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A 4th option for M Street SE/SW

M Street SE/SW is not a very good street. It's has more car lanes than it needs, and it isn't hospitable to bikes and pedestrians. Unfortunately, the options in a study by DDOT and CH2M Hill unnecessarily force a choice between bikes and transit.

Visualization of M Street in option 1.

Cyclists need a decent crosstown route, or maybe two. Transit vehicles should stay on M Street, to serve the densest part of the neighborhood and make easy connections to Metro. DDOT should study an option that provides both.

There should be enough room on the west side of South Capitol to fit in a transit lane and cycle tracks. In Near Southeast, if a cycle track can't fit with transit on M Street, there are some good parallel streets it can use.

The 3 options aren't sufficient

Several people who attended last Thursday's meeting about the study came away feeling that it unnecessarily pitted transit against bicycles. The 3 alternatives look at somewhat extreme approaches, essentially bracketing the universe of genuinely practical ideas with a few options at the very edges. That's a reasonable approach, but it lacks options that help both transit and bicycle traffic at the same time.

Instead, the study seems to have assumed that no option can affect single-passenger cars that much. In making this assumption, the study creates tradeoffs for the limited space left after reserving most of it for cars. But what about greater tradeoffs between vehicular capacity and other modes?

Option 3, keeping the road with 3 car lanes in each direction, should be a non-starter. M Street doesn't need that much car capacity, and it doesn't serve the other modes well.

Option 1 looked at adding a transit lane, which could be extremely valuable, but then modeled removing the existing bike lanes on I Street entirely in order to add vehicular capacity there. If the team wants the public to think about that one extreme, we also need to understand what would happen in the alternative that adds the transit lane but then converts I Street to a full cycle track on the other hand. Or, what about putting a cycle track on M and keeping transit in shared lanes?

The area is growing rapidly, and single-passenger cars are a spatially inefficient way to move people. There's already a freeway nearby, which should be main route for cars. M and I Streets need to serve the neighborhood, and with limited road space, do so in the way that moves more people in less space. That's transit and bicycling.

Keep transit on M Street

Option 2 would provide a cycle track on M, but it would move streetcars and the Circulator off it, to parallel streets south and north. That's not a good option either. M Street will be the center of the neighborhood, and is where transfers to Metro will take place. Asking every streetcar rider who wants to shop on M Street or connect to Metro to walk a quarter mile will cut down potential ridership significantly.

DDOT concluded that in this scenario, it would need to use the Circulator south of M and the streetcar to the north. But the streetcar can do the most good on the south side. The streetcar is an economic development tool. It helps bring in development and new residents and shops where mobility and perceived mobility are some of the biggest obstacles.

Portion of diagram showing where streetcar (green) and Circulator (blue) could travel in option 2. Click for full map (PDF).

The streetcar could spur sluggish growth around the ballpark and later in Buzzard Point. Along I Street there are a few parcels slated for development, but most of the road's length passes through already-built residential areas that aren't likely to change. It does make sense for the Circulator to pass by Nats Park, since many people use it to reach that destination, but way up on I Street the streetcar would be too far away to maximize its potential.

There's room for bicycles and transit

Option 1 would create a dedicated transit lane along M Street from 7th SW to the 11th Street (SE) bridge, but no cycle track. The CH2M Hill study designed this with a 67-foot cross-section. That's about the width of M Street east of South Capitol, but in Southwest the road is 80-84 feet wide.

Option 1.

West of South Capitol, it should be possible include a cycle track as well. One way to do that could look like this:

The wide section of M Street, with both cycle track and transitway. Image by Dan Malouff.

There would be some design challenges and tradeoffs. Should the cycle track go inside or outside the transit lanes? Putting them between the car lanes and transit lanes would require cyclists to cross over streetcar track in order to get to the sidewalk and buildings, which isn't ideal, and cyclists would feel less protected riding between lanes of cars and transit.

On the other hand, putting the cycle tracks between the transit lanes and the sidewalk would make streetcar riders walk across the cycle tracks at transit stops. That would be unusual, but not unheard of around the world. Vancouver has some bus stops like that, for example. Here, many riders would probably stand in the bike lane, at least until everyone got used to the arrangement.

East of South Capitol Street, where M Street is narrower, it is more difficult to fit in both bikes and streetcars.

One option would be to squeeze in cycle tracks by eliminating the median, narrowing the cycle tracks to half their originally-designed width, and narrowing the sidewalk to only 7.5 feet. This would be less than ideal for both pedestrians and bicyclists, but it would be a compromise that would keep everyone on M Street.

The narrow section of M Street, with both cycle track and transitway. Image by Dan Malouff.

DDOT's standards for sidewalks in commercial areas are 10 feet, and bike lanes of this type at least 5 feet. That's not unprecedented in DC; Georgetown and U Street, with very high foot traffic, have had extremely narrow sidewalks for years. That creates an unpleasant pedestrian experience, however. Narrow sidewalks on M Street also might preclude having things like street trees and sidewalk cafes, which are important as well.

Another option that avoids narrowing the sidewalk would be to build the cycle tracks in SW only, and then put them on parallel strets on the SE side. From M Street, the cycle tracks could use Half Street SW to deviate one block south to N Street and Tingey Street, where they could continue past the ballpark and Yards Park to connect to the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail around the Navy Yard. When the Nats close N Street for games, they could keep it open to bicycles.

Meanwhile, DDOT could build another good bicycle facility on I Street, to the newly 2-way Virginia Avenue, atop the CSX tunnel to 11th Street and the new local bridge. I street, which isn't very high traffic, could remain as painted bike lanes, and Virginia Avenue could get 2-way cycle tracks. Riders could use either of these routes to get across the area or reach any destinations there.

A potential arrangement of transit and bicycle facilities. Red is streetcar. Blue is cycle tracks (dark blue) and bike lanes (light blue). Green is the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail (the Maine Avenue segment will be built as part of the Wharf development). Image by David Alpert on Google Maps.

DDOT and CH2M Hill will be taking feedback from the public on these 3 possibilities and creating a final report. That's not even the end of the process—they then plan to conduct an environmental review that may consider a different or larger set of options. The environmental review should indeed consider many more options than this study did, and think about more tradeoffs than just bikes versus transit.

What do you think is the best solution?

Dan Malouff is a transportation planner for Arlington and professor of geography at George Washington University, but blogs to express personal views. He has a degree in urban planning from the University of Colorado, and lives in NE DC. He runs BeyondDC and contributes to the Washington Post
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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This is a good suggestion for going forward. The thing about the M St. study is as much as DDOT is looking to the future, the reality is that the future for this corridor is beyond our imagination. In 20+ years, the M St. corridor linking SE and SW will be an incredibly vibrant and connected mixed use district, probably one of the most successful in the city, like Connecticut Ave. in Dupont Circle. .... which is incredible considering where these districts have been over the past 30 years.

As a result, not prioritizing sustainable transportation and de-privileging automobile transit will be a big mistake.

by Richard Layman on Sep 18, 2012 12:28 pm • linkreport

sorry "automobile transit" should have been automobility or motor vehicle mobility.

by Richard Layman on Sep 18, 2012 12:29 pm • linkreport

My first thought on the conflict between transit lanes and cycle tracks on M St. would be to move the cycle tracks to the middle of the street (like we see on Pennsylvania Ave. NW). But I wonder if it's worth it for the 5 blocks the cycle track would be on M (following the scenario where the path diverts on Half SW). Also, Half St. SW is one way south so you would essentially have to build a 15th St style-cycle track and I think that would necessitate removing a parking lane which could be politically unfeasible in a residential neighborhood (though maybe you could squeeze it in while maintaining parking). So instead of trying to squeeze everything on M St., I think the focus should be on maintaining (or even improving) the facilities on I St.

by Steven Yates on Sep 18, 2012 12:53 pm • linkreport

Did you not consider putting transit in the middle?

by Allan on Sep 18, 2012 1:15 pm • linkreport

Is it possible to remake the street so that transit runs entirely on the north side, auto traffic runs on the south side, and bikes have dedicated lanes in between the two (separated by plastic bollards)? In other words, from north to south:

North Sidewalk (10)
Transit (11)
Platform (10)
Transit (11)
plastic bollards
Bike (8)
Bike (8)
plastic bollards
Automobile (10)
Automobile - left only (10)
Automobile (10)
South Sidewalk (10)

by Aaron on Sep 18, 2012 1:17 pm • linkreport

What about putting a cycle track in the middle, like on Pennsylvania Avenue? Is this a viable option?

by Dave Murphy on Sep 18, 2012 1:20 pm • linkreport

For the wide section, you've got 8-ft. cycle tracks on both sides. Why not make them standard 5-ft. lanes, and reserving 3-ft. wide strips (raised to curb height, to provide both separation and easier embarking) for streetcar patrons to wait? Alternatively you could do a single bi-directional cycle track on one side of the street, of 10-12 feet in width. That allows the streetcar to be sidewalk-adjacent on one side of the street, and gives you a more comfortable 4-6 feet for the passenger platform on the other side.

by DE on Sep 18, 2012 2:04 pm • linkreport

Like many who commented on your posting about M street options a few days back, I'd much rather cycle on I, which is quieter than M and has much more shade.

by Sally on Sep 18, 2012 2:48 pm • linkreport

Yeah, I definitely like this better. Thanks!

It's too bad we can't continue the N St cycle track further west to Water Street. There's already a path between 1st St SW and Delaware, it wouldn't be too hard to get from Water to the western end of N St, and we can build a nice iconic bridge over that pool between Delaware and 4th.

by Steven Harrell on Sep 18, 2012 3:09 pm • linkreport

I don't know that I like the transit lane and the cycletrack side by side - lots of conflicts there, and the Vancouver example requires a lot more space at stations than is shown in these sections.

Someone suggested the cycletrack in the center lanes, a la Pennsylvania Ave. Perhaps, but I'd also like to see someone consider the dedicated transitway in the center lanes.

I also don't think there's an innate need to cram a cycletrack and transit lanes and regular car lanes into one street section. The section posted above has only 7.5 foot wide sidewalks (very narrow for the kind of density of development expected here) and would appear to have no room for treeboxes or other street furniture - meaning the effective width of the sidewalk would be even narrower.

by Alex B. on Sep 18, 2012 3:31 pm • linkreport

This is definitely better.

But, I'm moving more and more towards a bicycle boulevard on I street. I'd leave one lane of traffic in each direction but not allow it to go all the way through. With visual cues and a 20 mph speed limit I'd get cars to slow down and I'd time the lights to maximize bike traffic. There is not much that M Street gets you that I doesn't, and for what there is, I'd make sure there are good connections N/S.

But, I also like this and I would be happy with it.

by David C on Sep 18, 2012 4:15 pm • linkreport

As an employee of a company that recently moved to M St SE, this is all very interesting. Whatever is decided, hopefully it gets done soon, before the next wave of development happens.

I don't think cycle tracks should go on N St at Nationals Park. I'd hate for the track to be closed off for games and other events as N St, and even if the track wasn't closed, dealing with the pedestrians at that time would be a pain. It would be nice to keep bike and transit on M, but it wouldn't be terrible if bikes got moved to I St, possibly with improved facilities there.

by Another Josh on Sep 18, 2012 4:16 pm • linkreport

I like the trees in the median on Maine Ave. I don't want anything to take that median out, and would love to see it extended eastward.

I really don't think we need a cycle track on M St. Save that for I St. Enforce the speed limit of 25 on M and many riders can take the lane.

by wd on Sep 18, 2012 4:31 pm • linkreport

I agree with @Sally. Regardless of making the point that M Street should include all modes, as someone who bikes, I'd much rather bike along an alternate, nearby parallel route with less pedestrians, less overall street activity, and shade is nice too -- I didn't think of that -- in the summer.

I see no problem with mainly accommodating vehicles and transit along M and enhancing the biking experience along I and N. Just because DDOT and CH2M didn't recommend bike lanes doesn't mean DDOT and CH2M are hostile toward bike use. It's not as if AAA made the recommendations.

by Transport. on Sep 18, 2012 4:49 pm • linkreport

Why do we focus so much on bike lanes when most of the residents of the city will and have never rode a bike outside of childhood if that. Bike lanes only serve a few but transit has probably served every person in DC at one point either by bus, rail or streetcar (if old enough).

by kk on Sep 18, 2012 9:44 pm • linkreport

kk, not to contradict your point that transit serves more people than bikes - which is surely true, but according to one study 50% of Americans will ride a bike at least once this year. And it's not the same 50% every year.

by David C on Sep 18, 2012 9:52 pm • linkreport

@ David C

What about the other 50% percent I could list many individuals whom have never used a bike in their lives from age 7 to 96.

I'm looking at it from a point of who can use what only a few of the population can bike. But everyone whom is not bedridden could use a bus or train. A blind person, a person whom can not walk that is in a wheelchair, a pregnant person (usually), a able bodied person, older person etc can all use a bus or train but can they all use a bike no.

I believe the priority should be train/bus/streetcar, then sidewalk and then bikelane and private automobile.

by kk on Sep 18, 2012 10:22 pm • linkreport

kk, many people in the other 50% could bike - they just don't. True, there are some people for whom biking will never be an option is transit is great for serving their needs. I'm all for transit. But it's a false choice that pits the two against each other. In reality, they support one another and that is to some extent the point of this post.

I wouldn't rank these in any way at all. The goals are mobility, cleanliness, efficiency, utility, health, safety, etc.... Transit is a good way to achieve those goals and so is biking. When you make any one mode the goal, you make the same mistake that car-centric urban planners made in the past.

Cyclists need a way to travel in this area, we should not throw them under the streetcar.

by David C on Sep 18, 2012 10:54 pm • linkreport

I'm not from the DC area. How long is this stretch where the street is to narrow to support both bicycle and transit? If the stretch is not that long then why don't they put the bicycle lanes in where there is space and the rest of the space drop the speed to 20 or even 15. Make bicycles and cars share the lanes.

by Simon on Sep 18, 2012 11:00 pm • linkreport

I like the I street bike lanes. I would put transit lanes on M street, keep the I street bike lanes as they are (I think that still leaves good capacity for motor vehicles) and possibly add bike lanes/cycle tracks to N/Tingey. Reconnecting the grid at K will add capacity for motor vehicles. Cyclists who are comfortable riding in traffic can stay on M Street.

by MStreetDenizen on Sep 18, 2012 11:43 pm • linkreport

@Simon, under that setup, the bikelane would need to be between the car lanes and the streetcar lane-- which might be an uncomfortable and dangerous fit-- or else the bikers would need to cross over the streetcar tracks in order to ride in the sharrow'd lane once the bike lane ended. It's not a good idea for bikes to cross over streetcar tracks at anything less than a 45 degree angle. That said, if the transit lane is raised up a bit, and the bike lane had a good buffer zone on both sides, that might work.

I was only half joking about reconnecting N Street to Maine and Water with a cycle-track. Well-connected, continuous, well-shaded, two-way bike boulevards on I and Virginia; and on Maine and N, with good N-S streets to connect the two would be more than enough to give bikers first-class infrastructure without setting tire on M Street. With bikes off M, we can build streetcar on M Street to our hearts content, with only the "real" cars left to say "no".

But just to clarify, because I'm also new here: DC only intends to build the streetcar tracks, right? I'm sure they'll buy some streetcars to store at Greenbelt, but they aren't actually talking about running the things, are they?! I mean, that would just be weird.

by Steven Harrell on Sep 19, 2012 12:44 am • linkreport

Good job in trying to find a solution that would satisfy both the bicycling and transit communities. It's unfortunate when it comes down to a battle for space between these two much needed modes.

Having just come back from Copenhagen, where cycle tracks are the norm and volumes of cyclists extremely high, I tend to think that 8 foot cycle tracks might not be necessary. The busiest biking street I saw had 8 ft wide one way cycle tracks that allowed two people to ride next to each other and still provided a little room for passing. The volume on that street was probably 15k-20k cyclists a day. While I wish we'd see that type of usage, we have a ways to go.

Keeping the bike facilities on M is important. M is the most direct connection between the sections of the Anacostia Riverwalk and Trail that will be built along with new development along the waterfront, and the sections of the trail east of 11th Street SE. Bikes already get shoved off main routes (see H Street, Columbia Pike in the future) in favor of streetcars, but they can work together if the space is there. The potential conflicts between cyclists and transit riders if the facilities run next to each other would be less than the conflicts that would come from running either in the middle like Penn Ave.

by Eric on Sep 19, 2012 9:31 am • linkreport

Eric, were those cycle facilities in Copenhagen next to parking? Because I think 3 of the 8 feet in the design above is to remove the door zone.

I agree that M is the best route across Near SE/SW now. But it doesn't have to be that way. Eye could be just as good - if not better once you consider trees. Put some sharrows in the right lane of M and set up some speed cameras to make M usable by cyclists.

by David C on Sep 19, 2012 10:08 am • linkreport

The wider facilities in CPH were on roads with no parking, but some did run next to dedicate bus lanes.

by Eric on Sep 20, 2012 10:09 am • linkreport

@ steve.

I went back and re read my post. I was up for a couple days there and it doesn't make sense. I would eliminate the bike lane and set a speed limit slow enough to keep bicycles safe for that stretch where there is not enough room for bicycle lanes.

I do see the issue with bicycles crossing at anything less than a 45 degree angle. I just don't think trains combined with traffic is safe. I prefer Light Rail if it is separated from other traffic, pedestrians, and cyclist. But I think the risk is to great and BRT is safer (even though I believe rail is superior to busses) in those conditions.

by Simon on Sep 21, 2012 12:11 am • linkreport

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