Exploring Inroads for Tysons Foot Traffic

Run, don't walk: Pedestrians brave the traffic to cross Route 7, which at 170 feet wide makes for a risky dash.
Run, don't walk: Pedestrians brave the traffic to cross Route 7, which at 170 feet wide makes for a risky dash. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 23, 2005

Every once in a while, someone tries to cross Route 7 in Tysons Corner on foot.

It isn't easy. At 170 feet curb to curb, the suburban strip is far wider than the Champs-Elysees in Paris, Las Ramblas in Barcelona or Fifth Avenue in New York. Worse, crosswalk and "Walk/Don't Walk" signals, which engineers say would impede traffic, are deliberately scarce.

The few pedestrians willing to cross typically will scan the horizon for a break in the flow of cars, sometimes tentatively dangling a toe over the curb, and finally, engulfed by the rumble and noxious breath of rushing traffic, bolt.

"It's crazy," said John Hampton, 35, a shipping and receiving supervisor, after having half-sprinted across diagonally between the Toys R Us and the McDonald's one morning last week. "You could get killed out there."

Fairfax County business leaders and planners now want to transform Tysons Corner, the vast mall and office hub where people drive to get around, into a traditional downtown where people feel comfortable walking about. Their efforts are considered critical to the success of the $1.5 billion Metrorail extension through Tysons Corner, because most potential passengers must be willing to walk at least as far as the train station.

But creating a traditional city from a place laid out almost exclusively for automobiles has never been done on this scale, planners say, and the challenges of Route 7 alone illustrate the difficulties.

Its scale is more intimidating for pedestrians than roads in traditional cities, but giving pedestrians time to cross -- when each second for walkers takes away precious "green time" for cars -- is bound to frustrate drivers.

When some neighbors requested more pedestrian signals on Route 7, engineers for the Virginia Department of Transportation studied their request but built only one in the one-mile stretch between International Drive and the Dulles Access Road. Many more are needed, pedestrian advocates say.

"They were afraid that pedestrians crossing the road would slow down traffic," said Wade Smith, a board member of the McLean Citizens Association, who has doggedly catalogued missing sidewalk segments in the area. "The biggest reason people say they can't walk around Tysons Corner is that they can't cross the main roads. It's very intimidating out there."

Route 7 is one of the central traffic arteries of Tysons Corner, a place that has most of the raw ingredients of a traditional city -- it's the Washington region's second-largest jobs center -- but lacks a city's physical setup. Buildings are separated by berms, side yards, parking lots and wide roadways that sacrifice pedestrian ease for vehicle convenience.

The vast drive-through operation at the McDonald's on Route 7, for example, is a marvel of auto-oriented convenience: To keep the cars moving at lunchtime, five headset-wearing clerks roam the pavement outside, taking orders and delivering food. For pedestrians, however, the Tysons environment can be stressful and sometimes deadly. A Sterling man was killed crossing Route 7 in April 2004, and a District pedestrian was fatally injured trying to cross Chain Bridge Road near the Tysons Corner malls in January 2004. Fairfax County police did not have statistics on hand for pedestrian accidents in the area.

Since 1994, county plans have envisioned Route 7 becoming an "urban boulevard." The proposed Metrorail line, which would have two stops on Route 7, has given the plan more prominence.

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