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Bikes or streetcars on M Street SE/SW?

Should M Street SE/SW have a cycle track? Or a dedicated streetcar and bus lane? Or neither? A transportation study says we'll have to choose.

Photo from DDOT.

Advocates for every mode of travel would like to have space on M Street. It's currently the only street that goes east-west all the way through the Southwest Waterfront and Near Southeast neighborhoods. Bicyclists would like a cycle track on M, and Toole Design even sketched one out in 2010. DDOT's streetcar plan calls for a streetcar on M. Several buses, including the Circulator, and plenty of cars use M.

The challenge is more complex because the nearby street grid is highly disconnected. L'Enfant's plan had a regular grid of streets, and until the mid-20th century most streets continued uninterrupted for long distances. Subsequent urban renewal projects not only tore out nearby townhouses but also cut off many streets with dead ends.

If multiple streets ran through within a block of each other, one street could have a cycle track while an adjacent street could serve the streetcar, for instance. But there are only 2 long east-west through streets here, M Street and I Street.

M connects Maine Avenue in the west to the 11th Street bridge and beyond in the east. I Street, a more residential-feeling street, runs from 7th Street SW near Maine Avenue to Virginia Avenue near 4th Street SE with only one gap, at Canal Street. A DC Department of Public Works facility in the way of I Street was recently demolished, and a coming development there will reconnect I Street. The study also recommends converting the very wide Virginia Avenue here to 2-way.

Image from DDOT.

DDOT and their consultant, CH2M Hill, looked at 3 options:

  1. Create a pair of dedicated transit lanes on M Street and 2 general travel lanes, but no bike lanes. Put bike lanes on alternate streets, maybe including a cycle track on I Street. Widen I Street to carry more car traffic and take away the current bike lanes.
  2. Create a cycle track in each direction on M Street, plus 2 general travel lanes, plus a parking lane where space permits. Move the streetcar and Circulator to parallel streets. Other buses can still use the general lanes.
  3. Keep 3 lanes of traffic all the way through. Streetcars and buses would share a lane with cars.
Each option varies a bit from place to place because the road is wider in SW than in SE:

Widths of each block on M and I Streets.

Where would the streetcar and Circulator go in Option 2? DDOT suggests routing the streetcar from the 11th Street Bridge up to Virginia Avenue, then on I Street to 7th. The Circulator, meanwhile, would take M past the Navy Yard, then cut down to Tingey and N Streets a block south, pass the ballpark, take Canal Street into Buzzard Point, loop around down there, then come back up 4th Street to I back to 7th.

Why put the Circulator in the south and the streetcar in the north instead of vice versa? DDOT planning head Sam Zimbabwe said:

The Nationals currently close N Street during games and Potomac will cross at the oval with the [South Capitol Street] project. I think we also have some concerns about making the streetcar route too circuitous, and having 2 turns on and off M Street may not work very well. Unlike a bus, a streetcar really needs a full phase to make a turn, and also has some wide radii which sometimes can impact the right-of-way.

I think an important thing overall, which we talked about at the workshop, but probably doesn't come through in just the slides, is that the alternatives were set up somewhat to define some stark contrasts among different alternatives, and are a bit at the "extremes." The purpose of this study is not to define a single recommended alternative for premium transit (streetcar), but to define some of the planning-level scenarios and tradeoffs so that we can carry reasonable alternatives into an environmental process with some existing basic levels of analysis. Our plan is to start a NEPA process (probably an EA [Environmental Assessment]) later this fall.

What do you think is the right answer? Tomorrow, Dan Malouff and l will outline what we think.

Update: Some commenters have pointed out that instead of making I more hospitable to bicycles, Alternative 1 as presented actually makes it less hospitable by taking away the bike lanes and adding more car lanes. I have updated the post, and Dan and I will add this information to our discussion tomorrow.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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I've been riding my bike on M street for about 4-5 years. It's terrible riding conditions, everyone exceeds the 25 mph speed limit by a lot and the pavement is fairly chewed up. I usually try to get to K or I street just north of M since it's more comfortable. Recently, there have been blocks closed of those streets that put me on M instead.

I say dedicated transit lane on M, and a cycletrack on K or I.

by Michael Perkins on Sep 17, 2012 10:24 am • linkreport

I think that the cycle track on I Street with streetcar lane on M street is a no brainer here. Bikes don't need to be *on* the busiest office/business corridor, they just need to have a way to get to it. The "completion" of I street could be a bike only route, as a way of traffic calming, as well.
On the other hand, it's critical for ridership to have the buses and streetcars as close as possible to those destinations, bot for convenience and visibility. (Look at the confusion around the DC Circulator's Georgetown routings as an example of why an alternate transit routing would not work.)

by Joe in SS on Sep 17, 2012 10:33 am • linkreport

Why does it have to be I? Can ped/bike connections be made along L and N to lengthen and reconnect them?

by drumz on Sep 17, 2012 10:43 am • linkreport

I agree with Michael and Joe. I Street even today is a pretty good bike route with dedicated bike lanes for most of it and fairly low car traffic. The trees also provide nice shade on I that you don't get on M. If they could upgrade that to a full cycle track (along with completing the I St. connection between New Jersey and 2nd St. SE), I think that would be a perfectly acceptable solution.

by Steven Yates on Sep 17, 2012 10:46 am • linkreport

Dedicated Transit on M (for a multimodal connection with Metro) and cycle tracks on I. This seems the obvious choice.

by NikolasM on Sep 17, 2012 10:48 am • linkreport

What's the difference between a cycle track and a bike lane?

by ceefer on Sep 17, 2012 10:51 am • linkreport

@ceefer: As I understand it, cycletracks are separated from traffic by something: bollards, plastic sticks, parked cars, curbs, etc. Bike lanes are painted on the road.

by jyindc on Sep 17, 2012 10:55 am • linkreport

I for bikes, M for transit -- allows connections with Waterfront and Navy Yard Metro stations and might give some Fort McNair traffic a reason to get out of their cars.

Reconnecting other streets in SW (O, K, L) would open up alternatives for traffic of all flavors, too.

Eliminating parking on all of M Street and Maine Ave SW at least during rush hour (not the case on Maine Ave right now) as part of the longer-term redevelopment of the Wharf would help move traffic along.

by CJL on Sep 17, 2012 10:58 am • linkreport

Hell, I'd be content if they'd just resurface I St. I'm afraid it's going to rattle the fillings out of my teeth. Also, they really squeezed the bike lanes in with the parking lane, so you have to ride on the inside white line of bike lane just to stay clear of the door zone.

Bike lanes/cycle track on M are a nice idea, but as long as there are parallel routes such as I and P, I'll continue to avoid M no matter what kind of bike infrastructure they build on it...unless they can magically remove all the MD commuters and ball game parkers that are more concerned about looking for a spot than watching out for peds/cyclists.

by MM on Sep 17, 2012 11:05 am • linkreport

Like Michael and MM I ride in the area and I'm happy taking I Street with its bike lane rather than the drag race on M Street, though I do wish I connected through better. As it is you have to zip down New Jersey (if going from SW to, say, Barracks Row) and then find some alternative way to get through the "grid" in the new townhomes in SE.

On the way back I almost always use L street and then back up NJ Ave to I to cross over. It just feels safer, and the extra distance (I live south of M in SW) is worth it.

by Moose on Sep 17, 2012 11:22 am • linkreport

Bottom line: reconnect the grid wherever possible and turn as many streets to two-way operation as possible.

Providing more options for all modes of travel will benefit all in the long run.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Sep 17, 2012 11:25 am • linkreport

Not having the streetcar (believe it when I see it) on M st/Maine Ave doesn't make any sense.

Does all this work on M St /Maine involve removing the medians? That's what they seem to be doing on M St SE - will the median removal continue westward?

by wd on Sep 17, 2012 11:26 am • linkreport

As most commentors have said, it makes the most sense to have the bike lanes on I and the transit on M. Therefore, you can rest assured that that option will be at the bottom of DDOTs list.

by Marian Berry on Sep 17, 2012 11:35 am • linkreport


The median removal on M St SE is temporary, I believe. It's happening because of the DC Water Clean Rivers project underneath M St that will require many traffic lane changes in the next year, which is a lot harder to do if there is a raised median.

by Alex B. on Sep 17, 2012 11:37 am • linkreport

Thanks, jyindc.

by ceefer on Sep 17, 2012 12:38 pm • linkreport

I will add to the chorus of M for transit, I and L streets for bikes. As an I st bike commuter I am very much looking forward to the end of construction around Canal St.

One thing I would add to the wish list is a 2 block connecting path through the north side of Virginia Ave park linking Virginia to 11th St. There is empty space alongside the freeway so this should be easy to accomplish.

by jonglix on Sep 17, 2012 1:03 pm • linkreport

I, too, prefer riding on a street that isn't as busy as M street. I can also see value in moving the streetcar/circulator to parallel streets to give better penetration in the neighborhoods for those who choose to use those modes.

But, I think in the end, that the streetcar needs to be on M. I'm happy with biking on I (especially if the road is improved). Continued improvements to the Anacostia trail are a necessity as well.

by Erin M on Sep 17, 2012 1:12 pm • linkreport

I've got no problems with making I into a bicycle boulevard once it is connected at the trash plant and a route is added to 11th. It needs to connect to the SW waterfront well and have better timed lights though.

by David C on Sep 17, 2012 1:54 pm • linkreport

Streetcar on M street is duplicative of the Green line, especially the section between 4th SW and 3rd SE, there are three entrances in that span for the metro. While there is a slight benefit to the stop frequency of streetcar, placing them on M squanders some of the benefit of streetcar. Better to be on I street. It's still an easy walk from most points south.

by Will on Sep 17, 2012 2:03 pm • linkreport

I'd say replace all of the disconnected streets with bicycle paths. For the majority of the dead-ends, there aren't buildings blocking the way, just semi-private concrete "parks" surrounded by cages. The best part is, opening those passages to bikes would also open them up to people on foot. Since people on foot in any given area are usually the locals, that means that the local residents would get the most benefit out of such a change.

by Tom Veil on Sep 17, 2012 2:29 pm • linkreport

It would be great if they could reconnect more of the pieces of Virginia Ave west of 3rd. Much of the street is still there, but it is blocked off with construction equipment and/or capitol power plant security concerns.

by SE on Sep 17, 2012 2:41 pm • linkreport

@Will: It's a long walk between the Metro stations, and nothing on the north side of the river goes to the east of NJ Ave. It would be good to have a streetcar connect 8th street/barracks row with M Street/Ballpark and the waterfront area. This would connect three activity nodes as well as lots of residents that live within a few blocks of the route all along the route. I would assume with DC funding it, the headway would be better than Metro eventually.

by Michael Perkins on Sep 17, 2012 3:01 pm • linkreport

I was at the 9/13 meeting and I think David misstates the alternatives slightly with respect to the cycling infrastructure that would be provided.

What I heard explained was that with Alternative 1 putting dedicating transit only lanes on M St. additional vehicle traffic would be routed to I St. To accomodate the increased traffic the bike lanes would be removed and replaced with sharrows.

This is shown on the 9/13 presentation handout Alternative Comparison Handout, pg. 9.

For Alternative 1 the chart lists I St as having "shared bike lanes". In the meeting the presenter properly termed them sharrows. Under Alternative 3 you can see that I St retains it's "exclusive bike lanes". So they are making a distinction.

The impression I left the meeting with, being both a fan of bike infrastructure and dedicated lanes for transit, was that the alternatives, as presently configured , were asking me which I would want to do without.

Alternative 1 I got dedicated transit on M but lost the bike lanes on I.
Alternative 2 I got the cycletrack on M but lost the dedicated transit.

Hopefully, as David points out, the alternatives were purposefully drawn up to present the more extreme possible configurations and there may be a middle new alternative that can arise that gives us both cycletracks and dedicated transit lanes.

by JeffB on Sep 17, 2012 4:27 pm • linkreport

When I initially saw this yesterday, I assumed that the streetcar on M was the better deal; however, I was surprised that the I street streetcar alternative compared well with the M street option in the side-by-side evaluation (page 27). That doesn't mean that all evaluated criteria are equal, but it did make me take another look at the alternatives.

So far everyone has commented that I Street is currently a great biking alternative to M Street. But, under the streetcar on M option, I street would be widened to 4 lanes for cars, at the expense of the current bike lanes. I street is definitely a better biking alternative than M is now, but that may not be the case if I street is widened, and the bike lanes are removed.

Also, transit LOS on M Street SE is roughly the same under both alternatives (page 25), probably because the streetcar is closer to M Street in SE, and the streetcar overlaps with Circulator in that section. The streetcar would be further from M Street in SW, but that section of M has Metro. I realize that the Metro stations are a little far apart, but with Circulator to the south, and streetcar to the north, I wonder if some of those distances aren't cancelled out.

Which also leads me to another point: right now we are heavily focused on M Street developments, but the plan assumes that the entire area will be built-out. What are the proposed plans for areas further from M? Any new density on I or K Streets won't be any better served by a streetcar on M.

I look forward to the promised hybrid options. We need to find a better way to mix streetcars and bikes if for no other reason then that they'll need to mix in other parts of the city. Even with good parallel routes, some folks still bike on H Street, and I can't see bikes leaving 14th Street NW anytime soon. Maybe some of the Eurobikers can elucidate us... haven't some cities been moving bike lanes behind streetcar stations? Since M Street is long, straight, and fairly wide, won't most bike/streetcar crossings be perpendicular?

Also-- and I don't mean to tread on AAA's Diaoyu here-- but maybe... just maybe... we don't actually need to replace car lanes taken on M with new car lanes on I?

Finally, I'm leaning towards Alternative 2 anyway because it seems like DC can actually build Circulator routes and cycle tracks. Streetcar, on the other hand...

by Steven Harrell on Sep 17, 2012 7:58 pm • linkreport

I've updated the post with new info on how Alt 1 is making I St more vehicular rather than keeping it good for bikes or making it even more bike-friendly. Thanks.

by David Alpert on Sep 17, 2012 8:45 pm • linkreport

Mostly off topic, but anyone have news on the L St NW cycletrack that was supposed to be installed this summer? Does the DDOT studying and contemplation continue or can we expect action soon?

by Dno on Sep 17, 2012 10:09 pm • linkreport

Dno, there is an extremely well-written article on this here:

by David C on Sep 17, 2012 10:28 pm • linkreport

Thanks, David C. Glad to hear it's moving along.

by Dno on Sep 17, 2012 11:18 pm • linkreport

In Berlin the Invalidenstr., which is almost exactly as wide as M st. SE, is being rebuilt with a streetcar, two travel lanes for cars in each direction and bike lanes. see:

by egk on Sep 17, 2012 11:54 pm • linkreport

Isn’t the Douglass Bridge supposed to be rebuilt this decade why not send the streetcars over that and once over the river some could go to SW and others SE. Any transit is a waste going to Ft McNair unless that is the end of the route because it is a damn peninsula and you will have to backtrack to go anywhere. Unless the Douglass bridge is rebuilt to touch land at 5th & V Streets SW than no transit should be going through there as it is a tremendous waste of time similar to how the 96, 97 and Union Station-Navy Yard Circulator going around the Capitol to reach Union Station.

The proposed Circulator route is backwards as hell and takes the longest route possible this can be seen with the Potomac Ave-Skyland and the Union Station-Navy Yard routes. Why not just sent the route down 11th street to Anacostia station then over the Douglass bridge and then down Potomac Ave to Ft McNair and then on to Waterfront, L’Enfant Plaza or wherever.

by kk on Sep 18, 2012 1:50 am • linkreport

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