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Jim-Lina

Over the past two decades, Loudoun County has undergone tremendous change. As the fastest growing county in the nation, the population has more than doubled, with large portions of a once predominantly rural county becoming bustling suburbs. This explosive rate of growth has led to many dislocations, especially for the County government, which has found it hard to adjust to the needs and demands accompanying that growth.

For 16 of these critical years I served on the Board of Supervisors and was deeply involved in dealing with the consequences of explosive growth. That growth continues today, and the fundamental issues and problems remain – how to provide sufficient schools, libraries, jails, roads, etc. to satisfy an exploding population while keeping property taxes affordable.

I have created this site to document the lessons learned, both positive and negative, from my perspective, during that tumultuous time in the hope that future leaders of the County and the general public will learn from the experiences of the past.                                                                                                                      

                                                                                                                Jim Burton

Traffic Calming – Another Look (July 2012)

 As traffic calming projects and roundabouts become more common in Virginia, it is instructive to take a look at what is probably the first such project in the state, along the Route 50 corridor in Loudoun County, to see how it’s working out.*

 The rationale of traffic calming is quite specific: catch the attention of drivers; alert them to the need to slow down and watch for people and cars entering the road in towns and villages, thus increasing safety and preventing accidents.

 Traffic calming has been widely and successfully used to slow traffic in Australia and Europe (mainly Northern Europe) for decades, with one of the earliest efforts being in the UK in the 1930’s. Here in the United States, however, it was slow to catch on and is only now being more widely applied, with the traffic calming project on Route 50 being one of the first tried in this country. The story of the Route 50 project, and its results to date, show (1) what a group of dedicated citizens can accomplish when highly motivated and (2) how effective traffic calming can be, particularly in reducing the number of automobile crashes in an area.

How it got Started in Loudoun

In the early l990’s, VDOT proposed building four-lane bypasses on Route 50 around Aldie, Middleburg, and Upperville. Unfortunately, VDOT’s plans weren’t the model of practicality – they overlooked, for example, the fact that in the case of Aldie, the bypass, if north of the village, would destroy both the village’s sewage treatment plant and water reservoir and on the south, would destroy the village of Stewart Town. Middleburg and Upperville had other issues.

The citizens were unhappy.   And so they did what citizens everywhere do when unhappy – they organized, founding the Route 50 Corridor Coalition to fight VDOT’s plan. Over the next few years this group full of Type A personalities raised over $250,000 in private funds; hired the world’s leading experts in traffic calming; put together a traffic calming plan for the entire corridor from Lenah to Paris; sought and received Federal funding for the project (as a pilot project for the entire nation); and with the approval of the Virginia Secretary of Transportation, formed the Traffic Calming Task Force to manage the project and make decisions that ordinarily are made by VDOT.

Over a period of several years, more than 300 citizens participated in design charettes, which led to an overall plan that received, among other awards, the 1997 President’s Award from the Institute of Transportation Engineers. The objective of the Plan? Reduce vehicle speed and improve safety in the communities along the Route 50 corridor.

The Upperville Experience

 As part of the program, vehicle speed at 12 locations and crash data were compared before and after construction of the traffic calming features in Upperville, the first phase of the effort. As a result of the traffic calming measures, vehicle speed was reduced at each of the 12 reporting stations. Vehicle crash data was collected for a two-year period before construction (2005-2006) and compared to a two-year period after construction (2009-2010). The number of crashes was reduced by 70.6 percent. Before construction, there were two crashes with fatalities during the comparison period, none after construction.

 Clearly the Upperville speed and crash data suggest strongly that traffic calming measures have the desired effect of reducing vehicle speed and thereby improving public safety.

Shortly after the project was finished, a group of people from the Middleburg and Aldie area (who shall forever remain anonymous) met for lunch at a restaurant west of Upperville. Two people were on time: one person who lives west of Upperville and my wife. The rest straggled in late, complaining they “had to slow down in Upperville because of all those traffic calming measures.” Exactly! It worked!

Similar traffic calming features are currently under construction in Aldie, which has a serious speeding problem, with drivers regularly flying through the village at 50-65 mph. Even though the project won’t be completed until late fall 2012, those of us who live in the village can already see a big difference in the speed of traffic as it moves through the area.

Roundabouts

Part of the traffic calming program dealt with the congestion problems and high incidence of crashes at Gilbert’s Corner, the intersection of Route 15 and Route 50, and the dangerous intersection of Route 50 and Watson Road (about a mile away), all of them two-lane roads.

At Gilbert’s Corner, the traffic signal caused backups in the morning and evening rush hours that often exceeded several miles in length. The evening backup often extended all the way to the four-lane portion of Route 50 east of Lenah. According to VDOT, the crash rate between New Mountain Road and Watson Road, in terms of crashes per million vehicle miles traveled, was approximately three times greater than any similar road segment in western Loudoun, including Route 15 from Leesburg to the Maryland state line and Route 287 from Route 7 in Purcellville to Maryland.

As to Watson Road, during rush hours it was almost impossible to get out onto Route 50, and because of short sight lines, it was dangerous at any time of day. The situation obviously needed correcting.

The Task Force hired a team of transportation experts to analyze the situation and recommend a solution. Their proposal for Gilbert’s Corner was a triad of roundabouts with a short, two-lane road (Howser’s Branch Road) that would bleed off from Gilbert’s Corner approximately one-half of the traffic (which was headed southbound, mostly to Prince William County). The other half of the traffic would continue on to Gilbert’s Corner proper. Roughly a mile away, a fourth roundabout was planned for Watson Road.

The outside experts, including Michael Wallwork who had designed over 400 roundabouts in five countries, recommended a single-lane roundabout for Gilbert’s Corner since, under the design, half of the traffic (from south of the intersection), would no longer go through this intersection. The Task Force agreed with this approach. Unfortunately, VDOT’s Chief Engineer and the VDOT Headquarters Roundabout committee (none of whom had ever designed a roundabout), preferred a two-lane roundabout, arguing that eventually Route 50 and 15 would be expanded to four lanes each and a two-lane roundabout would be needed.

The VDOT Chief Engineer, the VDOT Commissioner, and the Northern Virginia District Director met with me and another Task Force member at my home in Aldie to debate (or argue) the appropriateness of a single lane or two-lane design approach. At times the discussion around my dining room table became very spirited. In the end, the VDOT Chief Engineer ordered, over the objection of the Task Force, that a hybrid roundabout be built, one that had two lanes for north-south traffic and a single lane for east-west traffic.

In the first two years after construction, the hybrid design confused a lot of drivers, resulting in 67 crashes, mostly sideswipes and a few rear enders. Of the 67 crashes, 45 were caused by north-bound/south-bound drivers failing to yield to drivers already in the roundabout.

Concerned about the high number of crashes, the Task Force ordered VTOT to hire an outside consultant to examine the current design, traffic movements, crashes, etc. and recommend a course of action to reduce crashes. The consultant, Kittelson & Associates, Inc., presented its findings to the Task Force at its June 2012 meeting. Not surprisingly, the consultant recommended that the hybrid design be reconfigured into a single-lane design for the entire roundabout, thereby vindicating the Task Force’s original position. VDOT was directed to incorporate the consultant’s recommendations. The reconfiguration should be complete sometime this fall.

So to the question: Does traffic calming work? Based on the Route 50 experience, the answer is definitely “Yes!”

Today, as a result of both the success of traffic calming in Europe and Australia and the success of the Route 50 pilot project, translating the concept to the United States, more cities and states are incorporating these features into the village/town street designs. A Google “Image” search will turn up hundreds of photographs from all over the country, showing many different projects. Clearly, traffic calming is here to stay.       

*[For more information about the Route 50 Traffic Calming Project and roundabouts, see http://www.jimburton.org/images/powerpoint/2005_11_Gilberts_Corner_Presentation.pps   (This is a PowerPoint presentation and take a little bit of time to download.) VDOT also has a web page devoted to the project.