The novel coronavirus has made crowded trails dangerous, parks forbidden, and taken most traffic off the roads. Could Fairfax County and VDOT open streets to pedestrians in Tysons and surrounding areas to provide a safer alternative for people who need physical activity?
On March 30, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam issued a statewide Stay at Home order. Northam’s order requires all Virginians to stay in their houses to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. It lists only five ‘extremely limited’ exceptions, one of which is to “engage in outdoor activity with strict social distancing requirements.” But walking paths around Tysons are so narrow that they threaten public health.
The trails of Northern Virginia would be crowded any year at this season. The Tysons area has grown a lot since those trails were planned. And, with parks officially closed amid the stay at home order, the trails have become a go-to spot for physical activity and recreation.
However, the mass of people along the trails is making it even more difficult to maintain the buffer required for physical distancing, especially when most trails have lanes less than six feet wide. Also - wait a minute - six feet might not be enough.
That’s a problem. The physical-distance buffer is one of Virginia’s strongest weapons in the struggle for public health, but so is outdoor exercise.
Working out during quarantine can improve your body’s ability to fight the disease (but don’t exercise to exhaustion, and don’t exercise if you feel symptoms) Mental health matters too. Isolation, fear, and anxiety can be overwhelming, and stress makes you more vulnerable to disease. Exercising outside is better for stress relief, sunlight is good for you, and have you seen how nice the weather is?
Essential work still goes on
Exercise isn’t the only reason someone might be walking around Fairfax. Tysons is home to many essential businesses that continue to operate. The employees of those businesses - grocery clerks, line cooks, cleaning staff among them - need to get to work. Society couldn’t function without them, but a lot of them make the Virginia minimum wage, which is $7.25 an hour. They may not own cars. They may have commuted by bus, but service has been cut. Rideshare is risky. Some people, some of the county’s most vulnerable, have no choice but to walk.
The streets are sitting empty. Last week, traffic across the USA was about half of what it was the month before, and Fairfax was better at physical distancing than most of the country. As the coronavirus crisis worsens, we can expect it to drop still farther. Of course, some cars will still be on the road, but it’ll be much, much, much less than the rush-hour capacities the roads were designed for. All that asphalt is valuable space that we’re wasting.
Mostly-empty streets are more dangerous than they sound. When a driver has a wide road to themself, they’ll go much faster than traffic would otherwise allow. And in Fairfax, roads are wide and sidewalks are usually less than 6 feet wide if they exist at all.
Imagine walking or jogging down the street, coming across another person on the sidewalk, and stepping into the road to avoid them. Suddenly you’re face-to-face with a car speeding around the corner, down the open road toward you. What do you do? Step back onto the sidewalk, risking transmission of the coronavirus? Or hope the car will swerve? Virus or collision?
Fairfax County and the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) could provide a third option. They could, quickly and practically for free, create miles of spacious new recreational trails for the millions of Northern Virginians now trapped in their homes. Fairfax and VDOT could open the streets to people.
How could we do this?
Select a few roads and open them to people by closing them to all but local traffic. By doing so, we’ll make space for people to get fresh air and exercise without risk of spreading the coronavirus or getting run over. The cost will only be a few traffic cones, temporary signs, and asking a handful of drivers to go a few minutes out of their way - the lowest on the list of coronavirus-related inconveniences.
Guidance of drivers would be a question, and volunteers might be the solution. If volunteer enforcement worked a century ago, when small police departments were struggling to manage traffic, maybe it can work today. Ask on a few neighborhood Nextdoor groups - that’s also a good way of judging local interest in opening a neighborhood street.
In order to identify a few roads around Tysons as candidates for opening, let’s walk through some important criteria to consider:
- The road should go near densely populated areas. Once it’s turned into a trail, it won’t have a parking lot, and so we want people to be able to access it on foot or bicycle.
- The road should have very few, if any, intersections with cul-de-sacs, and it shouldn’t be the only route of access to any dense residential buildings or clusters. Ideally, it should even minimize the number of houses facing it. The open street will still admit local traffic, but we should seek to minimize the number of people who have to drive there.
- The road shouldn’t go past - or, really, anywhere near - health facilities or major essential businesses. We don’t want to slow people down on their way to the hospital.
- We don’t want to get in the way of travel for the few people who do still have to get around. That means not blocking buses that still run, and picking a road that isn’t a key arterial.
Using these criteria and looking at a map of the area, I can find a few places to start. There are longer roads through neighborhoods of single-family homes, like Griffith Road and Lisle Ave in Pimmitt Hills, Cottage Street in Vienna, and Youngblood Street in Chesterbrook.
And there are a few shorter blocks in denser parts of the county, like Penny Lane in Merrifield. These examples are all in the northeastern part of Fairfax, around Tysons, because that’s the area I’m familiar with; the same principles apply in Springfield, Reston, Centreville, and along Route 1.
In fact, this solution could work all across Greater Washington. Montgomery County has taken the lead for our region, temporarily opening part of Sligo Creek Parkway. GGWash has already discussed open streets within DC, where a driver killed a pedestrian last week.
In Arlington County, there are plenty of streets that could be opened (in my neighborhood, N. Quincy would be a good example). But more people live in Fairfax than anywhere else in the region, Tysons is growing fast, and could set the region’s standard by being the first to open its streets.
What other areas would be good candidates for an open street?