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Modern Mobility: Arlington needs a ‘Street Guide’

Modern Mobility is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Arlington prides itself on its public engagement, but when there is a fundamental disagreement on the basic design of our streets, public engagement becomes a frustrating, repeated rehashing of the same arguments rather than a productive and collaborative conversation about what might make a particular street unique.

Arlington needs a Street Design, Operations and Maintenance Guide — a set of localized standards, tools, interventions and policies that reflect not just professional engineering standards, but also community-driven values.

As someone who attends a lot of transportation project public meetings, I’ve heard the same feedback directed at the County in meeting after meeting: people wanting real, physical protection for bike lanes, not just paint; folks concerned that we are building wide lanes that encourage speeding; a desire to not have to push a button in order to safely cross the street; frustration with sidewalk curb cuts that seem to direct pedestrian out into the middle of an intersection rather than into a crosswalk; a desire for shelter and seating for bus stops, not just a signpost on a sidewalk.

None of these pieces of feedback is really location-specific. These requests were not because of a particular feature of the street or neighborhood where the project was being built; instead, they represent a fundamental disagreement between how Arlington currently designs and operates its streets and how residents wish them to be.

This disconnect creates a frustrating experience for both residents and for staff. Residents are frustrated, feeling like they need to go to every single transportation project engagement session and give the same feedback over and over, often with no visible results. Staff are frustrated because their engagement session, meant to help inform them about unique conditions and needs in a particular location is instead overrun with feedback about bigger, over-arching design issues that are unlikely to be changed as the result of feedback on a single project.

It’s past time for Arlington to have a community conversation about how we design, operate and maintain our streets and then put it all down in a frequently-updated, publicly-accessible guidance document. Many of Arlington’s peer localities (and nearly all larger cities) have a street design guide (Examples: Montgomery County, MD; Austin, TX; Seattle, WA; New York, NY)

An Arlington Street Guide could cover design issues (lane widths, protected bike lane materials, corner radii, etc.) as well as operational issues (signal timing policies, right-turn-on-red restriction policies, etc.) and maintenance issues (snow removal, street sweeping, pothole filling, keeping traffic calming features in good shape, etc.) and be a useful resource for county transportation staff, engineers for private developers, as well as Arlington citizens and advocates.

Providing an appropriate venue to have these broader design, operation and maintenance conversations would free up project-specific public engagement time for its intended purpose: discussing site-specific conditions that local residents may be more familiar with than County staff. On top of that, it would give an opportunity for community values and priorities to be inserted into existing county operational decisions like signal timing, pedestrian recall, etc. which are currently made entirely based on staff judgement.

With Arlington preparing to work through the “Multimodal Safety Toolkit” it promised as part of the Vision Zero Action Plan, now is the time to get started on Arlington’s Street Guide. Arlington has already started releasing for public review some of their existing guidance and the toolkit will further set out design guidance for the sort of interventions Arlington is willing to install on our streets to improve safety. With that great starting point, the County should prioritize codifying guidance on operational and maintenance procedures to create a one-stop-shop for understanding how we design, operate and maintain these critical parts of the public realm.

Chris Slatt is the current Chair of the Arlington County Transportation Commission, founder of Sustainable Mobility for Arlington County and a former civic association president. He is a software developer, co-owner of Perfect Pointe Dance Studio, and a father of two.

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