Post #223: TC, PC, TSC joint work session, 4/1/2019, Part Two: The thing formerly known as the traffic study

Posted on April 2, 2019

This post addresses the other item on last night’s agenda — the study formerly referred to as the Maple Avenue traffic study.  See prior post for context.

There was some initial kerfuffle over the fact that the guy doing this study just got finished working for the developer of 380 Maple.  The idea that this might be a conflict of interest was dismissed via proof-by-assertion.  They just said that they didn’t think having one engineer work both sides of the street was a conflict, as long as it was serial monogamy.

If I had to sum this up quickly, it would be, this is likely to be a waste of time.  If I had to say something more thoughtful, I’d say, what a waste of time, just to produce another piece to resonate in the Town’s echo chamber.

Find a buzzphrase that the Town has used to build up MAC, and it’ll be in this report.  That was my takeaway from last night’s meeting.  So, clearly, the consultants are here to deliver the report that the Town is asking for.  Not to fault them.  I was a consultant myself, for decades.  But not to confuse this with an actual independent voice regarding what will be emphasized and not in the final report.

What follows now is a set of things that caught my attention.  Mostly, not in a good way.

OK, one plausible thing:  The assertion was made (without detailed analysis) that accidents occur from cars turning into and out of driveways (curb cuts).  In addition to the majority of accidents, which occur at the intersections and along the left-turn-lane.  Looking briefly at the traffic data, and using a little common sense, that appears plausible.

Otherwise, I didn’t find much to like and/or much to find plausible about this forthcoming analysis.

Let me start with sidewalk safety.  Our sidewalks are objectively quite safe for pedestrians (see Post #214).  So, the talk turned to whether whether people feel safe, instead.  (That actually came from the Town’s anointed candidate for Town Council (Hays), I think, not the consultants.)  That avoids letting pesky data get in the way.  Except that the Town’s own surveys show that people, by and large, are comfortable with the sidewalks as-is.  My guess is, that fact isn’t going to surface in this report.

Next, let’s make a big deal out of bicycle stress from bicycling in the roadway on Route 123, and ask what we can do about. Except for one pesky fact:  Nobody bicycles in the road on 123.  At least not when there’s any traffic.  Nobody sane, anyway.  (In my 25+ years as an avid Vienna bicyclist, I have seen someone biking on Maple in rush hour exactly once.)

Whereas the painted lines on Courthouse serve as an effective-though-not-official bike lane, so Courthouse is a breeze for biking, relatively speaking.  (And thanks to the Town for doing that, even though it’s not a bike lane, and sometimes cars do park in it.  It was and is a tremendous improvement for bicycling on that road).  But let’s ignore those, because those are not official bike lanes.

Purely from the standpoint of MAC, the best part was when they were asked what one single scenario they will model, in terms of development and traffic.  They just skipped that and went on.  Just blew right past that.  No answer.  At most, it’ll be ten years down the road.  Possible as little as five years.  So this report will be worth nothing in terms of assessing the eventual impact of MAC.  But, apparently the Town is not yet through determining just how much (or more likely, how little) development they will allow to be included in that model.

Councilman Noble, who had previously called for a serious assessment of the long-run impact of MAC on Maple, now went out of his way to assert that it could not be done with reasonable accuracy.  Great.  Thanks.  So if there’s a standard error associated with an estimate, better to have no estimate at all?  Clearly I wasted a lot of time taking statistics classes.

Let’s trash the Fairfax Connector bus system as inadequate, and pretend that infrequency of buses is the reason for low ridership.  I wonder if anyone there has ever actually ridden a Fairfax Connector bus.  But that’s why we need a Vienna Trolley.  Woot!

Let’s put up diagrams of us all living, working, and going to school in the same place, so that we don’t have to drive.  To their credit, they refrained from adding the rainbows and the unicorns that the illustration so clearly needed.  What, we’re supposed to pretend that we can move the schools into this lovely new MAC zone?  That these new buildings — that are not going to have any office space — will be places to work, for people who can afford to live in them?  I mean, if you just step back and look at what was presented, it was … silly … in the context of actually doing something in the actual Vienna VA.

And the next time I hear somebody yammer about this new thing called shared parking, and how it allows you to park once and walk to many stores, I swear I’m going to shout out “SHOPPING CENTER”. Before I can stop myself.  Because, you know, if you think about it a little bit — isn’t that what a shopping center does?  That’s hardly a new concept.

Let’s not even  mention that Vienna has much lower per-capita pedestrian and all-vehicle injury rates than surrounding jurisdictions.  Ah, heck, I’ll repeat that here, fully acknowledging that a simple univariate table is not the right way to address that issue. But at least getting that fact on the table.

Let’s not mention that we currently rate as a highly walkable town.  And, in fact, as measures it, it would be impossible to make Maple more walkable.  Because, I guess, if there’s no objective problem to be solved, ignore the objective data.  (Maps and data below are from

Broad sidewalks, again, because that’s oh-so-necessary if a bike is going to pass a pedestrian.  Certainly, disabled individuals would benefit from broader sidewalks.  But if you think about it for 10 seconds, you realize that what MAC gives you is small, isolated patches of broad sidewalks.  What good that does to a bicyclist, I have yet to figure out. (And don’t get me started on bricks, as a bicyclist.  Ask me sometime for my performance art piece entitled “Fat Man on Semi-Recumbent Bicycle Traversing Brick Pavement at Speed”.  It’s something you’ll remember.  And not in a good way.)

And what nobody says about that — but again, is obvious if you spend 10 seconds thinking about it — is that if you are serious about connecting those into a continuous broad sidewalk, MAC-sized, then that means a) seizing property from Maple Avenue land/business owners, and b) destroying significant numbers of parking places, c) except in the various places where broad sidewalks are not possible due to the physical locations of the businesses.

So … the idea of broad sidewalks for the entire MAC zone is kind of nuts, right?  Well, flatly impossible in some places.  But kind of a radical idea for most of the street, right?  I mean, seizing private property on behalf of the Town?  Destroying parking places to build sidewalks with little more functionality than our standard 5′ or 6′ concrete ribbon sidewalks.  Am I the only one who sees this?

So, once again, we’re talking about some sort of fantasy world, right?  Not the actual Town of Vienna.

And all that “broad sidwalk” rhetoric would be to replace existing sidewalks, that almost nobody uses, with much broader sidewalks.  That, in all likelihood, nobody will use.  While, simultaneously, many Vienna residential streets have no sidewalks. 

I’ve done my own counts to show how little these sidewalks are used, but for my next piece (“count the zeros”), I’m going to get counts off the Town’s 2017 traffic survey.   Not to give it away, but they are mostly zeros.  The idea that pedestrian and bike traffic is material, during rush hour  — where it would reduce car congestion — is absurd.

At some point, I was going to get fired up and do some serious analysis of these issues.  As I did for Capital Bikeshare, say, taking the 3.5M bicycle trip dataset, analyzing it, and producing these bike trip flow maps.  (Turn off “Cluster on Zoom”, turn on “Animate Flows”.  Best viewed on a full-sized computer screen.  If you view it on a phone, click the little gray arrowheads to clear the text boxes.)

But this isn’t worth it.

I mean, heck, the people talking (not the consultants) did not even know Commonwealth of Virginia law about adults riding bicycles on the sidewalk.  It’s simple:  Unless you see a sign that says “No bicycles”, you can ride.

The governing body ... may by ordinance prohibit the use of ... bicycles ... on designated sidewalks or crosswalks, ... . Signs indicating such prohibition shall be conspicuously posted ... 

But the common-sense rule for adult bicyclists is that if it’s not safe to ride in the road, ride on the sidewalk.  And if it is safe to ride in the roadway, get off the sidewalk.  In more than forty years of bicycling as an adult, I have never been stopped by police for riding on the sidewalk.  I could go on.

The upshot is, this certainly sounds like it’s going to be a piece of work written to resonate in the Town’s echo chamber.  I fear it will be crafted by people who so fixate on the new mixed-use development that they continually ignore one basic fact.  So here’s the key fact that I want to see acknowledged, up front, in this report.  Ready?

THERE IS ALREADY A TOWN HEREEverything that comes out of this new high-density housing on Maple is going to be layered ON TOP OF the people and traffic that are already here.

Sure, you can find studies that will say “a mixed-use development will generate less traffic than the equivalent number of people living in single-family homes.”  That’s absolutely true. And absolutely irrelevant.  Or, as I put it here, in my discussion of walkability, that means you’ll get less additional traffic than you would expect from the equivalent population living in single-family homes.  It does not mean less traffic total.  It means more traffic, just not as much more as you’d otherwise expect.

We have a surrounding community that is what it is.  There is almost nothing you can do to Maple that will make the rest of Vienna objectively more “walkable”, or “bikeable”.  If there had been, chances are we’d have done it by now.  There is no space to put bike lanes on our busy streets.  Most of our high-traffic through streets are narrow (try biking Cottage out to Merrifield).  The people who live here now, and whose traffic clogs Maple, aren’t going to find it one bit easier to walk or bike to Maple than they do now.  (And I should know, because I moved within the Town of Vienna, from west of Nutley to my current location, specifically so that my family and I could walk and bike to downtown destinations and to school.)

There’s a public meeting on this on Thursday.  And I guess I’m obliged to show up.  Maybe I’ll record it, so that all can hear.  I’m not sure it meets the legal definition of public meeting for Virginia Freedom of Information purposes.  If the Town prevents me from recording it, so be it.  But I hope that the public meeting will be serious enough to be worth recording.  I hate to say it, but the discussion for Town Council just … wasn’t.

And now I’ll clean up my recording of that meeting — lot of people didn’t turn on their mikes when they talked — and move on.  I’ll post a link to that in a separate post.