Trail Feature:
Pedestrian Walkway at South Van Dorn Street/I-495 Slip Ramp

Tax Map 81-2

  Article Prepared By Robert Michie
NMTC, Lee District
Last Reviewed: 9 January 2006
Revision 1.0


In the late 1990's, Fairfax County rerouted Oakwood Road at South Van Dorn Street (see Exhibit 1). A new pedestrian trail featuring a tunnel under the I-495 slip ramp was added to the project. The old walking path that paralleled South Van Dorn Street was allowed to deteriorate. The old trail, however, continues to be used. Exhibit 2 shows a handrail damaged  by an automobile collision in June 2005. Users of the older trail want the handrail replaced. Fairfax County declines to replace the handrail because (1) There are no mandatory safety requirements for handrails to be installed at that location, and (2) an installed handrail at that location actually poses more hazardous conditions to some bicyclists.

Exhibit 1: Map of Subject Area Exhibit 2: Old Walking Trail Along South Van Dorn Street


This particular area is a road that descends a steep hill from a Capitol Beltway access ramp to a series of highway, railroad, and Metro (light rail) bridges leading to the City of Alexandria. Exhibit 1 shows several high density housing developments to the west of South Van Dorn Street. Walking to the Van Dorn Street Metro Station is a common activity. Many pedestrians, including those who live on the east side of South Van Dorn Street, prefer the old path over the new path (along Oakwood Road) because of several perceived deficiencies of the new route: it is longer; it is mostly unlit, and it leads into an isolated area where pedestrian are on their own. A sound wall along upper Oakwood Road prevents quick escape or rescue should a pedestrian suddenly need help. Therefore, the old walking trail still has its fans.

The County's position is that there are no mandatory safety requirements for handrails to be installed at that location, and that an installed handrail at that location actually poses more hazardous conditions to some bicyclists. The County points to Fairfax County's Public Facilities Manual, Virginia Department of Transportation's Road and Bridge Standards, and the Americans with Disabilities Act. None of them specify that handrails are to be provided for walkway users at places similar to this.  Exhibit 2 shows what appears to be a bike trail to the left of the handrail. The County is concerned that bicycle handlebars can be caught if the handrail is in place. Therefore, the County decided not to replace the handrail.

What the County has not considered is the way inclement weather exacerbates the conditions along both the old and the new trails. In icy conditions, trails that descend steep inclines always need handrails. In addition, the trail users are right: the unlighted and isolated conditions along the new Oakwood Road trail make it problematic for single walkers in the wintertime.

Field Check  16 December 2005:

Photo 1: This photograph shows the same stretch of the trail as Exhibit 2. What was mistaken for a bike path at the side of the steps is actually erosion along the slope. "Single tracking" along the ditch on a mountain bike is not advisable except in dry conditions during daylight hours. This ditch cannot be used at all during commuting rush hours.
Photo 2: The Pedestrian Bridge under the I-495 Overpass. This photograph was taken approximately nine days after a light snowfall in the Washington area. Because this part of the trail is in shadow all day, the ice melts slowly. Without the handrails, this bridge becomes unusable.
Photo 3: South Van Dorn Street Trail in the vicinity of the Metro and Railroad bridges. Another segment of trail with missing handrails. Note that the trail is down slope from a field, and that water is draining on the asphalt trail. This segment is covered with "black ice" in freezing weather, and the handrails become a lifeline to traverse this segment.
Photo 4: The same area as shown in Photo 3. The camera is looking towards Fairfax County. No hand rails were ever provided in this area. As that the path is sunken, water collects and freezes over the asphalt. The ice can persist for weeks because this area is in shadow all day.
Photo 5: The Eisenhower Avenue pedestrian path on the Fairfax County (south) side of the street. Metro Road and the Metro station is just ahead. Once again, a sunken trail, all-day shade, and a lack of handrails makes this path treacherous weeks after a snow or ice storm.


The South Van Dorn Street Pedestrian Trail needs considerable redesign, starting at the Beltway Access Ramp shown in Exhibit 1 to the Metro Station at Eisenhower Avenue. The whole path in this area is very unsafe following bouts of inclement weather in the wintertime. The cited engineering manuals should be studied again for directions on how to provide pedestrian safety in icy conditions.

First Problem: Descending the hill in the vicinity of Comfort Inn

The most direct approach is to divert users to the new trail alignment on Oakwood Road. Without question, this is a longer path to walk for users coming from the west side of South Van Dorn Street. When they arrive at the new alignment, they find an unlit and isolated pathway waiting for them.

bulletShort Term: Replace the handrail and clean and repair the steps shown in Exhibit 2 and Photo 1.
bulletLong Term: Remove the old trail alignment completely. Add signage and barriers that channel pedestrians and bicyclists to the new alignment along Oakwood Road. Light Oakwood Road for pedestrians and add at least two pedestrian accessible emergency call boxes to the route. Use community outreach to advertise the new alignment to the citizens living along South Van Dorn Street.

Second Problem: Persistent Ice on the I-495 Pedestrian Underpass Bridge

bulletAsk the Department of Public Works to shovel snow and de-ice the bridge in the areas shown in Photo 2.

Third Problem: Persistent Ice in the vicinity of the Railroad and Metro Bridges along the Trail

bulletReplace broken handrails and extend their availability in this area.
bulletReengineer the path to prevent water intrusion on to the asphalt path.
bulletElevate the walking area under the railroad/metro bridges themselves so that water passes under the walking area.
bulletAsk the Department of Public Works to shovel snow and de-ice the areas shown in Photos 3 and 4.

Fourth Problem: Persistent Ice Along the Eisenhower Avenue area of the Trail.

bulletRemove the section of the trail shown in Photo 5.
bulletAdd a pedestrian crossing light at the intersection of South Van Dorn Street and Eisenhower Avenue.
bulletDirect pedestrians to cross Eisenhower Avenue and to use the sidewalk on the north side to the street to walk to Metro. This stretch is in sun all day and does not have the icing problems of the south side.



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