It’s a great time to be a greater Washingtonian: Unlike many regions, local officials are taking smart growth seriously. The Silver Line is better connecting DC to its far-flung suburbs, and transit options are becoming more diverse. In much of the region, development is focusing on dense housing and mixed-use commercial space.
Fairfax County has a plan to transform Tysons, where I work, into a “walkable, green urban center” by 2050. According to the Tysons Partnership’s plans, three-fourths of future growth will be less than a six minute walk from a Metro station.
Yet it’s hard to be so optimistic when local authorities have ignored a vital aspect of smart growth: slow streets. To feel safe, pedestrians need either a physical barrier to separate them from speeding traffic or a speed limit of 20 mph. Otherwise, you feel completely exposed—and with good reason. Collisions at 20 mph have a 5 percent fatality rate for pedestrians. At 30 mph, the fatality rate jumps to 45 percent. At 40 mph, it’s 15 percent.
Even with sidewalk cafes popping up along Gallows Road, traffic moves along at a brisk 50 mph. Development like this is madness. At some point, auto infrastructure and pedestrian infrastructure come in conflict with one another. You can’t have it both ways.
Yet, slowing vehicle speeds is a tough sell to constituents, who are used to driving as fast as they can get away with.
So far, the solution to this problem seems to be removing pedestrians from the street entirely. Several of the new Silver Line stations have incorporated pedestrian bridges to sidestep the issue for the time being. Everything from homes and businesses to legal practices are already connected to transit, shops, office space via underground walkways.
At some point, however, traffic needs to slow down if pedestrian activity is going to take root. That means fewer, narrower lanes and more on-street parking. With that extra space, pedestrians would enjoy wider sidewalks, more green space, and a comfortable walk. Unfortunately, if you float any of these ideas, you might be labeled an extremist in the War on Cars.
Top photo: Bankbryan via Flickr
Inline photo: Connor Jones/Urbanist.co