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A Tale of Two Walks: Part 2

July 14, 2021 by admin
Urban Planning

This article does not necessarily reflect the attitudes or opinions of APAUT or the APAUT Executive Committee.

by Addison Del Mastro

In the first part of this two-part series, I walked Maple Avenue, the commercial strip in the D.C. suburb of Vienna, Virginia, to get a sense of what it’s like to be a pedestrian there. I found it about as pleasant as it could be, especially considering that Maple Avenue is more of a stroad than a traditional main street. There are many small design and layout details, both in the sidewalk and in the town, that make walking there viable and relatively safe. There are probably few car-free households in that affluent suburb. But there may be car-free visitors, and a walkable commercial strip is also useful for all the households just a few hundred feet away.

For this piece, I walked three miles, or nearly all, of Fairfax Boulevard, the stretch of U.S. Route 50 that runs through the City of Fairfax, just a few miles from Vienna. These pedestrian experiences were dramatically different. In my first piece, I suggested that there are two “species” of stroads: one evolved from streets that are hollowed out and overly accommodated to cars, and the other evolved from highways with filled-in, densified edges. Maple Avenue was never quite a traditional main street, but it’s closer to the first type. Fairfax Boulevard is most certainly the second type.

The first issue I ran into here was parking. Despite passing many half-empty parking lots, I couldn’t technically use any of them. Towing is not likely enforced, but almost all the lots have signs prohibiting leaving the premises. Every commercial property and its private parking lot feels like an island; they are nearly all physically cut off from the ones next door. Many are set back far from the road or angled to face a parking lot rather than the road. This commercial agglomeration fails to produce the sense of an urban fabric in which individual plots exist in concert with each other.

Aside from physical proximity, there is no sense that the properties along Fairfax Boulevard form an overall urban fabric.

Aside from physical proximity, there is no sense that the properties along Fairfax Boulevard form an overall urban fabric.

As I left my car on a residential street, I had an interesting thought: it is not actually that easy to explore these suburban landscapes by foot. Not in terms of the unpleasantness of it, but of actually accessing these spaces on foot unless you live nearby or have no choice. There are few places that are rendered off-limits by cars, but in some ways a sidewalk along a U.S. highway is one of them. Rather than produce sympathy for pedestrians, this tends to mean that many people have no idea, or even frame of reference, for what it is like to get around without a car.

First, I needed to cross the street at a major intersection, where U.S. 29 and U.S. 50 meet. The space for standing while waiting to cross is fine enough, but the crosswalk timer was woefully short. I walked at a slightly brisk pace, and the timer ran out just as I reached the opposite side. Imagine carrying things, or crossing with one or two small children, or pushing a stroller, or being an older person, or using a wheelchair. If the rule is “only cross the street while the walk light is on,” it is impossible for a large number of people to follow the rule. Such “unfollowable rules,” along with hostile design, produce a perception in many motorists that there is a problem with other road users’ behavior. But expecting everyone to impeccably observe such car-centric rules is like expecting a gambler to always beat the house.

The timer for this very long crosswalk barely lasts long enough to cross, even at a brisk pace.

The timer for this very long crosswalk barely lasts long enough to cross, even at a brisk pace.

The next photo is what I saw after crossing. That’s a service road on the left; the narrow sidewalk is flanked by the service road and the main highway until the service road ends a couple hundred feet down. It is as unnerving as it looks.

At this point, the sidewalk is flanked on either side by the road.

At this point, the sidewalk is flanked on either side by the road.

One of the fun things about driving these older commercial strips is spotting the early buildings that still survive. Despite being car-oriented, they were small and close to the road, such that they interface in some way with the street. This building, which I believe is a former Texaco garage, is interesting for another reason: along that green strip behind it, a trolley track once ran. The retaining wall against the garage’s back may have been part of the track infrastructure; a scrap of a trolley bridge also remains behind the diner next door. It’s a tiny detail that’s all but invisible from the highway. Observing landscapes on foot can feel like putting on high-resolution glasses.

The disused green strip running along the edge of this auto garage was once the right of way for a trolley line.

The disused green strip running along the edge of this auto garage was once the right of way for a trolley line.

But while walking is a better way to take in this kind of scenery, it’s not possible to forget how fragile you are in this position. Trucks barrel by, and momentarily cause your insides to shake. The 35-mile-per-hour speed limit is ignored. An occasional car approaches double that, and the average cruising speed is about 50. There are points where you can feel the gust of wind from each passing car.

The sidewalks along Fairfax Boulevard go through a number of different configurations, from wide, pleasant segments in front of recent developments to some incredibly harrowing ones. At one stretch, there is no buffer at all between the sidewalk and the highway. Would you like to have been walking there when a car laid down that skid mark?

There is nothing except the highway gutter separating pedestrians from traffic on this segment of the sidewalk.

There is nothing except the highway gutter separating pedestrians from traffic on this segment of the sidewalk.

In others, the buffer is so narrow that the street lamps don’t even fit on it. And on the subject of street lamps, an alarming number of them have cracked bases—I counted five or six, and I wasn’t looking at all of them—suggesting that vehicles routinely bump the edge of the sidewalk.

The grass buffer here is so narrow that the street lamp’s base does not fit within it.

The grass buffer here is so narrow that the street lamp’s base does not fit within it.

Those newer developments, however, have both wider sidewalks and wider buffers. This is either an improvement made by the developer, or a required adjustment to a more recent sidewalk code triggered by the redevelopment. Either way, this feels dramatically different from the narrower stretches.

One of two very recent sidewalk segments in front of new developments. It may look similar from the road, but the additional buffer produces a much improved pedestrian experience.

One of two very recent sidewalk segments in front of new developments. It may look similar from the road, but the additional buffer produces a much improved pedestrian experience.

And then, there’s this. (This image was the subject of a viral tweet, as well.) A guardrail’s purpose is to keep cars from flying off the road, so there’s nothing wrong with this, narrowly speaking. But it captures road and traffic engineers’ almost total disregard for the safety of anybody walking, or perhaps a disbelief that anybody does actually walk here. Why is physical protection for motorists taken for granted, while pedestrians rarely have more than the most perfunctory protection or even right of way?

The guardrail’s placement is technically correct, but it symbolizes the protection accorded to motorists and denied to other users of the road.

The guardrail’s placement is technically correct, but it symbolizes the protection accorded to motorists and denied to other users of the road.

Notice the highway median is planted with trees. That prevents a car from rolling over the median into oncoming traffic, but it’s also cosmetic. In few places along Fairfax Boulevard is there any sort of physical barrier, or any comfortable distance, between auto traffic and pedestrians.

The sidewalks in these environments have been sidelined and value-engineered as much as they can be without simply being eliminated—and they often are de facto eliminated by construction and random impediments. I did not run into any blocked or closed sidewalks on this particular walk, though I have seen blocked sidewalks along this stretch before. I did, however, spot this “beg button” placed such that it obstructs the sidewalk.

A traffic light pole with a “beg button” for crossing is placed in the middle of the sidewalk.

A traffic light pole with a “beg button” for crossing is placed in the middle of the sidewalk.

What about sitting down for a moment? Unlike Vienna’s Maple Avenue, there are no benches along Fairfax Boulevard. There are few walls, either, which can provide a place to sit as well as serve as a barrier between cars and pedestrians. One of the only walls which might be a comfortable resting spot has a sign prohibiting sitting down. Less dramatic than the guardrail, but equally blunt in telegraphing that this space is not for people.

One of the only natural or comfortable places to sit for the entire stretch of Fairfax Boulevard prohibits sitting.

One of the only natural or comfortable places to sit for the entire stretch of Fairfax Boulevard prohibits sitting.

Zooming out a bit now, the fact is that while three miles is a long walk, nobody is really going to walk the whole stretch. I passed a lot of stores and restaurants, such that many shorter walks would still provide access to lots of businesses. The scale of everything is clearly intended for driving. But the distances between properties, and between the strip and the nearby neighborhoods, are really not that great. And this is considering the landscape on foot; Fairfax Boulevard is quite easily bikeable in terms of size and scale. The perception of distance is a function not of raw space, but of road design and width, sidewalk design, setbacks, parking lot sizes, and physically disconnected real-estate parcels.

So back to that “evolutionary” framing. The street and the stroad are not so distant. They are different species of a similar animal. Unobstructed highways and commercial corridors are too far apart, so turning these places back into roads isn’t going to happen. But working them into something like streets—by cutting six lanes to four (or fewer), by erecting low-cost traffic-calming devices, by slowing down and civilizing the traffic, and by turning a corridor into a place—just might.

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