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Small changes could make crossing Sousa Bridge safer

Anyone who has walked or biked across the Sousa Bridge, which carries Pennsylvania Avenue over the Anacostia River, knows that it is one of the most dangerous bridge crossings in DC. DDOT needs to make this route safer, but in the meantime, it and NPS can make an alternate route through Anacostia Park more efficient and desirable.

Photo by GeraldFittipaldi on Flickr.

When you bike or walk across the Sousa bridge, you have 3 options when you arrive east of the Anacostia River. The 2 most-used, and also most hazardous, are the sidewalks on each side of Pennsylvania Avenue, which require crossing multiple 295 on and off-ramps.

All 5 ramp crossings have poor sight lines. Motorists can't see pedestrians or bicyclists wanting to cross and pedestrians. In addition, pedestrians and bicyclists waiting to cross can't always judge the speed of motorists on the ramps. The map below shows the dangerous crossings that pedestrians and cyclists face:

Dangerous ped/bike conflict areas. Click to enlarge.

The best solution would be to make the sidewalks one each side of the bridge actually safe for pedestrians and cyclists. Unfortunately, that's almost impossible without actually reconfiguring the interchange to make it less like a cloverleaf.

The current curb ramps are very narrow and line up with sharp turns on the adjoining sidewalks, which is not ADA compliant. Cyclists can't easily navigate them. Fixing these would also help.

Meanwhile, there's a viable, and only slightly longer, third option: a bike and pedestrian work-around through Anacostia Park.

An alternate route. Click to enlarge.

While this option seems like the safest route on a map, it is not without its share of challenges. DDOT and NPS could make this safer and more inviting, and perhaps make it a more popular option.

1. Improve wayfinding at the entrance to the path

All photos by GeraldFittipaldi on Flickr.

There is a bike route sign at the start of the path. The sign is not visible if you are traveling eastbound on the bridge, as depicted in the photo above.

DDOT recently added wayfinding signs in Anacostia Park. However, if you aren't familiar with the area, it appears the path will only take you into the park. DDOT and NPS should consider adding a map at the entrance that shows how to access Pennsylvania Avenue SE via the park.

2. Repair the path

Having biked down this path, it is not a comfortable ride. The cracks and bumps on top of the steep slope can be intimidating for novice bicyclists. It's also dangerous for pedestrians with baby strollers.

In response, bicyclists have developed their own solution, and most going to the park prefer their carved path over the official one. This worn desire path has been here for years.

3. Make the area under the DC-295 bridges inviting

Once bicyclists and pedestrians enter the park, they must go under 3 bridge spans for 295. The sidewalks are in need of repair, and that could be a good first step. Another important element for cyclists would be replacing the in-line grates that can catch wheels and cause a cyclist to crash.

The bigger concern is the lack of adequate lighting along Nicholson Street SE and underneath the bridges. These photos were taken during the day. At night it is even darker. Brighter lighting and murals can enliven the area and make this route safer and more attractive.

The current interchange is really not designed to be safe for pedestrians and cyclists, and in the long run needs to be replaced with one that is more befitting its location in an urban area. Perhaps when the 11th Street Bridge is complete, some of the traffic from this area will relocate, but that alone won't solve the pedestrian and bicycle safety problem on the Sousa Bridge.

In the meantime, there are safety improvements that do not require expensive engineering solutions. DDOT and NPS can work together to make these low-cost aesthetic improvements throughout Anacostia Park to ultimately provide a safer route for pedestrians and bicyclists.

All photos are by Gerald Fittipaldi, P.E., a civil engineer from New Jersey, who met with me to discuss challenges to biking east of the Anacostia River. For additional photos, visit his DC - East of the Anacostia River album on Flickr.

Veronica O. Davis, PE, has experience in planning transportation, urban areas, civil infrastructure, and communities. She co-owns Nspiregreen, LLC, an environmental consulting company in DC. She is also the co-founder of Black Women Bike DC, which strives to increase the number of Black women and girls biking for fun, health, wellness, and transportation. 


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Unfortunately, the latest plan I saw for the 11th Street bridge rebuild called for _eliminating_ the direct trail connection to Anacostia park, forcing a couple-block detour out to a busy intersection with MLK Jr. Ave, then back along Good Hope to Anacostia Drive.

by Liam on Mar 12, 2012 3:31 pm • linkreport

Don't stop with Sousa Bridge, the Whitney Young Bridge (E. Cap), and the Whitlaw Bridge (Benning over RR tracks & DC 295) are either hazardous, inaccessible from Ward 7 neighborhoods, or both.

Mayor Gray has spoken of the Seine river in Paris as an analogy for the Anacostia. One big difference, you can easily & safely walk across any bridge on the Seine. You cannot easily walk across the Anacostia bridges. Until that changes, the mayor will never see his vision materialize.

by will on Mar 12, 2012 4:03 pm • linkreport

I walk across that bridge all the time on the weekends. I walk three miles to eastern market. The Sousa Bridge isn't ideal but surely I would not want to walk out of my way and under 4 bridges.

by MP on Mar 12, 2012 4:32 pm • linkreport

The Sousa Bridge is better than the Douglas Bridge (South Capitol Street) on the bridge itself at least. Though you're right about the connections. (though one needs to take hairpin turns or cut across the grass on the East side of the Douglas bridge, too) I think it actually helps that I only go through EOTR Penn Ave when there's a lot of traffic, so nobody's going very fast.

by Kolohe on Mar 12, 2012 4:47 pm • linkreport

@Will.. I completely agree. Whitlock isn't THAT bad, except it dumps you out in the middle of the Minnesota-Benning intersection, which is a nightmare for all modes. I believe that intersection is in the short-term plan for reconstruction.

@Kolohe... I know many confident cyclists that prefer to travel in the vehicle lanes versus the bike/ped lane.

by Veronica O. Davis (Ms V) on Mar 12, 2012 5:42 pm • linkreport

None of them are very good.

The Sousa bridge isn't bad (that is, the part that's actually on the bridge). Barney Circle is largely a wasted space, but the connection underneath 295 is indeed terrible.

East Capitol has tremendously narrow sidewalks and poor connections on both sides of the river. Likewise, bike/ped connections across the highway and railroad tracks along East Capitol are almost non-existent.

South Capitol is better than it used to be with the viaduct, but the sidewalks still dump you into a mixing bowl of onramps on Poplar Point.

Benning Road over the river is actually the nicest of them all, but, as noted, the later connection over the railroad tracks leaves a lot to be desired.

by Alex B. on Mar 12, 2012 5:50 pm • linkreport

I agree with will regarding the Minnesota-Benning overpass. However, what would also need to be considered for serious infrastructure repair would be the both underpasses at the intersections of Benning-Nannie Helen Burroughs ( where it leads either to the park area nearby or to the Metro) and at Eastern Avenue (not far from 295 ). Both areas are dark and dilapidated. Which should've been addressed during the "great streets program or some infrastructure improvement program that could have also contributed to a means of a safe pedestrian passage/walkway".

by W7C on Mar 12, 2012 7:16 pm • linkreport

Come to think of it, the Potomac river crossings have a lot of the same problems as the ones mentioned for the Anacostia ones.

Chain Bridge - Huge hill on the Va side, only accessible by the towpath on the DC side, and off the beaten path in both cases

Key Bridge - Bad at grade crossings on both sides, no easy access to Georgetown bike routes, narrow and chock full of pedestrians

Teddy Bridge - *extremely* narrow path, DC side dumps in into Kennedy center (crossing VA Ave into GWU is a pain), one side of the bridge doesn't even go anywhere on the VA side

Mem Bridge - At grade crossing on VA side every bit as bad as the at grade crossings on the east side of Sousa. (DC side can also get chock full of pedestrians)

14th Street Bridge - actually not too bad (compared with every other bridge in DC area), just a bit out of the way on the Va side, a bit to narrow and a light pole in the way right where the bridge ends on the DC side - yet this is the only one with any major plans to overhaul that are actually moving fwd.

Wilson- Got to go up Oxon Hill to get anywhere on the MD side (after dipping down back to water level exiting the bridge), and the MD trails don't connect well with either DC or the central part of PG county

(and the American Legion - Cabin John bridge doesn't have any access as far as I know)

by Kolohe on Mar 13, 2012 9:37 am • linkreport

I can't figure out why the footpaths on the Sousa bridge are so filthy and broken-glass-strewn in comparison to the ones on the 14th Street bridge. You can't chalk the difference up entirely to bike traffic, can you? Do they do some sort of periodic sweeping on the 14th Street bridge?

by oboe on Mar 13, 2012 12:21 pm • linkreport

Good post and ideas Ms. V.

by H Street Landlord on Mar 13, 2012 12:34 pm • linkreport

Whitney Young bridge's south sidewalk going east just... ends. It's completely unusable, with overgrown brush, no crosswalks, a chest-high concrete wall with no space to jump it, no sight-lines, and if you do find your own path, a freeway with no sign of anything directing you to human-scale features, backed by forest and then railroad. After taking a trip to observe the river for a project, I spent 30 minutes trapped over there trying to find my way non-suicidally to a gas station to buy a drink, before giving up and heading back to Stadium-Armory. I could see the path from one vantage, but despite being willing to brave poison ivy I couldn't find my way to it without impenetrable brush/cliff getting in the way. After you cross the bridge at that point and find yourself stranded, there's a barrier to prevent you from crossing to the other side of the road to see if it connects with anything, and it's a 1 mile trip all the way back to the stadium to find an unobstructed path and see what's on the other side.

I certainly would have liked a "Dead End" sign... what I got discouraged me from further exploration of Ward 7 by foot.

by Anon on Mar 13, 2012 7:41 pm • linkreport

Crossing the Anacostia is a problem for anyone living east of the river. I will add East Capitol to the problematic crossing which is symbolic of the barriers to Mayor Greys one city vision. Please find a solution, temporary will do but a solution is need to allow pedestrians and bikers access to the heart of the city without risking life and limb.

by Myron on Mar 13, 2012 9:55 pm • linkreport

Crossing the Anacostia is a problem for anyone living east of the river. I will add East Capitol underpass and Benning Rd overpass to the problematic crossings which are symbolic barriers to Mayor Greys one city vision. Let's make this a priority to find a solution, temporary will do but a solution is needed to allow pedestrians and bikers access to the heart of the city without risking life and limb.

by Myron on Mar 13, 2012 10:03 pm • linkreport

The Sousa Bridge may not be safe but its better than the others except Benning Road; the rest are basically impossible to cross on foot.

No one is going to take the alternative route unless they are physically blocked just take a look at many fences that have holes in them so people may pass.

Pretty much every damn Bridge, Underpass, and Viaduct in DC unsafe or just lacks logic in the paths for anyone that is not using a car.

@ Anon

No kidding I tried to cross it once when trying to go to someones house in River Terrace, the buildings beside the highway are label East Capitol but you can not reach them via East Capitol go figure.

Then theres the portion that is above East Capitol St and you can not reach below; they just need to rename these roads. Hopefully when ever they rebuild the bridge it can go above the tracks and connect all parts of East Capitol.

by kk on Mar 13, 2012 10:07 pm • linkreport

If Mayor Gray really wants to make the Anacostia like the Seine, he should note that apart from the two Peripherique bridges on the border of the city, none of the Seince bridges in Paris are freeways, all of the Seine bridges in Paris have wide sidewalks (the sidewalks are often wider than the roadway), several of them are pedestrian-only and several of them include transit. I can't really say that the new 11th Street Bridges live up to those ideals.

I've often thought that when CHRS killed the idea of a Massachusetts Avenue Bridge, we missed an opportunity for a good compromise: a bridge at that location reserved for pedestrians and bicyclists.

by rg on Mar 15, 2012 10:35 am • linkreport

The sooner the interchange here is replaced with something that takes up much less real estate, the better.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Apr 11, 2012 9:24 pm • linkreport

Thank you for this insightful piece.
I started to ride the 20 miles from my home in Montgomery County to my job in District Heights around 2004 or 2005. It was interrupted, in part, because of the construction during improvements to Pennsylvania Ave.

The hazards you site do not begin to compare with those I encountered from the east end of the bridge to Eastern Ave. I look forward to a new and improved trip along that stretch as a result of the newly completed improvements.

I am well aware of the hazards getting on and off the bridge and hope your post produces some results. The storm grates are especially threatening.

There used to be a policeman directing traffic. What happened to that detail? I do notice an increasing number of cyclists along the route and there is a certain safety in numbers. When I started it was a very lonely trip.

Thanks for pushing this cause.

by JLM1920 on Jan 6, 2013 1:05 pm • linkreport

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