Seminary Road has seen delays beyond standard reconstruction work as the city implements the new Complete Streets configuration, according to a staff memo to City Council.
The plan takes the four lanes on Seminary Road from N. Howard Street to N. Quaker Lane down to one travel lane in each direction and a turn lane also accessible to emergency vehicles. The change allows for a new bicycle lane to be placed on the street, part of a push to make Alexandria more accessible to non-vehicle forms of transportation — and a broader effort called Vision Zero to reduce or eliminate traffic fatalities.
The plan has been controversial, with advocates arguing that the change right-sizes transportation uses to make the streets safer and more accessible to cyclists, while critics said the plan will create further congestion for drivers.
In a memo to the City Council, Hillary Orr, deputy director of Transportation and Environmental Services (T&ES), said that the paving of Seminary Road has been completed and crews are now working on implementing the road reconfiguration, but the street has seen additional traffic delays in the month since the project started.
“While we understand that delays are frustrating, the corridor is still under construction and all of the components that work together to make this project work are not yet complete,” Orr said. “While there have been some increased queues during the peak half-hour in the morning, we are still generally seeing vehicles able to get through a signal in one cycle. The evening peak is a bit longer, and we have seen some delays between 5:30-6:30 p.m., with 6-6:15 p.m. as the peak.”
Orr said other delays have been caused by the disconnection of signal hardware that tells traffic lights when there are vehicles on the roads. Once paving was completed, Orr said these were reinstalled and reconnected and those delays have eased.
“With any road reconstruction and design reconfiguration, delays are to be expected while the project is implemented and motorists get used to new traffic patterns,” Orr said. “This is one example of how construction impacts travel times, and there are numerous other instances that occurred this week and caused residents to reach out regarding delays.”
If you were one of the people caught on Seminary Road last Thursday (Nov. 7), Orr said the delays were part of a spike in traffic throughout the region.
As Alexandria readies updates for its city-wide transportation plan, the city opened up the floor to other local government experts for lessons learned.
During a community forum last night (Monday) about Alexandria’s new transportation plan, city staffers hosted transit leaders from D.C. to Columbus, Ohio for a discussion on what Alexandria should focus on.
“This is a really exciting time to be in transportation,” said Director of Transportation and Environmental Services (TES) head Yon Lambert, who referenced the projects to build a new Metro station entrance at Potomac Yard, as well as Amazon’s headquarters and the new Virginia Tech campus.
Scooters Are Here to Stay
One new feature of the upcoming master transit plan, renamed “Mobility Plan,” will be the e-scooter program City Council members are considering expanding.
“When they first started they were like big toys,” said Jordan Davis, who heads the Smart Columbus smart city program in Columbus, Ohio and who noted that nowadays many people are using scooters for practical, routine trips. “So I think they’re here to stay.”
When asked by the moderator, about half the 80-member audience indicated they had used e-scooters and e-bikes.
(Data) Sharing is Caring
TES Principal Planner Jennifer Slesinger said one part of the new master plan will focus on smart mobility. Panelists encouraged planners to make real-time data a part of that.
Davis said said if cities publish provide real-time road condition data, navigation apps like Waze or Google Maps can help cut down on cut-through traffic — like the kind experienced on Taylor Run Parkway, Duke Street, and Seminary Road.
Hillary Orr, Alexandria’s Deputy Director of Transportation, previously told WTOP that the city plans to redirect cars out of neighborhoods and back to “arterial” roadways, and use sensor technology to allow buses longer green light time to prioritize transit riders.
Linda Bailey, who leads D.C. Department of Transportation’s embattled Vision Zero initiative, said real-time data could also allow cities to set up systems where delivery trucks can reserve and pre-pay for curb parking, and drivers can also tap into information about local parking garages.
“I have seen a parking garage that is never full just around the corner here,” she said of the Carlyle Place parking garage, adding that “information gaps” are one of the things technology addresses well.
You Can’t “Build” Away Congestion, But You Can Build Safety
Several panelists echoed the famous phrase that planners can’t “build” their way out of congestion problems.
“The only way out of our congestion is to get out of our single-occupancy vehicles,” said Atherton.
When residents asked what role ride hailing companies play in this, considering some studies show they increase road congestion, ride sharing service Via’s Greater D.C. Area General Manager said he’s “in favor” of congestion taxes like New York City’s new cruising tax to encourage more shared rides rather than single-passenger trips.
But experts said safety could be built: Atherton noted some simple solutions like sidewalks are “pretty nuts and bolts.” Bailey said keeping roads narrow and building fixtures like poles in people’s peripheral vision encourages motorists to drive slower.
The D.C. officials said everyone needs to “remember physics.”
“We need to look at force and mass in order to avoid and mitigate crashes to keep people safe,” she said.
Alexandria released a public survey this summer to guide the plans, which will last another decade, as Alexandria Living reported. Posters shared during Monday night’s meeting indicate that the new plan is being designed around the survey responses, in which residents asked for “safety, accessibility, and ease” in their transit modes.
But don’t hold your breath to see the new document: planning discussions are expected to continue into Spring 2020.
At Agenda Alexandria, a group that meets monthly to discuss the top issues affecting Alexandria with a panel of experts, advocates on every side of the issue clashed over whether the “dieting” of Seminary Road was necessary and what the future holds for major Alexandria streets. At the group’s Sept. 23 meeting, a city official argued with local residents not just over the new bike lanes, but over changes to Alexandria’s transportation policies.
“Our paradigm in the past has been exclusively through the windshield,” said Nate Macek, chair of the Planning Commission. “Complete streets is about looking at [roads] for all users.”
Macek argued the Complete Streets program, which replaces some motorized travel lanes with extended sidewalks and bike lanes, right-sizes road infrastructure to cater to all modes of transportation.
“Complete streets are about roads for everyone, whether that’s biking, walking, or driving,” said Josephine Liu, vice-chair of the Alexandria Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee. “That’s also all ages: children, adults, senior citizens and people who may not be able-bodied.”
But for others, the Complete Streets program is a punitive measure against cars that disproportionately favors bicycles.
“It’s about reorienting the streetscape to accommodate every user,” John Townsend, Manager of Public and Government Relations for AAA Mid-Atlantic. “That’s what it is on paper, but oftentimes it doesn’t work out that way. It gives pride of place to certain modes of transportation and that becomes the inherent problem. There’s nothing wrong with accommodating the streetscape to make them safer or accommodate the maximum number of people, but it comes down to making choices and those choices involve who is in and who is out.”
Townsend argued that in terms of voices on the Complete Streets decision-making, cars are “the low person on the totem pole.” Drivers don’t have the same collective voice in city policy that cyclists do and thus their problems — like gridlock — get left by the wayside, Townsend said.
“There is a fanatic minority who want to get people out of cars, lower the speed limits and reduce the size of roads,” agreed Jack Sullivan, former president of the Seminary Hill Association. “They are being heard in the towers of power.”
While the conversation started with Complete Streets on Seminary Road, critics of the plan drove the discussion to other transportation issues across the city. Townsend argued the slimming down of Seminary Road is just a symptom of a broader problem: that transportation planners don’t account for real-world circumstances.
“The one size fits all approach to planning that comes out of the West Coast, goes to the District of Columbia, and then we try to make it fit in Alexandria,” Townsend said. “These planners stay in college and they lay on the grass and they smoke grass and they don’t know how real people live.”