Hostile Territory for Travel by Foot

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Saturday afternoon outings were one of Halimo Abdi's last links with the world she knew. Driven from Somalia by civil war, she endured a refugee's life in Kenya and Egypt before coming to Baileys Crossroads with her children in 1999.

Weekdays in her fifth-floor apartment on South George Mason Drive were difficult, her son Abdul Jama said. Abdi, 66, knew little English and was uncomfortable using the telephone. The long blocks and wide streets, lined with glass-sheathed high-rises, made it a challenge to get around. In that way, at least, Mogadishu was easier.

"She missed talking to people freely the way she did back home," Jama said.

But on Saturdays she joined a small group of Somali women in a townhouse on Columbia Pike. They read the Koran, traded stories, enjoyed each other's company. Early on the evening of Jan. 28, Abdi began the one-mile trek home, crossing busy Leesburg Pike (Route 7) around 6:18 p.m.

Witnesses told police that Abdi, dressed in dark clothing, was in the crosswalk but walking against the light when she reached the three eastbound lanes. Traffic in the first two lanes halted, but before she reached the curb, a 2000 Dodge Caravan, traveling under the 35 mph speed limit, killed her instantly. Police said the driver will not be charged.

Walking is by far the most dangerous form of travel in America, according to federal accident data, and that is especially true in Fairfax County. Along much of its 2,700 miles of roadways, designed to channel torrents of commuter traffic, is a no-man's land of missing sidewalks, shabby grass and dirt paths, and unregulated intersections.

"Too often, roads come first," said Supervisor Catherine M. Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill).

They come at a price. Over the last four years, 48 pedestrians have died in traffic accidents in Fairfax -- comprising 21 percent of the county's total traffic fatalities. That is nearly twice the national rate of 11.4 percent, as calculated by the Surface Transportation Policy Project (STPP), a privately funded group in Washington that studied national accident data from 1994 through 2003. Using federal data, the group calculated that the fatality rate per 100 million miles traveled for walkers is almost 20 times higher than for motor vehicle drivers.

Fairfax recorded its second pedestrian casualty of the year this month when Thomas Edward Hope, 48, died from injuries sustained while crossing the 7400 block of Little River Turnpike near Annandale Road in the early evening on Feb. 3. Neither alcohol nor speed was a factor in the accident, police said, and no charges have been filed against the driver.

Nationally, pedestrian deaths overall declined nearly 13 percent from 1994 to 2003, STPP's research shows. But for the elderly and nonwhite, the risks remain elevated. A 2005 study by the Inova Regional Trauma Center found that Hispanics in Northern Virginia suffer the highest rate of hospitalization for pedestrian accidents, eight per 100,000 population, followed by African Americans (six per 100,000). The rate for whites was three per 100,000. The study, funded by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, also found that people 65 and older are the age group with the highest percentage of pedestrian deaths in Northern Virginia.

The rates of injury and death have a discernable economic impact. Between 1999 and 2003, according to the Inova study, total pedestrian injuries in Northern Virginia produced hospital charges of $10.9 million.

Although Fairfax and the state of Virginia added 17 miles of sidewalks and 24 miles of multipurpose trails from 1999 to 2004, a task force told the Board of Supervisors last month that the county remains hostile territory for joggers and those walking to schools, neighborhood shopping centers or bus stops.

The panel recommended that $60 million be spent on upgrades, including a Route 7 pedestrian initiative to complete the sidewalk and trail system along the road where Halimo Abdi died, and an effort to improve access to 150 of the county's bus stops.

The board instructed County Executive Anthony H. Griffin to include some of the task force recommendations in the transportation bond issue that is scheduled to be brought to voters next year.

"This document will not just sit on a shelf," said Fairfax board Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D). "It will be implemented."

* * *

It is rush hour on a recent chilly evening at the intersection of Route 50 and Patrick Henry Drive in Seven Corners. A young Hispanic man stands on the small triangular island of concrete between the four westbound lanes of the state highway and a two-lane service road.

He tries to cross the service road as motorists sweep past him, failing to yield as they turn left off Route 50. He sweeps his arm through the air in resignation.

" Muy malo [very bad]," he said, before scurrying across.

This is the deadliest time of day at the deadliest intersection in Fairfax for those on foot. Three pedestrians have died and 16 have been injured by automobiles here over the last four years, according to county officials. Inova researchers say accident data show Northern Virginia pedestrians are most at risk during the evening rush.

Fairfax police say that pedestrians are at fault slightly more than half the time in traffic accidents. The most common violation is crossing outside the crosswalk.

Around 6 p.m. on Dec. 9, Isidoro Rivas-Funes, 49, slipped or fell in one of the westbound lanes of Route 50, just west of Patrick Henry Drive. Witnesses told investigators that several cars swerved to avoid him. One could not. There may have been another factor involved: Police said Rivas-Funes's blood-alcohol level was extremely high. No charges were filed against the driver.

Even under ideal circumstances, the Seven Corners segment of Route 50 is a magnet for pedestrian accidents. It carries heavy, fast-moving traffic (more than 50,000 vehicles a day on average, according to state figures) through a corridor of immigrant communities where residents are less likely to have cars and more apt to depend on walking or public transit.

The road separates residential neighborhoods from retail businesses. And with long walks between controlled intersections, the temptation to cross in the middle is considerable.

"It's a classic setup for this kind of problem," said Chris Wells, pedestrian program manager for the county's Department of Transportation.

The county says it has tried to bridge gaps of language and culture by printing a series of fliers in Spanish, Korean and other languages and having police distribute them. It has also given out thousands of yellow reflecting wristbands to improve pedestrians' visibility after dark.

Critics say education efforts have been skewed toward pedestrians, and that motorists in the county need more reminders of their legal obligations: to yield, to be prepared for unpredictable pedestrian actions, to look for walkers at right-turn-on-red intersections.

Sometimes careful motorist behavior comes as a surprise.

Capt. Jesse Bowman, commander of the Fairfax police traffic division and a five-mile-a-day, six-times-a-week jogger, said there is one uncontrolled intersection near his home where he runs in place until traffic in both directions clears.

He recalled his astonishment one day when a car came to a complete stop to let him cross.

"I felt like I wanted to buy him dinner," Bowman said.

The primacy of cars in suburban culture is also a major obstacle. In mature urban areas with a grid system of streets and heavy pedestrian traffic, drivers are more attentive.

"There is a different mentality," Bowman said. "It's a city, with lots of pedestrians. Out here, you're in the minority." It means that some motorists are less attuned to the sudden appearance of an errant pedestrian.

The most practical solution for Seven Corners -- a pedestrian bridge -- has been under discussion for at least 20 years, said Supervisor Penelope A. Gross (D-Mason). "Nothing, nothing was done," she said.

This fall, finally, bids will be taken for construction of a $5 million bridge to span Route 50 where Isidoro Rivas-Funes died, just west of Patrick Henry. Construction is scheduled to begin in spring 2007. A major element of the project will be vinyl fencing up and down both sides of the road, to bar mid-block crossings and funnel pedestrians toward the bridge.

* * *

Every now and then Supervisor Sharon S. Bulova (D-Braddock) takes a one-mile walk along Lee Highway from her townhouse off Shirley Gate Road to a small shopping center, where she frequents a favorite Chinese restaurant. It's not a pleasant trip.

"You've never lived until you've tried to make it up Lee Highway from Shirley Gate," she said.

There is no sidewalk. On some stretches, there is scarcely a shoulder. As traffic barrels by, slender strips of grass and gravel vanish and reappear amid the empty cans of Red Bull and old signs for open houses and junk haulers. At one small bridge over a drainage channel, there is no clearance at all for a walker.

Those on foot in Fairfax County, along Lee Highway, Route 50 or in Tysons Corner, often must improvise.

With the county rapidly urbanizing, and more residents taking to their feet for transportation or exercise, the demand for "pedestrian connectivity" -- plannerese for a coherent sidewalk network -- is on the rise.

As Fairfax grew from a country crossroads to a mega-suburb where car was king, sidewalks were often an afterthought. Some early subdivisions were required to provide sidewalks on only one side of a street. Even then, regulations were fluid.

Gross said that when she took office 10 years ago, developers routinely secured waivers of sidewalk requirements, arguing that they were pointless because they would not link to a larger existing network.

As young families with school-age children move into these older established neighborhoods, the issue has taken on more urgency.

Mantua, a community of 1950s and '60s-vintage Colonials and ramblers just outside the Beltway, is extolled in an ad by one real estate agent for its "old trees, large lots and houses set back from sidewalk-free streets."

Mantua is not exactly sidewalk-free. In fact, it is a testament to sketchy planning and loose regulation. On the streets near Mantua Elementary School on Horner Court, the sidewalks ebb and flow.

Kirkwood Drive has a sidewalk down one side, as does Southwick Street. But Lido Place has none. It also has a heavy flow of morning rush-hour traffic from Little River Turnpike, with motorists seeking a shortcut to Route 50.

There have been no accidents yet, but there is constant anxiety.

"We've had some close calls," said John Jennison, president of the Mantua Citizens' Association. "But we don't want a tombstone mind-set to be the tipping point for why we want that sidewalk."

The citizens association and the Mantua Elementary PTA recently pooled resources to produce $6,000 in seed money for sidewalks, but there are significant obstacles. One is funding: County budgets in recent years have provided no new money for sidewalks or trails.

The other hurdle is legal. If there is no space in the existing public right-of-way, new sidewalks must go over private property, requiring the approval of owners. In Mantua, one resident has refused to sign off, Jennison said.

It is a common problem with smaller, spot projects, officials say.

"It's the little missing links that are hard to get," said Supervisor Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence).

Some property owners fear crime from increased foot traffic that sidewalks might bring and lawsuits from pedestrians who fall. Others resist on aesthetic or philosophical grounds, concerned that sidewalks would nudge the character of a neighborhood further from its rural roots.

When the county needs land for water or sewer projects, it can exercise its powers of "quick take" eminent domain, which allows the county to deposit what it considers a fair price for property with the courts and get speedy access to the land.

But pedestrian projects are not covered by "quick take." The pedestrian task force recommended to the Board of Supervisors that it lobby the state legislature for such authority.

The county could pursue hold-out property owners in court but is reluctant to do so.

"Who wants to go there?" Gross said.

At Mantua Elementary School, Assistant Principal Cheryl Thompson said she hopes improvements can be made before someone gets hurt. "I just hold my breath that nothing happens to those kids."

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