Over the past few months, I’ve watched with sadness as our community has descended into the tribalism that’s now commonplace in our national politics. Both sides have vilified and demonized their opponents, vowing to fight to the end and promising retribution at the ballot box for city council members who vote against them.
In case you’ve been spared the sparring, the asphalt at issue is Seminary Road between St. Stephen’s Road and Zabriskie Drive. On September 14, the City Council will hold a public hearing and then vote between moving forward to repave it in its current four-lane configuration or approving a compromise three-lane option that would remove one vehicular traffic lane in each direction, and add a center turn lane and a bike lane.
Months ago, in accordance with the city’s Complete Streets policy, which was adopted in 2011, city staff presented a set of options for restructuring that portion of Seminary Road, in conjunction with its scheduled repaving, in order to enhance the safety and usability of the major thoroughfare. After hearing from the community, the city came down on the side of the three-lane option. Earlier this summer, the Traffic and Parking Board (a volunteer advisory group made up of city residents) voted to stick with the current four-lane configuration. There has been conflicting information about which option the Alexandria Fire Department prefers. Now it’s up to the City Council to make a final decision.
Much to my distress, the claims and counter claims have verged into the outlandish. If you believe what you read and hear from the loudest voices in this debate:
- City staff spend their days drumming their fingertips together and conspiring to wrest you from your vehicle in order to force you into walking, bicycling, cross-country skiing, or—gasp!—riding a scooter. (No, in fact, they’re doing their jobs to make Alexandria a more livable city for all, including the large segment of residents who don’t own a car.)
- City staff are also busy rejiggering the dates when advisory boards meet to coincide with times when the peskiest members of the board will be out of town, and so unable to attend. (I heard this accusation first-hand.)
- The 11 civic associations that support the four-lane option are speaking for the 7,400 households that they encompass. (No, they speak for a small fraction of those households—generally ones that include elected officers of those organizations, regular meeting attendees, or members who have a disproportionate presence on neighborhood listservs. I am not aware that any of the civic associations undertook a systematic and scientific survey of the households within its jurisdiction on this topic.)
- There aren’t many accidents there so we don’t need to make it safer. (Complete Streets is not just about making streets safer for motorists, but also for pedestrians and bicyclists.)
- The bike lobby recruited people from outside of Alexandria to voice support for the three-lane option. (I can’t judge the veracity of this claim, but among the signors of petitions on both sides are many friends and neighbors whom I respect and admire. And anecdotally, I’ve seen proponents of the three-lane option collecting signatures at one of our hometown farmers’ markets.)*
The concerns about worsening traffic congestion on Seminary Road and at the Seminary/Quaker/Janneys junction are real and shouldn’t be dismissed by the three-lane proponents. Without a doubt there are drivers using Seminary Road as a way to cut through Alexandria en route to their final destination, but it’s pure conjecture whether either option would reduce the nonresident traffic.
Similar concerns and worst-case scenario predictions were voiced when the city repaved King Street around T.C. Williams several years ago. I was part of a TC PTSA committee working with the city to make that area safer for students crossing King Street and motorists dropping off and picking up students. The city proceeded with the recommended Complete Streets enhancements and not only is that area much more pedestrian-friendly, but also the traffic flow in and out of the school is greatly improved. And the worst traffic nightmares have not materialized on that section of King Street (though the King-Russell-Callahan intersection is another matter).
If motorists are obeying the posted 25 mph speed limits on Seminary Road—and if there was more robust enforcement of the speed limit—would travel times be significantly impacted by the three-lane option? Who knows.
But let’s get back to that four-city-block strip of pavement.
I would hate to see any of our current City Council members staking their political futures on this single vote. And I naively still believe that within every difference of opinion lies a compromise. So here goes.
- Leave Seminary Road as is, four big beautiful lanes wide. The absence of a half-mile bike lane is not going to change a commuter’s bike/car decision matrix or a recreational bicyclist’s route one iota. Step up enforcement of the speed limit on that stretch of road. Another way to make it safer is to be sure that motorists are obeying the law.
- Work with the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee to identify improvements in bike lanes, sidewalks and other features around the city that would deliver the biggest bang for the buck. Then spend the same amount of money making those improvements as would have been spent on the Seminary “road diet.”
- Repave Seminary Road next summer or whenever the I-395/Seminary interchange construction is finished. Perhaps by then another better option may have emerged.
In the meantime, let’s all commit to doing a better job at civic engagement.
If you’ve been spending hours in listserv, email, or social media dialog about Seminary Road, consider how you might put the time that will now be freed up to more productive use, perhaps by delivering meals to the elderly, tutoring a child, volunteering in some other capacity, protecting immigrant rights, and working to elect candidates for the Virginia House of Delegates and Senate who will pass common-sense gun laws.
If you’re a city staffer, take some time to analyze how information was shared and collected for this project and how that process could be improved upon for upcoming Complete Streets projects.
If you’re a City Council member, thank you for your service, and thank you for all of the extra time that you’ve devoted to this small strip of pavement. Yes, it’s what you are elected to do, but we really need you to be spending your time on how to increase the stock of affordable housing units for our residents and how to attract new businesses to our city so that we have adequate resources for our schools and teachers, so that we can make long-overdue improvements to our recreational facilities and so that we can support the arts in our community.
Let’s focus on making our city better for all.
*Full disclosure: My family owns more bicycles than vehicles. We bike for fun and exercise, wearing helmets. We obey traffic laws and prefer streets with dedicated bike lanes to those without them. For more than five years, my husband commuted to work almost exclusively by bike when we were living in D.C.