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Making a Street Safe for All

On Thursday, May 5th of 2016, a person commuting on a bike was struck by a car while trying to cross Duke Street at West Taylor Run Parkway in Alexandria, Virginia. The condition of the victim remains very serious at the time of this writing.

What caused this near-fatality? The police are still investigating, but bad road design must share the blame. The crash site on Duke has more in common with a highway than with a street by a residential area.

Duke Street between West Taylor Run Parkway (left) and the Telegraph Road Interchange (right).

Duke Street between West Taylor Run Parkway (left) and the Telegraph Road Interchange (right).

Duke has multiple lanes, high speed merges, an absence of bike facilities and infrequent crosswalks. It is extraordinarily dangerous for anyone not enshrouded in a ton of steel. Yet it separates a residential area to the north from a city-owned soccer field to the south. It is remarkable that a child has not been struck here, so far.

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The current lane configuration on Duke Street at West Taylor Run Parkway. This is what kids from the neighborhood have to cross to reach a soccer field.

The width of Duke Street at West Taylor Run Parkway is seven lanes, including turn lanes. That does not include the two-lane service road running parallel to Duke. Just to the east is a grade-separated interchange that feeds traffic onto a limited access section of Telegraph Road. That, in turn, leads to a section of the Capital Beltway that was widened during the Woodrow Wilson Bridge project.

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Telegraph Road (center) in Alexandria functions as a limited access connector between Duke Street (top) and the Capital Beltway/I-95/I-495 (bottom). For much of the early part of this century the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) worked on widening Telegraph as part of the rebuilding of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge over the Potomac River a couple of miles to the east. No changes were made to Duke Street.

The crosswalk at West Taylor Run Parkway is the only one on Duke Street for a ¾ mile stretch. To the north lie residences; to the south is a soccer field and various commercial land uses. A push-to-walk button, popularly known as a “beg button,” is in place at this crosswalk.

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This reconstruction of Duke Street would give more priority to those walking or biking by reducing the number of vehicle lanes to be crossed.

What might this section of Duke Street look like if it were made safer for those walking or on bikes? By default, those in cars would lose priority, but this would benefit surrounding neighborhoods tremendously. Cut-through traffic accessing the Beltway during the afternoon rush hour puts a serious strain on the neighborhoods to the north. If such traffic is thwarted, residents benefit in terms of both safety and property values, as nobody likes living next to a jammed, polluting road.

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An aerial view of a reimagined Duke Street at West Taylor Run Parkway. Note how Duke Street is essentially converted from a highway to an urban boulevard.

This plan is entirely my own and I do not claim perfection, but it is a starting point for coming up with a desperately-needed fix. Note that one lane westbound is removed. This will require traffic exiting northbound Telegraph Road onto Duke Street via the loop ramp (see picture above) to come to a complete halt, rather than simply race into their own lane. That’s a good thing, as a crosswalk with frequently-damaged flashing beacons is located at the end of the ramp. Drivers have a hard time adjusting from 45 MPH down to a full stop when they aren’t expecting it. Requiring a full stop at all times makes matters more predictable.

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There are supposed to be two flashing beacons at this crosswalk along westbound Duke at the ramp exiting northbound Telegraph. It keeps getting obliterated by motorists who, when surprised by unexpected stopping of vehicles in front of them, veer off the road. Anything in their way is hit, whether a sign or a person waiting to cross.

A fully-separated, bi-directional separated bikeway is located on the north side of Duke. Currently, there is no real provision for people on bikes, other than a few meaningless sharrows. A separated bikeway also extends across Duke at East Taylor Run Parkway. It heads towards a tunnel under the nearby railyard, though that tunnel’s access must also be re-engineered as it features a stair.

Note that the service road on the north side of Duke is severely truncated. Its purpose is to provide access to adjacent businesses. With Duke Street calmer, a complete parallel route would no longer be necessary. This also eliminates complex, and unworkable, intersections such as that where the service road currently meets West Taylor Run Parkway.

Trumpet interchange at Telegraph & Duke

Note how the vertices of the intersections of ramps with Duke Street are tightened. This requires either a full stop or a dramatic slowing by motorists. Motorist behavior would become much more consistent, leading to fewer flashing beacons being smashed.

My plan bans most left turns onto Duke from streets southbound out of the neighborhood to the north. The one that remains would not be able to access southbound Telegraph directly. While this means that residents would have to go a bit further in order to access legal U-turn points, their neighborhood would see cut-through traffic eliminated via this added delay. This is an effective practice well-vetted by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).

At the crash site, itself, the right turn lane from westbound Duke to northbound West Taylor Run is eliminated. With the service road truncated, it is no longer required. As stated previously, one westbound through-lane on Duke is gone. That makes the crosswalk on Duke shorter. Additionally, the beginning of the ramp from eastbound Duke to southbound Telegraph Road begins further to the east. This discourages drivers entering the ramp from accelerating to high speed, as they have a tighter turn to negotiate as they head onto Telegraph.

Although I left it in, the far-right lane on Duke accessing this ramp could be eliminated and further calm eastbound Duke traffic. Its role is purely for stacking capacity. That can no longer take precedence over the safety of vulnerable street users, now that the city has adopted Vision Zero and Complete Streets.

In light of this crash, will the city take quick action to make Duke Street safe via a plan such as mine? On paper, the answer should be yes, due to policy positions staked out by Alexandria’s City Council. The new Pedestrian/Bicycle chapter of the city’s Transportation Master Plan embraces Vision Zero. The city council adopted a Complete Streets resolution in 2011. These positions led to Alexandria being named a Silver level bike-friendly city by the League of American Bicyclists.

But work will not soon begin on fixing the street around the crash site. At least one councilmember is on record stating that she wants to slow down the process of building bike facilities on Duke while discussions continue on proposed Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) for Duke Street, otherwise known as the Corridor B Transitway.

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Note how people who bike are relegated to an off-Duke facility that is to be “examined.”

Corridor B will run in mixed traffic for much of its length. That mixed flow generally comes to a halt just west of the crash’s location, so the “R” in “BRT” is questionable. Mixed flow BRT projects are subject to the same congestion delays as normal bus services. That eliminates much of the benefit such systems use to attract ridership. However, where Duke is at least six lanes wide, the BRT will get dedicated right of way. That includes Duke Street between the Telegraph Road interchange and West Taylor Run Parkway. But don’t go planning any trips on it, as no timeline for construction, or even funding, exists.

The question boils down to this: should major changes to make Duke Street safe for all users be put off for years in anticipation of a mixed-flow BRT scheme. Or should the city go ahead and implement its Vision Zero and Complete Streets policies as soon as possible by reconstructing dangerous portions of Duke Street, such as the crash site, even if it means foregoing BRT?

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Mayors and members of Council have received requests to reactivate or replace this broken red light camera and expand coverage to both sides of Duke Street. No actions or even studies have been forthcoming.

The Alexandria city government is already well aware of the risk posed by motorist behavior at this intersection. Red light cameras were installed here over 10 years ago, but they are not functioning. Even if they were reactivated, the high-speed road design is still a risk to the public.

The need to do something is critical. As with all fixes designed to make streets safer, the question is whether there is sufficient political will push aside an obstructing priority. If the obstructing priority is an unfunded BRT plan that indefinitely delays the protection human life, so be it.

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3 comments… add one
  • That intersection is a mess, but this plan has a faulty assumption.

    >>Cut-through traffic accessing the Beltway during the afternoon rush hour puts a serious strain on the neighborhoods to the north. If such traffic is thwarted, residents benefit in terms of both safety and property values, as nobody likes living next to a jammed, polluting road.<<

    You think you are going to thwart traffic? What does that mean? It's not going to disappear. It will just be even more backed up. Taylor Run is stop and go at rush hour, as is Duke Street. A few years ago there was consideration of building a road out to the Beltway where the old Generous George's restaurant is, but residents fought that idea. Cycling is only good for people who live relatively close to their jobs, can shower at work and dress casually, and don't need to pick up kids at daycare or have other obligations. That's not a lot of people. Unless and until a reliable alternative system is built, people will need to drive cars to get to and from work, schools, shopping, etc. Bike commuting just isn't practical for many people. "Thwarting" the needs of those people for the needs of a few privileged people who can enjoy cycling to work, without offering a realistic alternative, isn't a good plan.

  • Duke St is a death street and it is listed as one of the ten priority corridors for bike improvements. But apparently Ryan Brown wasn’t riding along Duke St, he was crossing at the light and was apparently hit by a car running the red light. The quickest option would be to add raised crosswalks and lower the speed limit.

  • interesting

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