Complete Streets or War on Cars?

Agenda Alexandria to examine the changing nature of our city’s street

By Michael Lee Pope

ALEXANDRIA,VA- Alexandria adopted a Complete Streets policy in 2011, and since then, pedestrians and drivers have seen many changes. From the elimination of old parking spaces and creation of new bike lanes to the advent of scooters and talk of a pedestrian plaza on lower King Street, Alexandria is in the midst of radical change: a road diet.

“A lot of people feel that there’s a war on cars in Alexandria,” says Frank Fannon, chairman of Agenda Alexandria. “Cars have been the precedent for years and years, and now that seems to be changing.” This change will be the subject of the first Agenda Alexandria panel discussion on September 23, the first of the 2019-2020 season.

Complete Streets guidelines call for Bikeshare stations located on the sidewalk or at the curb. Stations are solar-powered, modular, and can be arranged in a number of different configurations.

Safely accommodating all users

The September panel will continue the subject from April 2018, when Alexandria Transportation and Environmental Services Director Yon Lambert explained the thinking behind Complete Streets. “A Complete Street is one that safely accommodates all users,” Lambert told Fannon, who moderated the April panel. “That would be a street that is safe for pedestrians, for bicyclists, for transit vehicles, and for people who access transit, as well as for vehicles.”

This approach has already led to slimming the waistline of city streets and slowing down traffic. If city streets are designed to prevent cars from driving more than 25 miles an hour, the thinking goes, pedestrians and bicyclists will be in a more comfortable environment.

The Complete Streets bag of tricks includes an S-curve called the “chicane” and a “diverter” that closes half of an entrance. Some have a lurid sound, like “neckdown.” That’s the word Complete Streets uses to describe curb extensions on opposite sides of a road that create mid-block pinch points.

“[Neckdowns] are particularly useful on streets with longer block lengths where motorists pick up speed,” explains the Complete Streets Design Guidelines. “They can be combined with mid-block pedestrian crossings to further enhance safety by reducing crossing distances and increasing visibility.”

Neckdowns are opposing curb extensions that create a midblock pinch point. They effectively slow speeds on longer blocks.

Reaching beyond the streets

Land-use planning decisions have also seen a major shift in recent years. For many years, when developers took their plans to City Hall, they had to include a minimum number of parking spaces. Cars were clearly a priority. These days, developers are confronted with parking maximums. Their development had better not hog up a lot of real estate with a parking lot. During last year’s hotly contested mayoral primary election, Justin Wilson supported parking maximums.

“We had 1963 parking standards that reflected a city that was far more auto-oriented than it is today,” said Wilson, who won the election and vanquished the 1963 parking standard. “We right-sized those standards, and in doing so we also created a new incentive in the parking code for affordable housing units.”

Agenda Alexandria, a nonprofit organization, has been around for more than 20 years looking at issues without taking sides. The September panel discussion will be the inaugural meeting of the 2019-2020 season that will examine a wide array of topics, from high school overcrowding and the Virginia Tech Innovation campus to sea-level rise and development in North Old Town.

Traffic circles reduce speed in low-volume areas. Traffic circles are usually preferred to four-way stops.

Panelists for the September 23 Agenda Alexandria discussion

Nate Macek

Nate Maceck is chairman of the Alexandria Planning Commission. A native of Pinconning, MI, Nate moved to Old Town in 2004 and has lived in Rosemont with his family 2015.

Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is a former president of the Seminary Hill Association and he is a leading voice against proposed plans to put Seminary Road on a diet. A native of Toledo, OH, Jack moved to Seminary Hill in 1967.

Josephine Liu

Josephine Liu is vice chairwoman for bicyclists of the Alexandria Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee. A native of Orange County, CA, Josephine has lived in Alexandria’s Carlyle neighborhood since 2013.

John Townsend

John Townsend, AAA Public Affairs Manager for the Washington, D.C. area, has had a varied career in broadcast journalism and local government and on Capitol Hill.

What: Agenda Alexandria: War on Cars?

Where: Hermitage, 5000 Fairbanks Avenue, Alexandria VA 22311

When: Monday, September 23, 2019

Time: Reception starts at 6:30 p.m., program starts at 7:15 p.m.

Cost: $5 at the door, optional dinner for $32

Details: agendaalexandria.org