just ask yourself, if it were your child walking to school, which driveway would you rather have them cross every day:  Tequila Grande or Whole Foods?

So, yeah, these broad sidewalks will be pedestrian-friendly in that they will look prettier.  And I guess it’s at least plausible that if the ONLY thing to change were the sidewalk — if we were to put in broad sidewalks in front of the existing Tequila Grande and change nothing else — maybe that would be safer.  But if you look at the whole package — broad sidewalk, with two cars trying to enter Maple simultaneously, with lots of AM rush hour traffic, and lots of visual obstructions and visual clutter — nobody can convince me that’s a safer situations for kids walking to Madison. 

Nor is it clear that MAC development will reduce your stress level when walking down Maple.  Risk of injury aside,there will be fewer driveways, but more intense traffic flow across the pedestrian path.  I’m not sure that makes for a  more enjoyable walk down Maple.

In reality, the risks that we are talking about are small.  Per the Town’s 2010 accident study, page 38, pedestrian injuries in Vienna mainly occur when crossing the road (either in or out of a crosswalk), or when walking in a parking lot.  Sidewalks did not even rate a mention in that report.  Further, we have half the rate of pedestrian injuries compared to either Falls Church or Fairfax City.  The bottom line is that walking on the sidewalk is not a major risk, and pedestrians in general appear safer here than in similar local jurisdictions.

That said, 444 Maple West will not make the walk to Madison High School more pedestrian-friendly.  It takes a trip that used to have one worry point (Nutley/Maple) and adds a second one.