Greater Greater Washington

I Wish This Were... in Dupont Circle, part 1

Dupont Circle is considered to be a fully-developed neighborhood, and certainly during the District's tough years it was ahead of other areas. Yet there are still parts that are ripe for improvements.

Dupont Circle is surrounded by shops, cafes, and hotels, but the park itself is difficult to get in and out of. Its four lanes of counter-clockwise traffic are divided into two parts, with the inner part serving as Massachusetts Ave, and the outer part working as a typical traffic circle for the other four streets intersecting the park.

Pedestrians can connect from the three avenues (Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire) but not the two streets (19th and P). At the Connecticut and New Hampshire crossings, pedestrians have to wade through two levels of traffic signals, waiting for the second on a narrow concrete median, not wide enough for bikes, and without room for more than a single wheelchair.

In 2006 the Project for Public Spaces put Dupont Circle in its Hall of Shame, saying "the road around the Circle is two lanes too wide, and the connections from the interior park to the edges could be dramatically improved."

To make the park more accessible, Massachusetts Ave's inner roadway should be removed, with Massachusetts Ave traffic merging in a simpler two-lane circle.

This blog has already suggested we put a lid on Connecticut Avenue. The block of the underpass north of Dupont Circle and south of Q St should be decked over to give us a new park.

The new park would connect the two distant halves of Connecticut Ave, expand the circle's green space, and might even provide a better home for the farmers market.

The biggest missed opportunity is under our noses. Where planters fill the Connecticut Ave medians, we once had trolleys that dipped below the surface, and came to rest in two semi-circular (and unconnected) platforms. That underground space should be given a use that opens it to the public.

The space became vacant when the streetcars stopped running in 1962. In 1995 the western half was turned into a food court called Dupont Down Under, which soon failed, and tied up the space with lawsuits.

Last year a group called The Arts Coalition for Dupont Underground (ACDU) presented the only submission for the city's call for proposals. The underground space is so vast, their art space would use up only part of the tunnels, so their proposal included a restaurant and a winery.

It is a shame the city can't take the initiative to clean the space up, so it can at least be used for temporary events while ACDU gathers funding.

Nearby, another vacant government space is showing how commercial and artistic organizations can team up to revitalize a dormant space: a building at 14th & Florida is being used by BYT and Art Whino to host Vitaminwater® Uuncapped Live. Dupont's tunnels could foster similar events. Residents have proposed many other alternatives, but without investors this is wishful thinking. Ideas have included a dance club, a gym, a storage facility, and a pool hall. And even a sex club has been given serious consideration.

A clean, empty space will give rise to many creative temporary uses.

I Wish This Were... is a series where contributors imagine a better use for vacant properties and poorly-conceived public spaces in the DC area.

M.V. Jantzen is a resident of DC who bikes the region with his camera, documenting streetscapes, events, parks, and people. He posts his photos primarily to flickr.com/mvjantzen

Comments

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Ohhhh....I was so happy because at first I thought the people texting at the light were at K Street, then I realized it was Dupont Circle. ('cause I really do wish K Street were easier to cross....gives me more anguish than Dupont Circle, by far, mostly because there is no nice park to look forward to).

As for the park, I am tempted to say that the difficulty getting to it makes it sustainable. Otherwise we might have a situation of loving a park to death. Too many people.

by Jazzy on May 30, 2011 1:25 pm • linkreport

As someone who just moved to DC in late April and resides just a block and a half from Dupont Circle, I certainly have found the pedestrian experience a little nerve-wracking. If, for example, you're trying to cross from the southeast side of the circle onto Mass Ave, it can be rather unnerving crossing to the triangle pedestrian island while vehicles on the inner circle are branching off onto Mass Ave. One never knows when one of those vehicles will instead try to continue circling the circle and plow over the pedestrians as they cross. Nor, for example, is it pleasant huddling onto the little triangle island waiting for pedestrian crossing signals while crossing from the south side of Mass Ave to the north side. The fact the timing isn't coordinated forces pedestrians to crowd onto that tiny little triangle and hope none of the motorists accidentally veer off course and plow everyone over. And as already noted in your write-up, crossing into the circle and being stuck waiting on an extremely thin concrete median between the inner & outer portions of the circle is less than ideal.

by Aaron on May 30, 2011 1:41 pm • linkreport

And if you're walking north on Connecticut, after navigating the nightmare of Dupont Circle you may reach another disaster, smaller but still annoying, when crossing Florida Avenue on the west side. The crosswalks are timed to ensure that pedestrians are trapped on the island. It's my least favorite regularly encountered intersection.

by Keith Ivey on May 30, 2011 2:05 pm • linkreport

How about instead of a random art gallery we...

Make it a streetcar station again?

by John M on May 30, 2011 2:12 pm • linkreport

Does anyone have any drawings of the DuPont Circle trolly tunnels, particularly the closed portal approaches, and that way overlooked eastern side?

by Douglas Willinger on May 30, 2011 3:18 pm • linkreport

Dupont Circle is one of the most ridiculous traffic patterns I've ever seen. It's awful no matter how you're trying to get through it - driving, on the bus, walking, biking, etc.

I like the park over Connecticut idea. That would be a great location for expansion of the farmers market, too.

by Jon Renaut on May 30, 2011 8:31 pm • linkreport

In my experience crossing into or out of the circle is no more difficult than crossing many normal crosswalks in the city...there are just more of them to cross at any given time. If you have some passing familiarity with some of the traffic circles in other large cities around the world, you might think DC does it pretty well with Dupont circle. There are a number of prominent traffic circles with parks inside them with few or no crosswalks at all. The traffic light synchronization and the relatively small area for pedestrians to cross makes the situation seem a lot worse than it actually is. In fact, I would probably guess that the circle is more efficient for pedestrians and cyclists than for autos given how traffic has a tendency to bottle neck on the arterials.

And if we're going to have a conversation about buses and cars that regularly speed around the circle or run lights, we should probably devote a few seconds to discussing how pedestrians and cyclists regularly proceed against do not walk signs and how that creates problems of its own.

Though I'm all for "putting a lid" on Conn Ave.

by Scoot on May 30, 2011 11:15 pm • linkreport

I'd be interested to see what would happen to the traffic pattern if access from 19th and P streets were cut off. Any good open source traffic simulators out there?

The other option would be to build a pedestrian access tier above the traffic portion of the circle.

by Smoke_Jaguar4 on May 31, 2011 1:00 am • linkreport

Actually, the inner lane on Mass IS very much needed for traffic going through the circle--without it, the gridlock would be worse than is.

The problem is really with pedestrians who try to cross when there isn't a walk signal. There should be more ticketing for it, since it is dangerous. I'm all for better signal timing, too.

by Luke on May 31, 2011 9:46 am • linkreport

The pedestrian signals in Dupont should be retimed and improved so you can actually get from the inside of the circle to the outside streets without having to cram on a tiny concrete "pedestrian refuge" with 20 other people.

I also agree that people jaywalk with abandon on the circle - but the reason is that there are plenty of times when the signal says "don't walk" but it's perfectly safe to cross.

by MLD on May 31, 2011 10:00 am • linkreport

This is about timing. Diminishing the number of traffic lanes around the circle would be folly and bring naught but pain upon that most fair of traffic circles.

Timing the lights better, although a pain for traffic engineers, would better balance the needs of pedestrians and cars.

by OctaviusIII on May 31, 2011 10:53 am • linkreport

Dupont Circle is clogged enough; I'm not sure if reducing it to 2 lanes is the best idea. I have seen several opportunities on the circle, however, for diagonal crosswalks to make crossing easier. Lights could also be timed to prioritize pedestrian crossings. It's very frustrating to have to wait twice to cross the same street.

I wonder if the underground space could be used, if for nothing else, to make crossing the circle easier?

by Omar on May 31, 2011 12:32 pm • linkreport

You know, when we get to a point where pedestrians aren't forced to stand and wait for a walk signal on a 12" strip of concrete with auto traffic whooshing by at 45 mph on either side, *then* we'll talk about War on Drivers.

by oboe on May 31, 2011 2:29 pm • linkreport

I fully agree. Dupont Circle (the circle, not the neighborhood) is nerve wracking as a pedestrian, cyclist and driver. On my bike, I'll always 'convert' to pedestrian because I don't feel that car drivers will have the requisite situational awareness - too many distractions. In my car, I'll avoid the circle like the plague. On foot ... it could be worse. But many of the pedestrian lights are unreasonably short.

by Weiwen Ng on May 31, 2011 3:07 pm • linkreport

Imagine what a greater mess that area would be if the drunkard Cissy Patterson had her way:

http://cos-mobile.blogspot.com/2007/08/classic-classism-kathryn-schneider.html

by Douglas Willinger on May 31, 2011 3:31 pm • linkreport

Anyone else remember the pedestrian underpasses that used to go under the circle from outside to inside? I seem to remember them there in the '92 or '93 timeframe.

by Q on May 31, 2011 3:40 pm • linkreport

oboe: You're straying dangerously close to self-parody. Put some ice cubes in the helmet and go riding - you'll live longer!

by Ron Alford on May 31, 2011 3:47 pm • linkreport

Why not let people cross the circle via the metro station? Maybe program it not to charge when you enter and exit the same station within a few minutes. When I used to buy a weekly pass I did this all the time at Dupont and other stations where it's faster to cut through.

by bren on May 31, 2011 6:17 pm • linkreport

The time it takes to descend the Metro escalator is not worth it.

by Omar on May 31, 2011 6:46 pm • linkreport

Much faster than crossing 4+ streets all with a different timing

by bren on May 31, 2011 8:41 pm • linkreport

At certain times, such as early in the morning, I've seen some of the traffic lights blink yellow, which tells me as a pedestrian that cars entering the intersection should yield to me. Of course, many don't. It's an incredibly dangerous intersection for pedestrians, and I avoid it as often as I can. Perhaps some speed bumps would at least slow the cars down?

I live right by Logan Circle, and while the lights aren't as terrible, cars routinely run red lights, which shortens the already short time a ped has to cross. I don't drive, so I can't comment on whether the lights are confusing to drivers, or if they are just wantonly running the lights.

Also, 15 seconds to cross K St. at 16th? That needs to be desperately fixed. Finally, I think the District should reconsider allowing cars to make a right on red. I've almost become road pizza far too many times from cars only looking in one direction for vehicle traffic and not looking for peds entering the crosswalk. Is GGW planning on compiling a list of dangerous pedestrian intersections that can be presented to DOT? I'm sure some of these timing issues can be fixed fairly easily.

by Jess C. on Jun 1, 2011 11:33 am • linkreport

I like the notion of using the trolley spaces to make undergound pedestrian crossings. Might even be able to eliminate some of the traffic lights, making the car traffic more manageable. And if you have peds underground to cross under the circle, you have a viable clientele for small enterprises there.

by busgirl1 on Jun 1, 2011 1:04 pm • linkreport

@Jess: Traffic lights blinking yellow does not mean that cars should yield to pedestrians per se; it just means they have to yield to other cars already in the circle. When you have a Don't Walk sign you should obey that sign.

by Omar on Jun 1, 2011 1:21 pm • linkreport

@Ron Alford:

I fully embraced self-parody long ago. And I spent far too many hours on the bike this Memorial Day weekend in the heat--I think I may have damaged my cerebellum.

Anyway, I wish I could stop chiming in with screechy comments every time I see a photo like the one above, too. But that photo is a perfect miniature portrait of the pedestrian experience in DC: every millimeter of space that could be ceded to the private automobile, has been ceded to the private automobile---to the point where everyone's left standing on a 12" strip of median.

All that's missing is the opposing pedestrian countdown showing that they've got 74 seconds left to wait before they get their "Walk" signal. Why do pedestrians jay-walk, again? Must be something about shoes that makes them uniquely contemptuous of the laws...

by oboe on Jun 1, 2011 1:36 pm • linkreport

@Omar: Well, if it's a blinking yellow, can I expect a walk signal to "eventually" appear. This is the major problem with Dupont Circle. It's confusing and dangerous for motorists, bikers and pedestrians. I would think that a blinking yellow means that a motorist needs to yield to everyone, including peds.

by Jess C. on Jun 1, 2011 2:09 pm • linkreport

Traffic signals are for cars; pedestrian signals are for people. It's safest when navigating traffic to put blinders on to the signals for cars and just look at the Walk and Don't Walk signs. I'm definitely guilty of breaking this rule, though, as there are many times there is a Don't Walk sign visible and traffic is stopped, so I cross in spite of it. The onus is on traffic engineers to give the signals timings that makes sense, for sure!

One thing I can say is that if you are crossing in front of traffic that has a blinking yellow light, you are probably walking against the signal. The only time I cross in front of traffic when they have a blinking yellow is when the circle is too clogged for them to move anyway. The only blinking yellow signals I know about on the circle are for right turns, so be sure to give cars room to move into the circle, since these blinking yellow signals are the only chance they have to move. They already have to yield to other cars, so if they have to fight with pedestrians walking against the light too, there is no hope for them!

* steps off soapbox *

by Omar on Jun 1, 2011 2:15 pm • linkreport

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