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A better Columbus Circle

A new design for Columbus Circle is close to becoming a reality, as I learned at the Union Station Intermodal meeting. Here's the latest design, courtesy of the engineering firm Parsons (click for a larger version):

Compare this to the current layout on Google Maps.

The stupid extra loop, which forces taxis to drive all the way around from the west side to the east side just to get on Mass Ave going back west, is gone, and the public plaza enlarged. Also, it looks like there are now pedestrian paths across from Louisiana Ave and 1st Street; right now, those grass berms require pedestrians to walk up and down a little hill to cross.

This drawing doesn't show traffic lights or crosswalks very clearly. The Parsons engineer told me there will be a light at the corner of E Street (where taxis will now exit onto Mass Ave). I assume there will be crosswalks across Mass from E, Louisiana, Delaware, and 1st, though we can't see here, and can't tell if there will be lights. Ideally, there would be, to enable pedestrians to cross Mass Ave safely to reach any of the roads across the circle.

I think many of these intersections could have been tighter, especially at E. Corners instead of wide rounded turns provide less of a feeling of crossing a huge expanse of concrete and slow traffic more. Still, the design is a big improvement. Now if we could only replace those stupid Congressional parking lots that blight the path from Union Station to the Capitol.

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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You can see (from the enlarged view) the outlines of the current layout for direct comparison, which is certainly helpful.

Also, judging by where the Parsons drawing has cutouts placed, there will (should, rather) be crosswalks on one side of Louisiana across all of Mass; from both sides of Delaware to the Mass median, joining there to cross the rest of Mass; and on one side of 1st across all of Mass. Doesn't look like they plan on a crosswalk at E.

by Adam on May 30, 2008 6:22 pm • linkreport

Improvements for pedestrians and taxis is great, but where are the buses supposed to go? There's an enormous amount of loading-unloading that happens out front of Union, which would gum up traffic good if there isn't a specific area set aside for buses.

by John on May 30, 2008 7:31 pm • linkreport

Lest there be confusion, I meant Metrobuses, not tour buses or Greyhound.

by John on May 30, 2008 7:35 pm • linkreport

The Circulator stop has already (or temporarily?) moved to the garage on the H Street side of Union Station. Big improvement - no one gets wet waiting for the bus.

by bus rider on May 30, 2008 10:25 pm • linkreport

As usual the traffic engineers rule the land. Looks like most of the turning radii are like 30-40 feet. All to get traffic through there FAST!

by Boots on Jun 1, 2008 12:55 pm • linkreport

What about the H St streetcar? Where might that have a stop at Union Station? I'm not trying to sound panicky...just curious.

by steve on Jun 2, 2008 10:00 am • linkreport

Figuring that out is one of the goals of the Union Station Intermodal Transportation Center project. I suspect it won't be on Columbus Circle, but instead on the newly rebuilt H Street side of the complex, or inside the new concourse, or something like that.

by David Alpert on Jun 2, 2008 10:03 am • linkreport

This is exciting. The curly-Q has never made much sense to me. Although I get the sense that at some point there must have been a pass through there, which they removed for some reason. Is there a risk that the cars will back up?

I agree with you on the Congressional parking lots. It's pretty atrocious. It's particularly embarrassing for the more environmental of the Senators and Housemembers. It opens them up to the whole "lear jet liberal" charge when they try to enact strict environmental restrictions, yet stare out over a sea of suburban-plated SUVs. They should clean up their own backyard before they take away incandescent light bulb, god damnit!

by Reid on Jun 2, 2008 6:30 pm • linkreport

It looks as if they are planning to remove the obnoxious concrete obstacles blocking the crosswalks that cross from the station to the Thurgood Marshall building.

Hopefully this will actually happen. Those things are an absurd hazard.

by juanfe on Jun 3, 2008 11:35 am • linkreport

Not bad -- I appreciate having one less traffic zone to cross when I walk from one side of Union Station to the other.

If it's not too late, I wish they would take the opportunity to straighten E Street. There's parking lots on both sides of it, so it should be really easy to work out the property issues. The result would be that E and Louisiana would hit Columbus Circle at the same point. That should be safer for cars and pedestrians -- you'd have one stop with a traffic light where Mass Ave traffic would know to stop, instead of an irregular dribble of cross-traffic and cross-walkers that Mass Ave drivers are naturally tempted to cut off.

by tom veil on Feb 17, 2009 11:12 am • linkreport

Is there any plan to remove the homeless people that congregate in and around the plaza? Every morning I walk through the plaza on my way to work and without fail there is human excrement left on the Columbus fountain. The structure basically turns into a human toilet once the sun goes down and its the real reason the water has been removed. The worst part about all of this is that the fecal matter remains on the fountain uncleaned for days until it is eventually either washed away by rain. If anyone doubts this, just go take a look at the fountain today there were at least a few areas that have been soiled.

Its absolutely disgusting to see children and tourists leaning on the fountain, not knowing what exactly they are leaning on.

by Victor on Mar 4, 2009 8:44 am • linkreport

Victors observation indicates a need for public toilets at this site, for everyone to use including the tourists and children in his anecdote. Uncontained human excrement is bad for everyone. It's more then disgusting. It can spread serious diseases. See John Snow's influence on urban planning.

by Bianchi on Mar 4, 2009 9:11 am • linkreport

The poop problem is a big one, to be sure.

However, There are public restrooms in Union Station. I've seen many a bum in there that were damn near bathing themselves in the sinks, so I don't think security is too discriminating.

by Alex B. on Mar 4, 2009 9:20 am • linkreport

Alex B., they're not using 'em. If they were, there wouldn't be a poop problem at that site. If the goal is to get people to use a toilet the solution is to Reduce the barrier to toilet use and put a toilet at the site where the poop is. It might not work, but it has a better chance of working then not reducing the barrier.

by Bianchi on Mar 4, 2009 11:20 am • linkreport

I think we are missing the point here. These aren't tourists pooping on the fountain. They are homeless people with nowhere to go and apparently too lazy to go into the station to use the restroom like a normal person.

I say, install dividers on the seating area which makes it impossible to lay down. That would force people to spend the night sleeping upright instead of all cozy like they were in a bed. Beef up security. Chase the vagrants from the area.

A port a potty won't work, and neither would a public outdoor restroom. It would be a place for people to cause trouble and deal and use drugs.

by Victor on Mar 4, 2009 11:26 am • linkreport

The core of the issue is that Union Station is one of the city's largest public areas and is in easy walking distance of the city's largest homeless shelter, so it is virtually inevitable that it will be the daytime home for much of the city's transient population; and as such, keeping it clean and safe for the general public is going to require a constant effort. Furthermore, Union Station is one of the few areas in the city that is heavily trafficked, sheltered from the elements, and public property, which combined have turned it into the Beggar's Row of Washington.

Inside Union Station, the situation can be improved by strict enforcement of the existing no-panhandling policy and by a consistent security presence. I see security people making the rounds during the day, but I suspect it is less secure at night.

The more difficult issue is the outdoor public areas. Since they are public spaces, there is going to be panhandling, and given the high levels of foot traffic (especially of tourists), there is going to be a lot of it. Security can be improved, however, by a more consistent presence of police in the area, especially to prevent drug dealing, disorderly conduct, and public defecation, all of which are still happening in the area.

I realize I may be in the minority on this, but I think that one of the most serious mistakes in the urban planning of the 20th Century was in anchoring the poor in the city centers through locating services for them there (homeless shelters, community centers, public housing), which has consistently slowed urban renewal and dramatically raised the cost of keeping city centers livable for the general public. In Washington D.C., Union Station is Exhibit A (and NoMa in general is Exhibit B). Europe, for the most part, did not make the same mistake, putting services for the poor on city outskirts instead, and the difference in quality of life in the city centers is dramatic.

by Born in L.A. on Feb 15, 2012 9:45 am • linkreport

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