Without a Car, Suburbanites Tread in Peril

Pedestrians have worn a path to intersection of Edwards Ferry Road and the Route 15 bypass in Leesburg, a common but perilous crossing. (Photos By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)
By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 16, 2007

Barring obstacles, Leesburg resident Jose Vetura could probably walk to work in 10 minutes. But with a six-foot-tall iron fence and six lanes of traffic in his way, he takes a detour.

The 26-year-old restaurant worker follows a well-worn dirt path along the fence, past fast-food wrappers and dandelions to the intersection of Edwards Ferry Road and the Route 15 bypass. There, surrounded by shards of glass and cigarette butts, he waits for a gap in the traffic and bolts across the bypass without any help from a crosswalk. After hiking up a gravel hill, he crosses a vast parking lot past Ruby Tuesday and Ross Dress for Less before reaching his destination in about 20 minutes.

In large parts of Loudoun County and many suburbs elsewhere, pedestrians often commute at their peril. Virginia's fastest-growing county and its developers have long focused on expanding and managing a road network for vehicular traffic, but until recently, little attention has been paid to the growing ranks of pedestrians.

So in the absence of sidewalks, paved bike paths or even a wide shoulder on the road, walkers are blazing their own trails. The telltale yellow ribbons of wilted grass and dull, earthen stripes hugging the curb are created and maintained by carless employees, cycling teens or older people en route to Starbucks. Together, Loudoun pedestrians and cyclists have forged more than a Girl Scout camp's worth of trails.

Some planners call them "goat paths" or "cow paths," akin to routes animals tread from field to barn and back. Some call them "demand lines," because they paint a map of sidewalks to be built.

"They are evidence that we still have a ways to go" in providing a transportation network for everyone, said Cindy Engelhart, bicycle and pedestrian transportation engineer for the Virginia Department of Transportation. The footpaths exist everywhere in the region, she said, from the District to the suburbs to the rural fringe.

When planning a new road, engineers use such trails to learn what pedestrians need. Since 2004, the state transportation department has followed a policy of including bicycle and pedestrian facilities with each new project, unless there are safety concerns or other issues.

At the local level, counties tend to develop walking and cycling infrastructure as they urbanize, Engelhart said.

A survey of 840 miles of roads in Loudoun found that 14 percent had sidewalks, according to a bicycle and pedestrian mobility plan county supervisors adopted in 2003.

The county began requiring sidewalks or bike trails in new developments in the mid-1990s, but in many places it is hard to see much effect. The result is a piecemeal network of sidewalks and trails that begin and end haphazardly, influenced by the date or parameters of developers' contracts. Many times, there are no formal paths between neighborhoods and nearby shopping centers, parks or schools.

The county is seeking to strengthen its pedestrian transportation network, but funds are limited. Gas tax revenue pays for a handful of walking or bicycling projects a year, said Charles Acker, a Loudoun traffic control engineer. Developers, on a project-by-project basis, do most of the work.

One recent sidewalk project connected a dense neighborhood of townhouses to a grocery store and shopping center in Sterling. A block-long asphalt path runs behind the new cluster of stores.

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