The safety pitfalls residents of Shreve Road attributed to the byway in their backyard didn’t jibe with the data-driven outlook that government officials possessed at a community meeting on Aug. 27.
Residents insisted constant speeding compounds other hazards along the two-and-a-half-mile road, including a lack of pedestrian infrastructure and being sandwiched between the bustling Merrifield area and the upcoming Little City Commons development just inside the City of Falls Church. Representatives from Virginia’s Department of Transportation as well as the Fairfax County Police Department, however, informed those in attendance that the statistics don’t offer full-throated support of those concerns.
“I do understand your pain. Living in a neighborhood and having to walk and utilize the [Washington & Old Dominion] Trail.” Captain Alan Hanson, FCPD’s McLean District commander, said at the meeting. “We are out here looking to enforce, but speed is not the major issue. The data doesn’t support that currently.”
Hanson’s comments were met with disbelief. One resident of 25 years countered by saying she had never once seen a Fairfax County police vehicle watching for speeders. Fairfax County police officer John Alford, who is a part of a four-man team that enforces traffic in the McLean District, explained that he spent 45 minutes posted by Shreve Road prior to that night’s meeting. The highest speed he recorded was 41 miles per hour — not enough to warrant a chargeable offense on the 35 mph road.
Hanson clarified that 41 mph is the speed that 85 percent of drivers go on the road heading north, with 39 mph being the 85th percentile speed going south. He also mentioned that the road’s curves and crests have a traffic calming effect, since unfamiliar drivers will intentionally take it slow to navigate it more safely.
That instinct was ignored by David Alan Francis, the driver who veered off-road and was responsible for killing pedestrian Betty Ana Bernstein-Zabza on Aug. 3. Police reported that both speed and drugs were a factor in the crime, with Francis being charged with one count of felony hit and run.
The meeting was organized by State Delegate Marcus Simon and promoted by the Shreve Road Community Working Group in response to Bernstein-Zabza’s death. While Hanson told the News-Press that pedestrian fatalities are rare along Shreve Road and Simon told the News-Press separately that, “Nobody in that [meeting] would disagree that the act was primarily the fault of the driver,” the state delegate simultaneously acknowledged that the tragedy raised the profile of the road’s issues.
Another one of those issues were safety features along the road. Some residents argued for crosswalk lights similar to what’s found on Cedar Lane in Vienna. But VDOT’s Allison Richter cautioned that the lights often give pedestrians a false sense of security, thinking that once they press the button and the signs begin to flash, drivers will automatically adhere to them.
Richter also added that because of the road’s federally designated status as an arterial byway, traffic calming measures such as speed bumps weren’t a real possibility. Installing a digital speed monitor, such as the one found on East Broad St. in the City of Falls Church, was deemed an option worth exploring though.
A large part of the problem is that infrastructure can’t keep pace with changing lifestyle preferences. Communities are shifting toward more pedestrian-friendly designs; a 180-degree turn from the car-heavy layout that swaths of Fairfax County were built around in the 1960s and 70s, according to Richter. This contrast is made even more stark considering Merrifield and the planned Little City Commons development will promote pedestrian accommodations that Shreve Road residents are already uneasy walking to given their feelings about their neighborhood’s roadside conditions.
Jeremy Hancock, the president of the Falls Hill Civic Association, wanted to know how the different municipalities can collaborate to make a cohesive infrastructure plan and give residents from both jurisdictions what they want.
A point Simon made earlier seemed to address this question. “The relationship between land use planning and transportation doesn’t always mesh very well. People that make decisions about development is the County’s Board of Supervisors; it’s not the state…We can’t put this all on VDOT. Supervisors and everyone else has to work together.”