Post #394: Tonight’s Transportation Safety Commission meeting: Please don’t boil the frog. Update 2

Posted on September 24, 2019

Tuesday, 9/24/2019 at 8:00 PM in Town Hall, Transportation Safety Commission will meet and take public comment on traffic safety issues in the neighborhood bordered by Maple, Nutley, and Courthouse. This includes both current issues and “impact of future development on those issues”.

Citizens are invited to speak, with a time limit of three minutes.

For background, see Post #389.  If you live in the area bounded by Courthouse, Maple, and Nutley, consider attending tonight’s meeting and speaking up.  The meeting starts at 8 PM.

In this post, I want to state what I hope to get out of this meeting.  Likely, I will be adding to this post over the course of the day.

Mainly, I hope that the TSC will consider what can be done to address the future impact that MAC development will have.  To me, that’s what makes this  inherently different from anything the TSC has ever done.

The TSC listens to citizen complaints about current conditions all the time.   There is a process in place for citizens to petition for measures to address existing  problems (the Citizen’s Guide to Traffic Calming in Vienna (.pdf).   The TSC occasionally has a town-wide review of extant problem areas,  most recently in 2008 and 2010.

But the TSC has never been asked to come up with proactive measures to address the expected future fallout from a change in Vienna’s zoning rules.  That’s new.  And to me, given the context, that’s the main point of this exercise.

There is a process in place for dealing with current problems.  For any current problem, if we who live in this neighborhood were sufficiently upset, and someone wanted to go to the trouble of collecting signatures from the required 75%/50% of all affected households, then we could go through the procedures outlined in the Citizen’s Guide (cited above) to deal with any current problems.

Aside:  Sidewalks, however, seem to be a separate issue, and not nearly as transparent as other safety measures.  Although sidewalks are never mentioned in the Citizen’s Guide (cited above), it appears that citizen requests for sidewalks must go through the petition process outlined in the Guide.  A revised version of that Guide (still in draft form) does, in fact, mention sidewalks.

But there is no process within Vienna for dealing with the likely future problems from redevelopment.  And yet (see below), a full build-out of Maple under MAC zoning will surely generate some significant traffic issues.  So, to me, this should be about how best to deal with the traffic impacts that are projected to arise as MAC zoning converts Maple Avenue into a high-density housing district.

First, don’t boil the frog.  A brief overview of the bigger picture

If you focus on one new MAC building at a time, you will never see a traffic problem.  This is where the frog analogy arises. With the possible exception of the Giant Food shopping center, each redeveloped lot, in isolation, will never be predicted to result in a spectacular increase in traffic.

To understand the impact on traffic, you need to get a grip on what the MAC zoning change, as a whole, is likely to do to Vienna in the long run.  And by and large, that’s just a matter of simple arithmetic, as I posted more than a year ago.

Here’s the simple calculation for the long-run impact of MAC zoning.  The MAC zone has slightly over 100 acres.  When the law was originally passed, both Town Council members and town staff were quoted as saying that about 70% of that was expected to redevelop.  By my estimate, the first three MAC mixed-use projects, as downsized to their final approved plans, appear to generate an average of 80 new Vienna residents per acre.  So, a full build-out of Maple, under the current MAC statute, would result in (100 acres x 70% developed x 80 persons/acre =) 5600 new Vienna residents.  That compares to a current population of about 16,500.  That’s a one-third increase in Vienna’s population, all of it on Maple Avenue.

Further, the new housing under MAC is only part of the traffic picture.  The Town proposes to generate new “destination retail” as part of MAC redevelopment.  For example, at the Tequila Grande development (444 Maple West), the new retail was projected to boost traffic by another 50%, beyond the traffic created by the new housing.  (FYI, that excludes a large number of “bypass” trips, where the individuals who use the retail were assumed to have already been driving on Maple anyway.  Traffic projections ignore such “bypass” trips.)

In your mind’s eye, take a third of the current Town of Vienna, and have every vehicle trip — commuting, shopping, school, and whatnot — begin and end on Maple Avenue.  Then add another 50% on top, for new traffic to the “destination retail” built under MAC.  And add all of that to the traffic currently on Maple.  I hope you can guess that this would add substantially to traffic congestion.  My best guess, extrapolating from 444 Maple West, is that a full (70%) build out, with no other changes, would result in a doubling of the number of vehicles using Maple (as calculated in this post.)

And with the Town’s “multimodal” traffic study, this is not just some blogger asserting this.  The Town’s own preliminary traffic analysis appears to show a roughly one-third increase in rush hour trips for a roughly 20% build-out of Maple.  My calculation can be found in Post #358 with more complete analysis in Post #364.

That increased traffic is certainly a problem for anyone using Maple.  But in addition, some of it will spill over into cut-through traffic in the Maple-adjacent neighborhoods.  I don’t think anyone has a good estimate of how much will spill over.  But some degree of impact on the nearby neighborhoods is certain.

What is the TSC’s charge?

Let me start by presenting the text of the Town Council resolution, as a way to get a handle on what the Town has asked the TSC to do.  (This is an abbreviated version of the motion offered by Councilman Noble.)  I’m going to emphasize two parts of this.

“I … direct the … TSC … to initiate a transportation safety improvement study  … . The TSC will act as convening body to receive information from the public on the nature of existing issues, impact of future development on those issues, review study scoping … , review analysis and recommendations … and convene meeting(s) with the public to review recommendations and reach a consensus-based set of agreed-upon projects for implementation.”

So the normal part of this is to ask citizens what is wrong now.  And the unusual aspects of this are that the TSC is supposed to deal with anticipate future impacts of (MAC) development, and then to reach a consensus (with whom?) on what to do about current and predicted future problems.

Update 1:  Existing problems on Glen and Wade Hampton.

My street (Glen Avenue) is part of the Windover Heights district.  The only way you might guess that, about Glen and Wade Hampton, is the streets don’t even come close to meeting modern standards.   And the residential section of Wade Hampton doesn’t look like it belongs in Vienna at all.

View 1:  Wade Hampton, looking toward Maple.

Both Glen and Wade Hampton are 20′ wide (at best).  That, by itself, is not unusual in the Town of Vienna.  (E.g., south of Maple, at least:   Mashie, Niblick (part), East, Berry, Glyndon (part) and associated cross-streets are all 20′ streets.  After a while, you can pretty much recognize any 20′ street south of Maple.  If the lots are big, and there’s no sidewalk, curb, gutter or road striping, you’re probably looking at one of the 20′ wide streets in town.

Several things distinguish Wade Hampton and Glen from most of the other 20′ wide streets in town.

First, these streets have hair-pin turns with obscured sight lines.  Outside of the Windover Heights historical district, you’d be hard pressed to find something like that in Vienna.  Here’s the turn on Wade Hampton:

2:  Wade Hampton, looking away from Maple toward the hairpin turn.  Wade Hampton turns to the right.

And here’s the hairpin turn on Glen, two views looking at it from both directions.  The circled areas show that what makes the Glen curve a blind curve is the brush and untrimmed trees adjacent to the road.  These are in the Town right-of-way, and the abutting property owner was told by town staff not to (e.g.) trim the tree, because the tree belongs to the town.  So this curve is a blind curve because the Town of Vienna doesn’t maintain the tree and brush that obscure the view.

Views 3 and 4:  The blind hairpin turn on Glen, Town of Vienna trees and brush circled.

An additional factor for Glen is that the pavement on the inside radius of that curve is in awful shape.  I know from bad personal experience that you have to watch your step to avoid twisting an ankle.  You have to watch your step as you watch for cars.

A final factor for both streets, as they meet at Wade Hampton, is that there’s more-or-less nowhere to walk outside of the roadway.  On Glen, your options are to walk through brush and shrubbery, or walk in a ditch.  Contrast the “wilderness” end of Glen (at Wade Hampton) with the “tame” end at Maple.  On Wade Hampton, similarly, there are stretches where the fencing is right at the edge of the roadway.

Second, these streets get lots of pedestrian traffic.  That’s hard to document.  I’ll just say that, among other things, we are dog-walker-central for the entire surrounding neighborhood.  And we get joggers and power walkers.  Likely due to the pleasant nature of the street itself.

Third, we have no sidewalks.  This is something we share with many of the 20′ streets in Vienna.  Glen was at the end of the Tier 2 (of three tiers) in the old (circa 2002) Vienna sidewalk priority list.  I have not been able to find a corresponding updated list.

Fourth, we have schoolchildren walking to Madison, and we have a school bus stop on Glen.  Neither of which distinguishes us from some of the other 20′ no-sidewalk streets.  But that is a factor to consider.  Particularly if it’s your kid who is walking in the street.

Fifth, the town, via MAC, just approved buildings that (so far!) far more than double the number of residences in the neighborhood.  And will add (what the Town hopes will be) busy retail space, to boot.  We have a fair bit of cut-through traffic on Glen as it now stands.  For the residents and users of these two new buildings (and any subsequent infill), by far the least stressful way to get to Metro and points south will be to head down Glen Avenue.  (The alternative is to turn left across traffic on Maple.)  So the traffic on Glen is almost sure to increase, though I would say that at this point, the extent of the increase is not (and cannot be) well known.  Further, Wade Hampton is a cut-through for those heading north on Nutley who do not want to wait at the Nutley/Maple light.  The smaller of the two buildings will add to that cut-through burden, as will the new Marco Polo development (not shown).

This graphic is slightly outdated, but it gets to the gist of the issue:

So what we have now is a tough situation, from a pedestrian standpoint.  Glen, in particular, gets significant pedestrian traffic and modest car traffic.  We expect an uptick in car traffic — particularly during the AM commute — once the two approved MAC buildings in this area are built.  The roadway is narrow, there are no sidewalks, and there’s a blind hairpin turn with rough pavement (and no place to walk outside the roadway) as Glen approaches Wade Hampton.

Update 2:  Fixes for current conditions for the Town to consider.

The Town of Vienna already has a process in place whereby citizens can request “traffic calming” measures, and (apparently) sidewalks. So, for existing problems, presumably, the Town can give is the same answer that every other neighborhood gets:  Go through the existing process.

It is a cumbersome process,  Any citizen-initiated change to the Glen/Wade Hampton area would require that we a) determine what we’d like to see changed, and then b) gather signatures from the roughly 100 households in the catchment area for those two streets (including the streets themselves and all the cul-de-sacs that feed into those streets).  Worse, if any changes there would likely spill over to Pleasant street, then we’d have to get signatures for (most of) the more than 150 households in the affected area.  Still worse, it’s not clear what you need to do if you want to consider several separate changes.  The petition process is set up to petition for a traffic calming measure on a street.

That said, with respect to getting changes for current problems, there is a case to be made that we’re simply in the same boat as all other neighborhoods in Vienna.  So get in line, and go through channels.  This is, to my best recollection, more-or-less the answer that some of my neighbors got from the Mayor, on this issue.

The first question to ask is whether there is any reason for the Town to bend the rules, to address current conditions, for this neighborhood?  So that we’re not in the same boat as everybody else.  There, the only thing I can point to is the unusual nature of our streets.  Other than the historic Windover Heights district, I’d say that these two curves are the narrowest and most hazardous in Vienna.

But as I understand it, the Town has consistently rebuffed all attempts to get exception treatment by the residents of the historic Windover Heights neighborhoods.  Last I can recall, Windover Avenue remains a two-way street with 25 MPH speed limit, despite the best efforts of the residents to get that changed.  (FWIW, the historic Windover Heights district is the only area of Vienna where I will not bike, due to narrow roads, no sidewalk, no shoulder, frequent sharp dropoffs at pavement edge, and significant car traffic.)  Certainly, they have as good a case as we do for special treatment due to the narrow roads with no place to walk.

Windover Ave, NW:

My point is, that any exception for Wade Hampton and Glen would have to be based on objective data about the roadways.  And by any objective measure, some streets in the historic Windover Heights district are at least as unsafe for pedestrians as Wade Hampton and Glen, if not more so. 

The upshot is that any “fair” modification of the Citizen’s Guide rules, to make it easier for Glen and Wade Hampton to qualify for traffic-calming measures or sidewalks based on the condition of the streets, would likely then encompass much of the Windover Heights historic district.  Just as a matter of logic.  Possibly, that effectively prevents any such action.  Alternatively, maybe that allows us to make common cause with the residents of those neighborhoods.

Ignoring the fact that we have to go through the process and get in line with all the other Vienna neighborhoods with traffic and safety issues, here’s my short list of what could be done.

Trim the tree and brush that currently puts the “blind” in the blind curve on Glen.  And put that on the Town’s annual maintenance schedule.  Or even just empower the neighbors to do that.  This seems trivial, but it’s probably the single largest hazard that can be easily corrected.

Patch the pavement on the blind curve on Glen.  Given that we have to be in the roadway, at that point, at least give us a decent surface to walk on.  Cheap, easy, and removes a known hazard.

Give us a sidewalk, before you start putting second sidewalks on other streets in Vienna.  Now, this one is not easy, for four reasons.  First, the existing grassy swales are far more environmentally friendly than a traditional curb/gutter would be.  Second, some property owners will balk, even though the sidewalks (on Glen) would be entirely in the town right-of-way.  Third, sidewalks for this street will likely be quite expensive because installation of sidewalks would require (e.g.) re-grading yards and adding storm sewers to replace the swales.  Finally, I suspect that many of the dog-walkers prefer the street as-is, versus having to confine their dog’s path to a sidewalk.

That said, to me, the safety of children trumps those objections.  So I would support putting in a sidewalk, even if the Town takes a chunk of (what now appears to be) my front yard to do so.

Listen to Stop Sign John.  John Runyon has repeatedly reminded various Town bodies that stop signs are cheap, and they do a lot to enhance pedestrian safety.  As it currently stands, there are two street crossings on Glen (Johnson and Albrecht) where Glen is a through street, with no stop sign.  (The intersection with Albrecht is uncontrolled; the intersection with Johnson has a yield sign for Johnson).  Converting both of those intersections to three-way stops would make it just that much less convenient for cut-through traffic.  (I don’t think we have any particular speeding problem that needs to be addressed.  These would serve mainly to make Glen less convenient.)

Addressing MAC development

To be continued …