Posts about 18th Street
DDOT will soon be bidding contracts to reconstruct 18th Street in Adams Morgan. Adams Morgan Main Street is trying to persuade them to replace the standard tree boxes with grates.
Tree boxes fence off an area for the tree's soil and roots. Meanwhile, tree grates cover that space with a surface that people can walk on, but which allow rainwater to run down to the soil beneath.
DDOT's Urban Forestry Administration generally refuses tree grates, though they already exist in some areas such as Georgetown and downtown, and are part of the new Columbia Heights public realm at 14th and Park Road.
According to a presentation on innovative stormwater techniques, grates will also be part of the reconstruction of 17th Street in Dupont Circle. The need is even more acute on 17th, where the sidewalks are extremely narrow. In many places, there isn't even the standard 10 feet between fenced-off yards or sidewalk cafes and the adjacent tree boxes.
In Adams Morgan, DDOT will be significantly widening sidewalks, creating much more pedestrian space even with boxes. At the same time, 18th gets very heavy pedestrian traffic and more space would be helpful.
This problem is most severe on U Street. Unlike in Adams Morgan, DDOT's plans for U Street don't widen the sidewalk, except in one small spot, and U Street is growing rapidly in numbers of residents, retailers, and pedestrian traffic.
Why does DDOT oppose tree grates? Here are some arguments made by UFA head John Thomas in a May email on the subject:
- DDOT's ADA compliance officer does not accept tree grates. I am not an ADA expert, but it seems that tree grates are no worse than tree boxes, which block off the entire space to all people including those with disabilities. Also, DC has a number of tree grates now.
- The grates are above the DDOT maintenance capabilities. This is a legitimate concern in most areas. DDOT does not have the ability to keep checking on tree grates. If not monitored, as the tree trunk expands, the grate can choke it unless the hole is widened. Also, roots can pop up the grate.
Many (or perhaps all) of the existing tree grates in DC are in areas such as Georgetown and downtown where a BID can handle some maintenance. DDOT could require an agreement to maintain the grates from a local business or citizen association before agreeing to install any.
- Trees will be damaged at the trunk and lower limb levels (as is the case along and M and Wisconsin) regardless of the grates. Thomas didn't elaborate on why, though I could see that people might lean against the tree or bump it as they walk if the grates facilitate getting closer. In a place like Adams Morgan or U Street, drunk people might be more likely to lean against (or perhaps urinate on) the trees if they can get close to them.
- Bikes tend to get locked to trees when tree grates are present. Fences and plants keep bikes away. Also a fair point.
- The liability would still remain with the District even with an MOU if there is a trip/fall claim. Are grates less safe than fences? It'd be helpful to have any statistics from other cities or from DC's existing grates versus its tree boxes.
- UFA has historically denied grates across the board. So? DDOT also has historically granted curb cuts willy-nilly, but fortunately, they have recently cracked down. It shouldn't ever be too late to change bad past practices.
Should DDOT install tree grates? There are good arguments on both sides. It seems that a decision about tree grates must balance the value of adding pedestrian space against the slightly better conditions for trees.
UFA is focused entirely on maximizing tree canopy, and that's an extremely worthy goal. In some commercial areas, however, maintaining a wide enough sidewalk for pedestrians is also a worthy goal, and there needs to be a balance that weighs the inadequacy of pedestrian space with the potential harm to trees.
Plus, sometimes UFA can't put in a tree, or has to settle for a smaller tree box, because of available space. Grates could allow more trees that can collect more stormwater. There are even more innovative stormwater techniques for trees, such as grates on hills (like 18th Street) where water from one tree area drains into the next, and so on, like a natural hill. DC also has "structural soil" covered with cobblestones or pavers to provide stormwater management without sacrificing walking space around the ballpark and Barracks Row.
All of these techniques, including tree grates applied where pedestrian volumes warrant, can make DC's streets more usable and greener at the same time.
Tonight, DDOT will discuss the planned Adams Morgan streetscape project, which will reconstruct 18th Street from Florida Avenue to Columbia Road. The project would widen sidewalks, repair and replace tree boxes, streetlights, and sidewalk pavement. It would also reconfigure the roadway from two travel lanes in each direction and angled parking on one side to one travel lane each way, parallel parking on both sides, and a center median for turns. The single lane would also contain "sharrows" reminding drivers that cyclists are welcome to share the road. At each intersection, bulb-outs would narrow the pedestrian crossing distance.
18th Street around Kalorama Street before (above) and after (below) the proposed streetscape
reconstruction. North is to the left.
Original plans suggested a raised median or one made out of special materials that create more of a pedestrian refuge in the center. However, a median which can accommodate vehicles could allow trucks to stop for loading, and DDOT is leery of different materials that may pose greater maintenance costs or headaches. Therefore, the current plan calls for the utilitarian, simpler, but less attractive striped paint.
The plan will also improve the intersection of Florida Avenue and 18th Street, where pedestrians on the east side of 18th have to cross three separate roadways and where cars race through in many different directions. The current plan consolidates the two islands into one, larger island. Southbound traffic on 18th will have to continue farther south to turn left onto U or Florida instead of swinging through the existing slip lane. An earlier iteration would have moved the islands entirely and created an even larger pedestrian plaza at the northeast corner, but that didn't survive to the final plan.
Businesses and residents support this plan, though many are concerned with the impact of construction. DDOT has not done a good job in recent years of managing these streetscape projects. Work has stretched far beyond the promised end date, temporary closures have impacted businesses, and the unwelcoming appearance of construction has driven people away. However, once completed, 18th Street Adams Morgan will be much more pleasant for walking or biking along.
Tonight, members of the community will decide if they're willing to accept the short-term pain, and DDOT will try to convince them that it can handle the job. The meeting is at 7 pm at the 3rd District police station, 1620 V St, NW.
This week and next, there are several important opportunities to advocate for better streets in DC, whether for bicycles, pedestrians, streetcars, or retail along the edge.
17th also has some prime opportunities to add apartments above low, ugly parcels like the Safeway. A new mixed-use Safeway could more closely match the height of the neighboring buildings, mostly around four stories. The first meeting is Wednesday, August 5th, 6:30 pm at Cobalt, on the 3rd floor of the building at the northeast corner of 17th and R that also houses Level One and 30 Degrees.
These events and more appear on the Greater Greater Washington calendar. Know of an event we should list? Email it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
DDOT will spend much of its road stimulus money to completely reconstruct several roads, including Sherman Avenue, which we discussed recently. Another is 18th Street NW, from Massachusetts Avenue to Florida Avenue, in the Dupont Circle neighborhood. The 18th Street design contains some significant pedestrian improvements, particularly bulb-outs at many corners. DDOT engineers worked hard to design these improvements. Unfortunately, without clear principles for deciding when bulb-outs are appropriate or not, many of the key decisions came down to the last moment with little information.
Many parts of 18th are in bad shape, and WASA needs to completely replace a water main underneath the street. DDOT will rebuild all of the curbs, redo all sidewalks, tree boxes and streetlights, add bicycle parking and sharrows, and place multi-space parking meters along the metered sections. They will also create bulb-outs at many of the corners, which narrow the distance for pedestrians to cross by extending the curb in front of the parked cars.
The project team worked very hard to keep almost all of the grassy triangles at 18th and New Hampshire. Right now, neighbors plant flowers in those small areas, but the curb ramps aren't ADA compliant. Initially, DDOT engineers proposed considerably shrinking the size of those triangles, but found ways to adjust the ramps and comply with requirements while only removing small pieces of the green space.
Between one presentation and the next, the team suddenly changed the curb at the southeast corner of 18th and S Streets to have a much larger turning radius. Instead of a sharper corner with two ramps, that corner (at the upper right in the below drawing) has one larger diagonal ramp. What happened?
I asked DDOT engineers about this at the meeting. They explained that unlike other corners like 18th and T, traffic heading northbound (moving left in the picture) hugs the curb since there is no parking lane, and therefore vehicles need a larger radius to avoid swinging into the opposite lane on S as they make the turn. Perhaps, but why so large, I asked? The corner of 18th and Riggs, where cars would turn onto a much narrower street, has the sharper corner.
DDOT engineers made time to meet with me one on one. They explained that the AASHTO guidelines call for a larger radius when two more major roads meet, unlike at Riggs which is a less heavily used road. However, they added, AASHTO guidelines also allow for some flexibility, and they could sharpen the corner somewhat. Since large numbers of pedestrians walk through this corner, which is the southern end of the 18th Street commercial strip, designing it to let vehicles swing around the corner turn without slowing is the wrong design principle.
After presenting my concerns, the DDOT representatives told me that they would modify the corner to use a smaller turning radius. I'm very glad they agreed to this change, as it's the right choice. However, is it really right to make this decision after talking to one resident? What if another resident had met with them and asked for a larger radius that encouraged faster vehicle traffic at another corner?
We need objective standards to make these decisions. The newly-finalized pedestrian master plan does address these issues, though in a general way. The section on turning radii contrasts the standard AASHTO manual's recommendations, which suggest radii wide enough for all vehicles to "turn easily," and the newer IT Context-Sensitive Solutions manual, which recommends radii wide enough for common vehicles but not necessarily all, and making walkable urban intersections as compact as possible.
The Master Plan recommends updating DDOT's policies to match these best practices. It also addresses bulb-outs, also known as curb extensions, writing, "DDOT should develop a policy describing when curb extensions should be installed as part of retrofit projects, rehabilitation projects, resurfacing projects, and new construction. It is generally recommended that curb extensions be utilized to shorten crossing distances and to enhance the public space or to provide space for a bus shelter wherever possible on arterial roadways and at multi-legged intersections."
Having no policy really complicated the debate over this 18th Street project. The original plan contained bulb-outs at most corners with on-street parking. Some residents and ANC commissioners loved the bulb-outs, while others raised concerns. Would these hinder delivery trucks, which generally double park at the corners? Would they be more dangerous for bicyclists? Are they even necessary?
Bulb-outs are a good design practice for pedestrian safety. And according to bicycle advocacy groups, they are not bad for bicycles, as long as they don't block bicycle lanes or anything like that. In fact, by slowing traffic and forcing cars to turn carefully, they enhance safety. During the debates at community meetings and ANC meetings, though, I made these points, but DDOT generally did not. One ANC commissioner asked if DDOT could bring an expert in bulb-outs, to help differentiate those corners where they are valuable from those corners where they might prove a nuisance.
In the end, the ANC voted to approve bulb-outs along the commercial area, but reject them farther south. The DDOT project team promised to follow the ANC's decisions. But the engineers must have felt bulb-outs were appropriate from the start, since they included them. It's important to listen carefully to residents and neighborhood leaders, who can often point out specific local conditions that should bear on the project decisions. But choose to include or reject bulb-outs is too important a decision to leave entirely up to an ANC vote, especially when the ANC couldn't get the information it wanted about bulb-out best practices to inform its own decision. It's even less appropriate to leave it to the last resident who happens to bend the ear of the project team.
DDOT needs detailed policies on bulb-outs, turning radii, and other street design features. Those policies shouldn't become straitjackets that prevent professionals from deviating from a design where it's important, but neither should the designs depend simply on the luck of the draw for the project engineers, ANC commissioners, or vocal residents. When they do, as on 17th Street, each project ends up cutting feature after feature until we end up spending millions to change very little at all. Fortunately, on 18th, we ended up only cutting half of the changes. Hopefully the ANC made the right choice. Right now, we really don't know.
At Adams Morgan's crossroads, the intersection of 18th, Columbia, Adams Mill, and Calvert, DDOT is planning significant improvements for pedestrians.
Most notably, the "slip lanes" from Columbia to Adams Mill to Calvert going west are all closing. This will give pedestrians more space and get rid of the little triangular islands that force people to cross multiple roads to get around. The intersection of 18th and Columbia and then Adams Mill and Calvert are both huge expanses of concrete that feel unwelcoming if you're not in a car, and this will help.
Top: Engineering drawing from DDOT. Bottom: Google Maps view
of the current intersections. Click for larger versions.
There is also a new bike lane along the segment of Adams Mill between Calvert and 18th/Columbia, and what look like bike boxes on Calvert and Cliffborne. Bike boxes are areas that span the entire street between where cars are supposed to stop and the crosswalk, allowing bicycles to move in front of cars stopped at a light, positioning them to turn safely where the cars can see them.
What about the other intersection improvements from their study? I'm told that some of them are feasible, some not. At 18th and Florida, I'm told that closing all the slip lanes may make it too hard for buses to turn between 18th and U Street, as many buses do. I'm trying to find out if this alternative is too tight for buses. Something should be done; today, a pedestrian has to cross seven lanes and two intermediate traffic islands on the east side of 18th and six lanes in two roads on the west side, creating a definite barrier between Dupont's 18th and Adams Morgan.
If there's one constant among DC neighborhood activists and officials, it's that everybody complains about DDOT. Part of this is inherent in being the transportation agency: as Chris Ziemann said at Wednesday's Dupont ANC meeting, everyone is a consumer of DDOT's product, the streets.
But there's more to it. DDOT also suffers from little coordination in its policy approaches or its procedures. They're fairly good at fixing potholes, reconstructing streets and building bridges, but it's a jumble of people and projects going their own directions.
DDOT could do better in two areas: policy and process. On the policy front, we need an overall coherence to what DDOT builds. Is it a general goal to speed traffic or give more street space to transit and pedestrians? Should we make one-way streets into two-way or two-way streets into one-way? Are bulb-outs a good idea or not? When are bike lanes appropriate?
We should have a citywide set of "street best practices" which show the ideal street. Small residential side streets would have certain ideal characteristics, major downtown streets other characteristics. And then, when considering a specific street, planners would start from a common set of elements and a common language, making modifications as appropriate for the particular conditions of that street and the wishes of the residents.
The other deficiency is process. In the last six months, DDOT has reached out to the Dupont community concerning 14th Street, 15th Street, 17th Street, 18th Street, and U Street. Some of these projects are "studies" and some are "designs". Some, like 17th Street, had an extensive process of public meetings; others, like 18th, were already partly designed before the community got involved. Some Each project has featured a different set of contractors following a different process and focusing on different elements.
DDOT doesn't even have a master list on its site of street reconstructions under consideration, nor a calendar showing when they are scheduled to be done. Plans are all over the place on their Web site, like here, here, here, here, and here.
I've learned from good managers in the private sector that it's always best to communicate as much as possible clearly to your customers. Communicate the status of each project and the schedule. If a schedule has to change, communicate that and explain why. In DDOT, some people communicate well and others poorly, but there is no coherent management.
DDOT should revamp their site to organize studies and information based on criteria useful to its customers, such as geography. There should be a page for each neighborhood or ward showing projects, studies, and designs in that area, maybe even with a map. Along with the list should be a calendar showing what year each project is expected to receive funding. And clear contact information should accompany each item.
DDOT gets a fair amount done, in a city where there is a lot to do. But it's so focused on getting things done that it's falling down at organizing and communicating its many projects. We need good management at the top to impose clarity and coordination. The Office of Planning has made huge strides in this area under Harriet Tregoning. We need a similar leader at DDOT.
Adams Morgan has many more pedestrians than cars. But its major intersections have wide turns and slip lanes that speed traffic while making crossing difficult.
Fortunately, DDOT's walking-friendly personality has won out over its faster-traffic one in the Adams Morgan/18th Street study, which recommends redesigning the area's key intersections with more urban designs.
Here's 18th and Columbia:
18th and Florida. Today, to walk along the east side of 18th, a person now has to cross three separate roadways. This plan consolidates those into a single crossing, and on the west side, cuts off vehicular access to Vernon St from this end entirely.
Columbia at Kalorama, Euclid, and Harvard. Each of these intersections has tiny triangular spaces too small to be usable. The study recommends reconnecting each to neighboring blocks to create better public spaces. (According to the DDOT presentation, Kalorama Park event used to stretch south to complete the full triangle that this study seek to restore).
DDOT originally planned to perform reconstruction of 18th Street in 2009. According to emails on the Adams Morgan neighborhood email list, it was then pushed back to 2011, but the Council decided to force DDOT to do it in 2009 and put money toward it. It doesn't look like this includes the Columbia Road portions, and I don't yet have definitive confirmation that they're going to follow this study's recommendations exactly, but I'll post when I have more details.
On top of the streetscape reconstructions planned for 17th Street, 14th Street, U Street, and Adams Morgan's 18th Street, DDOT recently announced plans to rebuild 18th Street between Massachusetts and Florida. Some plans were done years ago and shelved, but 18th Street's water main needs rebuilding, and so the street redo is back on the front burner.
Corner of 18th and S, from preliminary DDOT
drawings. There's no bus bulb on the northwest
corner and no bulb-out at all on the southeast.
DDOT plans a detailed public meeting soon, but presented preliminary plans to the Dupont Circle ANC this week. They intend to build bulb-outs at each intersection, shortening the distance pedestrians have to walk to cross the street. However, the plans don't appear to extend the bulb-outs to the bus stops, as they do on 14th. They should, since forcing the buses to not only pull aside but then squeeze around a bulb-out to get back into traffic would create more delay rather than less.
The bulb-outs also vary quite a lot. Some of them are longer, some shorter. And some corners inexplicably have no bulb-outs at all.
Speaking of bulb-outs, I again heard someone repeat the argument that 17th Street can't get bulb-outs because it's a L'Enfant street and the curbs are inviolate. This continues to sound extremely fishy, since in L'Enfant's day all the streets were dirt, and now both 14th and 18th are getting bulb-outs.
The 18th Street plan also calls for new and consistent treeboxes, consolidating newspaper boxes onto special areas with square pavers, replacing individual parking meters with electronic multi-space meters, and installing new bike racks along the street.
The Dupont ANC mostly postponed discussion of the plan itself, instead focusing on process issues. However, they did raise a few good questions, including whether the new treeboxes would be consistent with those on 17th, P, and other streets with recent or upcoming streetscape redesigns. Another asked if the street could accommodate bike lanes.
The ANC strongly emphasized the importance of considerable public input; since this plan was already partly complete, the DDOT consultants have proceeded with engineering beyond the point where they ought to involve the public. It's important to ensure they don't go too far that they can't incorporate feedback.
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