By Jonathan Krall
At the Alexandria Traffic and Parking Board meeting on Monday night the King Street Traffic Calming and Bike Lane proposal was consideration and largely dismissed, despite a strong majority of speakers being in support. The specific question under consideration was the removal of 27 usually-empty parking spaces and the addition of three parking spaces nearby. The proposed compromise plan, presented by Hillary Poole of the the Transportation and Environmental Services Department, retains 10 spaces on Kings St., in an area where only three cars are usually parked, on average.
At the public hearing 38 people spoke in favor of bike lanes and18 spoke against. Almost all who spoke for bike lanes stated both a preference for the originally-proposed full bike lanes and a willingness to support the compromise proposal from the city.
Speakers included a teacher at TC Williams High School who teaches about environmentalism, students who live and study at the Virginia Theological Seminary on Seminary Hill, two sight-impaired cyclists, one of whom organizes the Tandem Tuesdays cycling group that pairs sighted pilots with sight-impaired "stokers" to enjoy bicycling, and numerous citizens. Some citizens in the immediately-affected area spoke in favor of the proposal.
The Traffic and Parking Board received letters of support from the Environmental Policy Commission and the Parks and Recreation Commission. Like the Traffic and Parking Board, these commissions are charged with balancing citizen concerns with city initiatives, such as the Transportation Master Plan and the Eco-City Alexandria Charter. A member of the Environmental Policy Commission read their letter at the hearing.
Representatives from the Washington Area Bicyclist Association and the Coalition For Smarter Growth spoke at the hearing. These regional organizations promote citizens concerns for health, safety and livability and have many members and supporters in Alexandria.
Members of the Alexandria Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee (BPAC), including myself, made an effort to compromise by backing the city's compromise proposal, as did many of the residents.
The main message of the NIMFYs (not in my front yard; one speaker characterized herself as such.) was that King Street is too dangerous for bicycling and cannot be made safe. As a result, everyone on all sides were talking safety, safety, and safety. NIMFYs also emphasized that they need to be able to have parking for services and visitors. Pro bike-lane speakers responded that they did not have parking directly in front of their homes and were somehow able to have visitors and to keep their homes in good repair. One speaker reiterated a statement from Mayor Euille, who was recently quoted in the press regarding Capital Bikeshare: “We don’t want people driving their cars and parking, we want people to be using bicycles and walking.”
The Traffic and Parking Board did the following:
- Asked very few questions.
- Commission Chair Jay Johnson asked only one question of BPAC Chair Jerry King. In that question he characterized the cyclist position, as received in letters and e-mails, as "bike lanes or nothing." In fact, no speaker in favor of bike lanes expressed this position.
- A member of the Board dismissed the over 3000 Alexandria residents who are members of WABA by grilling WABA community outreach coordinator Greg Billings on whether or not he himself was a resident of Alexandria. They rudely asked him no other questions.
- With the exception of a single board member, they spoke only about the need to protect residents and pedestrians, not cyclists.
- In the discussion preceding their vote, one member claimed that there was no common ground between residents, who want all parking retained and cyclists, most of whom prefer full bike lanes. Despite the fact that this was clearly counter-factual (the common ground is the 10 spaces retained in the compromise proposal), there was no disagreement among the board on this point.
- They were dismissive of the actual compromise proposal put forward by City staff and supported by a clear majority of bike-lane proponents. This proposal would retain 10 parking spaces on King St and add three more on neighboring streets. This was dismissed as having no "common ground" between the two sides and containing no "meat."
- The Traffic and Parking Board recommended that city staff implement all "pedestrian improvements", implement no bicycling improvements, retain all parking, and come back later with a proposal that has "common ground" and "meat."
My own take on that is that the Traffic and Parking Board, on this occasion, had no interest in hearing anything that did not reinforce their preconceived notions, but they did not actually come out an say what those notions were. Personally, I have heard quite a bit about the need to revamp the public process to better engage and listen to citizens through the “What's Next Alexandria” initiative. What we seem to have is an example of a board that will not serve any such process, no matter how cleverly designed. In this case at least, it demonstrated no interest in listening to citizens that did not agree with its preconceived views. In other words, the Traffic and Parking Board demonstrated no respect for either the citizens or the initiatives of the City Council.
On a positive note, we in the bicyclist, pedestrian, smart growth, environmental, and livability communities came together in a big way. We have not done this so strongly before in Alexandria and I do not think that members of the Traffic and Parking Board knew how to react. In the long run, these communities need to ensure that it is politically impossible to dismiss cyclists in the manner that they were dismissed by the Traffic and Parking Board on Monday night. Our well-organized voices were clear, strong, and delivered a message that will continue to resonate until we get what is needed for the city of Alexandria: bicycling, walking and transit networks that work so well that both traffic and parking become largely irrelevant.