Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpYour curmudgeonly columnist has again joined the etiquette battle between pedestrians and drivers on Washington Blvd.
Twice this spring, I’ve been at the wheel and exchanged glares with pedestrians who, shall we say, have a different interpretation of the meaning of those white stripes painted to form mid-block crosswalks (the “uncontrolled” ones without lights or stop signs).

These promenaders apparently view said stripes as a green light to cross at their own convenience, a repeal of the rule their moms taught them at age four: look both ways, wait for a lull in traffic.

Society’s embrace of walkable communities – a trend I applaud – is prompting pedestrians, I fear, to march righteously out of their residential havens and, without breaking stride, enter the zebra stripes with nary a glance for oncoming cars. As if that paint were an armored barrier. As if forcing a driver doing the speed limit to slam on the brakes is some new progressive right.

My talks with police, traffic engineers and pedestrian activists show that crosswalk darters should rethink this habit – though all agree that the foremost priority in this clash of wills is keeping pedestrians safe.

Lt. Steven Meincke of the Special Operations Section of the Arlington Police Department says law enforcement in crosswalks is based on Virginia Code sections 46.2-924 and 46.2-926. But there are complexities that require guidance from the commonwealth’s attorney, he said.

“Both the driver and the pedestrian have responsibilities,” Meincke said. The driver to yield to walkers in the crosswalk, the pedestrian not to step into the crosswalk when cars are close. Drivers, Meincke added, may have an obscured view, or not be expecting a crosswalk not at an intersection. If there’s an accident, investigators would explore fault from either party, speeding or failing to pay attention.

The sites of mid-block crosswalks are selected using guidelines released last year, according to Arlington traffic engineers Larry Marcus and Jon Lawler. “We proactively look to safety, and work with civic associations to address the accessibility, safety and convenience aspects,” Marcus said, stressing the importance of public education. As one national expert put it, “the right of way is something a driver gives you, not something you take.”
That means walkers and bicyclists should never assume the car will stop (though sane drivers always will).

Lawler researched national practices on when to placate neighborhoods demanding a mid-block crosswalk, more likely in urbanized blocks or as part of a capital improvement project. “The rule of thumb is you need 20 pedestrians per hour,” 1,500 cars a day and a distance of 300 feet to the next crosswalk (after determining how far pedestrians are willing to walk out of their way), he said.

Lawler noted Virginia’s laws are more pro-pedestrian than some states’, though not as anti-driver as others.

A nifty summary of the state laws came to me from Ian Thomas, state and local program director for America Walks, a nonprofit that has grown with the political pendulum swing toward pedestrian rights.

“Our general advice that is that both drivers and pedestrian should take all precautions, though the pedestrian has more to lose,” Thomas said. He agrees that, just as drivers shouldn’t drive distracted, pedestrians at crosswalks should make eye contact with drivers to negotiate timing so that it is “not a huge burden for the driver to slow down.”

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Reader Rich Schumann alerted me that some of the Westover apartments – for decades among north Arlington’s most affordable – have just been demolished, apparently to make room for more like Evergreene’s $800,000 townhouses.

At 11th Street and North Kensington (a block off of Washington Blvd.), the wrecking crews are there under a permit for Westover Place.

I consulted Nina Janopaul, president and CEO of the nonprofit Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing, which owns four buildings in Westover. She confirmed that housing activists are concerned, and there is talk at the county board of changing the zoning to require use permit and public notice. “We know the entire community is at risk,” she told me. Westover is a “nice place to live without it costing an arm and a leg.”