Friday, July 31, 2009

National Night Out August 4: Meet Your Neighbors and Alexandria Police

Not that you aren't familiar with many of your neighbors already, but no doubt there are those you've never met and some new additions to your neighborhood. National Night out is August 4 at 6:30pm (click here for history and details on the event as a whole). Come socialize with old and new neighbors, meet Alexandria's finest, and enjoy free food, drinks, and games (activities vary by location). Getting to know your neighbors and the police force fosters safer, more interconnected communities.

Here is Alexandria Police's official news release on NNO:

Alexandria Celebrates National Night Out

On Tuesday, August 4, from 5:00 P.M. to 10:00 P.M., City officials will partner with Alexandria Police to celebrate National Night Out. The special celebration is part of a nationwide crime and drug prevention effort sponsored by the National Association of Town Watch (NATW).

To heighten awareness of crime prevention, residents in more than 25 Alexandria neighborhoods will turn on their porch lights, host neighborhood cook-outs and sponsor block parties in support of National Night Out. Mayor William D. Euille, members of City Council and Acting Chief of Police Earl Cook will reaffirm the City’s commitment to fighting crime by visiting residents throughout the City. Acting Chief Cook will be attending the National Night Out events at various locations throughout the City.

McGruff the Crime Fighting Dog, the K-9 Unit, Bike Patrol Unit and Motor Unit will tour neighborhoods and offer special demonstrations.

“National Night Out is an opportunity to celebrate the neighborhood spirit and strengthen our relationship with the community,” says Acting Chief Cook. “Our residents continue to support our department in reducing serious crime and in keeping Alexandria a safe place to live. National Night Out provides us with the opportunity to thank residents for their vigilance and their dedication to the City.”

Several of those 25 neighborhoods are in the North End of Alexandria. Here are details for a few North End neighborhood National Night Out events:

  • Lynhaven: 6:30 - 8:00 - Block party at the Lynhaven Rock Park. Raffle, games, food, and entertainment. Here's their flyer with the details.

  • Hume Springs: 6:30 - 8ish - Block party at the Flagpole Park at Edison and Dale St. Pizza and refreshments served and prizes raffled off. Show up at 6:30 to see APD Motors and the command bus (will be there for 1/2 hour).

  • Lennox Place at Sunnyside: 6:30 – 9:00pm - Cookout at Courtland Circle. From their flyer: "Courtland Circle is a busy place every National Night Out. Come out, meet your neighbors, enjoy the food and help us all welcome and support Alexandria City Police Department’s finest."

  • If you are in one of the North End neighborhoods and want to help spread the word, please post information about your event in the comments or contact me and I'll add your event information.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Community Empowerment For Teens

This looks like a good program for getting area youth motivated towards something positive. If you know anyone that might be interested, be sure to forward this on to them. Registration is required. It's this Thursday at the Charles Houston Rec Center (From

Actions Speak Louder Than Words
The Departments of Recreation, Parks, and Cultural Activities and Human Services invite teens and young adults to the 2009 Community Empowerment Session, Thursday, July 30 from 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Charles Houston Recreation Center, 901 Wythe St. This Mini-Conference is designed to equip older teens and young adults, ages 15-24, with the tools needed to take control of their lives. This conference features Guest Speakers, Workshops, Mini-Job Fair, Food, Guest DJ, Fun, Late Night Basketball and More!

The 2009 Community Empowerment Session is cosponsored by Concerned Citizens & City of Alexandria. For additional information and to register, call 703.838.0990.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Future of W. Glebe and Mt. Vernon Intersection: I Recommend a Roundabout

We recently discussed two "Road Diets" that would benefit safety and traffic flow of the area. Another major traffic and safety obstacle in the area is the diamond shaped intersection of W. Glebe Rd and Mt. Vernon Ave. It is problematic for both pedestrians and drivers. This is not a novel observation: the following image is a conceptual plan for intersection improvement from the 2003 Arlandria Plan (PDF), though it is not clear if this particular alignment is still on the table.

I spoke with Sandra Marks at T&ES this week on the status of intersection evaluation. The city hosted a midday meeting in March that a few citizens were able to attend, but that was geared mainly towards business owners. The city of Alexandria is currently studying short and long-term solutions for improvements, though she could not go into specifics at this point. They're working with Kimley-Horn on the engineering study. She did say they were considering numerous alternatives for the intersection and that they would be discussed with the community in early September. One solution mentioned in our conversation was a roundabout, considered one of the long-term alternatives due to its impact on surrounding properties. Let's look into the Roundabout option.

This Slate article does a great job in pointing out the various benefits of roundabouts (Tip: GGW). Read it before you draw any conclusions. It also links to this NIH safety study that states:
There were highly significant reductions of 38% for all crash severities combined and of 76% for all injury crashes. Reductions in the numbers of fatal and incapacitating injury crashes were estimated at about 90%.
Here is a quick VDOT pamphlet about driving in roundabouts with a few pro-roundabout tidbits on the second page.

I mocked-up an oval roundabout option below, though this is merely a drawing and does not take account of all roundabout design and engineering considerations. Until we see the options being developed, it will be difficult to choose a preference, but a roundabout seems the best option for safety, traffic flow, and aesthetics. A circular roundabout would be ideal, but that would cut significantly into surrounding property due to the geometry of the intersection. For the mock-up, I made the assumption that all approaches to the intersection will be 2 lanes based on the road diet article linked above. Since W Glebe carries about 19,000 Average Daily Traffic (ADT) and Mt. Vernon only 12,000 ADT, the oval should be oriented to minimize the turning radius for traffic on W. Glebe.

Here are problems with the intersection as-is and how the roundabout option could alleviate these problems:

1. Tendency to promote jaywalking. To get from the Southwest corner to the Northeast corner of the intersection is via crosswalk is roughly a 160 ft. The straight-line distance between these two points, jaywalking diagonally, is only about 52 ft (see image for clarification). To cross legally, you must walk nearly in the opposite direction of where you are headed. This makes jaywalking tempting as people tend to avoid walking in what feels like the wrong direction.

The Jaywalking Fix. In the roundabout scenario mocked up below, that same southwest to northeast corner trip would be reduced about 43% to a 90 ft. walk. Jaywalking is disincentivised because the path around the roundabout seems more natural to a pedestrian. Besides the tendency to cause jaywalking, one pedestrian safety problem with the existing intersection are the two free-flow right turns from W. Glebe onto Mt. Vernon Ave. Cars often assume they have the right of way and come close to hitting pedestrians in the crosswalk.

2. Left turn from eastbound Glebe to Northbound Mt. Vernon. A major driver problem with the existing intersection is this left turn is not a dedicated left turn. Traffic backs up as left turners have to wait for long lines of oncoming traffic to clear the intersection. It's common for few cars headed straight or left to make it through the intersection during a light cycle when a left turner is near the front of the queue. Cars headed straight dart into the right turn lane to get around left turners which causes additional accident risk. Many pedestrian friendly designs would increase pedestrian safety somewhat but would do little for the traffic problems at the intersection, nor the aesthetics.

The Fix. A "modern roundabout" where there are no stop signs or traffic signals and traffic approaching the intersection yields to traffic in the circle keeps traffic moving. There are no left turners as all drivers turn right into the roundabout and continue around the circle to their exit point. Traffic keeps moving and all drivers have equal priority.

3. The intersection is situated as a gateway to the neighborhood, but lacks any distinguishing features other than a difficult traffic pattern. The intersection is surrounded by parking lots and plastic back-lit signage. It puts an unwelcoming foot forward for northbound traffic. On top of that, it is an awkward intersection.

The Fix. A roundabout always includes a raised portion in its center to slow traffic and deflect cars in the right direction. Within this curbed-off area, landscaping, a statue, or other public art indicative of Arlandria can be added to present a welcoming gateway. Traffic signals are removed and the intersection is left uncluttered.

Why not now? The biggest obstacle to the roundabout option, besides cost, is the encroachment into the parking lots of LoanMax and the 7-11 shopping center. With the sample configuration I mocked-up, LoanMax would lose minimal spaces (perhaps none) and the shopping center with 7-11 would likely only lose up to 7 spaces. However, the 7-11 lot could re-align several spaces and get some or all of those 7 spaces back. So, if the city would attempt to work with these businesses to avoid having to utilize eminent domain, a roundabout could be built without upsetting businesses too much, if at all. After all, selling a small slice of property that is being used for parking spaces that could probably be replaced seems like a good deal to me. Capital Improvement Funds are allocated to the area, so money is available for the intersection if that ends up a neighborhood priority. Maybe the roundabout doesn't need to be such a long-term alternative, after all.

To inquire about the intersection work and let the city know you'd prefer a roundabout, contact Sandra Marks (email: , phone: (703) 838-4411 x170 ) or send an e-mail to the mayor and city council stating your preference and that you'd like to see Arlandria Capital Improvement Program funds go towards this project. You could also mention Arlandria's need for a road diet, while you're at it. You'll have your opportunity to raise your comments following the early September meeting, as well.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Should Bikes Always Have to Stop at Stop Signs?

The Washington, D.C. area is considered at least somewhat progressive. I mean, we're obviously more forward thinking than mid-western states like... I don't know... Idaho, right? It turns out, they seem to have us beat in at least one area: bicycle traffic law. You've heard of the California stop (and probably execute one every now and then), now consider a type of roll-through stop that should be legal: the Idaho stop. In Idaho, bikes slow down and yield, but do not have to come to a complete stop at intersections with stop signs if no one is at the intersection. Here's a great 4-minute animation with voice-over that explains pretty much everything about it, including associated fines for bikers that are being reckless and examples of how it works in practice.

Whether you're a driver or a biker, you understand the difficulty with coming to a full stop at every stop sign for a bike. Momentum is huge in biking. Just like a car burns a lot more gas when you stop and go, people tire quickly from losing momentum and getting back up to speed.

Bikes should be subject to most traffic laws, but there are exceptions. A driver would be pretty peeved if he wasn't allowed to pass a biker on a double-yellow-lined road. That automotive maneuver would be illegal if a bike were treated as a motor vehicle and the driver would be subject to a ticket. There are certain exceptions to the normal traffic rules for bikes, and the Idaho stop should be one of them in Alexandria. Hopefully this will eventually be adopted state-wide, but why not lead the way.

The Idaho stop idea came from an unlikely source and came with some unexpected safety benefits (tip: GGW):
...It was traffic judges — not cyclists — who pushed for the idea in 1982, according to an April article in The Oregonian (’Idaho Stop’ is a go for bicycle safety“):

“Police were ticketing bike riders for failing to come to a complete, foot-down stop. Judges, however, saw “technical violations” clogging up their courts. “We recognized that the realities of bicycling were a lot different than driving a car,” Bianchi said. But the year after the Idaho Stop became law, bicycle injuries in the state actually declined by 14.5 percent.

If Alexandria is truly going to strive for multi-modal transportation, they need more than an infrastructure of trails, bike lanes, and bike routes, but a culture that's supportive of people using them. One of our own planning commission members, Lawrence Robinson, went on a rant about how bikes are always getting in the way of his car during a July 2 discussion of the outdoor display of rental bikes. He thought any behavior that encouraged more biking was a bad idea. Not the most bike-friendly set of comments you can think of.

Like always, if you support this idea, you can fill out the e-mail form for the Mayor and City Council. You can also make your opinion heard to Yon Lambert, Alexandria's Principal Transportation Planner for the Pedestrian & Bicycle Program (e-mail:, Phone: 703.746.4081).

For more on Biking and alternative transportation in Alexandria, see the City's LocalMotion site.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Time for an Arlandria Road Diet? How About Two

The two major thoroughfares cutting through the neighborhoods on the North End (Arlandria, et al) are W. Glebe Rd and Mt. Vernon Ave. These two roads are as indecisive as roads can be. W. Glebe alternates from from 4 to 2 to 4 to 2 lanes within the space of a mile. Mt. Vernon Ave is a little better, with just one such change as it passes through Arlandria (though it goes from 2 to 4 lanes immediately before passing into Arlandria from Arlington). Mt. Vernon Ave is a two lane road south of Arlandria. Two of the primary causes of traffic along these stretches are the presence of vehicles waiting to turn left and the people stuck behind them trying to dodge their way around them.

What these two roads need is a "Road Diet." In the linked US DOT study, a road diet is described thusly:

"Road Diets" are often conversions of four-lane undivided roads into three lanes (two through lanes and a center turn lane)... The fourth lane may be converted to bicycle lanes, sidewalks, and/or on-street parking. In other words, existing space is reallocated; the overall area remains the same.

Under most average daily traffic (ADT) conditions tested, road diets have minimal effects on vehicle capacity, because left-turning vehicles are moved into a common two-way left-turn lane. However, for road diets with ADTs above approximately 20,000 vehicles, there is a greater likelihood that traffic congestion will increase to the point of diverting traffic to alternate routes.

A 2002 Alexanria traffic survey shows that W. Glebe Rd averages 19,000 annual average daily traffic volume (AADT) in its Arlandria stretch and Mt. Vernon Ave averages 12,000 AADT north of Commonwealth Ave. These are both under the rough road diet threshold of 20,000 AADT. Even at above 20,000 trips a day, the road diet discourages additional vehicles to use the road. Drivers using the road for a cut-through take highways or find alternate routes.

The 4 lane sections of Mt. Vernon Ave should be reduced down to 2 lanes with a center turning lane. The extra lane could be used for on-street parking. Alternately, the sidewalk could be moved in and the extra 10 ft. swath could be contributed to Four Mile Run park expansion.

On W. Glebe, the 4 lane sections between Old Dominion Rd and Mt. Vernon Ave should be reduced with a center turn-lane and bike lanes in each direction. Between Mt. Vernon and Commonwealth Aves, W Glebe should be wide enough to add a bike land on each side. This would connect residents of Beverly Hills, Lennox Place, Brighton Square, and Glebe Park with the Commonwealth Ave bike corridor. Further, curb cuts should be reduced where possible (e.g., the large parking lot that sits empty between Foodway and Russell Rd. doesn't need an extra curb-cut) and landscaped medians should be added in place of a center turning lane where no potential turns are present. This provides a place for pedestrians crossing the street to safely wait out passing traffic instead of dodging across 2 or 3 lanes of traffic all at once.

Alexandria has a goal of increasing its walkability and bikeability. These changes would serve both goals, while increasing the area's driveability, as well. Here is a mock-up of changes that could be made on W. Glebe Rd.

The Arlandria plan included re-striping of Mt. Vernon Ave and the formation of a gateway into Arlandria when crossing Four Mile Run (images follow). This was almost to the execution stage when several organizations fought to keep all 4 lanes. I think the idea was probably poorly marketed and citizens were not kept in the loop between planning and implementation. Were the project sold on its merits as opposed to just sold for the sake of adding parking spaces, the residents in the North End neighborhoods would likely be more willing to at least implement a trial re-striping to assess the impacts.

It sounds strange that reduction of lanes could make traffic flow more smoothly, but this new alignment has been shown to improve pedestrian and vehicle safety with minimal impact on traffic flow. This excerpt from a 1999 article, "Road Diets: Fixing the Big Roads" describes common public fears over losing a lane but that the results speak for themselves:
In the 1980’s Pennsylvania DOT engineers used FHWA safety monies to fully fund a study and to convert a one-mile section of Electric Avenue in Lewistown, Pennsylvania, from four lanes to three. The roadway was carrying 13,000 ADT. After reviewing hours of time-lapse video and analyzing crash statistics and other data, the team concluded that more uniform flow, reduced conflicts and great reduction in crashes would result from four to three-lane conversion. The change was made facing 95% opposition from local residents, who felt that their trip times would increase.

Once the new roadway section was completed, new time-lapse photography and data collection began. Dangerous maneuvers and crashes dropped to nearly zero. Overall trip times were unaffected. Today nearly 95% of those fearing the change are openly thankful to PennDOT for making the roadway better for safety, mobility and access.
As community members, we should want drivers obeying posted speed limits, increased pedestrian and vehicle safety, and fewer people using roads in our community as a cut through on daily commutes. This solution works for all of those goals without costing us our own commuting time. If I haven't convinced you, yet, here is a recent case of a road diet that is proving successful in Vancouver, despite many community fears.

This would be a great project for some of the Capital Improvement Program funds reserved for the area. If you have questions or concerns, please discuss in the comments section.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Alexandria Has Some Catching Up To Do. Route 1 Would Be a Good Start.

During a recent presentation by the Mayor's Institute on Design to Alexandria City staff, Christopher Leinberger compared Arlington to Alexandria in a way that really struck home.

Paraphrased, he said that while Alexandria has really excelled at preserving the past, Arlington has outpaced Alexandria in building for the future. While Alexandria should preserve its history, much of Alexandria land-use is stuck somewhere between the 1950s and today, complete with suburban development patterns and car-serving business and industry.

Somehow, Arlington just seems to come up with good ideas to produce a more pedestrian-friendly, urban environment. Take the latest example: Arlington wants to assume control of Columbia Pike from VDOT to expedite the realization of their vision for the corridor (tip: DCMud). They're spending most of the money, they have the plans, so why should they have to wait on a highway and suburbia happy institution and jump through hoops to realize that plan?

Alexandria has a transportation plan that finally incorporates multi-modal transportation instead of focusing entirely on roads. Part of this plan is to develop BRT or streetcars on and around Route 1 between old town and the Arlington border (extended into Crystal City and Pentagon City by Arlington). Were Alexandria to look extensively into land use planning during their transportation planning process, they could turn the meeting point of Potomac Yard, Del Ray, and the North End neighborhoods (Arlandria et al) into a lively, walkable area.

Property value and potential land-use flexibility for land adjacent to Route 1 suffers from the roads use as an suburban-style highway as opposed to an urban street (2006 WashPo article). The road is "a hostile environment", as stated by then Planning Commission Chair Eric Wagner. Alexandria needs to expedite the process of transforming this highway back to a street. This means both the street and the land surrounding it needs to be re-envisioned. This site discusses plans for the street, now the west side of Route 1 needs a comprehensive plan (note: The Crystal City/Potomac Yard Transit Improvement project focussed on BRT, though streetcars are still under consideration. Here's a GGW article comparing the two).

With so much investment coming into Potomac Yard, Alexandria's treatment of Route 1 has a big say in its success, and the impression Potomac Yard redevelopment will leave on the neighborhoods to the west of the highway. Will Potomac Yard turn into a welcoming city that flows seamlessly into nearby neighborhoods or a isolated island of concrete on the other side of a very intimidating highway?

Kudos to Arlington for this creative way to expedite walkable street progress. Alexandria could learn a few things from Arlington's willingness to figure out ways to get things done (decades of waffling on Potomac Yard Metro, anyone?).

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Payday and Title Lenders Charge Up to 400% Interest

Arlandria LoanMaxThis article by the Washington Post identifies that payday lenders charge up to 400% interest. On top of that, most borrowers come back pay period after pay period.
Nearly 59 million loans totaling more than $20 billion fit this pattern, accounting for three-quarters of all payday loan volume, the study found. The loans resulted in $3.5 billion worth of fees each year.
So out of $20 billion in paychecks for these repeat borrowers, $3.5 billion goes to fees. That's 17.5% out of all money borrowed. Consider that this is after taxes and this is just lost money to people that likely have little disposable income to begin with.

A key to fixing this problem is to educate payday loan patrons about managing finances and banking in general. Last summer, Alexandria agreed not to raise the tax on Payday lenders in exchange for a voluntary $20K donation (see pg 8-9 of this pdf) towards financial education. Based on the linked document, $7,500 should have gone towards education initially with $10,000 due to the city over the following year for additional programs, pending the city coming up with an educational program and working with LoanMax. The additional $2,500 was to go to a 501(c)(3) organization of the city's choosing by December 31, 2008.

Here's the only city planned financial educational event that I could find, and it was back in January. Contact the Mayor and City Council to make sure the city is planning future financial education programs and not just letting these funds rot on the vine.