Post #528: What’s your sign?


Mine is “No right turn, M-F, 7-9 AM”.

That’ s my sign, pictured below, at the corner of Courthouse and Moorefield Roads, SW.  I used to visit it occasionally, but these days I respect its demands for anonymity (as evidenced by the blurring in the second, more recent photo).

Why is that my sign?  More than two decades ago, I complained to the Town about cut-through traffic on my (then) quiet residential street, Moorefield Road.  At that time, AM rush hour traffic used Moorefield to bypass the light at Courthouse to get to Nutley Street southbound.

The Town changed that intersection in a major way, repainting the lanes, modifying the stoplight, and putting up that sign.  They went to all of that effort just to keep rush hour cut-through traffic off one quiet little residential street.

That occurred as part of a 1997 Town-wide traffic calming effort.  As with so many parts of ancient (pre-internet) Vienna history, the only on-line record of those events is in the Town of Vienna newsletter archive.  That traffic calming effort was the lead story for several months.

I’m not quite sure how Vienna went from that era — going to great lengths to preserve a small, quiet neighborhood — to the current era — where the Town will take no action until you pass a standard threshold of misery (Post #436).  To an era where a sign like the one above is simply off the table, beyond the pale, not even subject to discussion.  Nuh-uh, no way, now how.

But aside from complaining about that change, I’ll note one more thing about the Town’s prior approach to traffic calming.  Each of those newsletter articles emphasizes that Vienna was trying to learn from other local governments.  Each announcement of a meeting says ” … and provide information from other jurisdictions on their traffic calming efforts.”

So that sets me up for a future post.  A colleague sent me the traffic calming guide from Falls Church.  Turns out, they do things somewhat differently there, some of which I like, some of which I don’t.  For one thing, they have an explicit formula for pedestrian accident risk, and they prioritize based on that.  Riskiest situations get priority.  For another, they have a multi-tiered approach, where residents always have the right to petition, but some changes can be dealt with administratively (without having to submit a petition). And some petitions require just 51% of residents to sign, others require two-thirds — but at no point do they require the 75% that the Town of Vienna requires.

Just looking at that one jurisdiction — Falls Church — I’m beginning to see that there maybe value in a systematic review of what all of our neighboring jurisdictions do for traffic calming.  I’ll work on that this week and see what I can come up with.


Post #517: Last night’s Town Council meeting

The main topic of discussion at last night’s (1/27/2020) Town Council meeting was the proposed Sunrise assisted living facility.  Spoiler:  it passed.  The only other item of interest to me was the Town’s application for funding for a Maple Avenue parking garage.  That also passed.  The meeting materials are on this Town of Vienna web page.

There were a handful of surprises at that meeting.  The first surprise is that the Town has already posted its video at the link above.  That’s extremely helpful for citizens who want to see what went on while these topics are still hot.  I won’t bother to post my audio file, but I will post my Excel “index” file at this Google Drive link.  That Excel file is a running summary of what was said when, during the meeting.  My times will only approximately match the times in the Town video.

Continue reading Post #517: Last night’s Town Council meeting

Post #511: Three followups to the last Town Council work session

Source of this image is linked here.

This is about three unrelated points from the Monday Town Council work session that, in hindsight, struck me as possibly worth writing up:  The Town traffic simulation, the treatment of the Town strategic “plan”, and the end game 18 to 24 months from now.

Town traffic simulation.

Part of the Town’s “Multimodal” traffic study estimated the impact on traffic congestion from Maple Avenue development.  I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out what the consultants did to arrive at their numbers.  As of last night’s meeting, I have officially given up on that, because I can’t make head or tail out of it.

But I did take away one thing from trying to puzzle that out:  There’s a lot of uncertainty (wiggle room) in that calculation.  That’s worth noting, I think.  See if you can follow this.

  1. Back in August, the contractor presented results showing 758 additional net new evening rush-hour trips from Maple Avenue redevelopment.  They did not talk about it during that presentation, or during their next presentation.  But it was on a slide that they skipped over (Post #358).
  2. One issue I had with that is their “baseline” traffic, i.e., the number of trips that they assumed occurs right now.  Their graphic clearly showed that they assumed that (e.g.) currently-empty buildings were generating traffic on Maple.
  3. The single worst example of that was the assumption that the Suntrust Bank (east) currently gets 381 trips in the afternoon rush hour.  As previously noted, that’s a ludicrous number — it amounts to one car going into or out of that bank parking lot every 10 seconds.  Councilman Majdi called them out on that, but both the contractor and Town Manager strongly defended that as “science”.  I was so ticked by that misuse of the term “science” that I sat in the bank parking lot and counted cars to demonstrate that the actual traffic to that building was about one-tenth of that (Post #465).
  4. When I want to look at the final report, I couldn’t find those 381 trips.  As it turns out, at yesterday’s work session, it was revealed that the contractor removed those 381 existing trips from the baseline.  Simply zeroed them out.  That’s why they are no longer in the report. And so, presumably, we have no further cause for complaint.
  5. OK, fine, I can do arithmetic.  If they remove 381 from the baseline, that should then add 381 to the net new trips.  (Why?  Because you net out the existing traffic, when calculating the net new traffic.  If you reduce existing traffic by 381, then you should have increased the net new traffic from development by 381.
  6. And yet … in the final report, the net new trips from Maple Avenue actually decreased from 758 to 500.

So, without pondering how they justified that, just do the math.  Focus on the simple arithmetic of how they had to have gotten from the prior estimate to the current estimate.  Solve for X:  758 + 381 + X = 500.  Turns out, X = -639.  That is, they managed to extract a further 639 net new trips out of their analysis, to get from the original estimate that (presumably) netted out the Suntrust 381 in the baseline, to the final estimate that did not.  Just as a matter of arithmetic.

This X factor of -639 trips is what economists call a structural uncertainty in the estimate (as opposed to a statistical uncertainty).  It’s the uncertainty that arises from doing the numbers one plausible way versus another (as opposed to a more traditional statistical uncertainty, which arises from purely random factors, so to speak).

So this lower bound for the true stuctural uncertainty of the estimate — how much it changes based on choices made by the analyst — is larger than the estimate itself.

A lot of other things about the methods and results looked counterintuitive to me.  For example, the net new traffic during the AM rush hour, to the extent that it left Vienna, flowed mostly westward (i.e., against the direction of morning rush hour traffic).  About 2.5x as many additional cars exited Vienna at Nutley as at Follin.  But put those issues aside.  The simple arithmetic of getting from the draft to the final — the X above — is what convinced me that I would never have any real understanding of how they arrived at their numbers.

So this is truly a black box, and a black box it shall remain.  There are open-source software packages that allows individuals to model transportation networks (e.g., here, here, or here.)  All of them require considerable amounts of data as input (e.g., traffic light timings, traffic counts).  I’m not going to put in the effort to try to gin up my own estimate.  But my conclusion is that this is the only way to avoid having the results be a total black box.

Addendum:  Traffic counts and the K-Q curve.

Addendum:  I also have no clue what these traffic models do when actual traffic passes the peak of the “K-Q curve”.  (Briefly, as you try to stuff more and more vehicles through a given roadway (increase the density of cars per square foot, traditionally represented by “K”), each individual car may move more slowly, but in aggregate, the total flow of cars (represented by the letter “Q”) increases.  That is, at first, each car may move slower, but you get more total cars moving through the road segment.  But as you continue to add cars, you reach a point where the reverse is true:  You get so crowded that adding more cars actually reduces total traffic flow.  Not only does each car move more slowly, but you actually get fewer total cars to pass through the road segment in a given amount of time.  That point — where jamming more cars onto the road actually begins to reduce not just speed, but total traffic flow — that’s the peak of the K-Q curve, as in this diagram (k = density of cars, q = total flow of cars through the roadway, v = average car speed).

Source:  Wikipedia.

As I understand it, this is the reason you will see (e.g.) metered on-ramps (ramps with traffic lights) at the on-ramps to the inside-the-beltway portion of I-66.  They are trying to avoid passing the peak of the K-Q curve.   Once you pass that peak, you are helping nobody by allowing more cars onto the roadway.  Not only does every individual car move slower, but you actually get fewer total cars to pass down the highway in a given amount of time.  All you do is increase the size of the backup.

It sure seems to me that we hit the peak of the K-Q curve during morning rush hour.  At least sometimes.  At the point where traffic from the Courthouse and Maple light backs up all the way to Nutley, it’s tough for me to imagine what we haven’t hit and passed the maximum possible through-put of the Maple-Courthouse intersection.  Here we are, just before 9 AM, looking east and west on Maple, at the Nutley Street intersection.

But here’s the technical question.  Look at the diagram above and think of the curved line as a hill.  In terms of traffic counts, you get the same traffic count if you are halfway up the upslope of the hill (before the peak of the K-Q curve, where traffic is light and moving well) as you do halfway down the downslope side of the hill (past the peak, where traffic is packed and moving slowly).

I think this explains one oddity of the report, in that the consultants seem to think that we have one long rush hour period from about 8 AM to about noon.  Because they are looking at the traffic counts, and the flow of cars is about the same throughout that period.  Like so:  The flow of traffic (cars/hour) is the same at 9 AM as it is at 11 AM.

Source:  Vienna multimodal transit report, 12/20/2019 draft, page 3-13.

But as anyone who drives that road can tell you, there’s a stark difference in the level of traffic queues or waiting times between 9 AM and 11 AM.  Just before 9, traffic routinely looks like the pictures above.  Whereas around 11 AM, traffic flows far more freely.  But you see no difference on the graph above, because the traffic counts, by themselves, are blind to the fact that Maple hits capacity during the rush hour.  The count you get when you are on the downslope side of the K-Q curve (just before 9 AM, with huge backups as pictured above) is the same as the count you get when you’re still on the upslope of the curve (around 11 AM say, when traffic moves pretty well).

So that’s just an oddity that I noticed.  Traffic counts (cars/hour) do not, by themselves, accurately measure traffic, because of the ambiguity caused by hitting the peak of the K-Q curve.  Very light traffic and very heavy traffic can generate identical traffic counts.  And the graph just above doesn’t show that we have one long rush hour.  It just shows that the total traffic counts don’t change much between the absolute peak of the AM crunch (which I place at about 8:45 AM) and the must less crowded mid-morning period.  I think that, as much as anything, demonstrates that we hit some measure of capacity on Maple during AM rush hour.  Once you hit capacity on Maple — as I infer that we due during the AM rush — additional traffic does not result in additional traffic counts.

I’ll mention one other truly weird possibility.  At this most recent meeting, Coucilman Noble made much out of the new traffic light system that Vienna is getting.  (I have the vague notion that VDOT, not the TOV, is responsible for that, but that doesn’t matter).  If that traffic light system actually increases throughput during the periods when Maple is at capacity (something that I doubt will happen, per discussion of capacity above, but is possible), then, by traffic counts alone, it will make it look as if traffic has gotten worse during rush hour.  That’s just another example of the way in which traffic counts, alone, can provide a misleading indicator of traffic when a road is at capacity.  If there’s a fundamental change in the roadway (in this case, new light timing), traffic (counts) going up can mean that traffic (wait times) is going down.

And as a final, final note on that, if the Town of Vienna wants Vienna citizens to be aware of some profound benefit they are going to get from new traffic signals, I suggest that they actually provide at least some sort of description of what they intend to do.  Near as I can tell, the entirety of what Vienna has to say about this project is a total of 23 words on this page on the Town of Vienna website.  Normally, as you may realize, I will do my homework to understand what the Town is about.  But from the description, I can’t even find the words to Google up what this is.


Town Strategic “Plan”

In theory (and by law), anything the Town of Vienna government does needs to comply with the Town’s strategic plan.  But if you look back at when the Town developed MAC zoning, they developed MAC zoning (2014), then rewrote the strategic plan (“mixed use development) to match it (2015-2016).

This more-than-begs the question of what you mean by “plan”, if you rewrite the plan to match what you subsequently decided to do.  I have a vague idea that it isn’t even remotely legal to do that.

That said, based on the last work session, that’s the plan going forward.  When Councilman Majdi brought up the idea of addressing the comprehensive plan first, that was (of course) immediately shot down.  The agreed-upon sequence is now to rewrite the zoning (with apparently no restrictions whatsoever), and then once again rewrite the comprehensive plan to match whatever comes out of the zoning rewrite, if necessary.

Just in passing, and to underscore how loosey-goosey this is, Town staff have now set it up so that this Town Council is actually providing less guidance to this process than occurred during the original development of MAC zoning.  At least, under MAC, Town Council somehow arrived at a firm limit on building height.  Here … near as I can tell, anything goes.  Town Council has not publicly agreed on even one single thing that they want to see in a revised MAC zoning.  It’s all up to the Department of Planning and Zoning.  That’s no surprise, given that Planning and Zoning appears to be controlling this process.

Looking 18 months down the road.

Fundamentally, the limit on the density of development on Maple Avenue appears to be a political limit.  It’s really about what the median Vienna voter wants.  There’s no technical barrier to filling Maple Avenue with Chick-fil-A-car-washes.  It’s just that the people who live here do not, on average, seem very fond of that idea, and they will vote for people who say they won’t do that.

This is all the more true if you purposefully ignore any other possible limits to growth.  E.g., if you will not discuss development in the context of the capacity of Maple to move traffic, or in the context of impacts on nearby residential neighborhoods.  Barring all that — if you acknowledge no other limits — then the only limit on the density of Maple Avenue development is a political limit.

This is a point that Councilman Majdi brought up at that work session.  And either his fellow Council members didn’t get it, or they just shot it down as sort of knee-jerk reaction.

So I need to point out the following:  Town staff have structured this process so that our elected officials have no say in shaping the new MAC.  They will have no formal input in what happens to MAC zoning until the very end of the process.  The process will be controlled by the Department of Planning and Zoning, with input from the Planning Commission (still largely staffed by holdovers from prior Town Council.)  Only at the very end of the process will Town Council be presented with the finished products.

Councilmember Patel tried to reverse that — to get Town Council to have first say over the shape of the revised MAC zoning — and got quashed by the pro-MAC members of Town Council.

So I’m just pointing out the disconnect here.  The only functional limit on MAC density is a political limit.  And our political body is (formally, at least) completely shut out of the process of shaping the new MAC, until the very end.

The only logical conclusion is that this is likely to end (or, at least, risks ending) in some sort of train wreck.  The people actually structuring the new MAC are not subject to any political constraint — they are not elected.  And the people who are elected are not part of the MAC-rewrite process.  That’s exactly what the response to Councilmember Patel established.  But in the end, the constraint on what can and can’t be done is a political one.   So this is a fundamental mis-alignment of incentives, and poor overlap between scope of authority and scope of responsibility.  Town Council is going to be responsible for what comes out of this process, but they have been stripped of all authority to shape it.  

What guarantees that Town Council will be handed a new MAC that is politically acceptable?  Nothing.  The process is literally and purposefully structured that way.  Any notion that Town Council would offer overall guidance (by having first crack at proposals) was firmly snuffed out at this past Town Council work session.

And that’s the scenario that I reckon as a train wreck.  Suppose the very-pro-development Department of Planning and Zoning, working in a political vacuum, comes up with a zoning proposal that appears unacceptable to the median Vienna voter.  Then what happens?

I believe that Town staff are actually counting on that possibility of train wreck.  That is, they are counting on being able to cram this down Town Council’s throats, at the end of the process, one way or the other.  They think that those who oppose larger buildings and higher-density development will blink, in order to avoid that train wreck.  (E.g., to avoid vetoing a proposal that too two years and a quarter-million-dollar contract to develop, and that includes a bunch of purely technical and non-controverial fixes to Town Code in addition to a rewritten MAC.)  By refusing to separate out the non-controversial “clean up” portion of this work, from the more controversial changes to Town zoning, they can given Town Council a one-vote take-it-or-leave it choice (as I have already noted, per Post #483 and others).

Or, possibly, they are hoping that this next election will lead to a change in the fortunes of the pro-MAC portion of Town Council.  So that by the time this comes to a vote, they’ll have the votes for a higher-density MAC zoning.  That’s certainly possible.  From what I can tell, the anti-MAC forces seem totally disorganized at this point.  I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Post #510: Last night’s Town Council work session

The materials for this meeting are on this Town of Vienna web page.

I had intended to record this meeting, but I goofed, and so I have no audio recording.   This writeup is based entirely on about a dozen pages of sketchy notes.

For a brief shining moment, last year, I used to be able to say, no problem, the Town will post its recording of the meeting.  But they’ve just quietly stopped doing that.  In hindsight, looks like that started at the end of November, per the graphics above.  I noticed it in early December, (see Post #501, Hebrews 13:8), and tried to make light of it.

But ultimately, it’s not funny.  Well, it’s kind of funny, in a hypocritical way, for a Town Council that blathers about how deeply and sincerely they want “transparency” in Town government.  In any case, with regard to timely access to the content of these meetings, we’re right back where we were a year ago.  If one of the the peasantry citizens wants to know what the Town government is up to, he or she must attend these meetings in person.  Or have somebody record it for them.  As I intended, but failed, to do in this case.

And so, as we start the new year, we’re back to where we were a year or two ago, with respect to public access to the Town’s recordings of these meetings.

And, despite an election, and turnover of some Town Council seats, in a nutshell, that’s pretty much my take on this entire work session.  Nothing has changed.

Some detail follows.

Town actions from the Multimodal study.

The first part of the meeting dealt with action items from the Town’s Maple Avenue Multimodal study.  At one point, one member of Town Council described these items as “window dressing”.  I think that was in the context of Maple Avenue traffic congestion.  And that comment pretty much summarizes it for me.

So, they’re going to make the W&OD road crossings uniform, and muck about with the intersection of Church and Mill, and so on.  If you want to know the details, look at the meeting materials here.

It appeared that there was no apparent effort to do any type of cost-effectiveness analysis.  So this appeared to be a some collection of targets of opportunity and pet projects.

Not that anybody is listening, but I’ll give an example.  If you search the contractor’s appendix, looking for accidents with pedestrians, you’ll find none at the corner of Church and Mill.  If you search the Commonwealth’s TREDS, for the past five years, ditto.   By my recollection, it’s rare even to see a pedestrian there when the road is busy.  Near as I can tell, the Town does not even have a count of pedestrian volume for that intersection (as it does for others, as part of its 2015 traffic light timing study).  They don’t know if, in a typical rush hour, one person crosses that on foot or 100 people do.

And so … closing off the right-turn-lane, and reconfiguring the intersection of Church and Mill is a Town of Vienna pedestrian safety priority.  Perhaps there’s some long-standing history of accidents there that does not appear in any current set of accident reports?  Otherwise, it beats me why that’s somehow a priority, from the standpoint of pedestrian safety.

Don’t know that there’s much else to talk about.

The Town is thinking of spending $400K/year (hopefully, of somebody else’s money) on a trolley for Maple and Church.  I’m not even going to bother to try to grasp the cost-benefit analysis there, but I will take a minute to correct errors of fact in that discussion.  Fairfax County took over almost all local bus transit from  Metrobus, starting in 1985.  (So the lack of a Metrobus route down Maple should not be a surprise to anyone.)   The Fairfax Connector 463 (Maple Avenue) service is not rush-hour only, but in fact runs every half hour M-F from about 5 AM to about midnight.

That said, I was probably the only person in the room who has ever ridden that bus (Post #225).  I guess the lack of understanding about the existing Maple Avenue bus service is understandable, because I don’t think anybody there actually gave a crap one way or the other, whether or not the description of current bus service was accurate.  If the Town wants a Trolley, then the Town wants a Trolley.  Besides, Vienna is too bougie for a bus (Post #416).

As a coda, I should note that Connector service is a lifeline for people with disabilities, who (in my limited experience) are significantly over-represented among ridership.  Pretty sure the Town isn’t even thinking about ADA access issues for the proposed Town Trolley.

And I guess I need to say that the Town is going to fund a study of the need for parking — in 2023, after they’ve funded two additional parking garages.  So, we’re back to that ready, fire, aim approach that appears to be a tradition in Town of Vienna planning.

Read the meeting materials if you want to know more.

Scope of work for rewriting the entire Vienna zoning code

Bottom line here is that I really don’t have the heart to write this up.  Suffice it to say that the Town Council spent spent a couple of hours, mostly wordsmithing the minutiae of the Staff-written Scope of Work document.

Town Council’s comments on that document were developed in private, via a Noah’s Ark (Post #480) meeting.  And, oddly, while it’s illegal for the Town to vote on anything in private — and so, clearly illegal to vote on anything in a Noah’s Ark meeting — nevertheless the discussion clearly separated out the comments that had four or more positive votes from Town Council members, from those that had three or fewer.

So that was a learning experience.  They can’t vote in private, by law.  But … approving comments with four or more in agreement was not the same as voting.  Got it.

So they spent their time buried in the details like good little boys and girls, doing exactly and only what Town Staff directed them to do.  Anyone who was naughty, and tried to raise bigger issues (Majdi), was firmly quashed.  Any notion that (e.g.) you might moderate the pace of development if it might increase traffic congestion was firmly excluded.  Any notion that Town Council would get to see the issues early on, and so direct the course of this from the outset, was firmly put down.  Any notion that you might separate out the non-controversial “clean up” portion of the task from the controversial policy changes, and so have separate votes on those pieces, was absolutely rejected.  The idea that we shouldn’t repeat the mistakes of the MAC zoning development was immediately swept aside.  And any notion that Town Council should lead this process, by expressing a clear description of what they desire for the Town of Vienna, faded as fast as a fart on a windy day.

So, God bless Councilman Majdi for giving it a try.  But he was the lone voice of dissent on … yeah, pretty much all of that.

Bottom line, as far as I can tell, is that Town Staff — meaning the Department of Planning — will now proceed to lead Town Council by the nose through this process.  They’ll present Town Council with finished pieces of the new zoning  (“modules”), and … I don’t know, maybe allow them to do some more wordsmithing.  Then … just guessing here … force them to vote on the whole thing, up or down.

So, for me, this meeting just validated what I believed to be true in Post #487 and Post #495.

And if you don’t believe my description, listen to it for yourself.  Oh, sorry, I guess you can’t.  The Town has a recording of the meeting, to aid Town staff in constructing the minutes for the meeting.  But you’re not going to get to hear that.

Post #506: Tonight’s Town Council meeting

There are at least three interesting agenda items for tonight’s Town Council meeting.  You can find the meeting materials on this page.  One has to do with “vacating” town alleyways (i.e., selling the land to an abutting land owner).  A second has to do with the Town setting a goal for the “level of service” on Maple Avenue, that is, a goal for the most congestion it will tolerate before trying to do something about it.  Third, the Town is finalizing plans to hire a contractor to tell them how much it will cost to put the utility lines underground along Maple. Continue reading Post #506: Tonight’s Town Council meeting

Post #491: NVTA granted us money for the Church Street garage?

If you read this website, you know that I’m certain that the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA) has absolutely no business paying for shopper/diner parking in Vienna.  Their job is to fund projects that reduce traffic congestion, not to pay for merchants’ parking.  To put it as plainly as possible, I think we’re getting their money under circumstances that are just shy of outright fraud.  See (e.g.) Post #447, Post #446.  And yet, NVTA was willing to fund half of the now-defunct Mill Street garage project.

But as part of the planning for the 2020 bond issue, Vienna assumes that NVTA will pay for 59% of a proposed Church Street garage, and 100% of a proposed Patrick Henry garage.

In fact, at this last Town Council meeting, the Director of Finance said unambiguously that Vienna had won a grant from NVTA to finance the Church Street garage.

To which I had to say, uh, what?  When did that happen?  Near as I can tell, there isn’t even a plan yet, for that Church Street building, let alone an agreement-in-principle for the Town to buy into it. How the heck did we get them to fund that when the building is still in the vague-concept stage.

And then, uh, what, again, for the 59% cost share (calculated).  That’s an odd number, where did that come from?

And then I put it all together.   And when I put it all together, it just highlighted how sloppy NVTA is with its awards.  Which I think is consistent with how we got the money in the first place.

NVTA was willing to pay for half of the now-defunct Mill Street garage, a sum of $2.3M.  That was in return for reserving half the parking places for (imaginary) public-transit commuters.  And now, apparently, they’re just going to let the Town of Vienna apply that $2.3M to the proposed Church Street garage.

Let me emphasize:  Different building, different fraction of cost covered, different number of parking places.  Different location, completely different access to the street, looks like far more difficult entry and exit, no longer adjacent to the W&OD (yeah, we even argued that people would drive to Mill Street, park there, and then bike to work), different distance to bus stops, different distance to Metro.

But the same $2.3M award. Which makes absolutely no sense.  But having NVTA pay for shopper/diner parking in Vienna makes no sense in the first place.

Post #479: How many people could you house at the Giant Food property, if you really tried?

(Click this link to download a spreadsheet with all the VDOT traffic counts for the Town of Vienna:  VDOT traffic counts 9-27-2019)

This is a little thought experiment, prompted by Town Staff’s continuing to push the idea of six-story buildings under MAC.  Rather than fight that, I figure, what the heck, let’s just run with it.  What would we get?

Best guess?  A six-story MAC development on the Giant Food property would yield about 1400 new residents, or roughly an 8.5 percent increase in the population of the Town of Vienna.  All in one place.  And maybe a 15 percent increase in peak rush hour traffic on Maple?

Such is the power of medium-density housing.

Detail follows. Continue reading Post #479: How many people could you house at the Giant Food property, if you really tried?

Post #474: 11/26/2019 Transportation Safety Commission meeting

I attended part of the TSC meeting last night.  There was a total of three people in the audience.

I brought the situation at the Chick-fil-A drive through to their attention (see just-prior post).  They seemed to understand that this might be hazardous and asked Department of Public Works to look into it.

Otherwise there were just a few things of note.

Rental electric scooters (Post #472 and earlier posts).  They made some small amendments to the “memorandum of understanding” that would govern any rental scooter agreements here in Vienna.  Mostly, they wanted language added that would specifically mention the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), in the sense of banning any scooter parking that would impede ADA-mandated access points.

They also had extensive discussion of the geofencing of Maple, Nutley and possible other streets to limit speeds, with the idea being that scooter users would likely be on the sidewalk on those streets.  There was some discussion of limiting speed to 6 MPH on those roads, but they stuck with the DPW recommendation of 10 MPH.

So, in a nutshell, if rental electric scooters are offered here in Vienna, the rules will look something like this, unless the Town Council changes them at their next meeting:

  • It is legal to ride on the sidewalk (but riding in the road is encouraged where it is safe to do so).
  • Speed limit of 20 MPH, except Maple and Nutley speed limit of 10 MPH (under the assumption that they’ll be most on the sidewalk on those street).
  • You can park them anywhere, but you can’t block any right of way (e.g., sidewalk) and in particular you can’t block any ADA access.  (And obviously, you can’t park them on private property without the property owner’s permission or acceptance.)
  • To enforce that, they are going to ask the vendor to require that each user send a picture of the parked scooter (or some equivalent technology).  Apparently, that system — you need to send a photo of the parked scooter in order to end your trip — is commonly used as a way to enforce reasonable parking of the scooters.

My opinion is that it’s probably wishful thinking to believe that a vendor would offer rental scooters here.  But you never know.  In particular, our Metro ridership (based on Census survey data) tends to be an older, high-income population.  I doubt that rental scooters are likely to generate many trips to Metro.  But again, you never know.

My (scant) observation in Fairfax City was that these were used by most college-age kids, and that the Fairfax City ban against using these on the sidewalks was routinely ignored.  (Per Fairfax City:  “City Code currently prohibits e-scooters, e-bikes, and other vehicles from sidewalks and trails (except on certain designated routes). “)  So even if you don’t like the idea of rental electric scooters on the sidewalks, my guess is, if they are going to be used here, there’s no practical way to keep them off the sidewalks.

One last tidbit:  Apparently, and news to me, electric scooters are allowed on the W&OD.  That was announced by DPW staff at this meeting.  I could find nothing on-line to validate this, not even on the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority website.  Their website notes that e-bikes are allowed, but as far as I can tell, there’s no mention of electric scooters.

Separately:  Unsafe conditions on Kingsley and Tapawingo.  DPW met with citizens regarding unsafe intersections on Kingsley and Tapawingo, on November 19 and 20.  The had a total of about 22 citizens show up to discuss potential changes to those roads and intersections to improve safety.

Post #465: Suntrust Bank, PM peak hour trips: 36, not 381.

This post is sponsored by the Department of Way Too Much Time on My Hands.  It is a followup to Post #460.

I sat in the Suntrust (east) parking lot during yesterday’s afternoon rush hour.  I counted cars going into or out of the lot.  (Each such vehicle movement — either into or out of the lot — is a “trip” in traffic parlance.)  Starting at 4 PM, I counted trips for successive 15-minute intervals, and from those, calculated the trips in the peak hour that occurred between 4 PM and 6 PM.

I counted 36 trips during the peak PM hour.

This should be contrasted with the 381 trips that the Town’s contractor, Kimley-Horn, assumed as part of their estimate of the impact of MAC on Maple Avenue traffic. 

The discrepancy is, in fact, more than a factor of 10 (order-of-magnitude).

Science, my ass.

By overstating the existing traffic by ~350 cars, Kimley-Horn understated the increased traffic from MAC development by ~350 cars.  That’s how the traffic projection methodology works.

Just in passing, I’ll note that this error, alone, for this one building, is on-order-of half as large as the entire estimated impact of MAC on traffic, per the Kimley-Horn study.  In case I need to translate that, it means that, officially and professionally, we still have no clue what MAC zoning is likely to do to Maple Avenue traffic.  With just this one whopping discrepancy, we have simultaneously spent our tax dollars and ensured that anything our contractor gives us in return will be deeply suspect.

And there isn’t just this one discrepancy.  I’m not even going to bring up the minus 1 again (Post #364).  Or the implausibility of the estimates for several other properties.

I’m so depressed by this whole scene that I’m not even going to editorialize about it.  I’m just going to make one comment about real science.

On this particular issue, I think it has reached the point that if I want an credible estimate of this key item, I’m going to have to buy the ITE trip generation manual and do it myself.   The calculation itself really ain’t rocket science.  And that way, I could make the whole thing open-source, instead of a black box, and we could all examine the reasonableness of the results.  We could do what real scientists call a “sensitivity analysis”, that is, test how much the results change if key assumptions are changed.   We could directly test the robustness of the results, so if they really are a shot in the dark, we’d at least be aware of that.

Instead of turning over one rock at a time.

Those of you who have been following this issue don’t need to know any more.  For the rest of you, a brief summary of the story follows.  As well as a full explanation of why this was like shooting fish in a barrel.

Continue reading Post #465: Suntrust Bank, PM peak hour trips: 36, not 381.

Post #464: Decoding the Vienna Multimodal traffic study: Comparison to the Fairfax 527 filing

Post #456 was a heavy lift.  I spent all my time finding the facts about Chapter 527 and the Fairfax County 527 filing for Tysons.  That left no time for putting that 527 filing into a larger context.  If you want facts, read that post.

This one is the first of a series of posts about the larger picture.  I’m going to end up with the phrase “What do we want Maple Avenue to be?”.  But for now, I’m starting with a flat-footed comparison of the Fairfax County 527 filing and the Town of Vienna Multimodal transportation study.

The point of this post is how peculiar the Town’s “Multimodal” study seems, compared to the Fairfax 527 filing, where the two overlap.  And then secondarily, how peculiar the Town’s “Multimodal” study is, period, from the standpoint of cars as a mode of transportation.

At first, I thought that maybe the consultants for that study were just not very good.  But in hindsight, I’m pretty sure that the problem lies with the Town of Vienna.  With no hard evidence whatsoever, I’m willing to bet that the consultants had been told that they could not consider adding any lanes to Maple Avenue.  As is usual in Town of Vienna government, that would have happened with no public debate or even any public mention of that constraint.

It’s either that, or the Kimley-Horn consultants were absolutely incompetent, which I think is not even remotely plausible.  This will become clear when I compare the two proposed solutions (527 vs Multimodal) for traffic congestion at the Maple/Beulah intersection (below).

And once you make that observations, much of the rest of the apparent peculiarity of the Vienna Multimodal study comes into focus.  Much of what was proposed in the “Multimodal”  study would have made it somewhat harder to use a car in the Town of Vienna.  I don’t necessarily think that was the point.  I think it was a byproduct of what the consultants were charged with doing.  But I do think the consultants went well out of their way to downplay that.  It was implicit, but that’s all it was.  And that point brings me to the last section, “Road Diet”, where local governments have an up-front explicit strategy of making it harder to use cars for transportation.

The Maple/Beulah intersection

Both the Fairfax 527 plan and the Town of Vienna Multimodal study contained proposed fixes for traffic congestion at the Maple/Beulah intersection.  The 527 filing predates the Vienna Multimodal study by about a decade.  The contrast of the two proposed fixes could not be sharper.

First, examine the Fairfax proposal (below).  This seems like a fairly normal road-widening project.  Add some turn lanes to get from Maple west-bound onto Beulah.  In addition, where the very short Beulah turn lane fills up (between Branch and Beulah), add enough width to the road that you could have double turn lanes there.

All told, that intervention appears to address very directly the main problems with that intersection.  It was estimated to have cost $1.9M in 2009 dollars.

Fixing the Beulah/Maple intersection, from the Fairfax County Tysons Chapter 527 filing.

Now look at the two proposed solutions in the Vienna Multimodal study, the next two pictures.  They include brand new road segments, plowing new roads through private property, closing road segments and turning them into linear parks, and eliminating either the Beulah or Branch light on Maple.  Note that individuals traveling west on Maple would be forced to backtrack to get to Beulah.  Individuals traveling west Branch would be forced to backtrack to get to Maple westbound.

All told, that’s a) really odd, b) far more radical, and c) estimated to cost anywhere from $2.1M to $9.9M to implement.  And, as Councilmember Springsteen pointed out, the second of the Multimodal options shown above literally could not be implemented with the buildings as they currently stand.  You’d have to knock down a shopping center to do that one.

So, now, ask yourself this question:  Are the Kimley-Horn traffic engineers really that incompetent? No.  Surely they knew of the 527 filing.  Why, given that, would they propose a far more costly, far more destructive, and far less functional solution?

They could have started from the 527 solution, and tried to make that better.  Why didn’t they?  In engineering terms, what they proposed was inferior to the 527 solution along every dimension:  Cost, functionality, and private property destruction.  

There must have been some additional constraint on what they were allowed to do.  What they presented was the best they could come up with, given the limitations imposed on them.   So, what constraint would yield these solutions?  No new lanes on Maple.

So I think that, one way or the other, they were given the instruction that they were not to add any traffic lanes to Maple Avenue.  To me, that’s the only thing that explains totally ignoring the existing 527 solution, and coming up with something that is inferior in every engineering aspect.  Except for the fact that it “fixes” the intersection without adding lanes to Maple.

Then, if you read through the rest of their recommendations, you will note the following.

  • No new lanes on Maple, anywhere.
  • Removing lanes from other intersections in the interest of pedestrian safety.
  • Reducing total green-light times on Maple traffic lights (“leading pedestrian interval”) in the interest of pedestrian safety.
  • Removing parking on church, in the interest of bicycle mobility.

And so on.  Outside of Maple, most of those proposals would make it harder to use a car in Vienna.  Not as an explicit goal, but as a side-effect of what was being proposed.

So, outside of Maple Avenue, you have a bunch of solutions that would make life easier for pedestrians and bicyclists, at the expense of motorists.

Only, the way it came across was: make life easier for pedestrians and bicyclists at the expense of motorists

On Maple, you had any solution that might work … except those that involved additional lanes.   There, as presented, they never even hinted that the second clause was part of the equation.

And so I get back to Councilman Springsteen’s comment on the proposed Beulah intersection fix.  He directed his comments to the consultant, and stopped just short of saying that the proposed solution was totally crazy. 

And I agree.  But it’s not the consultants who are were crazy.  It was the Town of Vienna government.  If you want to know why the consultants came up with those expensive, invasive, and impractical solutions, ask them why they didn’t just do something like the Fairfax 527 proposal.  And at that point, I’m pretty sure that, if they are honest about it, they’ll point the finger where it belongs:  At the Town of Vienna government, the people who gave them their marching orders for this study.

Road diet

I want to sharpen the focus on cars-vs-other-modes by bringing in the term “road diet”.  Google it and you’ll immediately get hundreds of entries.  And most of those will embody a whole lot of anger.  Which may well explain the stealthy aspects of the Town of Vienna Multimodal study as it relates to car use in Vienna.

Road diet.  Crudely put, this is shorthand for purposefully reducing the vehicle carrying capacity of a roadway.  Removing a lane, say, or otherwise reducing the ability of a road to move cars.  Sometimes, this is done solely to reduce the number of cars traveling past some point, or reduce their speed.  It can be cast purely as a safety measure, for example.  More typically, it is done in order to favor (or allow) some other mode of transport, such as bike lanes, sidewalks, bus lanes, or similar.

The point I am trying to make is that with a “road diet”, the local government is up front about what they are trying to do.   They will have open debates on the merits of reducing vehicle capacity (safety, neighborhood quality-of-life, more sidewalks and bike lanes) versus drawbacks (greater traffic congestion).

My wife clued me in on a local road diet going on right now along Seminary Road in Alexandria.  You can read the Patch article at this link.  In an nutshell, they reduced it from two car lanes in each direction to one lane in each direction, a center turn land, and bike lanes.  With the predictable result that you have stalled traffic sitting next to empty bike lanes.  And a lot of angry commuters.

I have no opinion on whether this is a good idea or not, on Seminary Road.  It’s none of my business.  But what does this have to do with the Town of Vienna, and Maple Avenue?

First, the Vienna Multimodal Study is more-or-less a stealth road diet.  OK, it’s more of a maintenance diet for Maple.  Instead of taking away lines, the Town has just (quietly?) decided that they will never consider adding lanes to Maple anywhere.   It’s a diet in the sense of not being allowed to gain weight, no matter what.  And then, for the rest of the Town, it was more a question of cutting out a few snacks:  A turn lane here or there, a few extra seconds of green-light time, maybe some parking places, and so on.

I guess I’ve run the diet analogy into the ground at this point.

Second, near as I can figure, this issue — cars versus others — is a big part of what Town officials mean when they say “But what do we want Maple Avenue to be?”.  That’s not all of it, but I think that’s about half of it:  How far are we willing to go to accommodate traffic?   They never seem to have any concrete discussion of that catch-phrase, so that’s going to be the subject of my next post, to try to sharpen up just exactly what Town officials mean when they say that phrase.