Post 226: #closethecurbcutsnow

Posted on April 4, 2019

The Town has made much about closing curb cuts (parking lot entrances) along Maple, under MAC.  And the consultants for the (thing formerly known as the) Maple Avenue traffic study (post #223) duly echoed this with extended reference to the many curb cuts on Maple.

At various times, these curb cuts have been blamed for a) slowing traffic, b) increasing vehicular accident rates, and c) endangering pedestrians on the sidewalk.  For the moment, let me put aside truth versus fiction in these claims, and ask a simple question:

If these Maple Avenue curb cuts are such a clear public menace, why hasn’t the Town already started getting rid of them?   The Town owns the sidewalk.  How can our elected officials idly stand by, when the menace of excess curb cuts stalks the Town, threatening our prosperity and our very lives?

That was sarcasm.  But it’s a legit question.  It’s a question that I naively asked.  Seriously, if curb cuts are so bad, why don’t they close some of them? And the answer to that shows you exactly how proponents of MAC zoning will tell you only what they want you to hear. And not the full story.

After some research, my conclusion is that, practically speaking, the only way the Town can close a curb cut is to stuff a whole bunch of high-density housing on the lot behind it (i.e., MAC rezoning).  And so, the only practical way to close a curb cut is to have a more people  turning on and off of Maple, during the rush hour periods.

Once you figure that out, then it’s clear that the full effect of “closing curb cuts on Maple” is not the rosy picture painted by the Town.  You have to pay for that curb cut closure by adding to traffic turning on and off Maple.  Anyone who tells you that “getting rid of curb cuts” is an unalloyed positive for the Town is pulling your leg.  To put it politely.

In fact, I’ll up the ante on this.  If a property owner voluntarily agreed to allow it,  the Town could close a Maple Avenue curb cut.  So, with all the mayhem now being attributed to curb cuts, has the Town done anything at all about them?  Has the Town systematically pressured Maple Avenue property owners about closing Maple Avenue curb cuts?   Has it offered (e.g.) a property tax incentive for closing off curb cuts?   Has it identified the ones apparently associated with high accident rates and developed policies targeting those specific locations?

In short, if this is such a problem, then has the Town done anything whatsoever to address it?  Other than to use it to flack MAC?

Detail follows.

One illustration of “closing curb cuts” decreasing pedestrian safety.

I started thinking about this when I did a realistic assessment of what my daughter’s walk to Madison High School would have been like in the presence of  444 Maple West.  It may be worth your while to read that post as background.  In hindsight, that same principle applies to every curb cut closure that will occur under MAC.  If you understand why my daughter’s walk would have been less safe with 444 Maple West there, you understand why all this talk about “closing curb cuts” is just so much pro-MAC nonsense.  It fails to look at the complete picture.

Three outcomes from closing curb cuts under MAC

In general, there are three situations that may occur from closing curb cuts on Maple via MAC redevelopment.  All of them start with “you funnel a much higher volume of traffic through …”, and they only differ by what sort of opening onto Maple you funnel that traffic through.  The three options are addressed below.

1:  A different, busier, wider curb cut.    In the case of 444 Maple West, instead of what we have now, we’ll have a higher volume of traffic, concentrated at rush hour, moving through a single three-lane curb cut.  As I outlined in my prior post, that is almost certainly more dangerous for pedestrians.  My flat-footed guess is that it would also be more disruptive of traffic.

2:  A curb cut into a side street, and then to an uncontrolled intersection with Maple.  In the case of 380 Maple West, the multiple curb cuts (one on Maple, several on Wade Hampton) will be replaced with three (four?) garage/loading bay entrances and three (four?) curb cuts on Wade Hampton.  Traffic will then exit to Maple on what will become a narrower Wade Hampton, striped for three lanes at the junction with Maple.

At first blush, I don’t really see the difference between exiting and entering Maple via a three-lane curb cut (as with 444 Maple west), or a three-lane uncontrolled intersection (as with 380 Maple West). Except that this actually increases risk of pedestrian accidents, by relying on a road crossing instead of a sidewalk for the vehicle access.  In Vienna, from 2014 to the present, there appear to have been no pedestrian injuries on sidewalks (including curb cuts, post #214.) As was true in the Town’s 2011 accident study, pedestrian injuries occur primarily as people cross the street, in or out of crosswalks.

In other words, most drivers have the good sense to realize that sidewalks are for pedestrians.  So, they look for pedestrians when crossing sidewalks.  But roads are for cars, really.  And so, changing the location of the vehicle-pedestrian interaction from the sidewalk (444 Maple West) to the roadway (380 Maple West) likely increases (very small) risk of pedestrian injury.

Instead of crossing the stream of traffic while on the sidewalk (444 Maple West), pedestrians have to cross it while in the roadway (380 Maple West).  Historically, in Vienna, that’s more dangerous.

This does not even address the issue of the handful of people who walk up Wade Hampton to get to Maple.  With redevelopment, they will pass three driveways that all may be active during rush hour.  (One of which will have delivery trucks backing across the sidewalk to get into or out of the loading bays).  Speaking for myself, if I’m wily enough not to get hit on Glen (no sidewalks, blind curves, narrow roadway) I can probably traverse that.  But I can understand that some people might find that more of a challenge than it is now.

3:  A curb cut into a side street, and then to an stoplight-controlled intersection with Maple.  This describes the proposed Sunrise Assisted Living at Maple and Center.  But there are no curb-cut closures there — there is currently no entrance onto Maple from that property.  For Sunrise, this just maintains the existing curb cut on Center Street.

For purposes of discussion then, let’s pretend that this will be the model for the redeveloped Giant Food.  While not obvious from the ground, the Giant Food parking lot was originally laid out with rigid, almost classical symmetry.  There is a pair of curb cuts on Maple flanking a row of greenery leading into the shopping center itself.  Two curb cuts on Maple, center top of this picture:

At first blush, if curb cuts are as hazardous as the Town suggests, then getting rid of two curb cuts there would be an unambiguous good.  It increases any curb-cut hazards on the side street, but all vehicles entering and exiting the redeveloped property will leave and enter Maple via stoplight-controlled intersections.

But even with that, it’s not clear this enhances pedestrian safety.  In Vienna, recall, pedestrians get hit crossing the road, not while walking on the sidewalk.  So we’ve traded two locations where pedestrians cross the stream of traffic while on the sidewalk (historically, low-risk), for higher traffic volume where pedestrians cross the stream of traffic while on the street (historically, higher risk).  At best, the impact on pedestrian safety would be ambiguous.

And for the impact on traffic flow on Maple, you need to do a little arithmetic. MAC properties so far are coming in at around 100 persons per acre (my best guess).  The Giant property is a bit over 10 acres.  Even if the Town makes them tone down the density a bit, you’d expect … eh, maybe 900 people to live there.

That may not sound like much until you show what that works out to in terms of the surrounding neighborhoods.  For 444 Maple West, I took the time to count houses.  Here, I’m going to take a shortcut, because (based on 444 Maple West) I already know the answer.

Vienna has a population density of just under 3600 persons per square mile.  And so, if we expect 800 residents at the Giant Food property, that would be the same number of people as currently live in the (900/3600 = ) 0.25 square miles in the neighborhoods behind that.  Or, a population equal to everyone living in the area bounded Maple, the W&OD, and Niblick.  (That’s Maple avenue at the top.   Orient to the prior picture by the torquoise roof of the Outback Steak House.

A second way to orient yourself on the potential traffic issue is to realize that the parking lot pictured earlier has 600 parking spaces.  That’s not a bad guess for how many car-commuters you’re likely to get at a redeveloped Giant Food.  So you can picture this as the entire Giant shopping center parking lot emptying out every AM rush hour, and re-filling every PM rush hour.

So, for traffic, we’d have to ask the following question.  Do you really think that closing those two curb cuts on Maple, then doubling the number of people who have to enter and exit this neighborhood, using just two streets (Branch and Glyndon), will reduce congestion on Maple?

I don’t.  No matter what flavor of baloney the Town chooses to serve up on this one, no, I don’t think that trading two curb cuts on Maple, for doubling the traffic in and out of Branch and Glyndon, will reduce congestion on Maple.

The bottom line is that you have to evaluate “closing the curb cuts” in terms of the entire package.  The Town isn’t offering to close those curb cuts in isolation.  It’s offering to close them, in exchange for adding high-density housing on Maple.  And once you get that entire offer firmly in view, the claim that this is going to help the situation on Maple is dubious at best.

So why not just close curb cuts?

The Town of Vienna owns the sidewalk.  The Town has made curb cuts out to be a significant hazard and public nuisance.  Why doesn’t the Town close curb cuts, where feasible?  E.g., why not just close the existing Maple Avenue curb cuts entering the Giant Food parking lot?

For this, the data are thin on the ground and the arguments are mostly legal, instead of practical.   Thin on the ground because closing curb cuts, to commercial property, is a rare event.  Legal, because this then becomes a fight about property rights.

But, as near as I can tell, the answer is, this would probably be “a taking” under Commonwealth law.  And so, if the property owner objected, the Town would have to make its case in court.  And at that point, the whole argument would fall apart, because the presumed public menace from curb cuts in no way offsets the private benefit.

My translation:  These curb cuts are integral to having Maple Avenue function as the vehicle-oriented commercial zone that it is.  They are an important part of the commercial fabric of the street.  For the Town to remove them, it would have to find some other, equally-effective, equally-convenient way to get customers into and out of those commercial establishments.  And there is no such alternative.

I have not finished my research for this section, such as it is.  But I will return this afternoon to flesh out this section.  Briefly, what I have learned so far is the following.

  1.  Some jurisdictions (such as Washington DC) have a well-defined bureaucratic process for curb-cut closure.  They claim the right to close a curb cut at any time if it is ” … in the public interest or the public space is required to meet District transportation needs.”  Among the criteria to be used is whether the curb cut creates a safety hazard, balanced against any cost to the property owner for closing the curb cut.  Further, DC DOT has published a rule saying that if a homeowner’s parking can be accessed from an alleyway, they do not have a right to have a curb cut on a city street.
  2. In some cities, public outcry about particularly hazardous curb cuts has resulted in ad-hoc debate over forced closure.  But this is rare.
  3. Most of the literature on this is about closing illegal curb cuts in big cities, due to their impact on public parking spaces.  And not about closing legal curb cuts in the suburbs.  In other words, the idea that a suburban town would close commercial curb cuts is almost unheard-of.
  4. In 2014, VDOT instituted new rules and published “access management” standards for “entrances” on VDOT-controlled highways.  (For our purposes, entrance = curb cut).  Although these do not directly apply to portions of streets maintained by towns, those rules can be adopted by towns.    Such regulations, however, cannot be applied retroactively unless there is a change in the land use.  If not, VDOT …  “can still work with the developer/property owner, and make advisory comments to the locality, to reduce the number of commercial entrances and encourage a safer design or location.”

The quick takeaway from that is that in jurisdictions like DC, the city can force closure of existing curb cuts.  But in the Commonwealth, unless there is some change in a property’s use (e.g., requiring rezoning or conditional use), the Commonwealth leaves property owners alone.  They will offer advice, and try to persuade.  But the Commonwealth will not force landowners to close curb cuts.

Given the Commonwealth’s apparent attitude toward this, the Town’s only recourse for closing curb cuts against the property owners’ will would be as “a taking”.  That is, seizing some private property right (in this case, the right to access the public roadway) for the public benefit.

And at that point, the whole argument for curb-cut closure falls to the ground.  Because the court would have to weigh private harm against public benefit.  And when you think about how nebulous the benefits are — slight improvement in traffic flow, possible reduction in accident risk — against the private harm (loss of business) — then you see how unlikely a Virginia court would be to allow the Town to force closure of curb cuts.

Restated, the curb cuts are there because they serve a purpose.  And because, at present, the “public nuisance” or “public danger” aspects of them are small, relative to their commercial benefit.   They are part-and-parcel of our automobile-oriented commercial district.  In all likelihood, the Town would have no success in getting rid of them in any significant numbers.

The is probably the correct answer to my initial question.  They Town does not appear to even to have tried to close curb cuts (with persuasion, with tax incentives, or in any other manner) because it is unlikely to succeed.  Property owners are unlikely to give up the right to access Maple directly, for fear of harming the businesses on their properties.

And so, I return to the prior section:  The only way the Town can get rid of curb cuts is to add high-density housing under MAC.  And in that context, any claim of benefit from any curb cut removal has to be balanced against the traffic and safety impacts of having roughly 100 people per acre, living on Maple Avenue, on the lot behind that curb cut.