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Roads


Pedestrian tunnels would not make DC's streets better for walking

DC is looking at ways to make city streets safer in and around Petworth and Brightwood. At least one neighborhood official thinks the best way to do that is to put pedestrians in tunnels—yes, tunnels. But tunnels make for longer trips for people on foot, can encourage crime, and don't really make dangerous streets any safer.


No. Photo by Matt Niemi on Flickr.

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) put together the Rock Creek East Livability Study to come up with ideas and recommendations to improve safety and accessibility for streets in the area north of the Petworth Metro station, east of Rock Creek Park, and west of North Capitol Street.

These places are dense, walkable, and home to many people who do a lot of walking and biking. But they're also primarily designed for cars: the roads are wide, with intersection designs meant for fast turns that encourage drivers to look for gaps in traffic rather than crossing pedestrians.

The final results of the study came out in August, and they included suggestions for things like bike lanes, traffic calming, and intersection designs that are more pedestrian-focused. DDOT engineers hope that different street designs will bring driving speeds down and make people feel safer walking or biking in the neighborhood.

Two major traffic circles, Grant and Sherman, got special treatment in the study. Right now, both have two lanes for cars and none for bikes. Petworth residents have long complained about speeding through the circles and how it makes crossing them on foot to go straight across a dicey proposition. DDOT looked at traffic volumes and determined that each circle could probably stand to have only one driving lane, which would mean room for bike lanes and shorter crosswalks.


Grant Circle Today. Better parking, bike lanes, and wider sidewalks are proposed. Image from Google Maps.

An ANC commissioner says tunnels would be better

Petworth Advisory Neighborhood Commission 4C commissioner Talib-Din Uqdah is not a fan of the plan. He thinks the ideas proposed as a result of the study would negatively affect traffic in the area too much. In an attempt to explain to Petworth News' Drew Schneider that he is concerned about the dangers pedestrians face, he suggested that DDOT should dig tunnels underneath Grant Circle for pedestrians to use:

Since I'm now living in a city nostalgic for days past—street cars and "barn-dancing" (sic) at downtown intersections—why don't we consider bringing back the underground walkways that would take you from one side of a busy street, intersection or "circle," to another?

Coming up in the 50's and 60's, the city's earlier solution for pedestrian safety was to construct these underground walkways many of us used. I believe they are all closed-off now, Dupont Circle being the exception...Just something to think about—a win-win for the pedestrian and above ground modes of travel—cost should not be a consideration; all what price do we put on safety?

Here are the problems with pedestrian tunnels

It might seem like tunnels (and bridges) are a no-brainer way to get people across busy streets. There are, after all, places where they do just that, like on trails that cross over rail lines or interstates. But by and large, there are very good reasons for not making them part of our cities.


This pedestrian bridge over I-495 in Annandale makes sense. But over city streets? Not so much. Image from Google Streetview.

Simply re-routing people away from one or two intersections certainly doesn't mean dangerous driving will stop (it could increase since there'd be even fewer people around), and there are still plenty of other people crossing the streets that don't have tunnels.

Meanwhile, simple physics says that with a tunnel, you not only have to walk the distance to your destination, but also up or down the equivalent of a story. It also seems perverse to make walking harder and more inconvenient under the pretext of keeping people safe, especially when other safe options do the same job with less effort.

Moreover, unless you are talking about a lot of pedestrians using a particular tunnel at all hours, you have to deal with other safety concerns about potential crime. Tunnels and bridges that are out of the way of police cars driving by make many people feel unsafe and loathe to use a particular piece of infrastructure. If people feel unsafe walking down a dark tunnel alone at night, they'll decide to take their chances with speeding cars.

And despite Mr. Uqdah's assertion that "cost should not be a consideration" that is simply not true. DDOT and the city certainly do not have unlimited funds, and tunnels of any type are very expensive.


Randolph Street in Petworth. Photo by Rob on Flickr

Traffic calming helps drivers too

Another bad assumption is that traffic calming is just frustrating drivers for the sake of helping others feel good. That's simply not true. Reduced collision rates on calm streets are an obvious benefit for drivers.

Meanwhile, the fears that slower speeds (which usually just brings things down to the speed limit) just lead to increased congestion have not been borne out across the city.

Time and time again, it has been clear that a low-cost solution like traffic calming has great results for everyone when they travel, whether it's on foot or by car. We should get away from the assumption that a tunnel or bridge is far safer than the street.

Something as simple as walking around the neighborhood should not involve elaborate infrastructure plans. Walking is good for people as individuals, it's good for the city, it's good for business, and it's good for a safe and vibrant city. If people do not want to walk because they feel unsafe on the street, then it's going to be very hard to convince them to walk somewhere else.

Suggesting tunnels as a way to keep traffic moving implies that people on foot as mere obstacles for drivers. Tunnels would make the urban environment hostile to the people that live and work there.

Bicycling


These two new short bike lanes, called "pocket lanes," help traffic flow and keep cyclists safe

There are some unusual new bike lanes at two intersections in DC. They keep traffic moving more smoothly and protect cyclists from a dangerous situation: where they're going straight but a driver to their left is turning right.


Photo by Mike Goodno, DDOT's bike lane designer.

The District Department of Transportation recently installed "pocket lanes" on southbound 2nd Street NE at Massachusetts Avenue and at Hawaii Avenue and Taylor Street NE. A type of through bike lane that's less than a block long and doesn't continue on the other side of the intersection, they sit between the lane for going straight or turning left and the right turn lane.

Pocket lanes have several uses, and they make intersections more efficient for everyone. For starters, they keep people on bikes who are heading straight through an intersection from having to wait behind a queue of left-turning vehicles, whose drivers are in turn waiting for a break in oncoming traffic. They also keep drivers from having to wait in line behind a cyclist who's traveling straight.

Another benefit is that they give people on bikes their own space that's to the left of right-turning traffic, which prevents a situation known as the "right hook." The "right hook" occurs when a driver who's turning right hits a cyclist riding on the right hand side of traffic and going straight.

With the 2nd Street example, traffic often backs up there because there's only one lane for either continuing straight on 2nd or turning left onto Massachusetts. The pocket lane allows cyclists to ride past the backed up traffic, and to be to the left of cars turning right. Here's what the intersection looked like before the new pocket lane:


Image from Google Maps.

Here's a shot of the pocket lane at Hawaii and Taylor:


Photo by Mike Goodno.

These lanes work when engineers can narrow the adjacent travel lanes to fit a pocket lane beside a right-turn only lane. Protected bike lanes are still the safest option, but in places where space is constrained this can make cycling more efficient and possibly safer.

DDOT is actively looking for more locations where they can add pocket lanes. If you have suggestions, contact Mike Goodno (mike.goodno@dc.gov).

Roads


This Capitol Hill throughway will get safer for bikes and pedestrians, but some say not safe enough

A dangerous stretch of Maryland Avenue NE, a street that runs diagonally through Capitol Hill, will soon narrow from four lanes to two, with a 10-foot median and painted bike lanes. The people making the changes say there isn't enough space for protected bikeways, which would separate cyclists from cars, but bike advocates disagree.


Maryland Avenue NE, where it crosses both 7th and D Streets. A cab driver ran over a pedestrian here in June 2014.

The section of Maryland Avenue between 3rd and 15th Streets has been particularly thorny for people not traveling by car. In June 2014, a driver ran over and badly injured a pedestrian in a crosswalk on the street. Despite the District's Department of Transportation adding flex posts in summer of 2014 to narrow the road and installing speed cameras in October 2015, speeding continues to be a problem.

"Even with all the new barriers, I would never risk crossing at that intersection," a resident told WAMU in 2015. "I always go down to the light because people don't stop. I have seen people not stop for walkers in the crosswalk."

Neighborhood leaders have kept pressure on DDOT to make more concrete changes, and the agency recently accelerated plans to cut the number of driving lanes on Maryland Avenue (a move known as a "road diet").

The proposed changes, which are part of a bigger effort called the Pedestrian Safety Project, will narrow the road from four 11-foot wide lanes to two by converting two lanes in each direction into painted bike lanes and building a 10-foot-wide median that becomes a dedicated left turn lane at intersections. These changes would be a big step forward, especially because as of now, cyclists have nowhere to ride except in the same lanes as cars.


Image from DDOT.

But the fact that the bike lanes are painted lanes that sit between parked cars and traffic rather than protected bikeways to the right of parked cars is frustrating to a lot of people who get around by bike, myself included.

While DDOT claims the painted bike lanes are all that can fit into the project due to space restrictions, Greg Billing, the executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, the region's biggest bike advocacy group, says "there's certainly space" for a protected bikeway.


Image from Google Maps.

Why painted lanes?

According to George Branyan, the pedestrian program coordinator at DDOT and project manager for the Maryland Avenue redesign, the current plan is to go with painted bike lanes that are five or six feet wide. A protected bikeway, he says, would have to be eight feet wide, and between the traffic lanes, the median, and the parking spaces, there just isn't space.

One response to this might be to simply make the median smaller, but Branyan says that isn't an option because at intersections, the median will become a left turn lane, meaning it can't be narrower than a travel lane.

Yes, DDOT could simply remove that dedicated left turn lane. But a big factor here is also the fact that some residents are concerned that if cars get less priority on Maryland Avenue, traffic will back up and more cars them will spill over onto surrounding streets.

Removing the left turn lane could also affect the efficiency of the X8 bus route, which travels the entirety of Maryland Ave NE between 3rd and 15th Streets.

Finally, Branyan says the combined width of the car traffic lane and painted bike lane also serves another purpose: allowing emergency vehicles to pass through traffic. With the painted bike lanes, each lane of travel is effectively 16 feet wide—meaning an emergency vehicle will be able to pass a passenger car in that space.

Not so fast—protected bikeways aren't impossible

Billing says he and his organization are fully behind a road diet for Maryland Avenue, but adds that there is in fact room for protected bikeways.

While removing parking might be politically unpopular, he says, the parked car lane (which is eight feet wide in the proposed design) could be narrower: cars are typically 6½ feet wide, so seven-foot-wide parking lanes should suffice. That'd mean an extra foot on each side of the street.

Billing also says the travel lanes themselves, which are currently slated to be 11 feet wide, could be a foot narrower. That'd provide an extra foot on each side, which is enough when you add it to the six feet currently set aside for the painted bike lanes.

Narrower travel lanes, Billing adds, would have the added bonus of being safer for pedestrians because drivers tend to drive more slowly on narrower lanes, and there'd be less distance to have to cover when walking across the road.

Let's welcome a road diet but push for the best one possible

Under the current design plan, the road's speed limit will remain 25 mph plus the lanes will get narrower. Between that and the painted bike lanes, the current plan would make Maryland Avenue safer for cyclists. But there's also space to make it a whole lot safer.

There is clearly reason to ask why DDOT can't do better by including protected bikeways in the design. Protected bikeways would further contribute to the traffic-calming effect of the design by resulting in narrower travel lanes. And they would protect cyclists from having to veer into traffic to avoid issues like double parked cars and standing vehicles.

While it has taken Capitol Hill residents and safe streets activists time to get to a concrete proposal for a safer Maryland Avenue, this new design should be the beginning of a conversation that focuses on what residents, pedestrians, and cyclists really want from their streets: do we want streets redesigned to be safer while inconveniencing cars as little as possible (as this design seems to do)? Or do we want streets redesigned to put the use and safety of pedestrians and cyclists first, even if it means impacting traffic?

Transit


DC's plans for SafeTrack are underwhelming

DC's plans for helping people travel during SafeTrack include expanded restrictions on on-street parking during rush hour, more taxi stands and places to meet up and carpool, and more officers to help control traffic. There's currently nothing about expanded bus or HOV lanes.

DC mayor Muriel Bowser, WMATA Chief Operating Officer (and former interim General Manager) Jack Requa, and District Department of Transportation director Leif Dormsjo laid out these changes at a press conference on Thursday.

In May, we wrote about how important it would be for transportation departments to consider bus and HOV lanes along major transportation corridors. It could be tough to pull off, but getting through SafeTrack isn't going to be easy, and asking people to carpool won't be enough.

Let's hope that with maintenance surges only beginning now, leaders will find more solutions than those currently on the table.

Details on plans for Arlington and Fairfax should come out of a 1 pm press conference today.

Bicycling


15th Street's protected bikeway is back!

It's a Bike to Work Day miracle! For the last few months, demolition of the old Washington Post building has squeezed people on both bikes and foot into the same narrow space. But as of this morning, there's both a protected bikeway and a sidewalk, meaning there's a safe way for everyone to travel.


A new protected bikeway on 15th Street. Photo by the author.

When Carr Properties started demolishing the old Washington Post building, at 15th and L NW, it was supposed to set up two separate temporary paths along 15th, one to replace the closed sidewalk and one to replace the closed bikeway. What actually went up, however, was just a single narrow chute. While there were signs saying it was only for bikes, people used it for walking because it was the only option on that side of the street.

This morning, though, I noticed both a temporary sidewalk and protected bikeway, with a barrier in between, running on 15th between L and M Streets. And on L, there are sharrows that make it clear that people on bikes can use the full lane—that may not be as nice as the protected bikeway, but it can work on a temporary basis.

Nice work, DDOT! This is great news for people who depend on the city's bike infrastructure to get around. Now, they don't have to deal with a major gap in the network, which people were fearing would last for the estimated construction time of two years.

The city, and the region, still has a ways to go in terms of providing safe paths for everyone when construction comes along. But this development, made possible by a little paint and some bollards that make things clear, is an encouraging sign.

Transit


Before going to Georgetown, the streetcar will go east to Benning Road

DC is studying ways to extend the streetcar west to Georgetown, but that's the second extension it will get. First is a project to lengthen it to Benning Road Metro, but questions remain about where tracks will go, overhead wires, and more.


All images from DDOT.

The Benning Road streetcar project is really two projects: The streetcar extension itself and an even larger project to replace the bridge that takes Benning Road over the Anacostia River and 295. There will be a public meeting on May 19th where you can learn more.

Going to Benning Metro rather than Minnesota Avenue (another possibility that DC initially studied) will serve more residential neighborhoods, draw investment to the commercial section of Benning Road, and be less duplicative of X2 bus service.

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) is pondering two options. One option would put streetcar tracks next to the curb. The other option is median tracks, similar to how the streetcar runs on Benning Road west of the river now.

Unfortunately, neither option includes dedicated lanes. But the streetcar will be faster than it is on H Street regardless, thanks to the absence of curbside parking gumming things up.


Corner of Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road with curb-running streetcar (Alternative 1).


Corner of Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road with median-running streetcar (Alternative 2).

Overhead wires

As they are west of Union Station, overhead wires are a point of contention. Unlike there, however, no federal or local laws prohibit wires, and many utility wires are already above ground.

The current study contemplates either using wires or not. If DDOT goes to the trouble and expense of building hybrid wireless technology for downtown DC, theoretically it might not be that much more difficult to make Benning Road wireless too.

Benning Road isn't a major viewshed; if wireless streetcars have reliability problems or are more expensive than traditional wire-based ones, then trying to go wireless may be more of an impediment than they're worth.

Also, the Benning project will happen before the extension from Union Station to Georgetown does, and is already funded in the proposed budget, according to DDOT's Sam Zimbabwe. Therefore, DC may want to move forward with more proven and traditional technology in the meantime. But if it buys any new streetcars, as it will have to for this project, it ought to buy ones that can work with the wireless section.

Get involved

As plans take shape, advocates are gearing up to fight for the best alternatives. The Washington Area Bicyclist Association also is pushing for better bike accommmodations. WABA points out that the wide bridge (especially over the river, where it's 4 lanes each way) is very unfriendly to people biking, and wants a protected bikeway so people can safely and comfortably cross the river.

If you're interested in weighing in on the Benning study, attend the May 19 meeting, at 6:00 pm at 4058 Minnesota Avenue, NE or email info@benningproject.com.

Read more from today's streetcar mega-feature:

Roads


A streetcar to Georgetown could add a loop ramp under K Street and a pedestrian walkway

DC is planning dedicates lanes for the streetcar almost entirely from Union Station to Georgetown. One tricky spot: from Washington Circle over Rock Creek and I-66 to Georgetown. Here's how it could work.


Image from the Georgetown BID.

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) project team will present its latest options on Tuesday night, and we got a look ahead of the meeting.

The study is considering two options to build a streetcar from Union Station to Georgetown, one in mixed traffic and one (better) one with dedicated lanes, and no overhead wires except at stations and below underpasses.

New dedicated lane alternative from DDOT. Click for a larger version.

Along K Street downtown, a 2-lane transitway in the center of the road has been planned since 2010. Heading west, the streetcar would then go through the underpass below Washington Circle (leaving just one lane in each direction for cars). That's where it gets tough.

The turn to 27th Street

If you drive west on K now, you encounter a long left turn lane for cars turning onto 27th Street NW, a little street with almost no buildings but which leads right to a ramp to I-66 and to Virginia Avenue. That left turn lane would mix horribly with a dedicated streetcar lane.

DDOT planners have an idea. The bridge where K crosses two I-66 ramps has an extra span to the west, and there's a lot of open land which is technically highway right of way in between the various ramps.


The loop ramp would use the left side of this bridge. Image from Google Maps.

They therefore want to study adding a new loop ramp from K Street, turning right instead of left, looping around, and rejoining 27th Street where it connects to the current off-ramp from 66.


Image from DDOT.

This would allow the streetcar to have the middle of K Street to itself. It would also smooth traffic at that complicated intersection, where there has to be a whole phase for turns onto 27th.

According to the presentation, DDOT is looking at widening the bridge in that area, partly to add lanes and also to create a sidewalk on the north side of K, where there is none today.

Washington Circle

The streetcar will be down in a trench from about 21st Street to 25th. So how can people get from the streetcar line to places in between, like George Washington University?

The study team is looking at putting a station in the median between 24th and 25th Streets, where the center part of the road is still largely below ground. At 25th is a regular at-grade intersection where people could cross from the middle of K to go north or south, but the team wants to better connect it to 24th and Washington Circle as well.

Therefore, they are looking at building a pedestrian ramp from the below-ground streetcar level up to street level at 24th.


Image from DDOT.

Both of these pieces would cost money—exactly how much, project manager Jamie Henson said, they will study in the next phase of this process.

That will likely make the alternative with dedicated lanes more expensive than the one without, but if the price tag is reasonable, it's worth it. Encourage DDOT to move ahead with as much dedicated lane as possible below.

Read more from today's streetcar mega-feature:

Weigh in

Tell DDOT what you want for the Union Station to Georgetown streetcar study. (I suggest asking them to put as much dedicated lane into the study as possible.)

First name:    Last name:

Email address:

Where you live:    ZIP code:

Transit


West of Union Station, no overhead streetcar wires

When (and if) DC extends the streetcar from Union Station to Georgetown, it almost certainly won't use overhead wires, except at stations. Connections in the stations' canopies will charge supercapacitors for power, according to the latest plans.


Those wires? They won't be farther west. Photo by Dan Malouff.

This is part of the information the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) will present at a meeting Tuesday night and which we got an exclusive early look at. Earlier, we talked about how using almost entirely dedicated lanes was a new (and better) option.

DDOT has also been studying power systems. Wires were banned in the part of DC originally designed by Pierre L'Enfant during the old streetcar days, so streetcars used "plows" that ran in grooves in the ground. These systems were very failure-prone, and modern technology can do better.

On H Street, the streetcars now use overhead wires, a tried-and-true (and not so ugly as all that) power system. However, federal planners and local preservationists have opposed wires on major "viewsheds" and, if the streetcar ever crosses the National Mall, there as well.

A possible solution is a hybrid system, where the streetcar connects to wires in some places but runs on batteries elsewhere. Jamie Henson, who's in charge of the Union Station to Georgetown study, and his team at DDOT believe that the technology is fast reaching the point where the wires only need to be at the stations themselves.

Under the plan DDOT is currently studying, the "wires" would be "rigid catenary" that look like they're part of a station canopy. When a streetcar pulls into a station, its pantographs would contact these canopy elements and start drawing power.

How the power would work

Charging batteries is slow, but supercapacitors can charge very fast. The streetcar could charge the supercapacitors in 20-30 seconds, Henson said, which can include some of the time the streetcar is finishing pulling in or starting to pull out. The supercapacitors then would more slowly discharge into the batteries.

The vehicles would also use regenerative braking, which charges the batteries when a vehicle brakes. There could also be wires where the streetcar line is underneath a roadway like the Whitehurst Freeway or Washington Circle.

According to an analysis by the project team, this would generate enough energy to power the streetcars even when heavily loaded, on a very hot or cold day with heat or air conditioning at full blast.

While this is the leading edge of streetcar technology, said Henson, other cities such as Dallas have hybrid off-wire segments and there are proposals for hybrid systems in Detroit, Oklahoma City, and Milwaukee. Henson said streetcar technology is building on bus technology, which is slightly farther ahead.

DC is still 3-4 years away from the point of actually ordering more streetcars. Henson said he believes it is "reasonable to expect" the technology would be developed to a sufficient level by that time.

I hope so. Making this project depend on as-yet-unproven technology seems risky. While some people have long been fighting overhead wires, many far more historic European cities have trams with wires and it doesn't destroy their beauty.

It was clear that federal interests wouldn't allow wires across viewsheds (rightly or wrongly), but DDOT could accommodate that with shorter gaps in wires. That puts a lot less demand on a vehicle's batteries and thus demands less of a technological leap. If the tech works, that'd be great, but what if not?

What about the current line?

Hybrid vehicles could use the current wires on H Street/Benning Road and the future eastward extension to Benning Metro (assuming that extension ends up using wires, which is still an open question).

The existing streetcar vehicles wouldn't work on the hybrid line. According to Henson, part of the upcoming work in the Union Station to Georgetown study will include analyzing whether to have some vehicles only run east of Union Station, retrofit them to use hybrid technology, or replace them entirely.

However, this was going to be necessary regardless—full wires to Georgetown was never in the cards. The team seems to have a promising approach, but will have to be very vigilant to ensure that DC takes advantage of current technology, maximizing the benefit, while also guarding against buying cars that turn out to be lemons or investing in technology that leaves the cars stranded.

But if DC chooses dedicated lanes for the extension, that has a big benefit for the wireless technology: Not having to worry about traffic congestion makes it easier to go off-wire, knowing the batteries don't have to have enough power for very long stints in traffic.

Ask for dedicated lanes using the form below.

Read more from today's streetcar mega-feature:

Weigh in

Tell DDOT what you want for the Union Station to Georgetown streetcar study. (I suggest asking them to put as much dedicated lane into the study as possible.)

First name:    Last name:

Email address:

Where you live:    ZIP code:

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