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Public Spaces

How to make better streets, quickly and cheaply

Changes to our urban landscape can seem daunting at times. But reader thm points us to this TED talk in which New York City Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan shows how New York quickly and cheaply changed its streets, sometimes with only some paint, to improve the experience for all users.

Some of these changes we already have here, such as bike sharing and parking-protected bike lanes. Others, like BRT, are in the planning stages. But are there places in the DC area that could benefit from conversion into a pedestrian plaza?

Steven Yates grew up in Indiana before moving to DC in 2002 to attend college at American University. He currently lives in Southwest DC.  


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But are there places in the DC area that could benefit from conversion into a pedestrian plaza?

Yes. Many of the small 'National Parks' that are surrounded by road jungles, many triangles, squares and circles. Much of the space around the Capitol. Eastern Market. M St and WI Ave in Georgetown. Rosslyn. King St Metro area. King St from the metro to the water front. The old town waterfront. The area around the Springfield Mall.

by Jasper on Oct 18, 2013 12:13 pm • linkreport

G street in front of te portrait gallery. It's already got the funky pavement.

King street in old town could work of you let the trolley still roll up and down the middle.

One day it'd be awesome if the parking lot in front if the whole foods in Clarendon was coupled with the little street section in front of it and plaza-ified.

M street in Georgetown, (though a pedestrian path on the key bridge that didn't include crossing an on ramp would be crucial.

Vt and Ct avenues between the White House and McPherson/Farragut squares.

by Drumz on Oct 18, 2013 12:28 pm • linkreport

Until recently, many ped plazas had a mixed track record of success. For example, the Cville plaza didn't used to be the vibrant place it is today. Businesses still tend to believe that creating ped plazas is bad for overall foot traffic. Of course, there are also opportunities to create plazas that have little or no negative impact, real or perceived, on the neighboring stakeholders. I'd like to see the plaza in front of the white house turned into a better space.

by Falls Church on Oct 18, 2013 12:47 pm • linkreport

There's also a key difference between a full pedestrian mall and what New York has done with reclaiming some street space for people. Times Square still has lots of cars. The better analogy is a sidewalk extension rather than a full-on pedestrian mall.

by Alex B. on Oct 18, 2013 12:53 pm • linkreport

My idea for something like king street or M street would be similar to what I saw in Denver where transit was allowed but not private vehicles.

Times Square also straightened out traffic by removing the "shortcut" of Broadway through Times Square. This is probably covered in the video.

by Drumz on Oct 18, 2013 1:16 pm • linkreport

They should use this in Cleveland Park and close off those parking spaces.

by Behrad on Oct 18, 2013 1:55 pm • linkreport

@ Drumz:My idea for something like king street or M street would be similar to what I saw in Denver where transit was allowed but not private vehicles.

Problem with M St is that, unlike King St, you can't entirely close if for cars because it leads to Key Bridge, which is a major access point to the city. There are, however, many things that can be done to improve traffic flow, and improve the situation for pedestrians, bikers and transit.

For instance, parking can be removed. Cross streets can be closed to cars. Side-walks can be widened. There should be a bike-lane as well as a transit only lane (with a streetcar to WI Ave). And the connections between Key Bridge, Canal Rd, The Whitehurst Freeway and 34th Sts can be massively improved.

by Jasper on Oct 18, 2013 2:01 pm • linkreport

Problem with M St is that, unlike King St, you can't entirely close if for cars because it leads to Key Bridge, which is a major access point to the city.

What's the Whitehurst for, then?

by MLD on Oct 18, 2013 2:13 pm • linkreport

One of the few regularly closed streets that I know of around here is Ellsworth in downtown Silver Spring. It's pretty wildly successful.

What I don't get is why it's only closed on the weekends. Pedestrians could probably make better use of the road than the few cars that come through, particularly on weeknights.

I see this argument by Dan against closing it to cars during the week:

But since he wrote that, quite a few condos and apartments have opened up not far from Ellsworth, plus there are more and better restaurants nearby. What do we gain by letting a few cars onto it certain days of the week?

by Gray on Oct 18, 2013 2:32 pm • linkreport

Bonus in that post on Dan's blog: a vintage appearance by steve!

by Gray on Oct 18, 2013 2:33 pm • linkreport

Drumz: G street in front of te portrait gallery. It's already got the funky pavement.

There were pedestrian plazas in that area for many years, and they were colossal failures -- they did nothing to help the already failing businesses downtown, but they attracted homeless people by the dozens. I suspect that they could work better now that there is more life downtown 24/7, but they would be a hard sell for anyone who has been in this area for a while and remembers how awful the last attempt was.

by jimble on Oct 18, 2013 2:59 pm • linkreport


Fair enough. The rule is you need a lot o activity in an area already for it to work. Like you say, I think its possible today.


Like MLD says, we have the whitehurst. I know the calls for its removal have been floated though, but if we're going to keep then at least use it to make M a little better.

Georgetown desperately needs wider sidewalks no matter what.

by Drumz on Oct 18, 2013 3:07 pm • linkreport

@Drumz and @jimble re: portrait gallery:

I think one issue there is that the Portrait Gallery closes down at 7. So even though there's tons of activity around that block, one side of the street has absolutely no activity in the evening. Additionally, on G St in particular you have very little street-facing activity. There are, what, two bars with outdoor seating areas? And then an office building which I don't believe even has ground-floor retail.

So yeah, I'm not sure that that would be a good location for a pedestrian zone. If anything, it seems like closing down a section of 7th St might be the most useful for pedestrians.

by Gray on Oct 18, 2013 3:19 pm • linkreport

Could also see this applied to pass through streets in Bethesda that are basically entrances to parking garages. Take streets near bethesda row. Could see this easily applied to Elm St between the entrances to the two parking garages. Bethesda Ave would be nice, but it's kind of tricky since the entrance to the parking lot is mid-street. The sidewalks are constantly packed so it'd actually be a nice change, and I'm sure the restaurants would prefer it as it would allow them to expand their seating outdoors.

by em on Oct 18, 2013 3:25 pm • linkreport

Like MLD says, we have the whitehurst. I know the calls for its removal have been floated though, but if we're going to keep then at least use it to make M a little better.

While M ST and the Key Bridge need to be accessible by Georgetowners in cars for the foreseeable future if you're going to have their wide support on any change, keeping the Whitehurst as-is is a strong argument (and point of concession) for making more space on M for peds/bikes/transit.

by Falls Church on Oct 18, 2013 3:30 pm • linkreport

Also fair, I still see the potential especially if you could have longer term outdoor markets like the Christmas market. Or if the museum had evening hours even a couple of nights per week. That was a nice thing to have in London, though that's obviously the smithsonians call not the city's.

From a transportation perspective there should probably be more focus on the pedestrian experience on 7th. Increase the number if Barnes dances and what not.

by Drumz on Oct 18, 2013 3:34 pm • linkreport


So how does one get north of M Street or on to many of the sidestreets that lead only to M Street and what about delivery vechiles, buses not just Metro but DC Circulator, Georgetown Univ, School Buses etc.

by kk on Oct 18, 2013 3:34 pm • linkreport

One place to make a pedestrian zone more often is Vermont by the White House. On the days it's not a lunchtime farmers market, I'd like to see it as a food truck plaza. If they could add some portable benches, that would be awesome.

by Falls Church on Oct 18, 2013 3:38 pm • linkreport


You could still have transit lanes with loading zones.

As for private vehicles they can get on rock creek parkway, canal road, or come back up water street until they get to Wisconsin. Since the number of vehicles using M would be vastly reduced then the light cycle at M and Wisconsin could be retooled to let more cars through.

Obviously all that would need extensive modeling to see what's feasible but the reason we are talking about it is because the status quo is so poor.

by Drumz on Oct 18, 2013 3:50 pm • linkreport

I think jimble's right- the colossal failure of the pedestrian mall in front of the MLK probably makes it hard to get new ones.

However, there's certainly many areas that should be less cars and much wider sidewalks and bike lanes. U Street comes to mind, as does 14th. I'd even like to see my own S Street NW become pedestrian, bikes, delivery vehicles and parked cars only. We have one-ways north and south of us. There's plenty of streets in town that could also be made multi-modal except for thru-traffic cars.

by Tom Coumaris on Oct 18, 2013 4:51 pm • linkreport

what if a street like King in Old Town or M Street in Gtown were made one way AND gave up all their parking. And then very wide sidewalks or wider sidewalks plus bike lanes in both directions, or maybe widish sidewalks plus one contraflow cycle track? You'd still have most of the advantages of having allowing cars, but have a lot more room for peds (and maybe cyclists - on King at least, making parallel streets (the ones that now have sharrows) into bike boulevards might work better, but in GTown topography may make it more important to have bike infra right there on M)

by AWalkerInTheCity on Oct 18, 2013 5:03 pm • linkreport

@ Drumz

I must be missing something but there could be no loading zones as the trucks are private vehicles which would not be traveling on M

Canal, Rock Creek and Water street do not help those
traveling to

M Street, Prospect Street, N Street, O Street, Q Street P Street, and Dumbarton Street between 29th Street and 34 Street.

To make it feasible at all you would need to atleast build ramps on the Whitehurst Fwy at Wisconsin Ave and completely redo the where K Street, 27th Street, Whitehurst Fwy and Rock Creek Parkway all meet.

A better idea would be to close M Street between Wisconsin Ave and 29th Street with a redesigned intersection where K Street, 27th Street, Whitehurst Fwy and Rock Creek Parkway all meet that includes turn lanes from all directions from Pennsylvania Ave to Rock Creek Parkway.

The problem with the area is that there is only two routes to get out of the area M Street to Canal Road, Penn Ave or Key Bridge or P Street to Dupont Circle and the Whitehurst to bypass the area but doesn't help if you need to go north of M Street.. It is the lack of bridges on the Potomac River and Rock Creek that make the problems worst.

If we could I would connect Prospect and Olive Street and turn the canal into L Street having each as a one way street then close M but that can not happen.

You can not help the traffic in the area without effecting people that one have to travel through there due to lack of main roads elsewhere, two lack of bridges, and three are going to Georgetown.

by kk on Oct 18, 2013 5:16 pm • linkreport

You can make exceptions for delivery trucks. That's what I figured.

You don't need a new ramp onto Wisconsin, just figure out if there is a way to get cars from the whitehurst down to water street. It'd be tight and cars would have to travel a little further but travel time could go down if there are fewer lights to contend with.

And really the only issue is people coming from va to parts of Wisconsin closer to Georgetown. Make RCP two way 24/7 and you can travel anywhere further uptown without much trouble.

You're not going to pave over the canal. That would ruin it.


Remove the whitehurst but also disconnect the key bridge from M street. Cross the bridge and either turn left onto canal road and you can now turn right onto the now extended K street where you can turn left onto Wisconsin. The road is so wide down there they allow diagonal parking so it can handle more volume than M which then has breathing room to have the sidewalks extended.

by Drumz on Oct 18, 2013 5:37 pm • linkreport

All that said, there are yet probably more issues, but I don't think it's an impossible problem. It just takes thinking and a reorientation of what the actual place making and transportation goals of the area are.

by Drumz on Oct 18, 2013 5:44 pm • linkreport

@ Drumz

Which is my point it can not just happen something needs to be added or torn down to make this realistic. In some way extra money will be used.

Also concerning the canal what the hell is there to ruin it is a piece of s**t, I have been to canals in India, France, Germany and the Netherlands and the canal here is worthless compared to them all.

If it is not going to be functional at least make it pretty but that's not even done. It is a dirty disgusting mess then either needs to be redone or closed completely.

by kk on Oct 18, 2013 5:56 pm • linkreport

True. But the cheap fixes are meant to be temporary anyway leading up to the bigger changes. So yeah. Put up some posts to "expand" the sidewalks in M street and begin planning the long term changes.

by Drumz on Oct 18, 2013 6:16 pm • linkreport

I think the initial lesson is try something and gather data. Let's do something temporary with non-permanent changes. If it works, expand on it. If it doesn't, figure out why. There has been a lot of talk on M St in Georgetown. I completely agree that this area has enough vibrancy to support a full time pedestrian area plus transit. So let's try it one weekend a month once spring hits and see how it goes. While I'm sure there will be hesitation, I bet people will love it! You can't know until you try.

by GP Steve on Oct 19, 2013 12:05 am • linkreport

Agree with Gary that it's time for Ellsworth in Silver Spring to become pedestrian only and have the street and sidewalks the same level throughout the block (currently it's only level near the central fountain and stage). Sure, it should remain accessible to vehicles for the farmers market, etc. and for nighttime truck deliveries to the restaurants, but in general it should be pedestrian only. Even when the street is closed most people crowd onto the sidewalks because it's so ingrained in everyone's mind to avoid the asphalt.

by jag on Oct 19, 2013 8:18 pm • linkreport

Sorry - agree with GRAY, that is.

by jag on Oct 19, 2013 8:19 pm • linkreport

First St. NE between K and Mass. is already, by virtue of the crowds of train riders going into and out of Union Station, almost a pedestrian mall, but formalizing it would certainly improve the environment for walkers and cyclists. At present it's a grim, grungy asphalt canyon running alongside the west side of Union Station. A hot dog food cart sets up at 1st and G, and there are occasionally buskers and the bubble machine guy, but the area cries to be a cheery pedestrian and cyclist mall with plants, more and better food vendors, bicycle lanes, shops, and other amenities to gladden the hearts of the Union Station non-car crowd. For first visitors to DC, domestic and international, this may be their first look at DC when they walk out of Union Station.

by Jimg on Oct 22, 2013 2:52 pm • linkreport

I think that there is a lot of potential for some more open space along New York Ave and Pennsylvania approaching the White House.

Since Pennsylvania in front of the White House has been closed for security reasons, through traffic connecting New York Ave to Pennsylvania Ave has been using H and I Streets. What if the traffic were better channelized to use H and I Streets, thereby freeing up space along NY and Penn?

From Mt. Vernon Sq., the two westbound lanes of NY Ave will be forced onto I Street. NY Ave between 13th/H and 11th/I will be one-way eastbound, and the excess space from the westbound lanes can be used to widen sidewalks and increase the are of the small triangular parks that already exist in the area.

Similarly on the west side of the White House, Pennsylvania will be one-way eastbound from 21st/I to 19th/H. All traffic from Pennsylvania will be diverted to H and Penn could be closed within the Edward R Murrow Park. Penn between 17th and 18th can be significantly narrowed.

The benefits of doing this will free up a lot of open space and even improve traffic flow. For example, the traffic signal at 21/I/Penn can be significantly simplified, because I street traffic westbound and Penn Ave eastbound traffic can go through the intersection at the same time.

My idea is similar to what they did in New York with regard to Broadway. By removing Broadway at Times Square and Herald Square, the city created a lot of open space while also simplifying the crazy intersections. In Washington, most of the bigger streets cut across the grid on a diagonal, but because of the closure at the White House, Penn's traffic needs to be diverted anyway.

by mrsman on Oct 24, 2013 10:18 pm • linkreport

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