Some local road projects designed to calm traffic and increase safety for all users have been met with a surprising amount of resistence. Worse, regional officials seem to be prioritizing voices of opposition over actual studies, and it’s keeping our communities unsafe.
Recently, two traffic calming proposals have came up on roads that are known to be dangerous, one in Alexandria and the other in Montgomery County. Both were nixed after an outcry from drivers who worried the updates would lead to delays, despite evidence to the contrary. What can these incidents tell us?
Alexandria defies the evidence on Seminary Road
Alexandria has plans to update Seminary Road, an important arterial which runs through the central part of the city. The city has passed a Complete Streets ordinance, which aims to make roads safe for people taking all modes, and also adopted Vision Zero, which aims to end serious traffic injuries and deaths by DATE.
To move towards both of these goals and to make room for bicycle lanes and better sidewalks, the current four-lane section of Seminary Road would be cut down to two. (This is called a “road diet;” Vox has a great explainer showing how they work.) City planners say it would barely increase delays for motorists and would make the area much safer for everyone. Making sure people feel safe while walking or bicycling is an important part of having a Complete Street, and cutting down on crashes gets the city closer to zero deaths from traffic collisions.
Road diets can be found all over the country, but for anyone skeptical of the benefits, there’s an example of such a project in Alexandria already. After a road diet was installed on King Street, it became much safer and traffic stayed about the same. There are also myriad examples in neighboring Fairfax County, which has managed to complete several successful road diets that have even made it into the national literature as case studies for the benefits of such projects.
Moreover, Fairfax has done it without the mandate of a Complete Streets ordinance or Vision Zero policy. When you look at the results of road diet projects like the one Lawyer’s Road, it’s clear that it’s eliminated high-speed crashes and increased everyone’s safety, including people in a car.
But none of that mattered to a core group of people opposed to plans on Seminary Road. Citing unsubstatiated concerns over traffic volumes and “cut through traffic,” the outcry was big enough that city staff eventually selected a different option without bike lanes—even though though the plan that included bike lanes scored higher than their pick.
Normally this is the part of the post where I’d link to some evidence that opponents cited as a reason not to do the road diet. But I can’t do that, because there is none. Nevertheless, city staff picked a less-safe design, based purely on outrage instead of data.
Montgomery County follows suit at Little Falls Parkway
This would be bad enough if it were a one-time event, but turns out the exact same process is working itself out in Montgomery County.
Here, the issue revolves around the Capital Cresecent Trail’s crossing at Little Falls Parkway, where a cyclist was killed after being struck by a driver in 2016. As a temporary measure,the road was converted to two lanes and other safety measures were installed. Even though the road diet is already in place and has been successful, the county’s planning commission recommends restoring the road back to four lanes.
Was the road expanded again because the temporary road diet increased congestion? Nope. Again, the reasoning isn’t based on any data other than people’s worries and complaints. The data collected by Montgomery County planning staff show the road diet met the safety goals, and only added a few seconds of delay for drivers.
Yet somehow, in their zeal to restore the road back to four lanes, the planning commission may have increased future delays anyway by retiming the traffic light where the trail could be rerouted. Since the traffic light now has to give people enough time to cross the street, that means more people will be stopped at the red light.
Four lanes of road at zero miles per hour does not move faster than two lanes at 25 miles per hour.
The evidence does not seem to matter
Lest you think this mentality is only taking hold here in the Washington region, know that the same thing is happening in London as well. There, attempts to build more Cycle Superhighways have stalled because opponents have decided to double down on arguments about pollution and congestion that have been proven false. This is not a case of competing facts or arguing over methodology—the proof is in the existing cycling routes across the city.
Traffic engineers aren’t always right, and sometimes their decisions are based on seriously faulty studies from decades ago. But even those decisions are backed up by something.
In Fairfax County, a proposed road diet on South Lakes Drive was not installed across the entire length of the road because county traffic engineers found that a lane reduction at a few intersections would lead to traffic delays that were longer than they found acceptable. It isn’t a totally satisfying result, but at least the county had data to point to for why it made the decision it did.
But that’s not the case with the projects on Seminary Road or Little Falls Parkway. There, it’s a blanket refusal to even acknowledge the facts. And it’s working. Officials chose options that both betray existing laws and policies for an option that isn’t supported by the data. It’s the “because I said so” argument applied to public policy.
Road diets are not a new concept. The Federal Highway Association’s use of road diets stretches back decades, and considers them a best practice. Fairfax County has been a on a tear, adding bike lanes to streets that were originally built for traffic volumes that never materialized. Similar diet projects in Wheaton and Silver Spring have proceeded, and they worked.
But that evidence doesn’t seem to matter. In Alexandria, residents only have to head less than a mile from Seminary Road to see the successful project at King Street. And at Little Falls Parkway, the road diet was already in effect as a temporary measure, and it was successful.
It’s not over until it’s over
There are still opportunities for Alexandria and Montgomery Counties to do the right thing. In Alexandria, city staff made the recommendation against a road diet, but the city’s Traffic and Parking Board will still have a chance to discuss the issue. It could stick to the facts, and not adopt the recommendation put forward by staff.
The process is more opaque in Montgomery County, but the elected county board can choose to step in. It’s the least they should do, not only for the obvious benefits that come with safer streets, but also to reassert that we don’t need to give into those with a post-truth mentality or groups that have decided that nothing matters except saying ‘no’.
If you want to weigh in on the Seminary Road project, you can attend Alexandria’s Traffic and Parking Board hearing on Monday, June 24 at 7 pm.