Post #395: Review of last night’s TSC meeting

Posted on September 25, 2019

The Transportation Safety Commission (TSC) met last night.  See my just-previous post for the background.  I only stayed for the portion dealing with my neighborhood.  This is my brief review of what went on.  You can access my recording of that meeting at this Google Drive link.There were maybe 40 or 50 people in attendance.  Most but not all were there for the main item, a traffic safety study of the area bounded by Courthouse, Nutley, and Maple.

First, I want to say that the chairman did a fine job of running the meeting.  There were several instances where he stopped and clarified (e.g.) what the task was; what, exactly they were supposed to deliver to Town Council; what they had or had not agreed to; what was or was not feasible in terms of signage or other traffic calming measures, and so on.  The meeting as a whole was a model of clarity, that’s all I’m saying.  At each “summing up” point, you got a clear statement of what they knew, and a clear statement of the still-open questions.

Unsafe crosswalks/intersections on Kingsley and Tapawingo. 

Let me start with the main concern that wasn’t on the agenda.  Apparently, the AM commuter/cut-through traffic on Kinglsey and Tapawingo has gotten totally out-of-hand in recent years.  Not just for volume, but for speeding, and, critically, for failure to yield right-of-way to individuals using the crosswalks, including kids walking to school.  Residents painted a grim picture, particularly given that the second speaker on this issue sustained significant injuries when she was hit by an SUV while attempting to cross four-way-stop intersection at Kinglsey and Ware.  That occurred just a few days prior to this meeting.  The driver who ran her down got a ticket for failure to pay attention.  You can hear her impassioned testimony at about 16 minutes into my recording of the meeting, located at this Google Drive link.

I have a few asides that I might offer here.

First, the issue of the double yellow line on Kinglsey came up from several speakers.  They contend that the double yellow line encourages drivers to speed, as it makes the road look like a high-speed arterial.  Kingsley is a broad street (about 35′ pavement width), but the Town’s street inventory (.pdf) doesn’t even list it as a collector street.  As far as the Town of Vienna is concerned, it’s just a local street.  So it’s not clear why there’s a double yellow line there at all.

Back in the day, I’m pretty sure that road striping of that nature was seen as a standard safety measure.  Among other things it “narrows the lanes” visually, and that is generally believed to reduce vehicle speeds.  But if you bother to look up the estimated effectiveness of extensive roadway markings to narrow the apparent lane width, the Commonwealth of Virginia, in its guide to traffic calming measures (.pdf) , quotes the Federal Highway Administration thus (page 14):

“FHWA suggests a reduction of 0.5 mph for narrowing lanes by pavement markings”

More recently, though, urban planners have begun to question the advantages of center lines on urban streets, and to suggest that removing the center line is an effective traffic calming measure.  You can still retain the edge striping to narrow the overall roadway, but remove the center line.  Here, for example, is a study of removing center lines on London streets, where the estimated impact was summarized as:

” … slowed average driving speeds between 5 and 9 miles per hour …”

There is some sense that this is becoming a commonly-held view in Europe, as reported in this news article.  But in the US, it’s hard to find a city that explicitly comes out against striping the center of the roadway for city streets.  The exception I found was Albuquerque (.pdf), which had this to say:

Caution should be used in applying centerline striping alone, as it may give drivers a sense of ownership of their half of the road and thereby increase  speeding. A better treatment may be to provide edge lines with no centerline, indicating to drivers that they must share the two-way space with all traffic.

Maybe the Town should conduct a little pre-post quasi-experiment on Kingsley.  Take a section of it where there is chronic speeding.  Measure speeds, paint over the center stripe, and re-measure speeds.  If removing the center stripe gets cars to slow down materially, then that seems like an obvious winner.

On this same topic, there were complaints about lack of enforcement of the traffic laws in that neighborhood.  One resident said that they saw a police officer on traffic duty in their neighborhood recently, and it came as a shock, because they’d never seen that before.   One person called for speed enforcement cameras, but the police officer sitting with the TSC said that an entity as small as the Town of Vienna could not legally do that in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

I have a lot of empathy for these folks, for several reasons.  One, if you look at pedestrian accidents in Vienna, crosswalks are where people tend to get hit.  Second, my observation is that a lot of drivers don’t know the law with respect to right-of-way at four-way stops, and clearly have no clue what the law says about pedestrians in a crosswalk.*  Third, I think that particular route — Kingsley, AM, toward Maple — self-selects for aggressive drivers.  When they reach the stop sign at Nutley,  most then cross the north-bound Nutley traffic, and the median, to get to Nutley south-bound.  The people that I see doing that maneuver do not strike me as a particularly timid bunch.

 *As I understand it:  Vehicles proceed at a four-way stop in the order in which they arrived.  In case of a tie, if the vehicles are at right angles, the vehicle to the right has right of way.  If a pedestrian sets foot into the roadway, in a crosswalk, cars must give the pedestrian the right of way.  But cars may proceed across that crosswalk, as long as they do not endanger the pedestrian.  (I.e., they can “alter course” to avoid the pedestrian.)  Crosswalks do not have to be marked — any continuation of the line of the sidewalk, crossing an intersection, counts as a crosswalk in Virginia. 

Finally, as a bicyclist, I hate four-way stops for a wide variety of reasons.  It’s not just that drivers sometimes literally don’t see (perceive) you.  It’s more that drivers are a mix of those who follow the right-of-way rules, those who want to violate them to allow you to go first, and those who don’t think a bicycle can have right of way.  It’s particularly dangerous when you get one of each at the intersection, as one driver may politely wave you through as the another attempts to run you down.  In practice, it’s never clear what’s going to happen, which is why drivers should simply obey the standard right-of-way rules, treating a bicycle as they would any other vehicle.   But I admit that, as a timid bicyclist, I frequently do something which I doubt is legal, which is to cross simultaneously with the car next to me.  The car more or less “runs interference”, and the cross-traffic can’t hit me without going through the car first.  That only works, of course, if there is traffic on both of the intersecting streets.

The whole discussion of the Kingsley/Ware four-way-stop served as an important backdrop to part of the next section, regarding the Courthouse/Nutley/Maple neighborhood.  One suggestion that came up repeatedly for Courthouse was to add four-way-stop intersections at several of the cross-streets.  That might have the desired effect of reducing vehicle speeds, but unless there was a lot of enforcement, it’s not clear that stop signs alone were going to produce safe pedestrian crossings.

The study of the neighborhood bounded by Nutley/Maple/Courthouse

The Town Council’s direction to do something proactive in response to MAC was as much of a puzzler to the TSC as I thought it might be.  (See just prior post, “boil the frog”).  The TSC has never had to do that before, and it wasn’t clear that they a) wanted to, b) knew how to, or even c) what Town Council expected for this part of the work.

I did my best to offer some context, from the perspective of the neighborhood.  My take on it is that the Town is not just looking for fixes for our particular issues.   (Although that would be fine by us.)  I think that, more generally, Town Council is looking for something to be integrated with the overall redevelopment of Maple.  That is, some new process, new procedures, or new rules to address the issues that the conversion of Maple to high-density housing will bring.

As it stands now, we have a one-size-fits all process for traffic calming and sidewalk requests.  And that’s really oriented toward stable neighborhoods that have seen traffic grow over time, and now want to ask for (typically) a single fix.  So, for example, in 2018, the Seventh-day Adventist church took the lead in organizing a petition to have a flashing pedestrian crosswalk sign (“RRFB”) installed at Courthouse and Glen.

And in that context, what the Town had to offer the MAC-adjacent neighborhoods, in terms of protections or guarantees against rapid change in their quality of live, was … exactly nothing.  The entire solution consisted of a) wait until there is a problem and then b) get in line with everybody else.  That is, use the existing one-size-fits all process.

Many of us here think that’s not a great solution.  Among other things, if we are eventually going to restrict (e.g.) rush-hour access, it would work better if those signs were up before the new buildings were.  That way, people moving in will understand what they are facing in terms of restrictions on rush-hour cut-through on the local streets.  And for another, a set of prospective guarantees would signal that the Town actually cared enough about the adjacent neighborhoods to do something for them.

So I suggested a few things offhand, to be part of a package of new rules for what I would term the “MAC impact zone”.   For example, those streets might be promised expedited consideration for sidewalks.  They might get the Town’s help in petitioning for other traffic calming measures, so that they do not have to bear the full burden of dealing with the fallout from the Town’s rezoning actions.  That is, some comprehensive set of guarantees from the Town, for dealing with the impact of rezoning, that comes automatically as part of the MAC redevelopment process.

No clue whether that was helpful or not.  Back in the real world, here are some of the concerns and things that individuals asked for, for this area.

Partial or complete closure of Wade Hampton at Glen.  Many of the residents who spoke brought up closing Wade Hampton as their preferred solution for dealing with MAC development.  Mike Ahrens did a nice presentation on what was possible, maintaining pedestrian/bicycle/emergency vehicle access while preventing routine car access.  It’s not clear this would have the full support of the neighborhood when it comes to signing a petition, but of the people who showed up for this meeting, that clearly had strong support.

Four-way stops on Courthouse as a means to control speeding and to discourage use of Courthouse.   Several of the neighbors brought up the sharp increase in traffic on Courthouse, and the speeding (and, reportedly, street racing) that happens now on Courthouse.   (Apparently, the two places where the Town of Vienna police normally set up are well known, and not a strong deterrent to speeding on most of the road.)  Those living near the light at Nutley frequently have difficulty getting out of their driveways, as traffic typically now backs up past Meadow Lane Park.  Several suggested that placing four-way-stop intersections along the street would help.  In particular, several mentioned placing one at the Glen/Courthouse intersection.  (And a tip of the hat to John Runyon here, as he has been advocating for four-way stops for as long as I have been attending these meetings.)

Sidewalks on Glen.  Glen has a school bus stop (at Albrecht circle) where the kids literally stand in the roadway, waiting for the bus.  And, more generally, there are no sidewalks on Glen or Wade Hampton.  While some supported sidewalks, others were not in favor of that.  What was clear is that, absent sidewalks, families with strollers have no choice but to walk in the street, and that traffic turning off Courthouse to Glen certainly makes the street seem unsafe.

The folks on Millwood Court had a particular concern about parking, and wanted (e.g.) residential parking stickers.  They have the only street parking that is convenient to Maple in that area, and they already absorb the overflow/employee parking from the existing medical offices at Wade Hampton and Glen.  In addition, some (or I would claim, most) of the street parking on Wade Hampton may (or will) disappear with redevelopment and the proposed striping of the Maple end of the road to create three lanes.  With the addition of more retail space in the new MAC buildings, there is an expectation that this tight parking situation may get worse.  This cul-de-sac is also a place for individuals to turn around and return to Maple, and they would like to avoid that turnaround traffic.

Unlike Glen or Wade Hampton, a resident of Roland noted that Roland already has speeding and cut-through traffic issues.  And, as with the early discussion of the Ware/Kingsley intersection, the mere fact of an all-way stop, halfway down Roland, in no way guarantees that people actually will stop.  Absent enforcement, based on that testimony, AM commuters bypassing the Nutley/Maple light just routinely drive through the stop sign.  The commenter also called for an additional four-way stop at the intersection of Wade Hampton and Glen.

The importance of walking to school was raised repeatedly, and in particular, the need to protect students walking to Madison.  They are heavy AM users of the Nutley/Maple intersection, and tend to be in a hurry.   They are also an important factor for arguing for keeping the sidewalks open (Post #235) as 444 Maple Avenue is built, as it would be almost impossible for many to walk to Madison if those sidewalks were closed.  One suggestion for raising visibility of pedestrians in sidewalks was to provide them with flags to carry.  E.g., they’d pull a neon yellow flag out of a basket on one side of the intersection, carry it to the other, and deposit it in a basket there.  Apparently, this system is already in use in a few locations around Northern Virginia, and the TSC said that they would consider it.

One interesting tidbit is the Town apparently does have access to the technology needed to measure pedestrian traffic.  So they could, in fact, determine which streets have the heaviest pedestrian traffic and (e.g.) target safety improvements to those streets first.

The upshot of all of this is that the TSC will discuss this again at next month’s meeting.  But that for “the study”, the Town is going to have to hire a consultant (if for no other reason than to model the traffic impacts of the proposed changes).  The Chair made it clear that this was likely to be a fairly long process, and that most of that process is up to the Town Council, not the TSC.

One final point of process was raised, as the TSC does not have the authority to form a “task force” or other dedicated body for this study.  This is an issue, because the Town specifically wanted them to find a set of agreed-upon changes, as if they would be engaged with (representatives of) the citizens in the neighborhood.  At first blush, it does not seem as if TSC has the authority to (e.g.) select a subset of citizens to serve on a task-force-like committee.