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Florida Avenue shouldn't have to wait for real sidewalks

Florida Avenue, NE is one of the most dangerous roads in DC for all modes of transportation, and a 71-year-old pedestrian was just recently killed trying to cross. Past studies have recommended widening the sidewalks here, but residents likely have to wait even longer for fixes as DDOT embarks on yet another study.

Photograph by John Nelson reproduced with permission.

Gallaudet University, a Metro station, an elementary school, homes and businesses line the 6-lane road. It has very narrow sidewalks which don't meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, and no parked cars or street trees to serve as buffers.

This road has seen many deaths over the past few years. Most recently, 71-year-old Ruby Whitfield was killed while walking across Florida Avenue NE in a marked crosswalk. The driver, a 32-year-old Annapolis man, was reportedly drunk and speeding, and fled the scene. MPD quickly apprehended him.

While the section of Florida Avenue from 2nd Street NE to West Virginia Avenue NE is 6 lanes wide, the block where Ms. Whitfield was killed has fewer driving lanes, with relatively wider sidewalks and street trees. The driver had just crossed West Virginia Avenue into this adjacent block.

At a vigil on Florida Avenue a few days after Ms. Whitfield died, Mayor Gray committed to quickly installing a new traffic signal at the intersection with 11th Street NE, and allowing parking at all times on this block to reduce the road to one lane per direction. This might have saved Ms. Whitfield's life, and is a positive first step, but it is not nearly enough.

Photograph by John Nelson reproduced with permission.

The road is not adequate for growing pedestrian usage

Pedestrian traffic has increased significantly in this area as the NoMa area grows and new attractions such as Union Market open. Florida Avenue is also home to Two Rivers Public Charter School and Gallaudet University. The NoMa-Gallaudet Metro station, which opened in 2004 one block from Florida Avenue, has the fastest growth rate of any in the system.

The sidewalks in many areas, especially on the south side of the street, are often only 2 feet wide. Numerous obstructions such as light poles and sign posts reduce the effective width even further. The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) repainted some of the crosswalks in 2011, but this is not as helpful as creating actual ADA-compliant sidewalks with proper widths and ramps.

Photos by Yancey Burns.

For the thousands of students, staff, and visitors to Gallaudet University, the narrow sidewalks are particularly hazardous because it's not possible to communicate in sign language while walking single-file down a narrow sidewalk.

Hansel Bauman, the University's Director of Campus Planning & Design (and a resident of the Trinidad neighborhood) has led an initiative called "DeafSpace" to create architectural design guidelines that quantify ways to enhance communication and livability. It is ironic and sad that the main street to campus does not provide for the needs of their community.

The volume of cars traveling on Florida Avenue NE does not justify the current road configuration, particularly because this street is already narrower for most of its length. DDOT & the Office of Planning have written numerous studies and reports over the past few years that recommend reducing the number of travel lanes and installing wider sidewalks on Florida Avenue.

Most recently, the NoMa Neighborhood Access Study & Transportation Management Plan included this project on its "Immediate Action List" for completion within 24 months. That study was published in early 2010, and to date DDOT has not put forth any preliminary plans or come close to starting construction.

Sam Zimbabwe, DDOT Associate Director for Policy, Planning, and Sustainability, said in an email that DDOT is "starting a planning study from New York to West Virginia with the goal of improving safety and operations, and that will explore the ability to reduce the number of travel lanes."

The planning study won't wrap up until the middle of 2014. Then, if funding is available, DDOT could potentially begin design and construction. However, all of this would take several years. Ms. Whitfield's neighbors and friends, and everyone else who uses this street, should not continue to wait.

Tony Goodman is an ANC Commissioner for 6C06 in Near Northeast/NoMA and member of the DC Pedestrian Advisory Council. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, he is a Construction Project Manager with a Masters degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Michigan and has lived in Washington, DC since 2002. 


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Florida Ave is a mess starting about 16 St NW. It's just a relic of the old boundary road. I don't understand why they've kept it all these years. Just turn the existing segments into an alley or one way streets with parking.

by Alan B. on Apr 2, 2013 10:27 am • linkreport

I work in NoMa and walk along Florida Ave regularly. The entire NY Ave/Fl Ave Gordian Knot of Hell to West Va Ave is terrible to drive, walk, eat, drink, live. It all has to be replaced. But in the meantime, sidewalks suitable for people would be nice.

The sidewalk leading up to Chinitos is especially tough. It's barely wide enough for 1 person and when a trunk drives by, their sideview mirror feels like it could clip you.

by Andy on Apr 2, 2013 10:27 am • linkreport

Rumors of a cycletrack that would connect the MBT at the Gateway project (the new building going up in the triangle between Florida Avenue, New York Avenue, and the MBT) to the designated bike route on West Virginia Avenue have bubbled up from time to time as well.

DDOT has the opportunity to truly make this a complete street. With heavily used bus routes (the 90s) and a (once and) future streetcar route here, Florida Avenue should serve all modes of transportation well. The current configuration fails at everything.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Apr 2, 2013 10:34 am • linkreport

While we're at it, the bit of 6th St NE between Florida and K is also in desperate need of bigger sidewalks, trees, and a road diet.

(But that can come after Florida. Seriously, DDOT should just install some bollards and permanently close the outer lanes until the city comes up with the plan and money to properly fix the road (which should hopefully also include streetcar tracks, given that a streetcar-ized 90/92 bus is in our long-term plans)

by andrew on Apr 2, 2013 10:38 am • linkreport

Florida Ave NE is frightening. Plain and simple. Anyone who has had a bus or a truck blow past them doing 60+ while standing on a foot of sidewalk space can attest. If the city wants this neighborhood to thrive, and with it Union Market and Gallaudet University, then they have to fix Florida Ave. NE, NOW.

by Col. Brentwood on Apr 2, 2013 10:57 am • linkreport

@Andrew - [Deleted for violating the comment policy.]

1) 6th St NE between K and Florida (between the curbs) is a model for the results of a successful road diet - it has on-street parking, bike lanes, and only two travel lanes. Curb extensions at the intersections would be helpful, and there's an argument for removing parking on one side to widen the sidewalks, but the road is already "dieted".

2) Simply closing two travel lanes with bollards won't help the problems on Florida Ave. It wouldn't reduce traffic speeds and wouldn't promote a safer pedestrian environment. A short-term zero-funding solution is to open the outer lanes to parking 24/7 so that the parked cars can create visual friction to slow drivers down, and provide a buffer between moving vehicles and pedestrians.

by Dave on Apr 2, 2013 11:01 am • linkreport

I'd like to see an exclusive busway in both directions between 9th st NW and and 8th st NW with parking wherever the buses deviate from Florida. It would be easier to convert that to a dedicated bus/streeetcar lane from that point than "take away" peoples parking.

by Alan B. on Apr 2, 2013 11:46 am • linkreport

All great suggestions. The street needs to be completely rethought, at least from WVa to GA Ave.

by Andrew on Apr 2, 2013 11:54 am • linkreport

Light poles, street signs an other clutter in the middle of the side-walk are a major problem. Street designers should be forced to walk along the roads they've designed.

by Jasper on Apr 2, 2013 12:14 pm • linkreport

Time to throw out speed limits and start using design speed. Build roads so that they tell the right story. ON this road, the story should be "slow down, it's not just about cars here."

by thump on Apr 2, 2013 12:19 pm • linkreport

FWIW, I wrote to then DDOT director Dan Tangherlini about this problem about 8 years ago...

but yes, thump makes the best point. As long as roads, regardless of context, are designed to allow very high speeds, and since cars are engineered to go fast, drivers will follow the design cues, we are screwed.

So I've argued for some time that arterials in the city should be re-engineered, especially in neighborhood commercial districts (like H St.) or around parks and square and schools (like Stanton Park or Lincoln Park), even to the extent of using Belgian Block.

by Richard Layman on Apr 2, 2013 12:26 pm • linkreport

Even I have to agree perhaps a travel lane should be sacrificed for better sidewalks here. What we have now is pretty terrible along major stretches here.

by Hillman on Apr 2, 2013 1:48 pm • linkreport

I cannot believe DDOT thinks its acceptable to wait until 2014 to complete yet another plan. They should act now.

by Nick on Apr 2, 2013 5:56 pm • linkreport

Florida Ave is a crucial corridor that connects U St and Shaw to NOMA and the Atlas District. I have been biking back and forth on it for years, and the reckless behavior of drivers has led me to take to the practice of occupying an entire lane for safety - otherwise I certainly would have been killed by now. I understand that this road is used extensively by drivers connecting to New York Ave and 395 from further north in the city, but Florida Ave represents a crucial gap in the internal transportation network. I think that an entire lane of Florida Ave should be blocked off as a designated bike lane, with the other 3 lanes designated for cars.

by Cory on Apr 2, 2013 7:19 pm • linkreport

Florida Avenue NE is shameful. Gallaudet University, the NoMa BID, MRP Realty, Edens, Sang Oh Development, Two Rivers Public Charter, every business in Union Market, every other business on or near, every resident who lives on or near, and every person who utilizes Florida Avenue NE needs to let the Mayor, the Council and DDOT know exactly how shameful it is by phone, email, tweet, etc. We need to be the squeakiest wheel.

by Sunny Florida Avenue on Apr 2, 2013 7:52 pm • linkreport

Dave -
I can only pray that the model for a successful road diet will include street trees and ADA accessible sidewalks. Unfortunately, 6th St. NE has neither.

by Sunny Florida Avenue on Apr 2, 2013 7:58 pm • linkreport

I completely agree, but you're mixing terms here. It's important to keep these correct so that when people hear about a road diet project they don't expect something that won't necessarily happen. Road diets generally refer to a low-cost way of changing the channelization of the road between the curbs, and using the available pavement in a more intelligent and inclusive manner. See FHWA's reference here -

by Dave on Apr 3, 2013 10:58 am • linkreport

6th St NE could easily lose the southbound travel lane or the double yellow stripe.

If shrinking the road is strictly off-limits, there's also another option: Like much of Capitol Hill, DC actually owns the residents' front lawns along this stretch, and could snatch up the land for extra sidewalk space and trees without having to acquire a single inch of property.

by andrew on Apr 3, 2013 11:34 am • linkreport

Dave -- road diets are defined as reducing road widths. It may be low cost, it may not be. But I've never seen "low cost methods" being part and parcel of the definition.

Your cite says they can be low cost. But that's if only restriping is involved.

It all depends on the nature of the project. A Florida Ave. road diet would not be cheap because it would involve the expansion of sidewalk width on the south side of the street and likely the installation of trees as well. This would be expensive. BUt so what. As Sunny FL Ave. points out, this is a major arterial in between neighborhoods and key pedestrian-centric activity centers, and the sidewalk treatment is abominable.

Note this piece in yesterday's NYT. I really like the language they use about if NYC is a walking city, then they have to prioritize ped. infrastructure.

I think this discussion can be very much lacking in DC, despite all the claims and push for sustainability and livability. When push comes to shove, mostly the car wins out in Transportation Policy.

by Richard Layman on Apr 3, 2013 12:10 pm • linkreport

Dave -- road diets are defined as reducing road widths.

According to whom?

I've seen plenty of road diets that use nothing but paint.

Turn multiple travel lanes into a single travel lane in each direction, a center left turn lane, and on-street parking, accompanied with bike lanes.

Of course, that doesn't solve this problem, which is sidewalk width. Moving the sidewalk out means construction, and it means re-doing all of the drainage for storm sewers and other civil engineering. And that adds up, and it can't be solved with just paint. But that doesn't mean road diets are solely about reducing road widths.

by Alex B. on Apr 3, 2013 12:17 pm • linkreport

@ Alex B: Agreed - I've implemented plenty of road diets using nothing but paint (spoiler alert - traffic engineer). If there are streetscape elements involved we wouldn't refer to the project as only a road diet. It would be something more of a complete streets project or simply XYZ Road Improvements, one element of which is a road diet.

We're splitting hairs though. I completely agree with Richard Layman - what Florida Ave needs is well beyond the scope of the pavement between the existing curbs. That's going to take time though and it will require a full design process and significant funding. There are concrete steps that can be taken in the short term to make conditions better while the design process is ongoing.

by Dave on Apr 3, 2013 12:54 pm • linkreport

Thank you Tony Goodman, GGW for reporting on the untimely death of Mrs. Ruby Whitfield.

by Necothia on Apr 3, 2013 3:26 pm • linkreport

The problem begins at "Dave Thomas" (Wendy's) circle. What a hot mess! Only gets worse from there. Demolish the Wendy's and create a boulevard, calm the NY ave traffic and synchronize the lights. Florida Ave is a disgrace from 16th Nw to Bladensburg NE. ATF design was a huge mistake and totally discourages pedestrian and bicycle traffic.

by Quincy on Apr 3, 2013 9:39 pm • linkreport

I like the idea of focusing on design speed. DC builds "streets" and "avenues" that are really 6 or 8 lane highways, and then paints cross walks in the middle of them. This is not a safe or effective urban planning strategy. If the speed limit on a road is 25 mph, then it should be designed for that maximum speed - narrower lanes, parking lanes used as buffers for bike lanes (as like Broadway in Manhattan), stop signs at cross walks, etc.

by Chris on Apr 4, 2013 2:49 pm • linkreport

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