By Jonathan Krall
At its February 24 hearing, the city’s traffic and parking board voted 5-2 to recommend another delay for the King Street bike lane and pedestrian improvements project. The board reconsidered this project as the first step in an appeals process spelled out by Deputy City Attorney Chris Spera at the beginning of the hearing.
Most attendees spoke in favor of the plan, including several residents who live in the immediate area. The opposition, comprised primarily of nearby homeowners, remains adamant. Though government meetings have a reputation for being dull, Scott Barstown, chairman of the environmental policy commission, added a moment of drama when he testified in favor of the plan. At his prompting, other commissioners in attendance stood up in solidarity.
The project in question, which has been twice modified to address residents’ concerns, would improve pedestrian and bicycle safety between the King Street Metro station and neighborhoods to the west. Bicycle lanes would run between Russell Road and Highland Place, replacing on-street parking along that steep hill. As a result of an October 30 concession to residents, parking spots would be saved in the relatively flat segment between Highland Place and Janneys Lane. At this point dedicated bike lanes would give way to sharrow markings and cyclists would be expected to merge with traffic.
Overall, the plan calls for removing 27 of the 37 spaces on King Street. It also adds three parking spaces on adjacent Park Road and Carlisle Drive. Studies have been conducted to determine how often those parking spots are used. According to Rich Baier, director of the city’s transportation and environmental services department, an average of three — and a maximum of six — automobiles were spotted in those 37 spaces (the data is on the project website).
Further, all of the affected residences have off-street parking. In fact, residents have testified that they avoid parking on this street because of aggressive drivers and the risk of automobile accidents. According to Baier, there have been 30 such crashes in the past five years.
After more than 10 public hearings for the project, nearly every question about this effort has been answered.
Can we retain parking spots and still have a single bike lane on the uphill side? The roadway isn’t wide enough.
Should bicycles be routed elsewhere? Doing so doesn’t solve the other safety problems.
Are the redesigned 10-and-a-half-foot traffic lanes too narrow for buses or fire trucks? A DASH representative testified that such lanes are common in Alexandria.
According to Baier, the project improves safety by adding a buffer — the bike lanes — between cars and pedestrians, and by separating bicycles from other traffic on the hill. The project also will improve safety for motorists, first by narrowing traffic lanes and then by increasing the number of cyclists on the street, both of which have been shown to reduce traffic speeds and collision rates.
This last point seems to be a bone of contention and is, perhaps, the plan’s most important feature. Studies show that pedestrian fatality rates increase rapidly with automobile speed, from 10 percent at 20 mph to 90 percent at 40 mph.
Baier, his staff, and many supporters of the plan described the traffic calming effect of narrow traffic lanes and bike lanes. Transportation planner Carrie Sanders stated that bike lanes increase cycling and drivers respond by slowing down. Baier pointed out that this is a well-established result.
Those opposing the plan argued that traffic could not be expected to slow down. One critic said that inviting more cyclists onto the streets might indeed slow traffic by frightening drivers, but went on to say that frightening drivers is unacceptable. Siding with opponents, traffic and parking board vice chairman Larry Ruggiero offered a motion to shelve the plan because “it is unsafe.”
This issue will now go to our city councilors, who are presented with a stark question: Can modern street design slow down traffic? Must we instead resort to a constant (and expensive) police presence, as a few at the hearing suggested? The city council is scheduled to complete the appeal process on March 15, with a public hearing and a final vote.
– The writer is an advocate for bicyclists and pedestrians in Alexandria.