Route 7 near Seven Corners has many pedestrians but few sidewalks or safe crossings. Photo by the author.

If you live in Fairfax and want to walk or bicycle to the 7-11, your job or to your child’s school, chances are you will have to cross a major road designed more to move traffic than for your safety.

To bicycle to our son’s elementary school, we have to cross both Route 236 and Route 50, plus a busy secondary road, Jermantown Road. During peak hours Route 236 and 50 have many turning vehicles and short walk cycles. The crosswalks are poorly lit, increasing the risk of collisions with pedestrians.

But these crosswalks are still a lot safer than on many other arterial roads in Fairfax County. Twenty two pedestrians were killed on Route 1 between 1995 and 2005, according to a 2008 report by the Coalition for Smarter Growth. Eleven pedestrians were killed on Route 7.  A lot of people live along these streets, and many of them don’t drive. Yet the streets lack sidewalks, lighting and safe crossings.

Virginia ranks last among states in spending on pedestrian and bicycle projects per capita, according to a report released Tuesday by Transportation for America and the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership. The report, Dangerous by Design: Solving the Epidemic of Preventable Pedestrian Deaths (and Making Great Neighborhoods), looks at pedestrian spending and safety using a “pedestrian danger index” that computes the rate of pedestrian deaths relative to the amount of walking the residents do on average. For safety, the Washington area ranks 32nd among the largest 52 metro areas (with 52 being the least dangerous). That’s better than many Sunbelt areas that have been mostly built in the age of the automobile, but worse than Virginia Beach and many comparable metro regions.  The Coalition for Smarter Growth’s 2008 report ranked Fairfax as the most dangerous county in the region for pedestrians, based on the same pedestrian danger index.

Fairfax County recognizes the problem and is investing millions of dollars in better pedestrian design on its most dangerous roads. Earlier this year the $8 million Patrick Henry pedestrian bridge opened on Route 50 near Falls Church. But this may not be the best design solution. Steve Offutt’s great post on the bridge showed that most pedestrians still cross on the street. Ultimately, the street itself has to be made more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly.

Making these roads complete streets that are safe and convenient for all users will require a major overhaul of VDOT’s current approach. VDOT does have a policy requiring routine accommodations for pedestrians and bicyclists as part of any major road construction and maintenance project. But sidewalks and bike lanes, however important, are only parts of complete streets. There are many tools such as bulb-outs, pedestrian refuge islands, express bus lanes and tighter curb radii that would bring the roads into a better balance toward the needs of pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users.

There is no better place to use these tools than at Tysons Corner. If we don’t build complete streets on Routes 7 and 123, the success of transit-oriented development at Tysons will be limited. Will VDOT and other agencies involved in the redesign of these roads show more flexibility in making them pleasant and safe for walking and bicycling?

Douglas Stewart is a volunteer with Fairfax City Citizens for Smarter Growth. He also works for the Piedmont Environmental Council as their Grants Specialist, and is the Transportation Chair for the Virginia Sierra Club.