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Georgetown's Wisconsin Avenue needs an overhaul

Does anyone actually like Wisconsin Avenue? Whether you're walking on it, biking on it, driving on it, it's almost guaranteed to be an unpleasant experience.

But it doesn't have to be that way, particularly for pedestrians. Some simple changes to the way Wisconsin Ave. is shaped could dramatically improve the pedestrian experience, without significant affecting the traffic flow. These changes could even add parking.

Impossible you say? Not at all. Follow me as I take a stroll down Wisconsin Ave. highlighting where the worst problems are, and how to fix them.

Between R and Reservoir: Let's start at R St. and head south. Looking down the street, what do we see?

A dragstrip, that's what. From R down to Reservoir, Wisconsin Ave. is a wide two lane road. There is parking on the west side, but it is not frequently occupied. Due to the fact that this is a long stretch of road and downhill, cars drive way too fast on it.

This road is way too wide. When drivers drive on wide roads, they drive faster than if the same road were narrower. Since parking is not scarce on this stretch, we ought to install one or two bulb-outs from the west sidewalk.

Bulb-outs are where the sidewalk is built out into the roadway. They are frequently used at interesections or for bus stops, like this:

Bus bulb-out in Chicago. Photo from Streetsblog.

On this stretch of Wisconsin there is not a bus stop. Nonetheless, we could build one or two bulb-outs and install benches in order to make use of the added sidewalk space. Moreover, the bulb-outs would make it clearer that this stretch of Wisconsin allows parking by delineating the parking lane better. This would also increase drivers' safety when they park their cars and get out.

And most of all, the added bulb-outs would shrink the perceived width of the road, and drivers will slow down accordingly.

Intersection of Reservoir, Wisconsin, and 33rd: This is a horrible intersection. A child was killed here in July. Cars never stop for pedestrians in the intersection. Just Sunday, I got honked at simply for crossing in the crosswalk. Enforcement can improve the situation temporarily, but long term a structural solution is needed.

One problem is that there is a jumble of different crosswalks, some with crosswalk lights and some without. Here's where they are (the green are crosswalks with lights, the red are those without lights):

On top of the confusion over who exactly has right of way, there is the added chaos caused by having drivers trying to turn onto Wisconsin from either 33rd or Reservoir.

The simplest answer would be to make this intersection completely lighted. By adding a stop light and crosswalk lights, the confusion over who has the right of way would be eliminated. Plus, cars coming off of Reservoir could more easily turn south on Wisconsin and cars coming north on 33rd could more easily turn north on Wisconsin.

There are some objections to this solution. First, residents of 33rd St. might object to the light. They'll see that more drivers heading north through Georgetown will use 33rd instead of Wisconsin. Right now that choice is discouraged due to the difficulty turning north on Wisconsin. Residents of Reservoir west of Wisconsin noticed a similar change after that light was added.

Secondly, people may object to the addition of a light just 40 feet or so south of another light. Although, a similar arrangement exists down at Q and Wisconsin, and that intersection seems to work well.

Finally, there's an objection based on the idea that when you regulate traffic with lights, it causes cars to go faster. The theory is that the more priority you give to drivers, the faster they drive since they feel less obligated to look out for pedestrians or bikers. This theory is best demonstrated in the inverse by woonerfs. Woonerfs are streets where cars are permitted but where they are given lower priority to pedestrians and bikers. The closest thing DC has to a woonerf if Pennsylvania Ave in front of the White House (although Poplar St. in Georgetown is pretty woonerfy too).

Whether a light is installed or not, bulb-outs for the crosswalks should absolutely be installed. They would go a long way towards convincing drivers that pedestrians have the right of way. (Some other possible changes to the crosswalk are discussed below.)

Wisconsin Ave. From 33rd to Q St.: Wisconsin south of this dreadful intersection is like Wisconsin north of it, but with parking on the east side, not the west side:

The thing is, the road isn't any narrower south of Reservoir than it is north. If there is space for cars to park on the west side above Reservoir, than it figures that there is space for cars to park on the west side south of it too (and no, the yellow line doesn't shift over to make more room on the parking side).

While this stretch doesn't get quite the same amount of speed as the block below R, it nonetheless is a long stretch of unnecessarily wide pavement. Ten or so parking spots should be created on the west side, and the rest of the stretch should be filled in with sidewalk. It could look like something like this:

This would have several benefits. It would add more parking. It would narrow the width of the road, and thus slow down speeders. And it would increase the sidewalk space significantly.

Unlighted Crosswalks: Finally, in the heart of the Wisconsin retail corridor is a series of crosswalks that don't have crosslights or stop signs to aid pedestrians to cross. They look like this:

Even though pedestrians have the right of way, most end up feeling obliged to wait for a break in traffic or for traffic to back up before attempting to cross. It doesn't help at all that there is no signage informing drivers that pedestrians have the right to cross on the crosswalk.

Obviously the first thing we need is better signage. There should be street signs telling drivers to yield to pedestrians. These signs should include normal streetside signs as well as those signs in the middle of the road.

Creative changes to the road painting could help as well. Having the lane markers go zig-zag before the crosswalks would do a better job to alert drivers to yield. These lane markings are common in the UK.

And again, sidewalk bulb-outs in selected locations would emphasize the crosswalk and make crossing safer. Even if these bulb-outs simply made the crosswalk that much shorter would help a lot, particular for the elderly and the physically impaired.


: If these improvements are adopted, it leaves little room for bike lanes. While I definitely would like to see more bike lanes in Georgetown, I think prioritizing pedestrian safety is more important for Wisconsin Ave. That said, "sharrows" could be installed easily. They're not as good as true bike lanes, but they improve bike safety none the less.

Moreover, if all these changes were made, they would result in an overall safer Wisconsin Ave. That would make biking on it safer as well.

Conclusion: These simple changes would dramatically improve the safety and appearance of Wisconsin Ave. It would not significantly affect traffic (no travel lanes would be removed) yet it would still increase parking and sidewalk space.

The simple fact is that Wisconsin has been designed terribly. We shouldn't wait for another death to realize that and fix it.

Cross-posted at The Georgetown Metropolitan.

Topher Mathews has lived in the DC area since 1999. He created the Georgetown Metropolitan in 2008 to report on news and events for the neighborhood and to advocate for changes that will enhance its urban form and function. A native of Wilton, CT, he lives with his wife and daughter in Georgetown.  


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Any changes to the streetscape on Wisconsin would need to take into account the possibility of a streetcar being built there in the future. Not sure whether bulb-outs are workable if a streetcar is running up/down the street.

by Aaron on Sep 29, 2010 12:18 pm • linkreport

Great ideas.

Changes would tie nicely into DDOT's completed (pending implementation) Glover Park Transportation Study with plans for north of area covered by this article.

by Mitch Wander on Sep 29, 2010 12:25 pm • linkreport

Great analysis of the situation Wisconsin is definitely one of many roads in the city that needs improvements, and given how bad traffic is in Georgetown on any given day, it's a great place to start. Would love to see someone at DDOT respond to the possibility of implementing these or other such measures.

by Bryant on Sep 29, 2010 12:32 pm • linkreport

A couple things.

1. I'm glad you see the advantages of street parking. On the R-Resovior segment, I think the street parking is residential zoned. Not sure about the rest. Here's an idea: in the parts that are charging too much, lower the price! crazy, I know.

2. Quick query: Do pedestrians have a right of way in a crosswalk (i.e. before they step off the curb) or only when they are already in the crosswalk.

3. Bike lanes; I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss them. Doing a bike lane like 15th -- where it is separated from the street by parked cars, would seem to answer a lot of problems about slowing traffic down.

by charlie on Sep 29, 2010 12:38 pm • linkreport

I will now struggle for weeks to figure out how to use the word "woonerfy" in conversation >.<

by kidincredible on Sep 29, 2010 12:53 pm • linkreport

Thanks for this thoughtful post, but as a biker (as well as a driver and a pedestrian), I am surprised and disappointed to see bicycles given such short shrift. It seems to me that bulb-outs on this road would almost certainly make a bad bike situation worse, by removing even the possibility of keeping to the right of the lane, out of drivers' way.

The stretch between R and Reservoir may be a drag strip at some times of day, but during parts of the morning rush, the entire stretch from R to Q barely moves, because it's jammed with two lanes of traffic where there aren't two full lanes' worth of width.

You are suggesting the road be narrowed to one lane with the use of bulb-outs. But as charlie suggests above, dedicated bike lanes might have the same effect. Sharrows are nice, but they're widely viewed as optional, as anyone who ride downtown can attest.

by Meg on Sep 29, 2010 1:08 pm • linkreport

True Fact*: Woonerfy is the name of a Norwegian death metal-jazz fusion band.

*not actually true.

@Meg: I live in Georgetown and biking is pretty much the sole means of intraneighborhood travel for me. So I am very sympathetic to bikers. I agree that a strong case could be made for bike lanes or even cycle tracks on Wisconsin, but I just happen to think this is a better option. Particularly until M St. gets more bike friendly. Right now it's not. Dumping bikers from Wisconsin onto M is not ideal. DDOT has plans to bring bike lanes into Georgetown on M St., but isn't planning on extending them west of 28th st. or so. Maybe a better option is to install a cycle track on 31st st.? Particularly since DDOT has long range plans to convert 31st St. into a one-way road.

by Topher on Sep 29, 2010 1:30 pm • linkreport

Great post. Wisconsin is disgusting, but it's not the only one. Perhaps GGW should work to determine a series of design templates that can be applied to different street types, so we can take lessons we've learned from Wisconsin and apply them to, say, Columbia Road.

One request: It's likely very snobby of me to suggest this, but could we start using the proper term for "traffic signals" and stop calling them "traffic lights."

The term "Unlighted Crosswalks" from the post above means that they're not illuminated. The appropriate term is "Unsignalized Crosswalks."

I know it's a smallish thing, but if we are going hold any cred with the "powers that be" we should use the proper terminology. It's definitely helpful if we sound like we know what we're talking about.

by Michael on Sep 29, 2010 1:41 pm • linkreport


To an extent, the Pedestrian Master Plan probably has many of the elements you might seek:

by Andrew on Sep 29, 2010 1:49 pm • linkreport

+1 to Meg. Bulbouts would provide no meaningful pedestrian benefits from R to reservoir because very few pedestrians seem to brave Book Hill. A bike lane, however, could really improve both traffic flow and meaningfully improve bike accessibility. While I see the point about the lack of bike lanes on both Wisconsin and M currently, that is not a reason to avoid them in the future. The fact is that M is a highly-traveled bike artery, just as it is heavily traveled by cars, buses, and peds -- people simply want to go there. DDOT needs to consider real needs in any renovation of the streetscape.

Additionally, given that Wisconsin is really a one lane road between R and Q, making the left lane into a turn-only lane southbound between the 2 lights at Q could help keep cars single file and avoid merge issues.

I'd like to see some consideration of closing off 33d -- last summer I sat there for an hour or so and saw about 10 near-accidents. It's basically a racetrack for people trying to beat traffic and is pretty unsafe even down at P for that reason. The road was never designed to hold that many cars.

Finally, I would hope that DDOT avoid following the Glover Park transport plan. That product was very poor -- for example, the only bicycle improvement on Wisconsin in the entire plan was installation of one (1) bicycle rack. No sharrows, no cycle tracks. Just one rack. That is not a model of progressive urban planning.

by reader on Sep 29, 2010 2:07 pm • linkreport

Wi Ave is a mess. Mostly because there is too much car traffic. One would think that putting reliable transit on the street could alleviate that traffic, but that's been done already. Furthermore, a lot of the traffic is far NW residents using it as a throughfare for getting to Arlington and downtown. And Georgetown U students and employees who don't really have an alternative.

I do agree that some redesign features could make the traffic more organized.

Generally, Wi Ave could do with a major repavement. The road is very bumpy for long stretches.

by Jasper on Sep 29, 2010 2:20 pm • linkreport

I always thought the south lanes of Wisconsin between R and Q were two (though unmarked) lanes (especially south of Reservoir). There are two lanes south of Q which are clearly marked. Why not mark them as two lanes which would improve volume flow and also slow cars down in the process?

by sallygphillips on Sep 29, 2010 2:40 pm • linkreport

If part of the goal is to cool the heels of motorists racing down the northern parts of Wisconsin who then slow to a crawl when they reach the southern parts, mixed auto and bike traffic might make good sense, and the sharrows would be a good approach (although taking away the space to the right of the lane that allows cyclists to zip ahead of gridlocked motorists takes away some of the advantage of cycling). There is the issue of a possible streetcar line on Wisconsin, whose rails would be a hazard for cyclists; if it happens at all, that's far enough in the future that it would be silly to avoid putting in these minor street features which could easily be modified as part of a streetcar tracking project.

by Lucre on Sep 29, 2010 2:50 pm • linkreport

Jasper: Most drivers in upper NW use Foxhall Rd/Canal Rd/Whitehurst Freeway to get to the Key Bridge or downtown. It's far less congested.

Anyway, I'd propose putting HAWK signals at the problematic crosswalks rather than full-fledged traffic signals. Saves drivers some confusion, saves some money and they seemed pretty effective in Boulder, CO when I visited there this summer.

by Phil on Sep 29, 2010 3:31 pm • linkreport

What about something that better facilitates/prioritizes buses along that route? It's ludicrous that single-driver cars crawl along that road each way in rush-hour, stinking up the air and taking rare space from much more efficient buses and bicycles.

by Ren on Sep 29, 2010 4:01 pm • linkreport

Sorry, but I have two major problems with this article:
1. Georgetown is not the only part of Wisconsin that needs to be changed. There is slow traffic every morning heading southbound from Tenleytown to Georgetown. Most of the avenue could easily have lane changes in rush hour to make traffic easier to those of us headed downtown.
2. Also, adding parking is a horrible idea. As previously stated, traffic is slow ion Wisconsin, particularly in Georgetown. It is ridiculous to think that a parked car should get its own lane while those of us on buses are continually late to our jobs, schools, and other events.

by ARM on Sep 29, 2010 5:37 pm • linkreport

And presumably if we could get a Metro station in Georgetown, that would help alleviate traffic, especially if a line could branch south from the Red Line from Tenleytown, staying under Wisconsin Ave...?

by M.V. Jantzen on Sep 30, 2010 2:33 pm • linkreport

I agree that Wisconsin Ave. in Georgetown needs improvement, but I don't agree that bulb-outs are a solution. In addition to the issue already raised by other commenters about the disirability of leaving room in the roadway for bicycles, I think bulb-outs put pedestrians dangerously close to moving traffic (especially Metorbuses). The parking lane provides a valuable buffer between pedestrians and vehicles; bringing the curb out to the point where traffic is makes it too easy for a pedestrian not paying attention to take one step off the curb right into traffic.

by Joe M. on Oct 1, 2010 2:59 pm • linkreport

One thing the author may not know is that the current buildout violates several property-owners lot lines -- in other words, part of Wisc Ave is on private property! This is an anomoly (?) That has been long ignored and would have to be addressed.

by R-Alan on May 19, 2011 10:25 am • linkreport

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