The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.


Support two-way 15th Street today

This evening is the DDOT public meeting about 15th Street. It's from 6-8 pm at the 15th Street Presbyterian Church, 15th and R. The format will be an "open house" style, where you can peruse the materials and leave comments but don't need to sit through a whole long meeting; there will be presentations at 6:15 and 7:15 about the options.

WABA, CSG and other organizations support Alternative 3, which is two northbound lanes, one southbound lane, and two bicycle lanes, replacing the current configuration of four northbound lanes and no bicycle lanes. Alternative 4 is also good, with one lane in each direction and a center turn lane, but that will probably create more traffic than alternative 3.

Here are some reasons to support the change:

  • It's safer. Traffic speed is the top factor in whether crashes are fatal; a 40-mph car hitting a pedestrian will kill that pedestrian 85% of the time, but at 30 mph only 45% are killed, and at 20% only 5%. Skeptics of the change say that it's safer because traffic going only one way is easier to see and avoid; with only three lanes instead of four going slower, it won't be hard to see and avoid traffic, plus a lower chance of death is much more important.

    The biggest safety impact is at corners; when traffic is moving at high speed, drivers tend to whip around corners. Also, the faster you drive, the narrower the field of view that your brain pays attention to (because it's focusing more as objects come at your faster). That means that when turning, it's easy not to see people crossing at the corners. Some CakeLove/Love Cafe employees were hit crossing U Street recently, and the high speed on 15th is likely a factor.

  • Neighborhood feel. Right now, walking across town, there's a big perceptual barrier when you get to 15th Street. Even though 16th has more traffic and is a more major road, somehow 15th feels like the barrier instead. Some people are used to the road the way it is. That doesn't mean it can't be better. Our neighborhoods should feel like neighborhoods, not freeways.
  • Bicycle facilities. Bike lanes are good. We need more of them. This change will create them.
  • Lower collateral traffic. One-way streets create extra traffic by forcing people going to or from that street to circle the block.
  • Improve the 15th and Florida intersection. When 15th Street goes from four lanes to one at Florida Ave, everyone speeds and jockeys to get in line or make their turns, which is dangerous.
  • It's even OK by LOS standards. Since there's so little capacity north of Florida, narrowing 15th won't substantially lower the overall road capacity (to the extent we're paying attention to LOS).
Here are some counterarguments and my responses:
  • Two-way will create morning traffic. It will just have one lane going southbound. Few people will get off 16th or 14th and go a few blocks crosstown just to take a one-lane street southbound. Maybe a few will, but not enough to make it feel like "traffic".
  • I like the predictability. It's easy to cross against the light on 15th now because the traffic comes in waves and since the road is too wide, it's empty the rest of the time. But if just a couple people get hit because crossing against the light is so inviting and speeding drivers aren't expecting people due to the freeway feel, their injuries will be more severe.
  • 16th and 14th have more pedestrian crashes according to the Pedestrian Master Plan. According to the map, the difference is very small, and 14th and 16th both have a lot more foot traffic because of the destinations on those streets. Therefore, it looks like 15th is worse per pedestrian-mile or person-crossing or by some such metric.
  • Change the light timing instead, or put in red light cameras to cut speeding. Light timings don't really slow down cars; most cars just speed, then brake, then speed again, then brake. Red light cameras have some influence but not much. The biggest factor that influences drivers' speed is their perception of the street. The wider the road and the straighter the street, the faster they go. More red lights on a super-wide street lead to frustrated drivers; if the street feels narrower, you'll get slower drivers.
Please come to the meeting and voice your opinion. Even if you still disagree with me, please come and speak up. But I hope you will agree and support alternative 3 (or 4).
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. 


Add a comment »

I completely agree with your reasoning (I live on 15th street) and believe that slowing traffic down should be the highest priority. I wonder, though, if we aren't artificially restricting our options with these 4. 15th is a very wide street and could give us a real opportunity to try something more than simply restriping the street (I guess widening the sidewalks is out of the question).

For instance, one of the options has a separated, two-way bike lane, but only with traffic going one way. Why can't we combine that idea with two way? Wouldn't there be room for separated bike lanes against the curb, a buffer of a few feet to allow doors to open and not interfere with the bike lane, parking, and still accommodate 2 or even 3 lanes of traffic? I find the bike lanes on R and Q street really frustrating as cars simply drive or park in them. I even saw a car pass a bike by going around them on the right (driving through the bike lane) the other day.

15th should be a residential street and it isn't right now, but I'd love to see the opportunity taken to make it a more functional street for all users.

by Mike Carr on Jun 19, 2008 2:00 pm • linkreport

"But if just a couple people get hit because crossing against the light is so inviting and speeding drivers aren't expecting people due to the freeway feel, their injuries will be more severe"

Who has gotten hit on 15th Street?

And, who on earth driving does not expect to encounter people??

At least have a decent argument.

by Tubbs on Jun 19, 2008 4:13 pm • linkreport

Tubbs: The pedestrian crash map linked above shows crashes on 15th Street. Some people do get hit.

As for cars not expecting people, drivers indeed don't expect people to be in the street. We've over-engineered our streets to keep people off them and move cars quickly, creating an expectation for drivers that they can go fast and not have any people in their way. That's a recipe for crashes.

Drivers pick up cues from the environment. See a wide street with long, straight sight lines, and you'll think it's ok to go fast and the road will be clear. See a narrow street with short sight lines, and you'll expect maybe there's something or someone around the bend.

This is why art in the middle of intersections has been effective for pedestrian safety: drivers see the art and think, this is an unusual intersection, and it looks like a place where people belong. As a result, they drive slower.

by David Alpert on Jun 19, 2008 4:18 pm • linkreport

Was Tubbs. Forgot dummy email address.

It is a link to another blog, and five clicks later I found the plan, and the crash analysis is actually a PDF with a tiny tiny map of the city showing the crashes. Wish I had the time and patience to go through it to verify, but do not...

by wastubbs on Jun 19, 2008 4:27 pm • linkreport


I'm definitely for the 2-way street change. However, I'd like to see an additional alternative to those proposed. I'd like to see the street --- and the adjoining front yards of the (mainly) residences --- restored to the configuration they had before the street was widened to allow more traffic to flow through it. Originally, this street would have been configured like 18th Street or even 17th Street (but two-way) with much deeper front yards than are there now. Just take a look at how the front yards are of these houses are now, and it is obvious that they've been truncated. Originally, the street would have had been approximately 4 lanes wide ... allowing for one lane of north bound traffic and one for south bound traffic in the middle with one lane on either side of these like 18th Street and 17th Street. If this is to return to primarily residential/neighborhood use (like 18th and even 17th), why would we need more lanes than that? Let's restore the original front yards to the houses that line the street and let's let them have the yards they were built with. Let's return to them the extra 10 feet or so that were taken from them to turn the street into a commuter highway.

by Lance on Jun 19, 2008 5:08 pm • linkreport

Lance: Great idea. Were the sidewalks wider too originally? How about one lane in each direction plus a bike lane, with the remaining space given back to sidewalks and yards?

by David Alpert on Jun 19, 2008 5:11 pm • linkreport

I'm totally opposed to the two-way switch and will be there tonight to learn more from the City. I love the idea of plan 2, which maintains the one-character of the street, yet removes a lane, and introduces the protected cycle track. Maybe I could finally get my girlfriend out to ride in the City if she wasn't in fear of her life the whole time.

Honestly, 14th and 16th are way more dangerous. There is nothing to support the danger-oriented view of 15th. This has more to do with property values, less to do with safety. If we turn 15th into a two-way street, it will be clogged and dangerous, like 14th and 16th, and it will take one relatively smoothly flowing street out of rotation.

More than anything, though, I'm excited about the cycle track. See you there.

by Eric on Jun 19, 2008 5:29 pm • linkreport

My neighbor on the street has lived in her house for over 60 years. She told me that everyone used to have regular front yards that sloped down to the sidewalk and the sidewalks were wider like those on 16th. Obviously, this would be a spectacular solution, but it doesn't seem like it's on the table.

by Mike on Jun 19, 2008 5:31 pm • linkreport

Also, David, what is it that people are going to on 16th that suggests it is anything other than the 2 way character of the street that makes it less pedestrian friendly than 15th?

The Freemason's lodge?

They are both essentially identical residential streets. 16th is more dangerous and two-way. 15th is less dangerous and one-way. The evidence you frequently cite just doesn't stand up the the empirical evidence here in DC. And the difference is substantial.

If we want to increase safety, let's get rid of one of the lanes, change the light patter to encourage a safer speed, fix the rush at Florida, and install the cycle track. In other words, let's adopt option 2.

by Eric on Jun 19, 2008 5:35 pm • linkreport

The JCC? The higher density apartment buildings? The S1/2/4 buses which are constantly running on that road?

16th is a much busier street because it is a major city thoroughfare. It's the central north-south axis of the entire city and the site of one of the busiest bus routes. It has nothing to do with it being two-way.

by David Alpert on Jun 19, 2008 5:38 pm • linkreport

I agree with Eric. 16th Street being a major bus route makes it more crowded or congested? How so? 15th Street is a pretty major thoroughfare too. Lots of people take it who are headed to Maryland. Of course it eventually merges into 16th Street, but that stretch from Mass to Mt Pleasant is pretty major.

I don't know what came of tonight's meeting. I feel strong about this, but perhaps not enough to attend, and I give props to Eric. I completely agree with everything he says.

Calm the traffic, yes, but don't create more of it, which is exactly and there is just no doubt about it, what making it 2 way will do. You would be ruining a good thing.

Of course, if I am wrong. If the traffic both is calmed, and the area does not turn into an annoying eyesore, and is actually improved with two way, you heard it here first: I will gladly eat my own words and sing two way traffic's praises.

If however, it is done and turns into the nightmare I fully expect it to be, the question is: will you?

by Margaret on Jun 19, 2008 8:37 pm • linkreport

I'll concede that the S buses make a meaningful difference between 15th and 16th. However, 16th is relieved of much of its northern traveling load south of Euclid because of 15th. Those commuters join up with 16th north of Harvard. So, I don't buy that the load is so much heavier on the comparable sections. Moreover, the theory that two-way = slower = less accidents doesn't appear to be borne out by a simple comparison of 16th and 15th.

One other difference you didn't mention that is probably worth noting is that the 16th street intersection with U also has an awkward New Hampshire cross intersection.

by Eric on Jun 19, 2008 9:09 pm • linkreport

So... we currently have:

8' parallel parking

8' northbound lane - slow

8' northbound lane - express

8' northbound lane - express

8' northbound lane - slow

8' parallel parking

Significant volume, but not enough to justify 4 lanes. Heavy northbound bus line. Several driveways/alleys per block. Sidewalks are already small at 8', cutting much further into them is not a good option. Desire for a bike lane or two exists.


Two way:

*needing to "look both ways" significantly decreases pedestrian awareness

*Traffic coverage(the amount of time there's a moving car on a stretch of road) rises significantly

*Much higher speed head-on collisions between cars significantly increase driver injury magnitude

One way:

*Slightly higher speed slightly reduces pedestrian awareness

*Slightly higher speed significantly increases pedestrian injury magnitude

Right now they're handicapped by two lanes of parallel parking. I'm going to graciously assume that they need that much parking (are those driveways I see in the pic?).

IMO, there should never be parallel parking on a 1-lane road with major traffic volume. Certainly never in combination with a busy bus line.

Additionally, bikers complain about car doors in combination with parallel parking - part of why they like oversized, 5' wide lanes.

Might we wanna explore alternative A:

From left sidewalk to right sidewalk:

4' southbound bike lane

8' southbound car lane

8' bidirectional turn lane

8' northbound car lane - express

8' northbound car lane - slow

20' perpendicular parking area

4' northbound bike lane

And for the last 60' before an intersection with this arrangement:

4' southbound bike lane

8' southbound car lane

8' bidirectional turn lane - left turn only

8' northbound car lane - express - straight only

8' northbound car lane - slow - straight/right

10' bus lane

6' island

6' bike lane

Separate lights for the slow lane and the express lane - the bus driver gets a button to turn the slow lane from green to red for ten seconds at any busstopped intersection on his route, which allows him to merge back into traffic easily.

by Squalish on Jun 19, 2008 11:43 pm • linkreport


One-way pros/cons:

Increased awareness of vehicles

Increased pedestrian stress at such a long walk through traffic

In the list at the bottom, it should read:

8' island (pedestrian/bus-stop area)

3' bike lane w/ dedicated left turn signal

3' bike lane

by Squalish on Jun 19, 2008 11:49 pm • linkreport


I find your comments on sidewalk width to be quite interesting. However, the real problem with narrow sidewalks is not on 15th, it is on U Street. I do not see how a wheelchair could possibly travel toward the Metro entrance on the south side of this street. Metal staircases are literally less than a yard from street signs and parking meters, let alone the further constrictions caused by patios.

by Vadranor on Jun 20, 2008 1:59 pm • linkreport

Driver's need some love, too. More importantly, as others have noted, 16th Street is more dangerous for pedestrians (I now cross it daily) and two way. You seem to be pushing some ridiculous agenda that's more about theory than reality. Cyclists seem to be equally as likely to be assholes toward pedestrians as drivers. I notice this regularly on 14th Street. I wouldn't cut them any slack for 15th.

by Rich on Jun 21, 2008 10:10 pm • linkreport

Rich: Drivers have gotten 50 years of love. Visit Atlanta to see what driver love looks like. This blog believes in creating walkable communities in our city, and the constant push for more and faster roads has destroyed that in many areas and threatened it in others.

by David Alpert on Jun 22, 2008 9:24 am • linkreport

Add a Comment

Name: (will be displayed on the comments page)

Email: (must be your real address, but will be kept private)

URL: (optional, will be displayed)

You can use some HTML, like <blockquote>quoting another comment</blockquote>, <i>italics</i>, and <a href="http://url_here">hyperlinks</a>. More here.

Your comment:

By submitting a comment, you agree to abide by our comment policy.
Notify me of followup comments via email. (You can also subscribe without commenting.)
Save my name and email address on this computer so I don't have to enter it next time, and so I don't have to answer the anti-spam map challenge question in the future.


Support Us