King Street in Old Town by Adam Fagen licensed under Creative Commons.

A small section at the base of King Street in Alexandria, Virginia could become a car-free zone. The project is still in the research stage. Right now city staff are looking into closing some combination of the 100 block and 200 block of King Street to car traffic to make the space even more attractive and useful. This section of the street leads right into Waterfront Park and the Potomac River.

“There is very much a yearning for rethinking the way we use public space,” Mayor Justin Wilson said in a recent Alexandria Times article. “Here, you have a space that attracts a lot of people, a lot of visitors, a lot of residents, and I think there’s a way to make that even more vital, even more attractive to the community.”

Like many other cities, Alexandria officals have realized that walkable areas are both pleasant and good for business. Other local jurisdictions are experimenting with temporary car-free streets, like Baltimore’s Fells Point Al Fesco and the upcoming Open Streets on Georgia Avenue in DC.

The Northern Virginia Transportation Authority had a weird take

In general, experimenting with car-free zones can help residents rethink this public space, and also incentivize people to use other forms of transportation, like bicycling or transit. That’s why the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority’s recent Facebook post linking to the Alexandria Times article was so puzzling.

It reads: “Lower King street in Alexandria, Virginia become a vehicle-free zone, find out how this could impact your drive.”

“Windshield perspective” refers to a car-centric way of viewing or conveying information about a transportation issue. In this case, the agency highlights the interests of people driving, even in a story that’s about increasing walkability: “find out how this could impact your drive.”

This message frames the idea of a car-free zone as a burden on drivers, and doesn’t mention the inherent benefits of creating space for people to walk and bike in safety—not to mention the need to reduce car trips as the climate heats up. Thanks to the lobbying efforts of the car industry over the years, this framing is pervasive in media, but it’s disheartening to see it from a transportation agency.

When we talk about turning streets into pedestrian-friendly places or discuss any transportation issue, the language we choose matters. Roads are a shared space for people using all modes. Rather than contributing to the “windshield” perspective, where everything is seen from the perspective of a driver and cars are assumed the norm, we should highlight the needs and interests of people walking, bicycling, scooting, and taking transit too.

Streets are for everyone

The car-free zone could attract people walking and bicycling to Old Town who come in via the Mount Vernon Trail. It’s a reality that people drive down King Street, and planners need to figure out how they’d go around, or park and walk. There also needs to be a way for people with mobility challenges to be able to access the pedestrian area.

Right now, city staff are putting together a recommendation to put before the city council this fall. They’re looking into expanded outdoor dining, better street and bike infrastructure, plus more events and public art.

It’s exciting to see Alexandria moving ahead with a project that treats streets like the community amenities that they are. Hopefully other organizations will catch up.