If you try to walk around in many parts of our region, particularly in the suburbs, it’s easy to get the feeling that you’re an afterthought, at best. Governments’ actions in the recent “Snowzilla” blizzard show even more clearly how being “multimodal” is more lip service than reality.
In Fairfax County, sidewalks in neighborhoods and along major arterial roads were impassable a week or more after the storm. Schools in Fairfax, Arlington and other jurisdictions closed for seven consecutive weekdays, putting many parents in a bind. Children lacked safe routes to school and safe places to wait for buses.
This was no simple issue of having to prioritize; as Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova told residents, the Virginia Department of Transportation, which plows all of Fairfax’s public roads, was not going to do anything about the sidewalks, and the county had no plan to either.
Only the recent burst of unseasonably warm weather saved many Fairfax sidewalks from being impassable all winter long.
Fairfax isn’t alone. Arlington County and other jurisdictions likewise had no plan to clear sidewalks.
The fact that Montgomery County lacks a plan to keep its sidewalks clear has spurred one resident, Richard Hoye, to spend $40,000 of his own money to buy machinery to clear snow. In Prince George’s County, a man was hit by a driver because he had to walk in the road to get around an impassable sidewalk.
Area residents who use wheelchairs found themselves unable to leave their homes as piles of snow blocked the curb ramps that connect sidewalks to crosswalks. The District eventually started clearing curb ramps and corners. By law, the nearby property owner is responsible for clearing them, but that’s a tall order for residents of corner houses.
And then there’s the National Park Service, which just outright doesn’t clear snow from any of its trails, including the heavily used Mount Vernon Trail, which connects southern Fairfax and Alexandria to Arlington and the District.
Certainly, governments have to prioritize their snow-clearing efforts. Plowing major roads should be the top priority, if for nothing other than emergency vehicles. People trying to walk weren’t the only ones frustrated with plowing; many residents of dead-end streets, especially, waited a very long time to be able to drive out of their neighborhoods (another example of the folly of building neighborhoods full of cul-de-sacs).
And indeed, in mostly suburban counties, driving makes up the vast majority of trips. But just because one use of the roads is a minority doesn’t mean it deserves to be ignored. The majority of people aren’t walking. The majority of people also aren’t driving in Annandale at any given time, but that doesn’t mean VDOT and Fairfax would dream of telling the people of Annandale that they were just not going to get any plowing this time around.
While safe places to walk aren’t the only priority, they do need to be a priority. It’s too common for VDOT and other transportation agencies to propose a project that’s all about widening roads but call it “multimodal” because it has a sidewalk. When VDOT widened the corner of Route 29 and Gallows Road in Merrifield to nine lanes by nine lanes, it made the “walkable” Mosaic District much harder to walk to from the Dunn Loring Metro station but said the project would “enhance bicycle and pedestrian access.”
Fairfax leaders are making it a priority to create walkable places around the county’s Metro stations, such as at Tysons Corner. It’s been a high priority in Arlington for decades. Montgomery is working to do the same, and Prince George’s at least talks about doing it. That’s the right direction for all of these counties. It allows them to add jobs and residents without making traffic even worse (following Arlington’s example), but a commitment to giving people a choice among modes of travel should extend to all parts of the year. Sadly, when state governments buy into multimodalism in name only, the result is what we saw after the blizzard.
Jurisdictions had an understandably tough job during the storm and many handled it quite well. (Metro got pretty good marks for handling a tough situation.) It’s understandable that a once-every-five-years storm will stress the region’s snow-clearing capacity, and not every neighborhood will get plowed as fast as residents would like, but governments can’t write off anyone or any travel mode altogether. They need plans that ensure sidewalks on state or county roads, urban intersections, routes to school and other walking routes aren’t left in the cold.
The writer is founder and editor of Greater Greater Washington.
Read more about this issue: