Post #436: Threshold of traffic misery

Posted on October 30, 2019

This post is mostly for benefit of the people in my immediate neighborhood.  This is about the study that Town Council called for, of the neighborhood bounded by Courthouse, Nutley, and Maple.

I went to the Transportation Safety Commission meeting last night with one goal in mind.  I wanted a clear answer to what I thought was a fairly simple question.  Boiling it down, in the context of the Town’s decision to allow high-density housing along Maple via MAC zoning, my question had two key parts

Will the Town of Vienna act prospectively, to preserve a low-traffic neighborhood, and defend it against the traffic increases brought on by MAC development?

On the first part — prospectively — I got a clear answer.  The “prospective” part of this study is that the Town will take existing traffic counts, and add the projected traffic increases from approved MAC projects to them.  So for this study, the Town will not use existing traffic, they’ll construct a projection of traffic by tacking on the developers’ estimates of traffic to be generated by their new buildings.

Putting aside the quality of those projections (e.g., Post 364), all this means is that the Town will repeat the same calculations that the developers of 444 and 380 Maple did.  The sole difference is that they’ll refresh the traffic counts.

On the issue of acting to preserve a low-traffic neighborhood, the answer was not at all clear.  So, major caveat: What you will read next is my reading of the tea leaves, based on what was said.What I got, when I pushed the question, is that they weren’t going to consider that at this point.  But my impression, when the dust had settled, is the following:

My best guess is that no, the Town will not act to preserve a low-traffic neighborhood.  I’m guessing — actually, I’m fairly confident — that the next step in the Town’s study will be to compare the projected traffic in each neighborhood with the existing standard that the Town uses to determine whether “traffic calming” measures may be warranted.  I.e., the threshold used to determine whether or not to put a speed hump on a residential street.

In other words, literally the only difference between this study (of our currently low-traffic neighborhood) and the Town’s standard analysis for traffic calming will be that the Town will add in projected traffic from the approved MAC buildings, based on the developers’ projections.

To summarize where I stand on this:  My wife and I bought our house in large part because it was in a quiet neighborhood adjacent to Maple.  The Town then changed the zoning to encourage the construction of high-density housing (“mixed use”) along Maple.  The result — so far — is approval of two large new buildings whose users will almost certainly view my street as a convenient cut-through.    We were hoping that the Town would act to try to preserve the quiet character of the neighborhood.  We were hoping the Town would act to offset some of the negative impact its rezoning decisions would have on my neighborhood.  We were hoping it would do what it could to prevent my street from turning into yet another of those Vienna streets whose residential character is marred by high traffic.

In short, we were hoping the Town would act to clean up the mess this is going to make of my neighborhood.  And, as I read the tea leaves at this point, the answer is no, they won’t do that.  We have to wait until traffic trashes our neighborhood, to the same extent as it trashes the rest of Vienna, before the Town will feel any obligation to do anything to reduce the impact of the changes that it caused by rezoning Maple.  So, if I have interpreted this correctly, only when we get to the point that we’d qualify for (e.g.) a speed hump, under the standard rules, will the Town consider taking action.   As I read it, projected traffic on our street will have to exceed the standard threshold of traffic misery before the Town will do anything.

So — again, assuming I have interpreted this right — the Town simply isn’t in the business of preserving quiet neighborhoods.  That’s not on the agenda.  It isn’t in the business of trying to maintain quality of life, as far as traffic goes.  Not even when it’s the Town’s decision (to rezone Maple) that’s degrading quality of life in a neighborhood.

Finally, we got a clear indication of how little the Town is not willing to do.  Department of Public Works stated, unambiguously, that they will never recommend any type of no-entry or no-turn-during-rush-hour signs.  The (sole?) rationale is that such signs merely divert traffic to other streets.  Town Council may always override that decision if it chooses to do so.

(I’ll explain why this no-sign policy matters critically in this case.  The Tequila Grande/444 Maple West project is going to result in maybe 250 adults living at the corner of Maple and Nutley.  Who knows how many will be added when and if the rest of that block redevelops under MAC.  The path of least resistance, connecting them to southbound Nutley in the AM rush hour, is probably going to be my little street.  But a cheap and simple no-right-turn-during-rush-hour sign at Maple and Wade Hampton would prevent that.  Another one at Pleasant would do the same there.  But if neither one is an option, we’re going to have to ask for much more radical changes than just putting up a sign.)

And, weirdly, that’s completely consistent with the rest of it.  The message is that we all have to be equally miserable from traffic.  Even if it’s the Town’s rezoning decision that creates the traffic in your neighborhood.  The Town simply has no interest in keeping a peaceful neighborhood peaceful, regardless.

Well, at least it’s good to know the rules.  The clear takeaway from this is that if you are planning to move to Vienna, don’t buy a house near Maple.  And by all means, buy on a cul-de-sac.  Because anything else puts you at risk for being in a high-traffic neighborhood.  And if your neighborhood is as unlucky as mine has been, the Town won’t act until your neighborhood hits the required level of traffic misery.  That’s my best guess for how this will all shake out.

Codas and minor technical notes.

First, I guess that some will read this posting and consider it nothing more than pleading for special treatment.  But I look at it more as a question of cleaning up your own mess.  It’s not as if this additional traffic came out of nowhere.  It’s a result of the Town’s actions.  The Town’s decision to rezone Maple is going to add a mess of traffic to my street.  And because we have a pleasant neighborhood now — relatively low traffic — the Town will likely do nothing to clean up that mess. Or, more to the point, do nothing to keep that mess off my street.

Second, as envisioned, this is a one-off study.  It does nothing new, and it does nothing to modify the MAC rezoning process.  There isn’t going to be any standard set of “neighborhood protection” measures to be added to MAC.  And I think that makes sense, because there’s no intent to protect the Maple-adjacent neighborhoods.  The fact that the additional traffic is cause by the Town itself — by its decision to rezone — makes no difference.

Finally, maybe my neighborhood was the last quiet neighborhood adjacent to Maple.  So maybe the Town just plain doesn’t have to worry about trashing any more neighborhoods with MAC development, because the rest of the streets connecting to Maple either don’t go anywhere, or are already trashed by traffic?

My guess is, no, that’s not right.  Because no matter how bad traffic gets, it can always get worse.  So I suspect that this problem isn’t going away.  Neighborhoods that are going to bear the brunt of the additional traffic generated by these MAC projects are going to continue to raise objections.

But at least when this study is finished, we’ll all know what the rules are.  My best guess, at this point, is that the only accommodation the Town will offer will be to add projected traffic from a new MAC building to their standard process for determining whether a street qualifies for traffic calming.  And so the clear messages are 1) MAC projects are going to dump more traffic into your neighborhood and 2) tough luck.  Until you’re as miserable as the rest of Vienna, it’s not the Town’s problem.  The Town will not, in fact, try to clean up its own mess.

That’s how I see it.