Can Virginia Reverse the Stroadification of Rt. 1?

The Rt. 1 area under study. Click for larger image.
The Rt. 1 area under study. Click for larger image.

by James A. Bacon

People living along the U.S. Route 1 corridor in Northern Virginia seemingly desire contradictory things. They want better pedestrian and bicycle safety, they want mass transit. … and they want automobile traffic to flow faster. Alas, designing the corridor to move automobiles faster makes roads less safe, and it discourages the kind of development that would invite the higher-density, mixed-use development that would support mass transit.

Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, explores the dilemma in a thoughtful two-part series (Part 1 and Part 2on the challenge of re-developing Route 1. His solution, at the risk of over-simplifying, is to switch the perspective from designing the corridor for cars to designing it for people. Planners are scheduled to submit specific recommendations for the corridor by July. If they focus on creating walkable, transit-oriented communities, Schwartz contends and I concur, automobile traffic flow will improve as well.

A few years back, the Virginia Department of Transportation proposed reducing posted speeds from 45 m.p.h. but an uproar ensued. Apparently, too many people depended upon U.S. 1 as a commuter route and imagined that lower posted speeds would translate into lower actual speeds and longer commuter time. But lowering the speed is critical to achieving the goal of walkability, walkability is required to make mass transit economically viable, and viable mass transit is required to reduce the volume of cars on the highway.

The problem is that U.S. 1 fits the classic definition of a stroad, a street-road hybrid. The route started as one of America’s first national highways. But Virginia state and local governments neglected to control access to the highway, with the result that it became cluttered with haphazard development, cut-throughs, curb-cuts and stoplights. Functionally, in Northern Virginia, Fredericksburg, Ashland, Richmond and Petersburg, the highway became a main street. Yet it failed to fulfill the functions of either highway or main street properly. The lanes were too wide and the speeds too intermittently high to create walkability or the higher-end development that is drawn to walkable places. At the same time, Rt. 1 became so congested with local traffic that it failed as a highway.

At some point, the people of Alexandria and Fairfax County must decide whether they want Rt. 1 fulfill its destiny as a highway or a street. It cannot do both.

Rt. 1 should be easier to salvage in Northern Virginia than in points south. There is so much demand in the region for walkable, transit-oriented communities that private investors should be able to re-develop the low-value development that exists now at higher densities fairly quickly. Proffers and/or impact fees, sweetened by higher density allowances, should be available to pay for streetscape improvements to make the corridor more hospitable to pedestrians. Further, there is such a large volume of traffic that the corridor should be able to support mass transit.

Transportation planners could help by reallocating right of way, in effect converting the former in-name-only highway from a stroad to a street. Reducing lane widths from 12 to 10 feet would free space for bicycle lanes and make the “highway” easier for pedestrians to cross. Yes, narrower lanes would slow the peak travel speed of thousands of commuters to Fort Belvoir. But if the narrower lanes were accompanied by less automobile traffic, lower posted speeds could be offset by shorter waits at traffic lights, less stop-and-go.

All urban Virginians should follow the Rt. 1 experiment with great interest. If Northern Virginia can find a workable solution for the old Jefferson Davis Highway, there is hope for the rest of us.

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4 responses to “Can Virginia Reverse the Stroadification of Rt. 1?”

  1. We’re back to the idea of a locality co-opting a major transportation corridor, one that has had millions of dollars expended to preserve it’s utility, for local purposes .. e.g. Route 29 in Charlottesville and have no alternative to it’s former (sic) functionality. It’s nutty.

    VDOT has said this: ” Route 1 is the only existing highway with significant capacity running parallel to 1-95. Therefore, it is the only option for 1-95 incident management, at this time, and will likely continue to fill that role indefinitely. All improvements to Route 1 in Stafford County should include features that will accommodate an emergency situation on 1-95 to the fullest extent practical, including large-radius turning movements at all connecting roadways on which interchanges with 1-95 are located.”

    from: a Letter to Stafford County’s proposed modification to it’s comprehensive plan to designate a portion of Route 1 as an Urban Development Area.

    we have two almost mutually opposing visions here.

    and as much as I have little sympathy for those who choose road-intensive auto commutes – I also think it would be downright irresponsible to suspend the access management requirements for Route 1 – which ultimately would adversely impact I-95 as people would start using I-95 as a local road by coming on at one ramp and going off at the next ramp, etc…

    VDOT suggested to Stafford that if they wanted a UDA near Route 1 – why not build a parallel road with all the multi-modal wants and needs that they wanted – with little or no competing requirements to use that parallel road as a urban arterial.

    chopping up Route 1… into disconnected local “pods” would effectively destroy it for it’s existing purpose and I’m flummoxed by the advocacy to do that.

    Right now, VDOT has draconian, almost Nazi-type access management standards on Route 1.. they’ve got rid of virtually all median cuts and are working to require all curb/cuts to be right-in/right-out or be signalized.

    there is no reason in the world why signals need to cause congestion now that the technology exists to chain-synchronize them.

    it just seems bizarre to do this.

    this makes things WORSE for as many people as it might make it better than.

    who in the world wants to bike down Route 1 in Woodbridge or Glen Allen to start with? and really, how in the world do you walk to Mattress Discounters or Koons Automotive to shop?

    what is wrong with VDOT’s suggestion that parallel bike/ped-friendly roads be configured – adjacent to Route 1?

  2. Jim, you should connect with the Lee and Mount Vernon District Councils to learn what residents want. They represents the areas’ HOAs and homeowners.

  3. DJRippert Avatar

    I was cruising Rt 1 from Hybla Valley to the Beltway in my Ford Torino back when Carter was president.

    It was a mess then and it’s a worse mess now – traffic wise.

    One big problem is the giant Ft Belvoir Army base. Lots of civilian employees coming and going via Rt 1.

    The road hasn’t been widened in God knows how long despite a huge population increase. Thanks VDOT.

    The road has more curb cuts than Bacon has complaints about the MWAA. Thanks Fairfax County BoS.

    However, there are thousands of trailers in the trailer parks along Rt 1 between the beltway and Mt Vernon. Plenty of 8A housing. So, the people of Rt 1 get screwed when it comes to funding for infrastructure. Thanks Imperial Clown show in Richmond.

    The Virginia hat trick of incompetence – VDOT, the General Assembly and the local BoS.

    To be fair. Scott Surovell (HoD rep for the area) tries every year to get a little money to fix the problems. And every year some richer, better connected area gets the dough.

    The long term solution is Metro from Huntington Ave to Ft Belvoir with multiple stops along Rt 1. The shorter term fix is a Places29 style redesign with more overpasses, fewer red lights and a whole bunch of closures to the existing curb cuts.

    1. re; ” The long term solution is Metro from Huntington Ave to Ft Belvoir with multiple stops along Rt 1. The shorter term fix is a Places29 style redesign with more overpasses, fewer red lights and a whole bunch of closures to the existing curb cuts.”

      I actually agree.. but it will turn a lot of productive, tax-generating land into permanently untaxed infrastructure… just saying..

      and businesses hate multi-level grade separated interchanges where a floor level intersection used to be – because it hides their businesses and makes access to their businesses – harder – so they generally won’t support it – not as a VDOT initiative and not with their taxes and this is not a unique Virginia/VDOT problem per se. This problem can be found up and down the East Coast not only on Route 1 by many US-signed federal aid Roads like US 17 or US 29 that most of us take for granted as simple a “road” and do not notice nor understand the distinction between a US-signed road in terms of why it got built in the first place and maintained now – different from other roads that are not US-signed.

      and there is an irony here… the folks who want to make “places” like 29 and route 1 – never seem to pick secondary or non-US-signed roads for their proposals.

      it’s almost always a road that was originally built – not by VDOT – but by the Feds – for the same purposes of Interstates – not for “places” but to connect places so that people could actually go across a state without getting hung up in every single town on the way.

      slowly – over time – localities saw these roads as “ready” venues for businesses (as opposed to building their own local business roads).

      In fact now days, VDOT no longer enforces access management of such roads inside the city limits of cities but outside the city limits – in counties, they still do – and the reason why is that if the counties had full control, they would essentially destroy any remaining utility of the road – for it’s intended transportation and mobility purpose.

      and even the Smart Growth folks don’t seem to realize that many localities if they have the option – don’t give a flip about bike or ped infrastructure and that would get dumped over the side also.

      What the Smart Growth folks are essentially arguing is that it’s too late for Route 1… that it has pretty much lost most of it’s transportation utility, that bike/ped are also damaged and that it should be treated like Route 1 in Arlington is now treated.

      VDOT to their credit basically says that as bad as it is that it’s the ONLY alternative to I-95 if a total closure occurs on I-95 – that gridlock WILL ensue without Route 1.

      now the Smart Growth folks don’t give a flip about that.. to them such a circumstance would be just desserts for the car-addicted crowd anyhow, right?

      in the past in such situations, it was not unusual for a “bypass” to be built and in later years – such bypasses would be made “limited access” to prevent a reoccurrence of it being co-opted as a local business venue.

      that’s not a reasonable solution in built up areas anymore – just as unreasonable as turning the existing damaged road into a Smart Growth “place” because as bad as Route 1 is – it still has basic utility to move traffic.

      easy to blame VDOT.. not seeing any other proposals that make better sense… other than some grade-separated intersections – of the SPUI flavor (urban style interchanges that also have lights) or perhaps a critter known as a continuous flow intersection/diverging diamond … like the one just built on Route 15 at Zion X Roads:

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