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Fairfax County could put bicycles and transit on par with cars when gauging transportation needs

A bicyclist on the W&OD Trail in Reston (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

When new development comes up for review in Fairfax County, one of the first questions often asked is “how will this impact vehicle traffic?”

A proposed shift in Fairfax County’s analysis could change that and put more emphasis on alternative modes of transportation.

A new approach cagily named “Additional Measures of Effectiveness” could rework the way the county evaluates the transportation piece of new development. The bottom line could be less emphasis on car traffic and more on infrastructure for bicycles, buses, pedestrians and more.

“Measures of effectiveness are quantitative measures that gauge performance of some level of effectiveness in transportation planning,” Gregg Steverson, deputy director of the Fairfax County Department of Transportation, told the Board of Supervisors’ transportation committee on Tuesday (Dec. 13).

Currently, the county mainly measures the level of service — how much traffic roadways can support — and the amount of vehicle delay and queuing expected. But Steverson said that focus keeps cars at the forefront of transportation development.

“Our roadway and network changes get codified in terms of ‘what will this do to traffic’ instead of ‘how will this impact bike usage’ or ‘what’s our access to transit going to be’ or ‘do pedestrians feel safe walking here,'” Steverson said. “As such, a lot of our recommendations center on road widening, which, in activity centers, means widening them beyond what is necessary given the multi-modal area.”

Steverson said if the county wants to become more multimodal and make bus, bicycle, and pedestrian traffic as viable as cars, it needs to update its measures of effectiveness to match that. That could mean transportation analyses for new developments specifically for pedestrians, bicycles and transit.

“We’re looking to have analysis be just as multimodal in nature as our county is striving to be,” Steverson said. “This is not a change in policy. This is a strategy to take those existing policies and develop an analysis to mirror those policies.”

This shift wouldn’t apply universally. The presentation noted that the county is broken up into “tiers” of similar land uses, with different modes of transportation emphasized in different areas. For example, the type of bicycle and transit-focused development might be more heavily emphasized in Tysons’ urban environment, but not as much in low-density, residential neighborhoods.

The revision is still in its formative stages, with more meetings and presentations scheduled throughout the first half of 2023. Steverson said staff still has to talk to the Virginia Department of Transportation to get “buy-in” on the idea and do outreach to advocacy and citizen groups.

Steverson said staff also has to sort through what the right amount of measurements are, saying that adding too many variables could overburden developers and overcomplicate the county’s development process.

While there are still significant details to be ironed out, the transportation committee expressed enthusiasm for the idea.

“I think we definitely need to be moving on this,” Hunter Mill District Supervisor Walter Alcorn said. “This has come up in a number of different forums over the last few years: the need for other measures of effectiveness for the transportation system. I do encourage staff to continue thinking more about where various other measures of effectiveness would be appropriate and what those might be.”

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