For years Vienna and Fairfax have been trying to revitalize their downtowns and make them more walkable and bicycle-friendly. But there’s a big disconnect with conventional traffic engineering wisdom. Getting more automobiles through the road faster trumps everything. Traffic calming measures such as squaring off intersections get in the way of this engineering priority.
One issue is institutional. VDOT controls the roads in Fairfax County.The agency is not accountable to local communities. Local control over roads could lead to more flexible, pedestrian-friendly designs. Although pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly design of Routes 7 and 123 will be critical to making Tysons Corner work as a transit-oriented community, VDOT shows little sign of flexibility in its auto-focused approach. This is one reason Fairfax County is looking into taking control of its roads.
But that’s not the only issue. Even county and local transportation divisions tend to narrowly focus on automobile “throughput.” Engineers are trained to move cars efficiently. Pedestrian and bicycle-oriented features are not familiar concepts to many traffic engineers. Local elected officials hear complaints about traffic all the time, and usually it is from a “windshield perspective.” So they, too, are often pressured to look for short-term, auto-oriented solutions rather than a more balanced approach.
In addition, often our elected leaders themselves have a windshield perspective. It can help to take them on walks and bicycle rides to broaden their perspective.
Until a better balance is struck between the needs of pedestrians, bicyclists, transit users and motorists, Vienna, Fairfax and other communities will not be able to attract a critical mass of people to revitalize their downtowns. One good step would be for VDOT and local transportation divisions to train all their engineering staff in the Complete Streets approach to street design.