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Drivers find out too late about road closures downtown

Here's a simple way to make drivers' lives easier that doesn't hurt any cyclists, pedestrians, transit, or anyone else: Put signs on the approaches to DC about major road closures.

Photo by Rob Mac on Flickr.

Especially on weekends, special events often close large swaths of streets downtown, in part because it's necessary, and in part because the Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency (HSEMA), unlike its counterparts in other cities, won't let cross traffic pass through a special event, even at traffic lights.

I've had many experiences driving home from Alexandria or National Airport, getting off at 12th Street, and encountering crippling backups in the 12th Street tunnel as every car has to turn right or left on Constitution.

It then takes a long time to crawl on Constitution past the Ellipse, because lots of other people are coming off the 14th Street bridge on 14th Street and also turning. White House-related security closures can extend westward to 18th or even beyond.

In most of these cases, there's plenty of capacity downtown. It's just that drivers don't know to take the routes that are clear. Often there are notices from DDOT and in the press about closures, but clearly many people don't know or remember to check. I often don't look through neighborhood listservs before driving to Virginia.

When 12th Street is closed at Constitution, it would help enormously if DC could just put a sign on the 14th Street bridge saying this. Drivers could know to take 14th or use the I-395 tunnel instead, depending on their destination. Or, better yet, put signs on 395 and the GW Parkway so drivers can route around to the Memorial, TR, and Key Bridges if they're going somewhere north or west of downtown.

This isn't a brand-new idea. A suggestion for real-time signs is part of the 14th Street Bridge corridor EIS, which has been in the works since 2006. There's no need to wait years to make this happen, though.

An open data feed of closures, frequently updated with closures for the day, might also be useful. People could build apps that help drivers know what roads to avoid.

Some traffic is inevitable—we're not realistically going to make downtown DC a speedy place to zip around by car at rush hour. But there's no good reason for people to spend 10 minutes in traffic at one intersection when the roads all around are empty, simply because people don't know ahead of time to take a different route.

And rather than arguing about a "war on cars," let's prioritize in opportunities to help drivers that don't involve pushing other road users aside. There are plenty that we just aren't tackling yet.

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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Huh? What?

GGW and DA are posting some common-sense solutions on driving in DC that aren't part of a culture-war?

Or maybe I just need to start drinking earlier.

In any case, this is a great start. One of the big problems with transport policy is it hard to walk and chew gum at the same time. Yes, we need better biking facilities. We also need better driving facilities. And transit.

That being said, there are limits on informing drivers. Pushing it out to GPS devices might be more helpful.

by charlie on Mar 8, 2013 1:16 pm • linkreport

There may not have been one in this instance, but road closure signs are fairly common in those areas. Is the problem that you don't like the alternatives given?

Misspelling in the first paragraph: unleike

by selxic on Mar 8, 2013 1:17 pm • linkreport

Of course the spelling was caught by the time I clicked Post Comment...

by selxic on Mar 8, 2013 1:19 pm • linkreport

slexic: Well, I've driven from Alexandria to DC on many weekends, and numerous times have gone over the 14th Street bridge, headed through the 12th Street tunnel, and banged into major congestion because Penn. is closed, even though if I had taken the Memorial Bridge, a slightly longer route normally, it would have been fine.

So wherever there are signs, there aren't here.

by David Alpert on Mar 8, 2013 1:19 pm • linkreport

I feel like I've seen a number of "temporary" signs on 395 that are used for this purpose. If you're coming in from Alexandria, though, I think it is possible to avoid driving by any of them...

by andrew on Mar 8, 2013 1:23 pm • linkreport

Shouldn't people be taking transit, biking or walking instead of driving in DC? Don't closed streets make it easier for pedestrians and cyclists? If streets are blocked, won't that only help to encourage transit use? And why do we care about notifying persons coming into DC, if they're not DC residents? :)

by Alf on Mar 8, 2013 1:48 pm • linkreport

VA is doing something similar on the I-66 corridor by developing a traffic management system with realtime signs to alert drivers. It's a great way to better utilize existing infrastructure without using up valuable space for new infrastructure.

And why do we care about notifying persons coming into DC, if they're not DC residents? :)

Because a large part of DC's economy is driven by non-DC residents. Interstate commerce is critical to the economy of every state (and district, territory, etc.) in the country. And, interstate commerce is reliant on efficient multi-modal infrastructure.

by Falls Church on Mar 8, 2013 2:08 pm • linkreport

This is also a good argument for a connected/gridded street system. It's good to know about alternate routes when these alternate routes exist.

I'd much rather have to navigate DC by car around some important event than to try the same in Fairfax with the feeder/arterial system.

by drumz on Mar 8, 2013 2:34 pm • linkreport

Drumz point is well taken, but in many parts of DC, particularly downtown, the grid exists in form but not in function. There are too many one-way streets, and blocked/discontinuous streets, even during non-events. You wind up getting trapped with no way out just as likely as you would in a suburban setting.

by spookiness on Mar 8, 2013 2:39 pm • linkreport

It can no be that hard to let the

DC State Line
10 miles
11 minutes

signs switch back and forth with:

Delay at Exit 3
Road closed
Use detour

But that would require collaboration between d. and VDOT.

by Jasper on Mar 8, 2013 2:42 pm • linkreport

Well, I will say this -- been living in DC almost 25 years and DC's HSEMA (and I must add DDOT) are worst agencies when it comes to provide visual information to deaf/hard of hearings. I have had hoped Fenty Administration would change the mind-setting. Nope -- it got worse. Then we hoped for Gray Administration to un-do what Fenty did -- Nope -- it's the same or worse.

We have worked with many different DC agencies to improve services to deaf/hard of hearing people -- believe it or not, DC Government ranked bottom of all 50 states. They're beyond hopeless.

Washington Metro area have the largest deaf professional per capita -- DC Government just simply don't care (even we reached out to them).

by David on Mar 8, 2013 2:52 pm • linkreport

They should just send out a text to all mobile devices in the affected area.

by Chris on Mar 8, 2013 3:00 pm • linkreport

"Shouldn't people be taking transit, biking or walking instead of driving in DC?"

That would work really well for those delivering goods to the District.

Yeah. It would work really well.

by ceefer66 on Mar 8, 2013 3:17 pm • linkreport

I395 in Va will have signs about downtown events, so someone is coordinating.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 8, 2013 3:42 pm • linkreport

Is the problem that the road closures are occurring in one jurisdiction (DC) but drivers are approaching the city from another (VA)? Regardless, anyone can sign up for DC alerts which send out emails/texts with weekend road closures and sometimes will notify you in real time when the streets close down and reopen. I don't own a car, but I find it helpful since I take a bus whose route might be affected by closures downtown.

by grumpy on Mar 8, 2013 3:45 pm • linkreport

They usually have signs up on 66 saying "events downtown, multiple road closures" though that's not particularly helpful.

It helps me to just realize that in the Nation's capital there is always something going on and to be prepared for that. When I took groups around the city they'd constantly ask me who certain groups were and I rarely knew simply because of the volume of events.

by drumz on Mar 8, 2013 4:02 pm • linkreport

DC Alerts is also a joke. We don't always get them. Sometime they deliver the message too late (they know about it and I have complained to them several times).

However, there are times no messages were sent out when it should be. So you can't depend on them.

Most of you are lucky to have radio to give you heads up -- deaf community for obviously reason can't use radio. We prefer getting email/text, message on board, to name a few.

Another example, we can't do text-to-911 in case of emergency. Some cities have them up and running.

Sorry to vent my anger with DC Government in general -- we all love working and/or living in DC; yet, we're not welcome.

by david on Mar 8, 2013 4:07 pm • linkreport

That would work really well for those delivering goods to the District.

Wait. You mean to tell me all of the private automobiles are delivering produce to the market?

Sorry, but every time we talk about reducing individual private car use in the middle of the city, someone chimes in "How do you think food is going to get delivered to the supermarket?" or better yet, "What if you need an ambulance?"

I hate to be the one to point out the obvious, but when you drive into town for a Wizards game, or to see the Nationals, you're not taking a knife-wound victim to the emergency room. These are two different things.

by oboe on Mar 8, 2013 4:07 pm • linkreport

Hey, if that hypothetical driver actually bought a Wizards ticket, then his car should receive at least as high priority as a truck carrying produce.

by Chris on Mar 8, 2013 4:23 pm • linkreport

I'm not sure that driving a flailing, incapacitated victim to the hospital and watching a Wizards game are really all that different.

by David R. on Mar 8, 2013 4:24 pm • linkreport

Bullets home games are worth watching since Wall has been back in the lineup and the team has been playing with purpose (whatever it may be).

by selxic on Mar 8, 2013 4:42 pm • linkreport

There is a temporary sign on 16th St NW inbound at the border that sometimes gives info about major events but it is very non specific:

[insert event name] today/this weekend

Plan alternate route

That's usually about as detailed as it gets.

by gooch on Mar 8, 2013 4:46 pm • linkreport

It would work well for those make deliveries, except for the single occupancy drivers who get in their way and hog up valuable road space, parking, and loading zones.

by dc denizen on Mar 8, 2013 5:22 pm • linkreport

How about putting stuff on DC, Arlington etc government websites in a manner where you can not miss it; instead of the useless junk that is there now.

by kk on Mar 9, 2013 3:02 am • linkreport

"Shouldn't people be taking transit, biking or walking instead of driving in DC?"

Check out WaPo's article this morning on how much Metro weekend service sucks

by Jack Jackson on Mar 11, 2013 9:28 am • linkreport

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