Greater Greater Washington

"Stay the course" or "pivot"? Gray and Evans disagree about the ill-fated Wisconsin Avenue median

In 2012, DC changed the traffic patterns on Wisconsin Avenue in Glover Park to make it more friendly to pedestrians, then reversed course following strong complaints from many Georgetown residents including Councilmember Jack Evans. The issue came up in my interviews with Evans and Mayor Vince Gray.


Photo by Abigail Zenner.

I asked every candidate about the way the government can spend a lot of time planning a project, build community support, and still then later run into a lot of people who say they never heard about it or want to block it. Gray brought up this project in his response. He said,


Vincent Gray. Image from the candidate website.
We've seen in some parts of the city when a lane was changed and it was done with the concurrence of the people who lived in that area, who then railed against it in the aftermath and now it's being put back like it was.
I think that you've got to stay the course. I happen to live on a street that was changed, where when people saw a change there was enormous negative reaction to it: Branch Avenue, which went from being two not sufficiently wide lanes on either side of the street, in my opinionwe saw lots of accidents thereto being one lane on either side. There were people that were up in arms. They wanted to put it back like it was. Now, people have adapted. It's taken a number of years, no question about that, but people have adapted.

We have to work with communities around what do these proposals mean for their lives. Make sure there's community input on how we get to the answer. And then once we do, we've got to stay the course if we believe, earnestly, these changes will make life better for folks.

People hate sitting in traffic. The answer is not to give more streets. The answer is to give other options to folks, other ways of traveling, other methods of traveling, and then you've got to swallow hard and stay with it.

Jack Evans disagrees. I asked him specifically about the Glover Park issue, and he said,


Jack Evans. Image from the candidate website.
It was a complete disaster ... Even the ANC chair, Brian Cohen who was the spearhead of it, and Jackie Blumenthal came to the position that it was a complete disaster. It wasn't just me, it was everyone who realized that narrowing Wisconsin Avenue to 1 lane going north in rush hour just wasn't working. You were backing traffic all the way past the Safeway all the way to R Street, and that wasn't working for anybody.

I think the lesson that we take from that is they try something that doesn't work, but can then pivot and maneuver rather than sticking to something that was just causing chaos. What you were doing, as you know, by having that center lane with stripes on it, people were starting to cut around, creating a very dangerous situation. I'm glad that people were starting to recognize that.

To be precise, the plan did not make Wisconsin Avenue 1 lane at rush hour; there was a part-time parking lane people could drive in during rush hour. However, it was 1 lane outside rush hour, and according to Glover Park resident and GGW contributor Abigail Zenner, times like school pick-up around 2-3 pm were worse for traffic than rush hour itself.

What if some of the details like these had worked better, I asked, but drivers still found themselves delayed by a minute or two? Evans said, "If we were talking about a minute or two. We were talking about a half hour."

At one ANC meeting last year, DDOT reported that driving times had increased by 2 minutes. But, Zenner said, "since then I have not been able to get my hands on any more data. My unscientific anecdotal experience also backed up the two minute claim. I have never experienced a half hour back-up, although I have heard a lot of people say things like that."

Evans doesn't buy it. "As you've heard me testify many times, if it was a minute or two we wouldn't be here. Don't take my word for it, take the word of the proponents of the project, Brian, Jackie and others, who came to the conclusion. 80-90% of people in the neighborhood hated it. It was a universally hated idea. "

But, I asked, any change to a roadway will engender significant opposition. How do you differentiate legitimate problems with a project from knee-jerk opposition to change? Evans said,

You have to deal with each individual situation. The 15th Street bike lanes would be an example where we got tons of complaints, but it worked and we kept it in place. We didn't respond to the complaints. It's quieted down, but we still get complaints about the bike lanes. Most people quieted down and now accept it for what it is. The important thing is you have to be able to respond and not take a rigid view.
Evans did complain about the 15th Street lane at first, also, but changed his tune. Part of that might have come from a bike ride I organized to take him around the ward to the various bike lanes (an experience he referenced in the interview). And, indeed, he has not fought the 15th Street lane, or the L and M Street lanes crosstown.

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David Alpert is the founder and editor-in-chief of Greater Greater Washington. 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 daughter in Dupont Circle. 

Comments

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The photo is upside down.

by Thayer-D on Mar 13, 2014 10:56 am • linkreport

The upside-down photo is a nice touch.

And I have to say, I'm kind of surprised by how much I agree with Gray's response here.

by Gray on Mar 13, 2014 10:57 am • linkreport

Haha, whoops! Fixed the image (and I moved it up).

by David Alpert on Mar 13, 2014 11:06 am • linkreport

I have been pleasantly surprised over the past four years how much I agree with Gray's policies. If I lived three blocks to the south, he'd have my vote. Instead, I get to choose between Leggett's passivity and his dinosaur MCDOT and Duncan who'd actively seek to do worse and would somehow make MCDOT even worse.

by Cavan on Mar 13, 2014 11:07 am • linkreport

When it's community opposition based on real-world experience with the program, that's a bit different from opposition in a vacuum or based on fears of what-ifs.

That's when "staying the course" becomes mulishness. DDOT responded to real citizen concerns from people directly affected. I see nothing wrong with that.

by Crickey7 on Mar 13, 2014 11:11 am • linkreport

Also consider the increased response times for emergency responders in situations like this. Or are there bicycle ambulances and fire engines in our future.

by Kevin on Mar 13, 2014 11:12 am • linkreport

Even with his mind switching on bike lanes Evans is admitting that he's really only for a project when it benefits him personally. So yay for him switching his myopic view on bike lanes I guess but that's not that comforting.

by drumz on Mar 13, 2014 11:12 am • linkreport

Wow, props to Gray here. I don't think I've ever specifically agreed with something he said - I do now.

by LowHeadways on Mar 13, 2014 11:13 am • linkreport

I'm really curious about the responses of other candidates on this. Since I'm not going to vote for either of these candidates, it doesn't help me to agree on Gray's answer to this specific issue.

by Ginger on Mar 13, 2014 11:19 am • linkreport

Why are you giving Gray an ounce of publicity?

First thing:
How any educated and informed resident of the District of Columbia, which GGW tends to have in spades could possibly ever consider, even for the briefest of milliseconds, voting for that man again is beyond me.

Second thing: Every time you mention Gray, you are giving him publicity. And if you are giving him the opportunity to politik on your site, then it is good publicity that you are giving him.

I realize there are some people who will consciously sail the SS Gray off the edge of reason, but if you truely want to benefit the District of Columbia, then you should stop stumping for Gray.

by Why on Mar 13, 2014 11:20 am • linkreport

I don't know the specific situation, but generally I agree with Gray. In my observation DDOT and the ANC would have it on an agenda (or several), there might be a separate meeting, often coverage on a local blog or two. In other words, multiple opps for public input. Then, it happens and people who don't know and experience minor impacts are OUTRAGED. It's a HALF HOUR DELAY (of my time) even though DDOT will study and say 1-2 minutes at some times while it fixes problems the other 95% of the time. The same thing happened with the 15th St bike lane and commuters screaming about delays (which DDOT said were something like 15-30 seconds). Most of the time, people adapt and it's best to stay the course.

by Chris on Mar 13, 2014 11:21 am • linkreport

One thing is for sure. Bowser will say she supports it the one-lane conversion and returning it to two lanes.

by Gee on Mar 13, 2014 11:22 am • linkreport

Two minutes stuck in traffic feels like 30 when you feel it's stupid and unnecessary.

by contrarian on Mar 13, 2014 11:24 am • linkreport

@Why

Couldn't have said it better if I had tried.

by Anon Gray on Mar 13, 2014 11:25 am • linkreport

@contrarian.

Two extra minutes for a single intersection is a bit much. And if that's an average, that means it's really more like 5 minutes when it's bad. That's really annoying for a local resident trying to run a local errand.

by Crickey7 on Mar 13, 2014 11:27 am • linkreport

Gray is right, even in cases where a project has only been in a short time. People do adapt and there was no time for anyone to find the best way to do so.

Did you ask Evans what he meant by "that wasn't working for anybody"? Who is "anybody"? Drivers, he means. It slowed drivers.

by RDHD on Mar 13, 2014 11:28 am • linkreport

The real answer is that you should have specific goals set out before the project is implemented, and then collect data on how the project works. Then you can say whether the delays are 2 minutes or 30 minutes, you can say whether or not the pedestrian experience is improved, and so forth. If the project is meeting its goals, and the data say that the costs are minimal (within ranges specified at the outset), you stay the course. If you have really created 30 minute backups, you change course. But relying on people's gut feelings is never going to work.

by alurin on Mar 13, 2014 11:37 am • linkreport

"People do adapt and there was no time for anyone to find the best way to do so"

It was in for 7 months. The same people travel through that corridor every single day (peds, bikers, commuters, drivers).

This wasn't rocket science. The effects were obvious, and they were immediate, and to Crickey's point an average 2 minute delay works out to 2 or 3 times that during the busiest parts of the day, and thats a heck of a delay to introduce into a .6 miles corridor.

Finally, I think it is a bit hypocritical that GGW celebrates quick and nimble and unstudied initiatives by DDOT, claiming things like adding bike lanes, or removing traffic or parking lanes doesn't need detailed study, it can just be "tried out".

Then falls back to the "we need years of more detailed study on the effects before deciding what to do" on initiatives they defend.

Had this thing been studied, had DDOT done a simple LOS analysis to determine how the 18,000 VPD that use that stretch of road would have been affected, prior to putting it in, it would have been pretty clear.

by Glover Park on Mar 13, 2014 11:41 am • linkreport

Evans is in the NIMBY crowd. "In God we trust, all others bring data."

I was very disappointed in this reversal for two reasons that go to the process and not the ultimate decision.
1) Lack of data - Neither response focused on quantifying the time change before and after or how that should have been done. We need specifics, not anecdotes.
2) Not all options considered - The real issue on that section of Wisconsin is the illegal (and legal) parking on Wisconsin that causes merging which slows down traffic. No one (other than Abigail) was willing to talk about parking being the problem and solutions to improve the flow of Wisconsin that might reduce parking. When they remove the turn lanes, the merging issue will get worse and traffic could possibly even be slower if not definitely slowed down from what it could be if we could reduce merging. However all election people involved would not consider touching parking.

I live in that area, so I am very familiar with the experience there.

by GP Steve on Mar 13, 2014 11:48 am • linkreport

Crickey7 and Glover Park: I don't think they are saying 2 minutes per intersection, but 2 minutes total.

by David Alpert on Mar 13, 2014 11:49 am • linkreport

Re: Glover Park -- I can see how you might be right, given the experience with 12th Street NE and the creation of bump outs, which eliminated the ability to make easy right turns, so traffic built up on multiple blocks. I don't think it's as big an issue now, but I am not up there as much so I don't have a rigorous and analytical view of it.

... even so, depending on what is supposed to be accomplished, an increase in time for motor vehicle traffic might be justified, in terms of increased safety, fewer accidents, better conditions for pedestrians and bicyclists, etc.

By not having a good set of expectations (through a transportation master plan) on what we are trying to achieve with our mobility network, the default is to speed up traffic.

I would argue that's not a good pro-city pro-quality of life goal.

A transpo plan also gives elected officials cover to make harder decisions, which ordinarily they really really really hate to do.

wrt Mayor Gray's general point, that is in fact the reality, that people adjust, some people change their practices reducing the traffic on the corridor, others become more familiar and "drive better" given the new conditions, so that negative impacts are minimal, etc.

by Richard Layman on Mar 13, 2014 12:09 pm • linkreport

It wasn't just car traffic. The circulator got killed when it was up. I couldn't understand when I took it to safeway why Wisconin was always backed up. I gave up on using it after a month or so, didn't know about the median until after.

by charlie on Mar 13, 2014 12:18 pm • linkreport

@David Alpert,

Yes, I got that. The average 2 minute delay was across the entire .6 mile stretch of road. What I was saying is that averages out the times of the day when the road isn't heavily used, and the 6 hours a day of rush hour when it is crushed. The added delay then was then likely in the 4-5 minute range. As someone who walked, drove and biked that section many, many times during the 7 months, I can attest that delays during the heavily trafficed part of the day were significantly more than 2 minutes.

@Richard Layman,
"wrt Mayor Gray's general point, that is in fact the reality, that people adjust, some people change their practices reducing the traffic on the corridor"

You are absolutely correct. People did adjust by leaving the main arterial and driving through the smaller and previously sidestreets.

by Glover Park on Mar 13, 2014 12:21 pm • linkreport

So traffic was bad at the normal time one expects it to be bad.

by drumz on Mar 13, 2014 12:27 pm • linkreport

Is it worth it to calm traffic on an arterial (thats also a prime commercial area, where peds going shopping, going to the bus stop, etc, need to go) at off peak times (when traffic goes fastest and is most in need of calming) at the expense of more traffic on side streets (where people taking their dogs for walks, walking their kids from school or preschool, etc do most of their walking) at peak times?

I think its a matter of two different cultures of walking clashing - that of people who rely on walking for all errands (including on "traffic sewers"), and those who mostly use walking for quiet walks on back streets, and who benefit from funneling traffic onto a "traffic sewer".

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 13, 2014 12:33 pm • linkreport

@ David Alpert: Duly noted. My assessment still stands.

@Richard Layman: Some of the more vocal advocates for reverting to the old configuration were pedestrians, who said it made them feel less safe. As for cyclists, that stretch is a bit uncomfortable to ride, being crowded and a long uphill, but I'm not sure the change had any impact one way or another.

by Crickey7 on Mar 13, 2014 12:33 pm • linkreport

GP Steve is right - it's really the combination of parking, merging, and Metrobuses that block the travel lane in order to avoid having to merge back into traffic (particularly southbound just past Calvert) that create much of the issues. But parking is the third rail and no one wants to touch it.

I second the thought that DDOT should have been very specific coming in with what they were trying to achieve and then captured and analyzed data to determine whether it was working. Absent hard evidence, they're going to be no match for the sturm und drang of people whose commutes have been impacted.

by Dizzy on Mar 13, 2014 12:40 pm • linkreport

@AWITC

Very spot-on point regarding the two different "walking cultures." I would expand it to include not just walking but really a mentality about roads as a whole. There is the "public rights of way" perspective, which holds that public ROWs should be allocated in ways that most benefit the general public. And then there is the (for lack of a better term) "neighborhood roads" perspective, which holds that traffic sewers are for the commuting public and neighborhood streets are for the use of local residents, who should enjoy primary authority and access to those streets by virtue of buying into that neighborhood.

by Dizzy on Mar 13, 2014 12:43 pm • linkreport

Also consider the increased response times for emergency responders in situations like this.

I'm pretty sure this is always in the planning. I have yet to see a bike lane installation that slowed emergency responders. BTW, I seem to recall reading about an idea to add bicycle EMTs in Boston or somewhere, for use in congested areas and times. They wouldn't take patients to the hospital, but they could arrive with medical gear and stabilize someone until the ambulance - stuck fighting traffic - arrives. It's a brilliant idea really. We could add emergency bikes to all the downtown firehouses.

by David C on Mar 13, 2014 12:44 pm • linkreport

Every time you mention Gray, you are giving him publicity. And if you are giving him the opportunity to politik on your site, then it is good publicity that you are giving him.

I don't think anyone concerned about Gray's ethical/legal issues is going to change their mind because GGW played video of him.

by David C on Mar 13, 2014 12:46 pm • linkreport

Seems like people are forgetting that it was on Gray's watch that the project was reversed. Who cares what he said after the fact, when you can see what his Administration actually did in this situation -- and it's not what he said he thought should be done.

by BTDT on Mar 13, 2014 1:01 pm • linkreport

Part of the problem with this is the flawed statistics caused by the simultaneous construction of the 37th and Tunlaw intersection. This funneled all vehicular traffic on to Wisconsin between Whitehaven and Calvert. Once that was open, there was a spillover opportunity that DDOT never studied. Do the same thing today, and you will get very different results.

Evans could have also traveled up Q Street to 24th and then Mass to get to Maret, and it would probably be faster 10 times out of 10.

by William on Mar 13, 2014 1:11 pm • linkreport

Jack Evans: "I might not actively oppose ped/bike projects (as long as they don't inconvenience drivers too much)"

by TransitSnob on Mar 13, 2014 2:18 pm • linkreport

David C. -- bicycle EMTs are used in many places, more in Europe than in the US, but in the US too, as close as Baltimore. They tend to be assigned to work in the most dense areas of a city or at special events.

-- general. Yes, as long as you keep parking, it can be tough to make these kinds of changes successfully.

And yes, I agree with others about the distinction between arerials and "back streets."

FWIW, although it's still too soon to be definitive, while the new Walmart on GA Ave. has definitely f*ed up traffic in the immediate area (in part because of similar issues of keeping parking on Peabody adjacent to the store but across the street), I am happy to say that there hasn't been an uptick in traffic on my part of Quackenbos, as a through street from Georgia Ave. to Blair Road.

by Richard Layman on Mar 13, 2014 2:21 pm • linkreport

To clarify a few points:

During rush hours there is no parking in one of the and many residents have noted that there are no slow downs during rush hours.

From my home in Glover Park I time how long it takes me to get to Safeway and how long to get back. 5 min down and 7 min back every time usually weekdays between 2-4pm. That was the time that many drivers claim it is the worst.

I have never experienced anything as bad as I have heard and as drivers have gotten used to the new configuration it is actually getting smoother and better.

As GP Steve noted, the slow downs happen when drivers traveling northbound use the far right parking lane and then have to merge in when they come upon a parked car. Ironically if cars were parked all the way down the street there would be no merging and drivers would be able to smoothly move along in one lane with no merging.

by Abigail Zenner on Mar 13, 2014 3:53 pm • linkreport

@Abigail

There would still have to be a merging point 'somewhere.' Right now, I think the biggest one is near 34th Street/2121 Wisconsin, where it goes from no parking during the stretch from the Holiday Inn and the bus stop there (across from Holy Rood) to where parking picks up again.

And I agree with both you and GP Steve - as I driver, I prefer the new configuration, as it is much more predictable and does not entail cars trying to make 2 lanes out of what was basically 1.5 lanes.

by Dizzy on Mar 13, 2014 4:00 pm • linkreport

@Dizzy

Yes you're right about the location although I am pretty sure there is legal street parking through most of it but it is rarely used since most drivers have lots they can use and there isn't much going on in that spot.

That is also the area in the southern section of the project that most needed the road diet. It used to be easy to speed up to 45MPH there and now the speeds have dropped to 20-25MPH.

Similar merging happens in other areas too at the tail end of rush hour when there is still high volume. I see it in spots along Mass Ave, usually around 7pm.

There also is congestion all over during the school rush around 3 pm most days. Driving around Columbia Heights can be a bit crazy at that time.

I personally feel like that is the trade off of living in a vibrant place. I think it's just part of the hustle and bustle of the city. In the grand scheme of things this is a very minor blip of traffic.

by Abigail Zenner on Mar 13, 2014 4:08 pm • linkreport

@Abigail Zenner

Even during rush hour no parking (which I think ends at 6:30 but should end at like 7), there is often illegal parking from delivery or other vehicles.

@Dizzy

Yes, the predictability of having left turn lanes is very nice. I think Abigail proposed consistent parking restrictions from R St to Calvert perhaps? I think there are too many differences in when it goes from 1 to 2 to 1, etc lanes.

by GP Steve on Mar 13, 2014 4:11 pm • linkreport

@GP Steve

I was actually thinking it should be all parked or all unparked. I have no problem with the parking but it should be striped as a parking lane so drivers aren't surprised by parked cars.

OTOH we could eliminate the parking and put in a bike lane or dedicated bus lane......

by Abigail Zenner on Mar 13, 2014 4:18 pm • linkreport

Have the strippers at Good Guys now using the rear entrance made a noticeable improvement in Glover Park traffic yet?

by Tom Coumaris on Mar 13, 2014 4:37 pm • linkreport

Wisconsin is such a traffic sewer. I generally support this but they need to really pile on the transit here. There really needes to be a metro line up Wisconsin below Tenley.

by BTA on Mar 13, 2014 4:43 pm • linkreport

@Tom Coumaris

Have the strippers at Good Guys now using the rear entrance made a noticeable improvement in Glover Park traffic yet?

Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha +∞

@GPSteve, Abigail, and BTA

I think we can arrive at a solution that meets everyone's desires there - dedicated ROW Wisconsin Avenue streetcar!

by Dizzy on Mar 13, 2014 6:28 pm • linkreport

@Kevin who wrote: "Also consider the increased response times for emergency responders in situations like this. Or are there bicycle ambulances and fire engines in our future."

This is not a problem. Urban hipsters are so young, fit and healthy that it is unlikely that they will ever need an ambulance (except if they are hit while biking). That is why they don't need to sign up for Obamacare. Anyway, the "oldsters" who are more ambulance dependent should just sell their homes in desirable DC neighborhoods so that they can be turned into condos for young urban hipsters. The oldsters can then move to nursing homes in the suburbs and die.

by Jasper2 on Mar 13, 2014 10:38 pm • linkreport

As a resident of Glover Park for several years I wouldve killed for a streetcar with dedicated lanes on Wisconsin.

by BTA on Mar 13, 2014 11:16 pm • linkreport

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