Opinion Your Views — 08 May 2014
Time to take the focus off vehicles and put it back on pedestrians

By Kathryn Papp, Alexandria
(Stock photo)

To the editor:

Going by foot is the most natural, energy efficient, safe and uncongested way to traverse an urban environment. It is overwhelmingly sociable, nonthreatening, accommodating and doesn’t require much by way of an investment to enjoy. Feet were made for walking, and people navigate even the smallest, tightest spaces best as pedestrians.

A recent intercept study, done for a possible transformation of the unit block of King Street, showed that 80 percent of those traveling along that stretch were pedestrians. The remaining 20 percent traveled in cars, trucks and on bikes.

As always, Old Town serves as a prime example of how a dense urban environment works best — on foot. This is what contributes to the uniquely sociable and welcoming atmosphere in the old and historic district. Even the tot park on Royal Street, where many small children and their grateful mothers talk and play, is reached on foot.

The problem at present is that vehicles — to include bicycles — control our conversation about how to move people in ways that make everyone happy and keep them safe. The Alexandria Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committee, even when they ostensibly speak for pedestrians, base most of their advocacy efforts on bikes and form all of their arguments around the evils of automobiles. Public transportation is a shadow player, although arguably the best mode for moving masses of people — reliably and safely — in short amounts of time. In fact, in the complete and shared streets concept, the modes focus on pedestrians and public transit options — buses or Metro trains. Smart growth activists originally coined the term “last mile” to describe the lack of sidewalks to connect pedestrians with mass transportation.

Global studies have yet to demonstrate that designing for or combining three transit modes (pedestrians, bikes and automobiles) works without failure for one or more. Believe me, I’ve searched Asian, European and North and South American reports. The one thing they have in common is an admission of failure to design and operate a multi-modal system, one that is safe, equitable and free flowing for everyone. The general result seems to be that vehicles — cars and bikes — become tangled and congested; pedestrians abandon their previously safe walking routes; and accidents happen more often.

Old Town is a walker’s paradise, because the blocks are short and have stop signs or lights on every corner. The core of the city is a dense suburbia that is shaded by mature trees and winding streets, which make it a pleasant place to walk.

But as demonstrated by the recent King Street bike lanes fiasco, implementation of a tri-modal street, undertaken without adequate research or meaningful data, is a doubtful way to move toward complete streets. Worse, by focusing keenly on cars and bikes, we risk deep-sixing those who embrace the dominant mode of transportation and walk for exercise and pleasure, especially the elderly.

Walking is the dominant means of travel and will be for a long time to come. Instead of using bicycles and eliminating parking spaces to force change, let’s concentrate on creating an urban setting that favors the human foot on well-maintained sidewalks. Feet are probably common to 99.9 percent of the people who traverse Alexandria. Let’s restart the city’s conversation about getting around town and put pedestrians in the lead.

 

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