Arlington has over 30 acres of valuable public real estate that it is terribly mismanaging.
The County provides it to some, but not all residents for the express purpose of storing their private property. Some residents can use it for free, others pay a tiny pittance of $20 per year. Many residents, primarily the young and least affluent are forbidden from using it at all. Virtually every inch of it has been paved over.
Perhaps worst of all, those special residents who are allowed to use it, rarely do so. Over 50% of the time this land is sitting completely empty.
I’m speaking, of course, about Arlington’s on-street Residential Parking Permit Program parking spaces.
You’d be forgiven for not realizing any of this — the conversations about on-street parking in the County would make you think the exact opposite. You can’t show up at a development approval public hearing without hearing about the parking scarcity in Arlington. Penrose’s “parking crisis” is a regular topic of conversation at my neighborhood’s Civic Association meetings.
The cold, hard, data from the County’s parking occupancy study paints a very different picture, however. While on-street parking on commercial corridors is often at 85-100% occupancy, especially during evening hours, neighborhood streets with Residential Parking Permit (RPP) restrictions average less than 50% occupancy, even in the hours when those RPP restrictions aren’t in effect. During school hours, nearly every residential block in the County’s detailed study area is under 50%.
In a County as space-constrained as Arlington, we simply must make better use of this public land. Our tax money is used to maintain it; its imperviousness worsens flood risks for all of our homes; and as long as it is on-street parking, it cannot be rain gardens, parklets or bike infrastructure to get our kids safely to school.
Two current problems facing the County could greatly benefit from this land, and some simple changes to the RPP program could accomplish them.
First, Restaurant Row on 23rd St in Crystal City, which is home to many dearly-loved and locally-owned restaurants has very little dedicated parking. This recently received a lot of renewed attention due to the potential redevelopment of a private parking lot in the immediate vicinity. One business owner, specifically lamented the loss of lunch business in his testimony to the Transportation Commission. A large part of the loss of nearby parking near Restaurant Row, is due to those blocks acquiring RPP restrictions of the last decade.
While some sort of restrictions may be necessary to prevent commuter parking, the existing RPP restrictions have clearly gone much, much too far, especially when it comes to during the work day. Nearly all of the nearby blocks are under 60% occupancy at lunch time on weekdays.
There are several ways the RPP program could be changed that would help support these businesses without overly burdening nearby residents. Two hour parking could be allowed in RPP zones without a zone permit. To make this easier to enforce, parking meters could be installed. If this might result in too much commercial parking it could be limited to only during the work day, or only on one side of the street.
Second, the expansion of Arlington’s Career Center is currently working its way through Public Facilities Review Committee and how to accommodate the school’s parking needs is one of the hottest topics of conversation. The County estimates that the expanded Career Center will need 400-500 total parking spaces.
Every year, the DC region spends over half a million dollars on the Street Smart safety campaign. With pedestrian fatalities reaching their highest levels in decades, that budget is a resource we need to be maximizing to improve safety outcomes.
Instead, the campaign seems more concerned with watered-down messages that won’t offend anyone and visual gimmicks that catch your eye and jog your memory – but don’t actually send a useful message.
You’ve probably seen these ads before. For years it was tired faces, lately it’s shattered lives. The evocative imagery is great for getting you to remember that you’ve seen these ads, but doesn’t necessarily help you take away any sort of useful message from them.
The results are pretty abysmal, especially amongst drivers – those whose behavior is most likely to harm another individual. Only 13% of drivers surveyed could even remember seeing a Street Smart ad. The after-campaign survey either doesn’t try to determine if the “messages” of the campaign are getting through, or the results are so bad they don’t include them in the report.
The survey does highlight a remarkable amount of self-reported lawlessness and dangerous behavior – in the prior week alone, 23% reported that they have failed to stop for a pedestrian in a crosswalk, 60% reported speeding in a 30 mph zone.
The worst part of all of this as that there is actually a lot of important things that need to be said about traffic safety. We have new infrastructure on our roads that didn’t exist when most drivers on the road today were learning. Street Smart could be teaching people about Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacons and HAWK signals, about Bike Boxes and Protected Intersections.
Additionally, Street Smart could be actually informing us instead of admonishing us. We all know we should slow down; we should look, we should give cyclists some space on the road. Is being told one more time really going to push someone over the edge to start behaving? Or would it be more effective to explain HOW speeding contributes to crashes, or why they’re more likely to hit a pedestrian while they’re making a left turn than if they’re making a right turn?
Finally, Street Smart needs to keep the focus where it can do the most good – on the behavior of those mostly like to harm others: drivers.
Yes, safety is a shared responsibility, yes there are things that everyone can do that can help a bit here and there, but you lose credibility with cyclists and pedestrians when you’re admonishing them to “be visible” and “be predictable” and “wear reflective clothing” while drivers regularly crash into stationary, well-lit and reflective objects. No amount of high-vis or carefulness can save you from a single distracted or careless driver – to say otherwise can quickly devolve into victim blaming.
Thankfully, Street Smart has gotten better about this over the last few years. And thankfully – the latest campaigns are a considerable step up from warning pedestrians “If you text, you’re next” or “don’t be caught dead wearing black.”
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.
On November 16th the County Board will hold a public hearing on the “micromobility ordinance.”
In addition to providing a permanent framework for “for-hire” micromobility companies like Bird and Lime to offer e-scooters and e-bikes on Arlington streets, the ordinance tries to finally make some sense of Arlington’s vague and conflicting rules and regulations around bicycles, e-bikes, scooters, e-scooters, motorized skateboard and a whole range of other weird and unique ways to get a person around without a car.
Unfortunately, the ordinance still needs some work and time is short – if Arlington does not regulate these devices before the first of the year, state law will take over and the window of opportunity will have closed.
The draft ordinance gets several things right. First off, it creates clear regulations on where it is and is not appropriate to park micromobility devices. They must not be parked:
- Where they would obstruct curb ramps, pedestrian access within bus stops or fire access
- On private property without permission
- On public property other than streets and sidewalks except where designated.
Finally, it requires them to be “parked upright, in such a manner as to afford the least obstruction to pedestrians and vehicular traffic.” The fine for violation is set at $50.
Second, the ordinance brings much needed clarity and consistency around who can ride where. All micro-mobility devices would be allowed on streets, in bike lanes, on trails, and on most sidewalks.
Finally, the ordinance transitions the framework of “for-hire” micromobility devices from pilot to permanent and adds a requirement for geographic dispersion to help ensure that this new mobility option is available across Arlington.
Giving “for-hire” micromobility a permanent home on Arlington’s mobility menu is an important milestone given micromobility devices’ potential role in replacing cars for short trips. Half of all trips taken in the U.S. are 3 miles or less. If we don’t regulate them into oblivion, these devices can be extremely attractive and competitive at providing a short distance mobility option to driving alone.
We’ve already seen the beginnings of this in the pilot – micromobility devices were used for 70,000 trips per month during the pilot (despite much of the pilot being during the winter) and about one third of scooter trips replaced what would have otherwise been a car trip.
Unfortunately, some not-so-good, nasty provisions have made their way into the ordinance and there’s not much time to get them fixed. The ordinance provides the County Manager the option to unilaterally ban micromobility devices (remember that’s not just scooters, it’s also bikes, e-bikes and e-skateboards) from certain sidewalks while defining no clear process for how such a determination would be made.