A drive-thru at the restaurant Chick-fil-A wants to open at the Van Ness Burger King location is likely to have a significant impact on vehicle and pedestrian traffic. But the impact on pedestrians wasn’t part of Chick-fil-A’s initial traffic study. That’s a major omission not only on Chick-fil-A’s part, but on DDOT’s, if Chick-fil-A’s vehicle traffic estimates come anywhere close to reality.
Driving across the sidewalk 185 times per hour
Chick-fil-A is seeking permits from DDOT’s Public Space Committee for the continued use of two driveways at the current Burger King site. Vehicles enter the drive-thru from Connecticut Avenue, and exit via another curb cut a few feet to the south.
Chick-fil-A’s traffic estimates – at the low end – see the drive-thru serving more than 90 vehicles per hour during its projected busiest period – Saturdays at midday. Most of those vehicles will be crossing the Connecticut Avenue sidewalk twice – its own traffic plan predicts 185 crossings per hour. If Chick-fil-A can keep the line moving, that means a vehicle will traverse the Connecticut Avenue sidewalk roughly three times per minute.
That also means tripling the odds of pedestrian/motorist conflict at this spot. The current Burger King drive-thru saw less than a third of that traffic during a recent Saturday count by Chick-fil-A consultant Gorove/Slade.
“Pedestrians count, too”
The traffic study presented to ANC 3F commissioners at their February 23rd meeting was requested and shaped by DDOT’s public space specialist Ryan Westrom.
In emails prior to the meeting, Westrom had stated that the impact on pedestrians would be an important consideration. But it soon became clear, in questioning by the ANC commissioners and audience members, that pedestrians were not included in Chick-fil-A’s study.
“I have heard a lot about the traffic plan for cars, what about pedestrians?” asked a resident who lives less than a block from the Burger King. “Is there a plan for pedestrians?”
The response from the traffic consultants was no.
“Pedestrians count, too,” she replied.
DDOT’s Westrom later acknowledged in an email that DDOT did not have any in-house pedestrian studies, either.
Another glaring omission – besides the impact of increased vehicle traffic on pedestrians – is the impact of pedestrians on vehicle traffic. Chick-fil-A’s drive-thru plan depends on moving cars into and out of the drive-thru quickly. The chain’s drive-thrus in suburbs and exurbs rarely have to deal with pedestrians, if at all. But here, drivers will have to wait to turn into the drive-thru and wait again upon exiting for an opening not only in car traffic but in pedestrian traffic.
The potential impact on vehicle traffic is also significant.
Chick-fil-A has come up with a complicated plan intended to keep traffic from backing up onto Connecticut Avenue. At the busiest times, it would send employees armed with tablet computers out to take orders, collect payments and deliver food to waiting motorists.
In a perfect world, it might work. But we know Chick-fil-A has a huge following, and new stores have caused significant traffic chaos in other communities. The gridlock that occurred after a Chick-fil-A store opened last year in Bellevue, Washington forced the city to change traffic patterns, and Chick-fil-A had to pay for nearly 300 hours of police overtime.
Another issue is that Chick-fil-A’s suburban model no longer fits this location. ANC 3F, the Van Ness Main Street and the District’s own city planners have been working toward a more urban model for the stretch of Connecticut Avenue between Van Ness and Albemarle Streets, one that takes advantage of the area’s proximity to Metrorail, increasing population and walkability.
The ANC, Ward 3 Vision and the Forest Hills Citizens Association welcome the new business that Chick-fil-A will generate. And the question has been posed to Chick-fil-A: Why not create an urban model at Van Ness like the one being built in Tenleytown and the one that recently opened in Columbia Heights? Repeatedly, Chick-fil-A has told the ANC and Van Ness Main Street that this urban model will not work at Van Ness. However, Chick-fil-A has presented no numbers to substantiate this claim, such as how many walk-up patrons the company needs and expects at this location.
After the February 23rd presentation on the traffic study, ANC 3F commissioners voted unanimously to oppose the petition because of the likelihood of increasing traffic tie ups on Connecticut Avenue, an inadequate queuing plan, and an increase in pedestrian-motorist conflicts due to turning vehicles. 3F’s resolution calls on DDOT’s Public Space Committee to reject Chick-fil-A’s application, saying “a busy drive-through in the neighborhood now would represent a major step backward.”
Chick-fil-A is scheduled to present a revised plan at the ANC 3F meeting on March 15th, and DDOT set to take up the matter at its March 24th Public Space Committee meeting. ANC 3F will testify, and Ward 3 Vision is inviting residents to sign a petition in support of ANC 3F’s efforts.
Where do pedestrians fit in the public space review process?
DDOT’s Westrom says Chick-fil-A has since been asked to address questions about the drive-thru’s impact on pedestrians, but this is something that should have been taken into consideration from the very beginning.
DDOT’s own MoveDC promises to make pedestrian infrastructure a priority in planning. The mayor’s Vision Zero program promises to make the District safer for pedestrians. Both should mean pedestrian needs are considered as a matter of course, but more often, they’re an afterthought. The Chick-fil-A drive-thru is but one example of the difficulty of shifting from decades of car-centric planning to a multi-modal model. But it has to start somewhere.