Lee District Supervisor Rodney Lusk’s phone rang late at night on Jan. 16.
On the other end of the line was the Fairfax County Police Department’s Mount Vernon District station commander, calling with the news that a man had been struck by a car and killed while attempting to cross Richmond Highway that evening.
It was the second call about a pedestrian fatality on Richmond Highway that Lusk had gotten since officially taking over as Lee District supervisor at the beginning of the year.
“Those are gut-wrenching calls – I mean, literally just difficult to hear,” Lusk said. “To me, it’s a senseless thing for someone to die crossing the street.”
Fairfax County has now recorded five pedestrian fatalities in 2020, three of them on Richmond Highway. The most recent incident came on Feb. 11 when a man was struck by a car around 1:13 a.m. while attempting to cross near Giles Run Road.
It was raining at the time, and the man, who died as a result of his injuries, was not crossing at a crosswalk, Fairfax County police reported.
There were 16 pedestrian fatalities in Fairfax County in 2019, according to Hunter Mill District Supervisor Walter Alcorn, who chairs the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors transportation committee.
Richmond Highway has been particularly hazardous. 7 percent of all pedestrian-involved traffic injuries and 11 percent of all pedestrian-involved fatalities in Fairfax County over the past five years occurred in that corridor, Lusk says.
The frequency of traffic accidents involving pedestrians, especially in the Route 1 corridor, led Lusk, who chairs the board’s public safety committee, and Alcorn to ask staff to prioritize safety concerns as part of the county’s ongoing ActiveFairfax project.
Approved by the Board of Supervisors on Jan. 28, Lusk and Alcorn’s board matter also directs Fairfax County Department of Transportation staff to evaluate the county’s current approach to funding pedestrian infrastructure improvements and options for using technology to address safety issues before the plan is completed.
Fairfax County has devoted more than $300 million in funding to bicycle and pedestrian projects over the past decade, not counting ones that have been made as part of larger road projects or by the Virginia Department of Transportation as part of its regular repaving work.
According to the board matter, the county has historically emphasized protections for especially vulnerable residents, such as children, with a Safe Routes to School program that has facilitated at least 26 sidewalk projects along routes that students use to walk to school. Pedestrian links to transit stations have also been a priority.
However, the number of accidents involving pedestrians that still occur suggest more needs to be done, Alcorn and Lusk argue.
“Most of our built environment is still designed for moving vehicles, which creates obvious conflicts,” Alcorn said. “We need to evolve toward safer walking and cycling. Our motion seeks to coordinate efforts across county departments and VDOT…to optimize opportunities for our residents to get around safely without getting into a car, bus or train.”
Fairfax County Department of Transportation director Tom Biesiadny says safety will certainly be a major component of the ActiveFairfax Transportation Plan, which aims to reconcile the sometimes inconsistent or outdated guidance in the county’s separate bicycle and trails plans as well as the county comprehensive plan.
First adopted in 1976, the countywide trails plan that maps out Fairfax County’s planned trail system was last updated in 2018.
The Board of Supervisors adopted the first Fairfax County Bicycle Master Plan, which makes recommendations for establishing a countywide bike-friendly transportation network, on Oct. 28, 2014.
The Fairfax County Comprehensive Plan also contains some recommendations for bicycle and pedestrian facilities in specific areas.
However, Fairfax County never developed any recommendations specific to pedestrians or active transportation safety, and some of the design and facility recommendations in the current plans no longer meet national or VDOT standards.
For instance, national best practices for bicycle engineering are starting to shift away from the on-road bike lanes that have long been standard in the U.S., according to Fairfax County Active Transportation Program manager Chris Wells.
Federal Highway Administration data shows that only about 7 percent of people feel confident using on-road bike lanes alongside traffic, while 50 to 60 percent of people are interested in biking but only feel comfortable on facilities that are protected or separate from the street.
Biesiadny says Fairfax County is also considering how shared-use trails like the Washington and Old Dominion Trail can better accommodate users with different needs and abilities, from casual and competitive bikers to joggers and dog walkers.
“In the past, we were just putting down a little bit of extra pavement to do a bike lane,” Biesiadny said. “That’s exactly what we did on Richmond Highway through Fort Belvoir down to Telegraph Road…But a mother with her small child is not going to be comfortable doing that…Taking another look at how people are really using these facilities is part of what we’re trying to do with this plan.”
The Board of Supervisors approved an allocation of $300,000 toward the ActiveFairfax plan in July 2019 for community engagement and data collection, though the transportation department is seeking additional funding in the county’s upcoming Fiscal Year 2021 so that it can finish the project, which is expected to take 18 to 24 months.
After presenting an update to the board of supervisors’ transportation committee on Feb. 4, the Fairfax County Department of Transportation is planning to hire a consultant this spring with community engagement efforts starting in the summer.
In addition to working with the Board of Supervisors, planning commission, public schools, and other county agencies, the ActiveFairfax team hopes to create equity and youth advisory groups that will provide input and help broaden the project’s outreach efforts beyond the usual public meetings, which are useful but not always accessible to everyone in the community.
Biesiadny says the county government wants to go to people, rather than the other way around, with possible pop-up appearances at community events or gathering places like shopping malls and grocery stores.
The FCDOT director welcomes other suggestions for how to reach citizens, especially students, low-income residents, and other groups who are especially reliant on transit.
Teenagers under 16, for example, walk or bike more frequently since they need to get to jobs or other activities but are not allowed to drive yet, Wells says.
The county is also aware that there are service workers who bike home past midnight, but that schedule would prevent them from providing feedback at a 7:00 p.m. community meeting.
“We want to broaden these outreach efforts not only in fairness, but also to get those unique perspectives of, what does my family need from walking and biking in Fairfax County?” Wells said. “What do different people need in their walking and biking?”