Greater Greater Washington

U Street's worst pedestrian hazards will soon disappear

DDOT will begin reconstructing U Street this fall. Stretching from 9th Street to just short of 14th Street NW, the project's first phase will fix many of the worst pedestrian problems with this street. Sadly, not being a Great Streets project, it isn't getting some of the decorative touches of other projects like H Street NE.


Photo by Travlr on Flickr.

Most of the details in the plan are the same as they were three years ago. A major theme is that the street will better accommodate pedestrians, especially those in wheelchairs. DDOT is guaranteeing a 4-foot-wide clearance throughout the project, and to do so the agency will eliminate parking spaces and driving lanes and move walls, street poles, and trees where necessary.

On the 1300 block, the staircases of three buildings on the south side currently make for a sliver of a sidewalk. Instead of trying to move or reconfigure the stairs, which are on public space, and instead of looking for an exception to the 4-foot clearance, DDOT will remove parking spaces and extend the sidewalk toward the travel lane.


Curb extension design for the 1300 block of U St. NW. Image from DDOT.

Additionally, the construction process itself is designed to minimize disruptions to pedestrians. The city will require its contractor to work on only one block at a time and will divert pedestrians to the parking lane when the sidewalks are being replaced.

Phase 1 will start in the fall and construction is expected to last 9 months. Phase 2, which stretches from 14th Street all the way to 18th Street, will start after phase 1 and the 18th Street reconstruction project are both finished.

In phase 1, the roadway will simply be milled down and resurfaced, a process that itself takes about 3 hours per block. The sidewalks will also be replaced except in front of the African-American Civil War Memorial and the Ellington, where they are very new. Phase 2 is more complicated, involving digging up the entire road bed, replacing a century-old water main, and rebuilding the entire roadway. The phase 1 section's water main was replaced in the late 1980s with the construction of the Green Line, so the road work is less extensive there.

On the 1700 block, the north side's sidewalk is notoriously narrow, poorly lit, and buckled by tree roots. DDOT will eliminate an eastbound driving lane on this residential block and redistribute the reclaimed area to both sidewalks.


Design for the 1700 block of U St. NW. Image from DDOT.

At the intersection with 16th Street and New Hampshire Avenue, the agency will include bulbouts ("B") to reduce the street-crossing distances for pedestrians.


Design for the intersection of U St., 16th St., and New Hampshire Ave. NW. Image from DDOT.

Just east of the intersection and on the north side of U Street, the agency will remove an existing retaining wall ("A") on the public right-of-way and rebuild it several feet back. This move will widen this otherwise narrow section of sidewalk.

The elimination of the slip lanes onto New Hampshire Avenue on both sides discourages speeding and creates small pedestrian plazas.

As we have documented before, some transportation departments are prone to neglecting pedestrians or expecting them to take needlessly long detours around construction. This will not be the case on U Street, much to the relief of pedestrians and business owners.

To minimize obstructions along the sidewalks, the city will install multi-space meters. This will be a good time to consider implementing performance parking for the U Street corridor, as parking becomes especially difficult on Friday and Saturday nights. The increased revenue could be used to improve and maintain the street amenities over the coming years, as is being done on Barracks Row.

The city will save street trees where it can and replant new trees in empty boxes and where trees cannot be saved.

While these improvements will enhance the experience for the many pedestrians who traverse the corridor, this reconstruction lacks many of the decorative design touches of some other projects around the city including the Great Streets projects.

U Street will receive the standard blue-gray concrete sidewalks instead of the beige, exposed aggregate concrete sidewalks now on H Street and currently being installed in Adams Morgan. H Street's sidewalks enjoy pedestrian-scaled street markers etched in granite slabs embedded in the sidewalks. The metal street banners are another nice touch on H Street that won't come to U Street under the current plan.

We can certainly add some decorative elements later, but the sidewalk pavement is something expected to last decades and must be done right the first time. With such a storied history, U Street deserves some of the qualities of a Great Street.

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Eric Fidler has lived in DC and suburban Maryland his entire life. He likes long walks along the Potomac and considers the L'Enfant Plan an elegant work of art. He also blogs at Left for LeDroit, LeDroit Park's (only) blog of record. 

Comments

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The New Hampshire-16th-U intersection diagram does not include the bike lane. That's a bit worrisome, as eliminating some of the space at that New Hampshire stretch would make northbound biking a bit more harrowing than it already is.

by OctaviusIII on Jun 20, 2011 12:55 pm • linkreport

The absence of the bike lane in the intersection diagram also worries me. I do like the reconfiguration of NH south of the intersection; it looks like the turn will be more restricted. Perhaps this will slow down the traffic screaming off of 16th southbound onto NH in the morning.

by MLD on Jun 20, 2011 12:58 pm • linkreport

Then again, the design for the intersection at 15th doesn't have the cycletrack on there, so maybe they just failed to include any bike lanes that exist.

by MLD on Jun 20, 2011 1:02 pm • linkreport

I'd just ban parking during peak hours, or convert it all to valet.

by charlie on Jun 20, 2011 1:03 pm • linkreport

If they're putting in multi-space meters, they should make sure some alternative provisions are made for bike parking.

by RichardatCourthouse on Jun 20, 2011 1:03 pm • linkreport

Why aren't they starting from the west end of the street? The conditions down there are far worse than the east end.

Also, as a future streetcar corridor, let me add my outrage that the tracks are not being installed as part of this project (nor on 18th St in Adams Morgan).

If we're actually going to build the streetcar, this is a missed opportunity, and source of unnecessary waste. Let's try to plan for the future for once.

by andrew on Jun 20, 2011 1:08 pm • linkreport

(And, seriously. Can we raise money or something to add decorative features to this project? The 14th & U intersection is in dire need of some sort of special treatment or landmark. It should be one of the most important street crossings in the city, and instead it's pretty dismal and depressing.)

by andrew on Jun 20, 2011 1:11 pm • linkreport

I am also worried about the sidewalks bordering 14th and U Street. Some of the tree boxes, for example right at the surrounding bus stops on the North side of U Street and the East of 14th, are not only empty mud pits, but they serve to narrow the walkway and create a hazard for people exiting busses (into said mud pits). I hope that DDOT goes to the drawing board with some of the offending tree boxes, paving over and moving them where necessary.

by David on Jun 20, 2011 1:17 pm • linkreport

@andrew: I believe the 14th & U intersection will be addressed in the 14th Street Great Streets project. However, given that this project is happening concurrently with two others that intersect it, I'm surprised that there is little coordination.

U is going to get the following, as far as I know: treatment at 14th & U, treatment at 18th & U, and streetcars. I'd hate for stuff to be installed just to be torn up again a few months or years later.

by OctaviusIII on Jun 20, 2011 1:37 pm • linkreport

I'd hate for stuff to be installed just to be torn up again a few months or years later.

If the Florida Ave streetcar line gets built, this will happen. I'm shocked that the project isn't giving this any consideration.

by andrew on Jun 20, 2011 1:47 pm • linkreport

Streetcars on U Street are so far away that the road surface will need to be redone then anyway.

H Street was done so that they didn't have to do another street project a year after completing the street rebuild. Streetcars on U are probably a decade away.

by MLD on Jun 20, 2011 1:53 pm • linkreport

As U street is a corridor for one of Metro's most highly used bus lines, I'm surprised/saddened to see that there are no bus priority treatments in the plan. How will having only one lane eastbound on the 1700 block impact the 90 buses? Are they talking about peak period parking restrictions to help those buses along?

by MDE on Jun 20, 2011 2:31 pm • linkreport

Wohoo. Steps in the right direction. It is hard walking there.

by Jasper on Jun 20, 2011 2:31 pm • linkreport

This project is long overdue. The only thing about it I'd have to question is the 16th / New Hampshire ingtersection. As others have pointed out, it doesn't seem to take into account the bike paths. Also, my experience with the bulb-outs on Swann Street NW have left me less than enthusiatic with them. Yes, they provide a smaller distance for pedestrians to cross (a good thing) but they also make it necessary for drivers to creep forward into the crosswalk to see around these pedestrians so that the driver can proceed. This is not a good thing as it blurs the defined spaces between pedestrians and drivers. My experience is with an intersection with relatively fewer peds and relatively fewer vehicles than 16th and U ... it also uses stop signs vs. traffic lights. So, it may be different.

by Lance on Jun 20, 2011 2:38 pm • linkreport

@Andrew If the Florida Ave streetcar line gets built, this will happen. I'm shocked that the project isn't giving this any consideration.

I'm not. Our streetcar project has been hijacked by the developers. They're already almost finished developing U Street, why would they need a District-taxpayer-subsidized Streetcar project there to help them get people to buy their stuff?

If we were using the streetcar to help ease congestion ---- as they have done in Europe and elsewhere --- then yes, we'd be finding a way to get the tracks built in there now. But as I've been warning now for maybe a year, the problem is that these parts of the streetcar system are so way off in the planning horizon that few of us will be around to enjoy them (if they actually come to be), and hence why you don't see any real planning occuring for them.

by Lance on Jun 20, 2011 2:44 pm • linkreport

These changes sound great. I hope they do a better job accommodating pedestrians during construction than they're doing on the 18th Street rebuild, which feels a bit like playing Frogger.

by Gavin on Jun 20, 2011 2:46 pm • linkreport

I *HATE* exposed aggregate concrete. It makes many things that are otherwise glorious look cheap. Case in point: Meridian Hill Park. I'll take the blue-gray consistent concrete sidewalk over exposed aggregate any day, if only to save money for brick or stone later on.

by Eric on Jun 20, 2011 3:05 pm • linkreport

And aggregate gets slippery when wet.

by David C on Jun 20, 2011 3:09 pm • linkreport

I'm really looking forward to this rebuild. We're at 16th and T now, and the evening stroll down 14th is pretty full contact. I'm worried about the traffic bottleneck at 18th and florida after they take a lane from U street, but I'm reserving judgment.

We checked with Estrada's office re the bike path, and it's slated to go back in, it's just not shown here on these renderings. We were told that the innovative bike crossing and boxes at 16th and NH that we have now were tried out in anticipation of this rebuild.

by CJ on Jun 20, 2011 3:49 pm • linkreport

Sorry, the stroll across U, not down 14th

by CJ on Jun 20, 2011 3:50 pm • linkreport

+1 to bus accommodations. Can the U St. bulbouts help at all?

On the subject of wheelchair accommodations maybe they can install padding so when Metro Transit officers throw patrons head first into the pavement they don't need so many stitches.

Seriously, there are a lot of wheelchair users in this neighborhood and I want to cry every time I seem them trying to navigate this neighborhood. I hope the sidewalk widening will help.

by Ward 1 Guy on Jun 20, 2011 4:08 pm • linkreport

make it necessary for drivers to creep forward into the crosswalk to see around these pedestrians

I didn't know the obesity problem had gotten this bad.

by tt on Jun 20, 2011 4:14 pm • linkreport

They need to block or make one-way-in that blind alley entrance that projects cars onto unseen pedestrians next to Goodwood in the 1500 block south side. That alley complex has an entrance on T.

The DC AG could do a big favor in it's suit against the owner of the gas station at 15th & U for monopolies, if they closed it for a mixed-use mid-rise. That gas station has four curb cuts.

Four feet isn't much. I still say narrow U and give it's full sidewalks back.

by Tom Coumaris on Jun 20, 2011 5:56 pm • linkreport

Remove parking. Create both east and west bound bike lines. Create bus only lanes. Expand bike parking. Add bus shelters. Goodness, give priority to efficient forms of transport.

by tour guide on Jun 20, 2011 6:41 pm • linkreport

Richard (but no one else) touched on this, but will DDOT add bike parking with this, since they're switching to multi-space meters? Alexandria recently switched to multi-space meters in Old Town, and one of the immediate results was a newfound shortage of bike parking.

by Froggie on Jun 21, 2011 6:42 am • linkreport

While they are at it, why don't they regime the lights from Georgia ave to 16th street. They are timed in both ways so that cars hit nearly every light. When one turns green, the next turns red.

I'm sure some of you think these anti car measures are the right thing to do to discourage car use. But that's just silly.

by Anon on Jun 21, 2011 7:17 am • linkreport

Why isn't the City using these projects to do low impact development to reduce the need for billion dollar tunnels to reduce rainwater overflow into the Anacostia and Potomac rivers? All street projects should be using permeable surfaces for roads and sidewalks.

by danmac on Jun 21, 2011 7:51 am • linkreport

Damned atucorrect... Retime the lights on U

by Anon on Jun 21, 2011 8:03 am • linkreport

I hope DDOT is working with DC Water to incorporate green infrastructure components to the project to not only manage stormwater, but to help make U street more green.

by KA on Jun 21, 2011 9:32 am • linkreport

@danmac - Yes, we do need permeable pavement, and to take opportunities to build design elements like rain gardens into any landscaping (there are some great examples on 1st St NE in NoMA). It'll mean a long-term cost savings.

by David R. on Jun 21, 2011 9:34 am • linkreport

Anyone know why 17th St widens at the intersection of U Street? http://www.ustreetnwupgrade.com/project-overview/u-street-at-17th-street/

And personally, I hate the redesign of 18th/U/Florida. http://www.ustreetnwupgrade.com/project-overview/u-street-at-florida-avenue/. Leaving the cut ins at the NW corner of U & 18th and NW corner of U & Florida are not pedestrian friendly. I suppose they might have kept the cut in at U & 18th for the buses, though. Anyway, I still would have preferred this design: http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post/898/crossable-intersections-in-adams-morgan/.

And I hope the signals for the drivers turning right onto U Street from Florida indicate that you're turning right and that pedestrians have the right of way. I live at that intersection and fear crossing the street because drivers take a right as if they were going straight (read: driving fast and hard). I've almost been hit so many times that I now cross the street while staring at the oncoming cars instead of in front of me. It'd be nice if there was a yield arrow or something.

by 7r3y3r on Jun 21, 2011 11:53 am • linkreport

Andrew: I asked about the street car rails last year when they held a meeting on this and they explained to me that the new street car will not be running the same route as the old street car. I believe it's meant to connect to U Street, but not run all the way down U Street.

by Brianne on Jun 21, 2011 12:23 pm • linkreport

"Perhaps this will slow down the traffic screaming off of 16th southbound onto NH in the morning."

Hear hear! This is a frogger intersection every morning. Coming down the hill, the cars maintain their (over the limit) speed, and do not pause at all for the crosswalk, taking the right turn as if they were going straight.

Will be interesting to see what happens with the buses. I cannot bellieve they are leaving the stairs on U. Giving public land to a building to use for private stairs, then taking more public land to make up for this "loss" seems rather stupid to me.

by greent on Jun 21, 2011 1:03 pm • linkreport

@7r3y3r - Coming from Florida and turning right onto 18th Street, drivers do have the right of way when their light is green. It is a light specifically for that dog leg onto 18th and when it is green, the walk sign is red.

by Anon on Jun 21, 2011 1:14 pm • linkreport

@Anon - I meant drivers on Florida turning right on to U Street (heading northeast, then east), not Florida to 18th (southwest, then west & north). They have a green light to proceed straight on Florida. For turns on to U St, they are making a right hand turn in which case they should yield to pedestrians in the cross walk who have the walk signal. They often don't. I think a blinking yellow right arrow would help help clarify this for drivers.

by 7r3y3r on Jun 21, 2011 1:24 pm • linkreport

@7r3y3r

I agree, trying to cross U Street at the U-Florida split is unnerving. The walk signal is displayed but people hang a right there to continue on U and don't watch for pedestrians. granted, the fact that people can cross there at that time doesn't make a lot of sense from a driver perspective, since U Street is the major street after that point and I think MOST cars are going towards U rather than continuing on Florida.

by MLD on Jun 21, 2011 2:04 pm • linkreport

@7r3y3r - I cant even picture that turn in my head. Im not sure I've ever made it.

by Anon on Jun 21, 2011 2:38 pm • linkreport

Removing parking on U St. will drive businesses bonkers and will force visitors to use the residential areas for parking, so residents will also join in the fight against this.

Perhaps this proposal should come with some better performance parking on side streets and relief for existing residents who do not have off-street parking. Families and people with disabilities need to park near home even if they are occasional car users. The area needs better signage to pay lots for use by visitors who insist on driving. Right now U St. on a weekend night has huge numbers of vehicles just circling looking for parking.

by Ward 1 Guy on Jun 22, 2011 1:39 am • linkreport

Personally I think the "decorative design elements" on H Street are pretty cheezy and contrived. Let's move ahead with the projet and worry about street art later.

It would be great to see streetcar tracks and bus priority as part of this project. Unfortunately, this project has already been delayed several years and streetcar tracks would delay it even more.

by David on Jun 23, 2011 9:18 am • linkreport

How long is this going to take? What impact will it have on the business owners; they never saw the need to widen the streets in Georgetown because they didn't want to disturb all the folks over there or create any problems for those shoe/clothing/specialty stores and eateries. there already is pracatically no parking space available around that area after a certain time at night; cops just sit and wait to give out tickets-- it's gonna be one big mess...all to accommodate who really??? the answer to that question is blatant! As for the streetcars...we need them why? that little idiotic idea of a streetcar over on Benning Road is the joke of the residents here and really serves no purpose; as for making room for bicycles... all they do is clog up traffic; run red lights; cut in front of cars, impede traffic..Money could be spent far better in DC than this...just my opinion. Long time DC resident.

by Redtopp on Jun 27, 2011 11:48 am • linkreport

@Redtopp - to accommodate who, really? Me and my family, that's who. And the thousands of other people who live in this neighborhood. Where do you live?

I live at 16th and U. The sidewalks along U are narrow and uneven, making negotiating them even with our small troller difficult. Not to mention the many elderly folks that still live in the neighborhood who have to traverse them with walkers and wheel chairs. The street parking they are getting rid of (only a few spaces from the drawings, by the way) are all metered parking, so residents don't use them anyway. A handful of missing spaces won't effect businesses one bit, nor disrupt residential parking any more than it already is.

Streetcars will reduce traffic and parking problems (suburbanites think riding streetcars is cool!), including the numbers of buses, which is good for ground level air pollution, which is good for my son (and you and me, too).

Your argument against bicycles is simply laughable.

You might be a long time DC resident, but opinions like yours are why U Street has been in this deplorable conditions for such a long time.

by kwest on Jul 1, 2011 1:08 pm • linkreport

The designers did a great job in capturing the historic significance of U Street and at the same time making major pedestrian upgrades. Business shall flourish when this is completed!

by Boston on Sep 23, 2011 3:39 pm • linkreport

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