Our View: Time to revisit Complete Streets?

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The stretch of Seminary Road between North Howard Street and North Quaker Lane. (Photo credit: Missy Schrott)
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You’ve seen the artist’s renderings: people walking, bicyclists with helmets in designated bike lanes, a bus driving in a marked transit lane and even a car or two all happily coexisting on uncrowded streets on a perfect, sunny day.

They’re the type of drawings that likely win awards in graduate school – but don’t translate well into the real world of streets too heavily traveled for such designs. Thinking that they will is what leads to bad public policy.

The desire for safe streets is admittedly a conundrum. All reasonable people are in favor of safety for cars, buses, ambulances, bicyclists, pedestrians and even scooter riders.

The problem is that while some of our roads may date back to the days of horse and buggies, the vast majority were designed for motor vehicle use.

And modern-day Alexandria is a close-in suburb of a major city, meaning large numbers of city residents commute by car to D.C. each day, while many other people drive to their jobs in Alexandria. The still-new technology of Uber and Lyft adds another layer of cars to the already high volume. Cars dominate our roadways.

Wishing away this motor vehicle-centric reality won’t make the cars disappear, but eliminating commuting lanes will back them up and make their drivers angry, as we’ve seen.

What’s worse is when changes made in the name of safety actually make it more difficult for public safety officials to do their jobs. It’s clear from the page 9 article in today’s Times, “AFD response to Seminary Road FOIA emails,” that Alexandria’s fire department leaders are upstanding people. Fire Chief Corey Smedley and Acting Assistant Chief Michael Cross adamantly state that their input has made Seminary Road safe for emergency vehicles, despite the loss of two travel lanes.

And yet, Sheriff Dana Lawhorne sent a statement to Transportation and Environmental Services Director Yon Lambert on Feb. 12 saying the opposite, that the Seminary Road narrowing has made it more difficult for public safety officers to do their jobs:

“I concur with [former] Fire Chief Robert Dube who stated, ‘Anything that slows down our response is problematic.’ I have been operating an emergency vehicle in Alexandria for 41 years and can speak from experience. First responders have always relied on arterial roads to get them to the scene of an emergency. In my opinion, physical barriers placed on arterial roads will affect that.”

It’s worth noting that Lawhorne is an independently elected official who doesn’t answer to Alexandria’s city manager, mayor or city council.

When the Complete Streets resolution was adopted by council and signed by Mayor Bill Euille in 2011, and when the Complete Streets Design Guidelines were approved in 2016, there was no statement issued that road diets would be imposed throughout the city. Road diets are one of numerous traffic calming options discussed in the 2016 guidelines.

Now, those Complete Streets Guidelines are being cited by T&ES staff as if they specifically prescribe narrowing and building obstructive barriers in the middle of major roads. If Seminary Road, next to Alexandria’s hospital, can be narrowed and obstructive barriers can be built there, then clearly this treatment is planned for the city’s other main arterial roads.

Complete Streets itself needs to be revisited, as there’s more than one way to go about making our streets safer.

Arlington is trying to reduce speeding – and thus increase safety for all road users – by imposing whopping fines. This approach has the advantage of generating significant revenue for county coffers while eliminating the need for spending on road narrowing and barriers.

Arlington’s approach seems reasonable. There have to be additional alternatives that are more viable and less injurious than Complete Streets.

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