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Activate Ward Circle for pedestrians and cyclists

The center of Ward Circle near American University is an unused and wasted space. The road design heavily favors car traffic and features few bicycle or pedestrian facilities. Closing some traffic lanes and adding pedestrian crosswalks and bike lanes could make Ward Circle a more coherent public space.

Photo by clgregor on Flickr.

The center of the circle, at the intersection of Massachusetts and Nebraska Avenues NW, is currently inaccessible to pedestrians and features only a statue and some shrubs in the middle. Pedestrians and cyclists are able to travel around the circle but not into or through it.

An improved park would serve many, as both American University and the Department of Homeland Security headquarters are within walking distance. Students could study or take a break from classes, and DHS employees could eat lunch in the circle, in the vein of the denizens of Dupont Circle.

In addition to sharing the two circumnavigating lanes with Massachusetts Avenue, Nebraska Avenue has two express lanes that travel through the middle of the circle. Even if pedestrians did want to travel into the middle of Ward Circle, they would have to cross both the outer travel lanes and the inner express lanes.

DDOT studied the option of closing the Nebraska Avenue through-lanes in the Rock Creek West II Livability Study. Doing so would slow automobile traffic but could help make for a better public place.

One alternative to improve traffic flow, through an expensive and logistically difficult proposition, would be to tunnel Nebraska Avenue under Ward Circle. Several other avenues tunnel under other circles in the District: Connecticut Avenue under Dupont Circle, Massachusetts under Thomas Circle, and 16th Street under Scott Circle.

Even without a tunnel, eliminating the express lanes and routing all traffic around the circle would improve the space. Crosswalks with leading pedestrian intervals would make it easier to cross only two lanes of traffic. Otherwise, DDOT will have to install crosswalks for both the outer and inner lanes.

Benches would also make the circle a more attractive place to spend time. Trees or larger shrubs along the edge could screen some of the traffic noise and provide shade. Lighting would make the circle a safe and attractive place to be at night.

DDOT redesigned Thomas Circle in a similar way in 2006. DDOT removed the middle lanes through the circle and restored the circular shape. Thomas Circle still needs additional amenities in the center to make it a more welcoming space, however, and similar improvements to Ward Circle would create a better community park.

Nebraska Avenue is also an unfriendly bike corridor along an important commuter route. Nebraska connects AU and DHS to Tenleytown, the closest Metro station. AU runs a shuttle to the Metro and DHS runs some shuttles, but biking along Nebraska can be treacherous with the traffic.

DDOT is considering widening the sidewalk on the north side of Nebraska and installing a bike path. According to Jim Sebastian, Nebraska Avenue is too narrow at 40 feet to install bike lanes on the street. The north side of Nebraska has heavier pedestrian traffic than the south side, so DDOT is only looking to expand there.

Increasing bicycle accessibility and mobility between Tenleytown and the circle should also be a goal of the redesign. A bike path along the sidewalk could encourage more bike commuting from Tenleytown to Ward Circle. DDOT should also add a second Capital Bikeshare station at the circle and expand the station at Tenleytown.

Currently, there is only one bike share station on Massachusetts Avenue to the northwest of Ward Circle. A station directly at the circle would not only accommodate more bikers, but it would also make it more of a destination. DDOT is now crowdsourcing suggestions for new stations, so residents, students, and nearby employees can suggest adding one here.

Finally, the bike lane network near AU is incomplete. Massachusetts Avenue has no lanes, and ANC3D opposed adding bike lanes to New Mexico Avenue near Nebraska. It's good that DDOT wants to add a bike path to Nebraska, but the agency should also push for a more connected and complete bike lane network around Ward Circle.

Ward Circle is close to students, residents, and federal workers, all of whom could benefit from a large green space, and the District should include in its planning modifications that activate the space. The proposed changes will create a better community space that is welcoming to pedestrians and cyclists, while still allowing for automobile flow. What else do you think would improve the circle?

Jamie Scott is a resident of Ward 3 in DC and a regular Metrobus commuter. He believes in good government, livable communities and quality public transit. Jamie holds a B.A. in Government from Georgetown University and is currently pursuing a Masters in Public Policy at Georgetown. 


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This is an obvious candidate for conversion into a proper roundabout. Close the through lanes and take down the traffic lights.

by Phil on Oct 31, 2011 2:34 pm • linkreport

Why do we have a traffic circle at this intersection? Circles only make sense when three or more streets intersect. Only two streets(Neb Ave & Mass Ave) intersect here.If Ward circle was replaced with a traffic light intersection there would be enough room to widen sidewalks, create bike lanes, add bus/ shuttle dropoffs and still give all 4 corners extra green space. Auto traffic would benefit, also. Sorry Genreral Ward.

by keith on Oct 31, 2011 3:03 pm • linkreport


... and make it even less friendly for peds and bikes.

I'm not sure how successful the Thomas Circle experiment has been, since it's the site of many a traffic backup. Sure, it's a paradise for peds but transportation projects need to balance the need of all road users. The additional exhaust from congested traffic alone might counter the benefit of pedestrian accessibility.

by MDE on Oct 31, 2011 3:04 pm • linkreport

Overall this is an excellent suggestion, but if the inner lanes were closed probably at least one lane should be added to the outer ring.

Definitely there should be lights, including at pedestrian crossings. Currently there are no lights at Massachusetts Avenue and the circle, and few drivers actually stop for the pedestrians (mostly AU students) trying to cross there. Those motorists who do stop are usually passed by motorists in the adjacent lane who ignore the law. Perhaps blinking lights would work.

by Bob on Oct 31, 2011 3:21 pm • linkreport

Ward Circle has to be the most frustrating circle in DC. Not only are there traffic lights (which circles AREN'T supposed to need), but 4 thru-lanes, which are always misused by both visitors and locals. Those trying to go 'straight' on Nebraska are always slowed down by the illiterate, trying to make a turn from the thru-lanes.

Close off the thru lanes, remove the lights, and put some benches and attractive landscaping along with pedestrian/bike friendly features... poof!

by John M on Oct 31, 2011 3:39 pm • linkreport

Just make it a standard intersection

by JJJJJ on Oct 31, 2011 3:41 pm • linkreport

Roundabout! That intersection is needlessly confusing. The center of the intersection is ugly, but with plenty of grass on the AU campus, I am not sure the neighborhood needs extra public space.

by Jasper on Oct 31, 2011 3:44 pm • linkreport

I might advocate closing the express Nebraska lanes just to make navigating the circle less bewildering. I've actually been to the center of the circle, and I agree it is nearly impossible to get to at present.

A redesigned Ward Circle might see some use from AU students, particularly for off campus students who live southeast of campus. The DHS facility is rather distant from the circle, separated by a surface parking lot and a forest from the middle of the campus. Any interaction by DHS employees would mean them leaving via one of the two gates, most likely the Nebraska Ave one, which is about 750 feet from the center of the circle, plus obviously whatever distance from the gate to whichever building they work in. Also, DHS headquarters is allegedly moving to St. Elizabeth's and I'm not sure they've decided what they are doing with the Nebraska Ave. Complex.

by Steven Yates on Oct 31, 2011 3:45 pm • linkreport

What is attractive about standing (or sitting) in a patch of weedy grass in the center of a bunch of cars going around a circle? If the circle were converted to a normal intersection, the corners could become green space, and provide turning lanes to rationalize traffic flow.

by ah on Oct 31, 2011 4:02 pm • linkreport

@MDE Are you talking about the FLA/NY Ave pseudo-circle? (That's not called Thomas Circle)

Although I agree that the traffic backups suck (and disagree that it's particularly ped-friendly), it did help vehicular traffic by enabling several previously-impossible (or dangerous) traffic movements, which I think was the primary goal of the project.

And, as silly as it sounds, it also seems to handle heavy traffic a lot better than the old intersection. There's a lot less gridlock and box-blocking now, partly thanks to the addition of extra turn lanes.

It's not perfect. I'd rather a "real" traffic circle at that location (with the Wendy's eminent domain'd and turned into a park), and it's inexcusable that it can't handle buses. However, I think it's probably still an improvement over what was there originally.

That all said, I don't like Ward Circle. Turn it into an intersection, like they did to Truxton Circle, and build a park around it.

by andrew on Oct 31, 2011 4:05 pm • linkreport

This is yet another example of how the city needs a more systematic placemaking and livability agenda. Similar proposals have been made for Scott Circle (BeyondDC) and Truxton Circle (Bloomingdale for now), for improving Dupont Circe, for eliminating the side service lanes in the Cleveland Park commercial district on Connecticut Ave. NW.



by Richard Layman on Oct 31, 2011 4:06 pm • linkreport

@ah Totally agree. This circle is superfluous and enhancing the green space around it, rather than in its center, would be vastly preferable.

by BFM on Oct 31, 2011 4:33 pm • linkreport

To Nebraska and Mass Aves probably need a serious rethinking. Neither is really considered in planning documents, and as a result, E-W mobility is not easy for any mode.

by Neil Flanagan on Oct 31, 2011 4:49 pm • linkreport

+1 to the suggestion about bike infrastructure there. I went to AU and having an easier way to get to Tenleytown would have been a godsend. I can think of at least two good on-campus bikeshare locations that would be heavily used.

by Dan Miller on Oct 31, 2011 4:55 pm • linkreport

To what extent will the neighborhood have a role in any reconfiguration of Ward Circle? There is already a lot of consternation between the area homeowners and AU. The latter wants to change its Master Plan considerably by building several dorms over the New Mexico Ave parking lot and at the top of the hill between the Glover Gate and Wesley Seminary. Several protests to these changes have already taken place in the form of "walk-ins" across the pedestrian crossovers during rush hour. The influx of students brought about by new dorms and the loss of parking lots (and Washington College of Law's eventual move to the Tenleytown Circle) certainly raises valid concerns about providing better infrastructure for peds/bikes at Ward. Maybe the School of Public Affairs, housed in the aptly named Ward Circle Building, should empanel a crack team of students to tackle this issue.

by DT on Oct 31, 2011 6:50 pm • linkreport

Ward circle is simply too small of an area to be valuable green space in suburbanesque Spring Valley. Ward circle is not the centerpiece of the neighborhood, unlike DuPont, nor is it large enough to isolate individuals from traffic like DuPont. Thomas Circle is a great example of what not to do. You can't expect a park to be inviting with cars in arms reach. At least with the previous design, traffic was not as bad. Now it is a nightmare. It fails on so many levels. Ward circle is best served as is.

by Sivad on Oct 31, 2011 8:55 pm • linkreport

Nebraska is also key for cyclists because it is the only road nearby that is relatively flat.

by Neil Flanagan on Oct 31, 2011 9:54 pm • linkreport

@DT - Rest assured the neighborhood will raise strenuous objections to any and all changes that might be proposed to Ward Circle, as well as complaining about its current configuration.

by ah on Oct 31, 2011 10:22 pm • linkreport

@Steven Yates

DHS is planning on staying at the Nebraska Avenue Campus even after the move of HQ to St. Elizabeth's. Note the Nebraska Avenue Complex Master Plan (

by OhioExile on Nov 1, 2011 12:28 am • linkreport

Eliminating the through lanes and restoring Ward Circle isn't a guarantee that it will be actively used by pedestrians or park-goers. The lack of density is the biggest factor.

They put 13th Street through Logan Circle too in the 50s. Reversed it back to its original circle in 70s. Logan is more used than Thomas; probably because of the density of residences and walking commuters around Logan. Thomas is surrounded by office buildings, a hotel full of tourists who don't have time to lounge around, and a church empty 6 days of the week. Ward is more like Thomas: surrounded by alot of nothing (parking lots), a side door to a museum, and a campus with housing who-knows-where (Ok, I-don't-where)

by crin on Nov 1, 2011 7:30 am • linkreport

@MDE, @Sivad: agree with both of you about the traffic failure at Thomas Circle. I drive north on 14th somewhat frequently and at evening rush hour the traffic backs up for 3-4 blocks and 5-6 light cycles. It's horrible, and seems largely to be the result of no "express" lanes to handle the 14th Street volume. Given the commuting volume I've seen on Nebraska Ave in both the morning and evening, I'd expect a similar result on Ward Circle if the Nebraska Ave express lanes were eliminated and all traffic mixed in one big roundabout.

@Crin: Agree 100% about the density problem getting people to use Ward Circle as a park. Thomas Circle is never accessed by pedestrians as far as I've seen, except to be a quicker way to walk through the intersection. I'd expect the same result you highlight about Ward Circle - it will continue to be a big unused grassy patch since nobody is really clamoring for more open space in that area (whether it's the result of low density, lack of residential in the area, or whatever).

by Anonny on Nov 1, 2011 9:34 am • linkreport

You want to turn it into Dupont Circle? There is your fail right there. DuPont is terrible for both pedestrians and traffic.

by beatbox on Nov 1, 2011 9:48 am • linkreport

Is the idea of a tunnel underneath Ward Circle one those outlandish proposals that's made only to make later proposals sound more reasonable? Because in the current environment (even among those who are thinking of the future int he current environment), the chances that the District is going to spend a huge amount just to submerge either Mass or Nebraska at Ward is remote. And the major benefit would seem to be speeding up commuter traffic to/from Bethesda. What's more, if one of the the 2 intersecting roads is buried, and the other left in a ring around the circle, that just needlessly cuts off pedestrians from the circle.

by Paula Product on Nov 1, 2011 9:54 am • linkreport

I don't want to turn it into Dupont Circle, I just used that as an example of a circle as community space.

The density is certainly lower around Ward Circle than other circles but I think between DHS workers, AU students and neighbors, another park would be useful and bring some coherence to the intersection.

As for Thomas Circle, removing the express lanes started to make it a better space but it still needs amenities. People need a reason to stay in the circle. The same goes for Ward Circle. If there was actually a place to sit and some trees or shrubs to visually screen some of the traffic, people might be more inclined to use it.

by Jamie Scott on Nov 1, 2011 9:58 am • linkreport

I have a detail at the NAC, and I really don't see any horrible problems with the current set up. Yes, perhaps it isn't ideal, but it also isn't a cluster as far as DC circles go.

by Matt Glazewski on Nov 1, 2011 10:07 am • linkreport

@OhioExile -

GSA is "fixing up" the NAC. DHS is still slated to move to St. E's, but that does appear cloudy at this point. Should they actually move, GSA will use the NAC for another Federal Agency. The EIS link you supplied is for the "fixing up" project currently underway, independent of who the tenant is.

by Matt Glazewski on Nov 1, 2011 10:09 am • linkreport

It's hard to imagine any change to Ward Circle that wouldn't be an improvement. However, who owns the property in the middle? I don't think it's the DC government. The land was originally acquired and the statue of Artemas Ward erected by Harvard College under the terms of a bequest. Does Harvard still own it? I believe NPS maintains it, so maybe ownership passed to them at some point. It's almost certain, though, that any major change can't be made by DDOT unilaterally.

by Herschel on Nov 1, 2011 11:46 am • linkreport

I think more people would use Thomas Cir. if it were more attractive--I don't think its proximity to the road is why it's not used. There's no place to sit and there aren't any shade trees. Think the same goes for Ward Cir. too.

by Frank on Nov 1, 2011 12:41 pm • linkreport

There are plenty of places on AU's 75 acre campus for students to take a study break, without having to dodge traffic and smell bus fumes. Like the quad, for instance, or Reeves Field.

A standard intersection might be better, especially if there's a way to improve the bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure at the same time.

by Mike S. on Nov 1, 2011 12:52 pm • linkreport

@Herschel - Yes, it is NPS land, and they would have to be involved in any decisionmaking regarding a different configuration.

by ah on Nov 1, 2011 5:28 pm • linkreport

Wonderful to know so many care about Ward circle and want to share ideas. Working together. I am a local resident and use Ward Circle practically every time I drive my car. The Circle is too small to compare to Dupont but prehaps I am visually mistaken. It is a nice idea. Right now the traffic composed of peds, bikes,cars, trucks is a right of way nightmare even with the existing lights. The Circle tries to accomodate every type of mobile person and/or vehicle. The AU community needs some training in blending in with the total picture. A month or two of some crossing guards???a GOOD PART TIME JOB THAT HELPS THE ECONOMY AND EDUCATES THE CURRENT NEW CROP OF students.Either at the Circle itself or where Nebraska and New Mexico intersect. Count me in....

by Mary Ann T. Fish on Nov 2, 2011 7:55 pm • linkreport

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