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What would fix Pennsylvania and Potomac?

It's confusing and inconvenient to cross the intersection of Pennsylvania and Potomac Avenues on foot, to get to and from the Potomac Avenue Metro station. Could a different intersection design work better?

Two early concept designs for the intersection.

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) kicked off an environmental study of the intersection with a public meeting Thursday night. This was the first of 3 meetings they will hold this year. They've also posted their presentation online.

Last week's was a "scoping meeting," the required first meeting of a NEPA process. Next, the team will develop alternatives, present them to the public, review their impacts, have public agencies review the draft document, and present a third time.

The intersection today, with sidewalks in red and parkland in green.

Redesign would accommodate crossing straight through

According to the study team, many people end up crossing straight through the intersection, and have worn a "desire line" in the median. They are crossing between signals, however, which may not be very safe. The team plans to design the intersection to help people cross safely in the direction they want to.

A prior study proposed rebuilding the intersection as a square, which would include crosswalks directly through the center from the Metro. However, that concept design hadn't gone through engineering review, and included turns too sharp for buses, Geoff Hatchard reported from the meeting.

2006 concept for a square.

The presentation has two concept sketches for the intersection. One would make Potomac Avenue end on each side at a T-intersection with Pennsylvania, and another would build an oval, though smaller and rounder than the one in the 2006 concept.

These sketches don't show crosswalks across Pennsylvania Avenue except in the center, but the planners explained in person that they will indeed include marked crosswalks at every intersection. That's important, especially since by DC law, every place a street meets another is a legal crosswalk, whether or not there are stripes.

Factors to consider in the design

The team stressed that these are not the final options, just early concepts, and they will refine and develop them more throughout the next phase of the process. As they do, here are some concepts they should keep in mind:

Traffic calming: One of the ways to make this intersection safer for pedestrians is to slow down the vehicles. DC recently installed a speed camera Pennsylvania Ave between 12th and 13th, which is a little over one block to the west. However, cars still speed through this stretch of road. The alternatives should include engineering solutions that will calm the traffic.

Seamless transit connections: This intersection has a Metro station and is a major bus transfer hub. Many of the pedestrians in this area are trying to transfer between buses or bus and Metro. The current configuration usually leads pedestrians to dash across Pennsylvania Ave to catch a bus. The proposed alternatives should consider bus stop locations.

Location of the CaBi station: When DDOT designed the original "square" concept, the Capital Bikeshare program didn't exist. The station is currently located on the southwest corner of Pennsylvania and Potomac Ave.

One of the residents at the meeting pointed out that the current location is awkward if a rider wants to go westbound on Pennsylvania Ave. Also, people taking CaBi to or from the Metro have to cross Pennsylvania to reach the station. DDOT should consider where to locate the bikeshare station to make it as easy as possible to access the bikes and to help riders enter the flow of traffic safely.

Cyclist safety: One of the proposed concepts is a traffic oval. The engineers on this project explained that the traffic ovals are a method to calm traffic. While that may be the case from a technical perspective, traffic circles and ovals can be a cyclist's worst nightmare, especially when there aren't any identified bike lanes. In trying to address pedestrian safety, DDOT should not create unsafe conditions for cyclists.

Connect projects on both sides of the river: Another NEPA process is underway for reconfiguring the Minnesota Avenue-Pennyslvania Avenue intersection, immediately east of the Anacostia River. A NEPA process for Barney Circle, on the immediate west side of the Anacostia River, will start later this month. DDOT needs to make sure as these projects progress, the designs connect communities on both side of the river.

Rethink the Kiss-and-Ride: The Potomac Avenue Metro Station has a Kiss-and-Ride area that adds to the pedestrian-vehicle conflicts in this intersection. Stations in urban neighborhoods generally don't have Kiss-and-Rides, and this might be the time to remove it.

What will happen with green space? The National Park Service controls the current median of Pennsylvania Avenue, and would likely control the larger green space if DDOT chooses an oval-type design, Brian McEntee reported from the meeting. However, NPS does not have the resources to maintain its small parks around DC very well, and regulations often inhibit actively programming the space for the neighborhood.

This was a primary concern of many people at the meeting, McEntee said. Many worried this would create a dead space without any activity. Some suggested a playground; NPS rules have interfered with efforts to build a playground downtown as well.

DDOT will present its alternatives at the second public meeting sometime this spring.

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. 
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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Yikes- not sure either of those two alternatives at the top are any better for pedestrians. Actually, I'd hesitantly say both are considerably worse.

Any information on the traffic volumes from each road? I'd wonder if any of the 14th St or Potomac Ave legs could be removed or cul-de-sac'd, merging any remaining legs into a more conventional single intersection. Would have to consider bus flows & wouldn't make much gain in greenspace, but at least it'd give a central controlled ped crossing & more conventional geometry favorable toward bikes, cars, trucks, and buses.

by Bossi on Feb 4, 2013 12:52 pm • linkreport

A playground? That just seems terribly unsafe idea for that spot with the amount of vehicle traffic here. I know the neighborhood could use more amenities like that but this just isn't the spot for it.

I hope they make some good improvements here. I've seen a couple of pedestrians get hit by cars here and many near misses. I'm really interested how this will work with the Barney traffic circle project as well.

by Nicoli on Feb 4, 2013 1:03 pm • linkreport

I'm familiar with the area here but not as much with the pedestrian issues at play.

Crossing to and from the grocery store and condo building (to the SW of the metro station) involves a fairly straightforward walk across Pennsylvania and 14th st. It could potentially involve waiting for three cross signals, but it's usually fairly well synced.

So I'm guessing this is designed to benefit those heading toward 14th st. south, or to Pennsylvania ave heading SE, but to be honest, I'm having a hard time understanding who these changes would benefit.

by Austin on Feb 4, 2013 1:17 pm • linkreport

Austin- The big issue is people crossing mid-block between 14th and Potomac Ave trying to catch a bus.

by Veronica O. Davis (Ms V) on Feb 4, 2013 1:28 pm • linkreport

Granted it has been 5 years, but I used to live right there, you can even see the house in those pictures, and I never had any trouble crossing that intersection. Honestly I fond it very straight forward and not unsafe or frustratign at all. I would think the moeny should eb spent on other pedestrian improvements.

Also in my dream world someday street cars woudl be back running down the median, and it looks as if the plans woudl prevent that from happening.

by nathanie on Feb 4, 2013 1:41 pm • linkreport

The only proposal that makes any sense to me is the one at the top-left. And even that one needs more crosswalks across Penn, not just one across the island.

by MLD on Feb 4, 2013 1:55 pm • linkreport

Lots of pedestrians come from over the river, and currently the bus stops on Penn. Ave. in front of the Potomac Station condos (the NE corner of Penn and Potomac). There is no direct pedestrian route from there to the Metro station. Daily, I see dozens of people jaywalking, risking their lives to take the most direct route from the bus stop to the Metro.

I assume they do the same thing in the evening, in reverse, but having to cross six lanes and a median on Penn. Ave. to catch their buses going home. And I don't really know that section so well, but I assume from comments that there isn't a direct path and that those pedestrians are jaywalking there too.

by CC on Feb 4, 2013 2:25 pm • linkreport

I was at the meeting and privately expressed similar concerns regarding traveling to Harris Teeter on a bike and connections to the north of PA Ave.

With each of the designs, there are serious issues with riding a bike (bikeshare or otherwise) from the Harris Teeter to points north of PA Ave. Since 13th, 14th, and 15th streets are all one way toward the south as they cross PA Ave, riders traveling to destinations north of PA Ave, have to travel Potomac Ave to Kentucky Ave. Under the current configuration, cyclists can cross PA Ave at a traffic light. Looking at the published bikeshare data, it appears that places on the hill to the north are the destination of a large number of the trips from the Potomac Ave/PA Ave bikeshare station.

The proposed designs will make it significantly more difficult to get to Potomac Ave to travel north. One way to address this would be to reverse 15th St between Potomac Ave and Kentucky Ave to run one way north. PA Ave would also benefit from some traffic calming measures to make it more bike friendly.

by James on Feb 4, 2013 2:27 pm • linkreport

Make it a true traffic circle, where all users on the circle have the right of way over everybody else. If this included pedestrians and bikers, then there is no problem.

Cars will have to be taught to yield to pedestrians and bikers crossing and exit when they want to leave the circle, but that just follows from the one simple rule. The pedestrian is on the circle, and the car wants to leave the circle...

by Jasper on Feb 4, 2013 3:07 pm • linkreport

@ Bossi:

Actually, there's a lot of vehicle traffic coming down Potomac from the east looking to continue across the intersection to the western side of Potomac Avenue to either go to Harris Teeter or go to the SE freeway. I'm not certain about either design either. As a bike commuter who goes along Potomac westward neither looks particularly inviting. However, as a driver, I suppose I'd go with Option 1, if that's the best they can come up with.

by I. Rex on Feb 4, 2013 3:09 pm • linkreport

In theory, I support roundabouts, but if DDOT keeps building them like this, they're going to make a mockery of the whole concept. This "traffic oval" will end up like Dupont Circle, where the inner lane is only ever used by taxis trying to cut off slow drivers.

by Tom Veil on Feb 4, 2013 3:10 pm • linkreport

As bad as this intersection is for pedestrians, the real trouble spot is just up the block at Potomac and 15 and G and Kentucky. Totally illogical cluster----. The entire area between 14 and Potomac/Penn and Barney Circle needs to be reconfigured.

by MJ on Feb 4, 2013 4:46 pm • linkreport

More crosswalks at a confusing intersection don't make it "more safe" for pedestrians. It makes it "more confusing" for everybody and somebody always gets hurt looking at the wrong thing (see the multiple crosswalk signals at Lincoln park).

The problem is there's too much crap at this intersection: a metro stop, multiple bus stops, a major thoroughfare, a school and a grocery store. Eliminate two.

by bobby on Feb 5, 2013 8:47 am • linkreport

One of the residents at the meeting pointed out that the current location is awkward if a rider wants to go westbound on Pennsylvania Ave.

But it's fantastic if you're heading EB and want to end your trip at the station.

DDOT should consider where to locate the bikeshare station to make it as easy as possible to access the bikes and to help riders enter the flow of traffic safely.

I'm not sure I understand this criticism. The CaBi station will likely be on one side of the street or the other. If you put it on one side, you're going to have to cross traffic to enter the flow of traffic on the other.

The problem here would be in the awkward street crossings, not the station location per se.

by Alex B. on Feb 5, 2013 9:07 am • linkreport

I live in Jenkins Row and my most common path at this intersection is between the Penn Ave. entrance to the building and Metro. The biggest problem I deal with is crossing the NW-bound Pennsylvania Ave. with the cars making rights from Potomac and 14th St. onto Pennsylvania.
There are a number of problems with that light, because it coincides withe walk signal for pedestrians crossing NW Pennsylvania Ave.
First, the green light for those cars is right in front of Metro, which is maybe 30-40 feet before they actually get in to Pennsylvania. So these cars get a green and build up a little speed, only to have to yield to pedestrians crossing Pennsylvania. Most know this, but others don't.
Second, those cars are making a really soft right onto Pennsylvania. That increases the speed that they want to take that right turn with.
Third, it's awkward for pedestrians crossing from the north side of Pennsylvania toward HT/Jenkins Row to make sure a car is going to yield coming onto Pennsylvania because they're walking in the crosswalk with their backs essentially facing oncoming traffic. It can be hard to tell which cars are making a left and continuing onto Potomac (or Pennsylvania SE) and which are planning to go onto NW Pennsylvania. During rush hour at late night, you're essentially walking with your head turned completely around to make sure you don't get taken out.
Also, the Kiss and Ride is awkward and hazardous for pedestrians, and seems annoying for drivers too. 14th St. should not connect to that intersection as it is now.

by JR Resident on Feb 5, 2013 9:26 am • linkreport

If I had to choose one of the two, I would choose the T intersections. That oval is just ugly!

by The Maelstrom on Feb 5, 2013 10:15 am • linkreport

Not sure I see an obvious better solution, but the plans presented are underwhelming. Concept 2 looks like a recreation of Washington Circle -- a horrible intersection for drivers and pedestrians. At least Concept 1 addresses the issue of Potomac Ave and Penn both being arterials which can't be neatly rationalized. Penn trumps Potomac on volume and Potomac is the better candidate to be the less contiguous of the two.

I agree that the kiss and ride is cumbersome and out of place. The biggest problem is the fed insistance on maintaining 4 vehicular lanes on Penn as an emergency evacuation route, which provides a big open space the rest of the time and contributes as much to speeding as anything else.

by anon_1 on Feb 5, 2013 10:23 am • linkreport

I was at the meeting and it was quite interesting. What I found interesting is that the city is trying to actually include people and bikes in their considerations as opposed to the old way where the most important thing seems to have been making it easier/faster for cars getting though at rush hour. This is also connected to changes further down Penn as well.

Unfortunately there is going to be no perfect answer given the constraints of space and competing interests. That is a major transportation spot - Metro, 4 places to catch buses, Penn. Ave traffic, and north/south traffic, people running to catch this or that - it is a hot mess. On some "corners" it is sometimes hard to figure what exactly is going on and some there just isn't enough space.

by ET on Feb 5, 2013 10:32 am • linkreport

They could probably just eliminate that kiss and ride. I don't ever see drop-offs there. They've got the concrete structured like bus bays, but there's no reason for a bus to turn onto 14th.

In an ideal world, I would love to see a little joint development/air rights apartments built above the Potomac Ave Metro entrance.

by Alex B. on Feb 5, 2013 10:33 am • linkreport

Why not take concept 1 the T intersection and move it slightly to the south and build a bus bay similar to Minnesota Ave station there is enough room for it.

by kk on Feb 5, 2013 6:21 pm • linkreport

I'm not sure I understand this criticism. The CaBi station will likely be on one side of the street or the other. If you put it on one side, you're going to have to cross traffic to enter the flow of traffic on the other.

I think the issue is that it makes more sense to put it on the same side of PA as the Metro Station, not opposite. Many cyclists are likely coming from or going to the Metro station.

It's true that a better intersection is needed, but also true that the north side of Penn is a better location for a CaBi station. Even better would be a CaBi station on each side.

by David C on Feb 8, 2013 1:46 pm • linkreport

It looks like the project presentation shows the wrong location of the project area on the L'Enfant Plan! (or am I just reading it wrong?)

by CityGal on Feb 8, 2013 7:57 pm • linkreport

Whenever I'm going on Penn, it's in the opposite direction of rush hour, so maybe I'm not the best judge of how good or bad that intersection is. (I find it not bad at all, by either vehicle or bicycle; Barney circle, like someone mentions in the comments is currently worse, but of course getting attention with the 395 rerouting project)

Though Penn & Potomac may be a not-great intersection, it's a non-terrible intersection. I'd much rather spend money on the terrible intersection(s) (esp for peds & bikes) at and on either side of Minnesota & Penn just across the (Anacostia) river. Especially now since that's no longer the only 395 - 295 connector, there should be some real opportunity to rebalance traffic flow patterns.

by Kolohe on Feb 9, 2013 9:30 am • linkreport

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