A Virus and a Vision

by Ken Notis, Infrastructure Chair

The COVID 19 pandemic has revealed many important things about bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure in Alexandria. While few changes can be made at the moment, due to pandemic induced resource constraints, we should take this opportunity to rethink our streets.

Our sidewalks are too narrow

While outdoors is safer than indoors, most people are, wisely, trying to avoid even momentary close contact with others while walking. Even a standard 6-foot width sidewalk is not really adequate for social distancing. Many of our sidewalks in the City are much narrower than that – that is why there have been people walking or running in the street all around the City since March. Wider shared use paths would help in any similar health situation – and also create a better walking experience in general.

Beg buttons are a problem

The need to press a button to get a walk signal, an annoyance to pedestrians in normal times, presents an additional (if minor) source of potential contagion now.

Bicycle infrastructure is for more than just people on bikes

On streets that have bike lanes, runners and walkers use them to socially distance from others when it’s not possible to do so on the sidewalk. I have personally seen this many times on Seminary Road, on King Street, and on North Hampton Drive since March. As a bike rider, I pull into the general travel lane when that is safe, to leave the room to pedestrians. The lack of automotive traffic makes that easier.

We use a lot of space for parking that can be used for other things, that add vibrancy to our City

Because outdoor dining is so much safer than indoor dining, the City has created more space for outdoor dining in three ways. It has implemented King Street Place, which allows one block of King Street in Old Town to be used by restaurants and pedestrians. It has taken certain parking spots and allowed them to be used as outdoor space by restaurants (so called “streateries”) and it has allowed restaurants and gyms to use their parking lots for outdoor dining and athletic activity, relaxing parking minimums. In addition to saving jobs and City tax revenue, this has shown how much more attractive and exciting our streets can be when we dedicate slightly less space to on street parking. We have also seen the benefits of allowing businesses to decide for themselves how much parking they need, instead of requiring them to have more than they want.

Slow streets can work

In many of our quieter residential neighborhoods, pedestrians simply walk in the street when social distancing is not possible on the sidewalk. Drivers have adjusted to this, and it works well in many places. Unfortunately the pedestrians are technically jaywalking, and IF they were hit by a car, the courts might hold them at fault. Some other cities have officially declared “slow streets” with particularly low speed limits and/or restrictions on through traffic, and make walking in the street explicitly legal.

Let’s think more broadly about change

Many cities around the world have taken this moment – when telework is high, traffic is low, transit is seen as problematic by some – to advance their visions of a new transportation system – creating more space for pedestrians and bicyclists, including well connected bicycle networks, open streets for pedestrians and similar.