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Pedestrians


DC is telling us more about blocked sidewalks and car crashes, and that should mean safer streets

DC has created a map that shows where it has issued permits to block sidewalks and bike lanes for construction projects, and soon, the city will begin releasing more detailed data about where vehicle collisions have happened. Both will tell us more about where in the city pedestrians and bicyclists are at risk, which will make it easier to make those areas safer.


A closed sidewalk. Photo by Jacob Mason.

The map went up in August and is updated daily based on public space permits that DDOT issues.


Map from DDOT.

On the map, the green squares are where a utility company has a permit to block the sidewalk or bike lane, and the yellow triangles are where one has applied for a permit. The red triangles represent permits for DDOT contractors to work in the right of way, taking away parking for a temporary span of time. Orange squares mean there's a permit for a block party, purple squares are for mobile cranes, and red squares are for special events.

Jonathan Rogers, a policy analyst who reports to DDOT director Leif Dormsjo, said, "Obviously, DDOT can't be everywhere inspecting work zones, so to the extent residents are checking the public traffic control plan... we can work together make sure developers are keeping the streets and sidewalks safe."

We'll soon know more about car crashes around the District, too

DDOT will also soon begin publishing monthly reports with information about vehicle collisions, including the ward, block or intersection, the type of vehicle involved, the Police Service Area where the crash occured, the number of people killed or injured, and why it happened.

Some of this data, like the date and time of crashes and the geographic X/Y coordinates for the location, is available now in an open format, but it's much more sparse than what's on the way.

"This open data is a matter of transparency," Rogers said. "People have a right to know where traffic injuries and fatalities are occurring in their city. If residents do nothing more than discover the safety trends for their own neighborhood, that is part of good, open governance."

Rogers also points to how the data can be crunched in a variety of ways that DDOT may not have thought of.

"We want to tap into the expertise among the many data scientists out there, the civic hackers, coders, etc. and see what kind of correlations they may discover. Perhaps they can identify locations in need of urgent improvements that DDOT may not have detected."

Before DDOT starts issuing those reports, however, it has to be sure that they do it in a way that doesn't disclose personal information about victims that the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) doesn't allow.

"We'll continue to publish the crash and violation data in the open data format in the meantime," said Rogers.

Transit


WMATA recommended express bus service along 14th Street NW four years ago. Is it time to make it happen?

The buses that run up and down 14th Street NW are among the most used in the region, but they move slowly and don't come often enough. WMATA suggested adding express service a few years ago, but that has yet to happen.


Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

The 52, 53, 54 run along 14th Street, from Takoma to downtown DC. Many people use the bus to commute from neighborhoods like U Street, Columbia Heights, Petworth, and Brightwood to downtown and back. Approximately 15,000 riders use these buses on a typical weekday, and according to some measures, they're among the most used in DC.

According to data from DC's Office of Planning, a quarter of the new residents who moved into DC in the last five years reside in the area served by the 14th Street buses, and from 2011 to 2015, the number of businesses soared from 7,371 all the way to 13,992. Many of these new residents and business employees don't own cars and rely on transit and other transportation services.

But relative to how many people would use them, the 14th Street buses are slow and don't run frequently enough. They stop quite often—at every corner during some stretches. For example, if a rider gets on the 54 at Buchanan Street NW and off at I Street downtown, it takes 26 stops. By contrast, that's three times more stops than than the S9 buses, the express buses that run down 16th Street. More anecdotally, a neighbor of mine recently waited over 20 minutes for a bus during rush hour.


Image from WMATA.

Buses also get caught in snarled traffic on the stretch of 14th Street next to the mall where Target and Best Buy are. In this area, buses don't have signal priority and lots of people double park without penalty.

Slow moving busses and not enough of them are especially acute problems right now because Beach Drive is closed. Many Upper Northwest residents can't use Rock Creek Parkway as a commuting route and this has pushed many more riders onto the bus.

Also, as a result of the problems with the 14th Street buses, many who live along 14th actually go out of their way to use the buses along 16th. That just leads to packed buses and overcrowding on those lines. Improving 14th street bus service would benefit those riding the the S1, S2, S4, S9, 70 and 79 by lessening crowding on 16th and Georgia express buses which would also reduce clustering.

WMATA recommended express bus service on 14th

These issues aren't new—WMATA actually teamed with DDOT to study 14th Street buses in 2011 and 2012. One of the biggest conclusions was that the corridor needs express service. Express busses run the same route as local buses but stop at fewer stops. By skipping stops, they are able to move faster. In exchange for walking one or two extra blocks to the stop, riders can get where they are headed much more quickly.

The study included a rider survey, rider focus groups (I participated in one of those), and a series of public meetings. The study team also gathered data from interviews with Metrobus operators and subsequent interviews to discuss potential service proposals and preliminary recommendations.

The study concluded that express bus service on the 14th Street line (it called express service "limited-stop bus service") would benefit riders:

The advantages to this proposal are that this service would not only enhance route capacity, but would also improve service frequencies at bus stops served by the limited stop service (service frequency at local-only stops would not be impacted). It would also reduce travel times for passengers able to utilize the bus stops that would be served by the limited stop service. The primary disadvantage is that this proposal would likely incur additional operating costs.
WMATA also recommended lengthening the 53 Route to terminate at G street (it currently ends at McPherson Square), running more service north of Colorado Avenue NW, and extending service to the Waterfront area, as well as giving riders better information, doing more to enforce parking restrictions, using articulated buses and training bus operators specifically for the lines they drive.

The key recommendation for express service is discussed in detail beginning on page 33 of here.

According to the report, making these changes would be relatively inexpensive (about $1.25 million). The report also says they could generate more DC tax revenue in increased commerce than they'd cost to fund. These buses are needed for longtime residents and new residents alike. This would be a huge (and cheap) win for DC.

Though improving this line with more, better service was a good idea in 2012, it's an exceptionally good idea now. Express buses along 14th Street would mean more people could travel the important corridor by bus.

More specifically, it'd mean more frequent service at key stops and shorter travel times for riders, smaller headways, and better quality. This would be a huge boon to those commuting or traveling longer distances (such as to Walter Reed). If the service proved successful, even more resources could go toward it over time.

The city as a whole would benefit from an investment in better bus service along 14th Street, as it'd lead to better employment opportunities for people seeking jobs, less traffic congestion on important north-south streets, and a broadening tax base.



Roads


This is a strange (and dangerous) traffic circle. Check out DC's ideas for making it safer.

Ward Circle is a rather uniquely designed roundabout at the intersection of Nebraska and Massachusetts Avenues NW, near American University. Traffic there is heavy and there are a lot of crashes, so DC wants to make it safer for pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers. The agency is considering four options for doing so.


The intersection of Nebraska and Massachusetts.

Ward Circle serves vehicles traveling to and from the District as well as pedestrians from American University and a nearby Department of Homeland Security office.

A previous District Department of Transportation (DDOT) study, called the Rock Creek West II Livability Study, found that Ward Circle had the most crashes of any intersection near Tenleytown, Van Ness, and Friendship Heights. There have been 60 in the last three years, with 18 resulting in injuries.

While many circles in the District are roundabouts, Ward Circle has a cat's eye shape thanks to two interior lanes that cut through the center as a continuation of Nebraska Avenue. One cause for all the crashes, as well as traffic delays, is that drivers often illegally turn left from these lanes into the roundabout (on to Massachusetts).


Ward Circle's current setup. Images from of DDOT.

Another cause for concern are the crosswalks located where Massachusetts Avenue intersects the circle. While the crosswalks on the Nebraska Avenue entrances are protected by lights, pedestrians on Massachusetts are protected from traffic only by "yield to pedestrians" signs.

This leaves pedestrians vulnerable to distracted drivers—when DDOT studied Ward Circle, it found that drivers rarely yield to pedestrians in these crosswalks. Also, not having lights at the crosswalks slows traffic when drivers do stop.

Any attempt to fix all of this would have to account for another factor: the green space in the middle of the circle, which the National Park Service owns. While people cannot currently access the space, it houses the eponymous statue of Artemis Ward at the center, and it offers environmental benefits as well, like absorbing rainwater.

At a recent community meeting, DDOT proposed four ways to change Ward Circle's design. The goal is to make the circle safer, make traffic flow more smoothly, and minimize the impact the changes have on the green space. The details are below:

Option 1: A classic roundabout

The first design option would convert Ward Circle into a full roundabout by removing the two interior lanes that carry Nebraska Avenue. It would also place signals at the Massachusetts entrances to the circle, making the crosswalks at these entrances safer for pedestrians and cyclists using the sidewalk to navigate the circle. This design doesn't include crosswalks for getting to the green space.

According to DDOT Western Area Planner Theodore van Houten, who led the community meeting, this design would increase pedestrian safety thanks to the signalized entrances on Massachusetts. With this option, there wouldn't be much effect on the green space, and the statue would stay where it is.

When it did its analysis, DDOT concluded that this design would negatively affect traffic because it would require more cars to stop for longer at the newly signalized crosswalks at the Massachusetts Avenue entrances.

Option 2: The cat's eye, but with legal turns from Nebraska onto Massachusetts

This option would remove the possibility of illegal turns from the interior lanes by simply making the turns legal. It would also remove the roundabout, making the interior turn lanes the only options for turning off of Massachusetts Avenue onto Nebraska or vice versa.

This option would still leave pedestrians with minimal access to the green space. And according to DDOT, it would also have a negative impact on traffic flow because it would force all traffic turning left onto Nebraska or Massachusetts to use the interior lanes, rather than going around a full roundabout as they currently do.

However, this option would make the circle safer for pedestrians by installing signals at the Massachusetts Avenue entrances.

Option 3: Run roads straight through the circle

The third option would make left turns onto Massachusetts Avenue from the interior lanes legal by turning the center of the circle into a four-way intersection. Dedicated right turn lanes would let cars branch off onto Massachusetts and Nebraska Avenues. Two lane streets would also be preserved on the outermost part of the rotary; they'd primarily be for Metro buses and AU shuttles, but also for cars picking up and dropping off passengers.

Unlike the other options, this one significantly reduces the number of crosswalks available to pedestrians trying to navigate the circle. According to DDOT's analysis, it's the only one that would have a negative effect on safety for pedestrians and motorists.

This option would also reduce the amount of green space in the intersection and leave the Artemis Ward statue without a home.

Option 4: Keep the circle as it is now, but add more traffic signals

The final option would make the fewest physical changes to the circle as it is now. Instead, it would simply add traffic signals to the Massachusetts Avenue entrances to the circle and improve signs and paint in the interior lanes to make it more clear that it is is illegal to make a left turn from them.

While this option would make the circle safer for pedestrians and cyclists crossing Massachusetts Avenue, it might not stop drivers from making illegal turns into the roundabout from the two interior lanes.

Could the green space get more attention here?

While some of these redesigns move in the right direction, it would be great to see DDOT work with the National Park Service to make the green space in Ward Circle usable for residents, students, and employees in the area.

Dupont Circle and DDOT's redesign of Thomas Circle in 2006 are great examples to look at. While the area surrounding Ward Circle is more suburban than Dupont and Thomas Circles, long-term developments at the old Superfresh site and the Spring Valley Shopping Centre up the street are aiming to make it denser and more walkable. An accessible and useable green space in Ward Circle could serve these future communities and make it easier for pedestrians and cyclists to navigate the intersection.

Until then, making Ward Circle easy and safe to traverse for pedestrians and cyclists is critical. In that regard, options one and four would be an improvement from the current set up and leave room for further development in the future.

Residents can submit comments on the proposed designs at DDOT's Ward Circle project website or by emailing Ted van Houten, DDOT transportation planner, at theodore.vanhouten@dc.gov. DDOT is scheduled to begin taking the next steps on designing and building this coming spring.

Transit


16th Street's traffic lights are now optimized for buses

While planning for a 16th Street bus lane continues, DDOT has quietly made another important but nearly invisible improvement there: The traffic signals are now optimized for buses.


16th and U queue jump signal. Photo by the author.

33 traffic signals along 16th Street NW now have Transit Signal Priority, or TSP. TSP holds a green light a few seconds longer, or switches a red to green a few seconds sooner, if a bus is ready to pass through.

Stopping at fewer red lights speeds buses along a line. In particular, DC is using TSP on 16th Street to keep S9 buses on schedule. When one falls behind, the signal priority kicks in so that bus can catch up.

16th Street has so many buses that DDOT can't give each one priority all the time, or it would gum up every perpendicular street along the line. But keeping buses on schedule is a nice improvement for riders.

16th & U queue jumper

In addition to TSP, at 16th and U there's now a dedicated signal just for buses, called a queue jumper. It gives buses their own "go" signal a few seconds before cars get their green, allowing buses to jump ahead of a line of waiting cars. By the time cars get their green and start moving forward, the bus is in front of them rather than behind.

The bus signal looks different than a normal light, so car drivers don't mistake it for one they're supposed to follow. A horizontal bar means stop, and a vertical bar mean go. It's the same as the dedicated streetcar signal at 3rd and H, and the same as bus signals along the Crystal City Potomac Yard transitway.

Traffic lights may not be as exciting as bus lanes, but these details matter. Thanks DDOT for making this progress.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Transit


New bike and bus lanes could soon carry you from Columbia Heights to Brookland

Right now, getting between Columbia Heights and Brookland is tough. Walking is uninviting, riding a bike is dangerous, and there aren't many bus options. Even driving is a pain. The District Department of Transportation has a plan for making travel between these two places easier and safer.


Looking east from Columbia Heights. Photo by ctj71081on Flickr

DDOT wrapped up its Crosstown Mutimodal Transportation Study with a final report last month. The study looked at possibilities for new street designs as well as bike and bus lanes in the area defined by Kenyon and Harvard Streets NW between 16th and Park Place; Irving Street and Michigan Avenue NW around the Washington Hospital Center; and Michigan Avenue from the hospital center to South Dakota Avenue NE.

There are major developments planned around the hospital in the next few decades. McMillan Sand Filtration Site will be a new center for housing and retail. Also, the Old Soldier's home will eventually be redeveloped.

Right now, the major streets connecting the two areas, Irving Street and Michigan Avenue, are designed pretty much exclusively for cars, but they're still plagued by congestion on either side of the hospital center. The H2 and H4 buses that run from the Columbia Heights Metro to the hospital and on to Brookland often get caught in traffic and take more time than they should to actually move through the hospital campus. And for people on bike or on foot, the corridor can be dangerous and unwelcoming.

The study to improve the corridor kicked off in February, and after presenting the public with options at a series of planned community meetings, DDOT narrowed down its plan to three possibilities by April, then two by June, then the final one in September. DDOT presented its draft concept in late September, and on October 19th issued the final report for a plan that will be unrolled onto city streets.


Early this year, DDOT asked residents to identify problem spots in this corridor. Maps and images by DDOT unless otherwise noted. Click for an interactive version.

Riding a bike will be way easier

DDOT's plan puts a big focus on making it easier and safer to bike through the area by building a number of bike lanes.

Kenyon Street NW will get a two-way protected bikeway from 14th Street NW to where it turns into Irving Street at the hospital. From there, Irving Street will be converted to have a two-way center-running bikeway. A few more measures, like a possible signal at Kenyon Street and Irving Street, will maximize safety and guide the flow of people walking or biking along Irving Street. The first stage of the plan will establish two-way bike lanes, but the ultimate goal is to create a shared use pathway for bikes and pedestrians along Irving Street at the hospital center.


The intersection of Irving and Kenyon Streets. Photo by Nicole Cacozza.

Where Irving Street runs into Michigan Avenue in Brookland, there will again be a two-way protected bikeway. Then, at Michigan Avenue and Monroe Street, there will be marked bike lanes on either side of the road until South Dakota Avenue NE.

The plan will also install another option for cyclists who turn off Michigan Ave onto Monroe Street through Brookland. A meandering sharrow will "wiggle" through the neighborhood to give cyclists a route where they'll encounter fewer cars.

There will be dedicated bus lanes

The buses that travel these routes often hit bottlenecks and run slowly. To combat this, another major focus of the plan is making those transit routes faster and more efficient. DDOT hopes to combat sluggish buses with a series of dedicated and shared bus lanes.

Michigan Avenue will have a shared lane from Harvard Street to the hospital, but at First Street NW that lane will become a dedicated bus lane stretching farther east towards Brookland. In Columbia Heights, two one-way streets, Irving and Columbia Road, will be split into car and transit lanes: buses will have a dedicated lane going east on Irving and west on Columbia.


Here, and in the map directly below, the dark blue lines are dedicated bus lanes.

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Walking around won't be so dangerous

The plan also highlights intersections that need more appropriate signaling for the amount of foot, bike, and car traffic that they see. At 14th and Irving Street, the site of the Columbia Heights Metro Station, DDOT will create a dedicated crossing time for pedestrians only—the design should be somewhat similar to the "Barnes Dance" intersection at H Street and 7th Street in Chinatown. The Columbia Heights intersection is extremely busy, and this kind of change could ease commuter congestion and keep the crossing safe.

The final plan will also simplify a collection of intersections in Columbia Heights, west of the hospital. The proposal will remove the Michigan Avenue overpass as well as a service road and a segment of Hobart Place NW in order to create a street grid. Cleaning up the arrangement of streets will improve cycling and walking conditions by slowing cars and getting rid of the high-speed ramp, as well as eliminating unsafe intersections where multiple streets arrive at a single light.


A new street grid.

No more cloverleaf

DDOT also recommends modifying the cloverleaf ramps at North Capitol and Irving St to create a simple intersection with one traffic light. This will help regulate traffic speeds, and give cyclists and pedestrians a safer crossing by providing a clear view of all oncoming cars. It will also add green space to the area.


The cloverleaf is on its way out.

When will all this happen?

The time frame varies for each project based on the cost, complexity, and partnership with other agencies. Some projects, like the sharrows in Brookland, only need to go through the design and construction phases and could start in 2017. Others, like the bus lanes, where DDOT will need to work with WMATA, will take more time.

The measures furthest from completion are the cloverleaf change and the creation of the street grid, which will require significant planning. Both projects are slated to begin in 2021, but will take years to finish.

The changes that DDOT has planned will be necessary to manage the new residents and commuters using this corridor. Though we are still a few years out from some of the major project milestones, hopefully today's plan indicates that transportation will be ready to keep up with growth.

Bicycling


Part of the Metropolitan Branch Trail might close temporarily, but that just means a big opportunity

Part of the Metropolitan Branch Trail (MBT) near the NoMa Metro stop may close for several months to make space for building construction, meaning there will be no direct route to avoid the treacherous intersection at Florida Avenue and New York Avenue. But what if there's a way to make the intersection far safer for walking and biking?


The MBT could be closed during construction of an adjacent development. Image by Aimee Custis.

The closure would be for construction of the second phase of the Washington Gateway, which is slated to be 16 stories tall with 372 residential units, 8% of which will have rents capped at affordable levels for people who quality.

"There will be a period of time when we have to pick up the asphalt and put in a better MBT," said Fred Rothmeijer, founding principal at developer MRP Realty, at an Eckington Civic Association meeting. Improvements will include repaving the trail, new landscaping and better light, he added.


The location of Washington Gateway with the section of the MBT in question. Image by MRP.

Michael Alvino, a bike program specialist at DC's Department of Transportation, tacitly confirmed the closure at the meeting, saying, "we're still trying to determine exactly what the impacts on the trail will be, certainly it's not going to be closed for an extended period of time—we're going to push for that to be open as much as possible."

Right now, the trail lets cyclists avoid a perilous intersection

This is a critical section of the MBT. The trail is the only car-free alternative to the congested "virtual circle," as DDOT puts it, intersection at Florida Avenue, New York Avenue and First Street NE.

Also called "Dave Thomas Circle" because it's home to a Wendy's, the intersection has narrow sidewalks along frequently backed up streets, primarily on Florida Avenue and First Street. It's unenjoyable for pedestrians and unsafe for cyclists in the roadway. In addition, the lights are timed to prioritize through traffic on New York Avenue, giving people on foot and bike little time to cross the six-lane wide thoroughfare.

In other words: the MBT is your safest and most practical route if you're headed to the NoMa-Gallaudet Metro station or the First Street NE protected bikeway.

The closure could be an opportunity

What if DDOT used the potential MBT closure as an opportunity to improve the pedestrian and bike connections through the virtual circle?

The agency is already studying ways to improve the circle as part of a planned redesign of Florida Avenue NE. It proposed two possible alternatives that include direct pedestrian and bike connections through the intersection in the final report it released in 2015.

The orange lines in both options below represent new "pedestrian areas," though the report does not go into detail on exactly what kind of walking and biking facilities these would include:


One potential redesign of the virtual circle at the intersection of Florida Avenue and New York Avenue NE. Image by DDOT.


A second potential redesign of the virtual circle. Image by DDOT.

Right now, DDOT's potential redesigns of the circle face a significant stumbling block: they require the acquisition and demolition of the Wendy's restaurant at its center. DDOT has yet to set a timeline for this, or for redesigning the circle.

An interim solution to allow cyclists a safe path through the circle would be to build a protected bikeway that begins at R Street NE, heads south on Eckington Place to Florida Avenue, then continues briefly on Florida before turning south on First Street NE, crossing New York Avenue and then connecting with the existing bikeway at M Street NE.


Route of a possible protected bike lane from R Street NE to the existing facility on First Street in NoMa. Image by MapMyRun.

This solution would not require the acquisition of private property but it would likely require taking some of the traffic lanes for the roughly 150 feet the bikeway would be on Florida Avenue and the roughly 300 feet on First Street NE north of New York Avenue. There is no on-street parking in either of these stretches of roadway.

The protected bikeway could be created by reorganizing the traffic lanes and parking spaces on Eckington Place north of Florida and First Street NE south of New York Avenue.

Now is the time to speak up

MRP is in the process of modifying its planned unit development (PUD), the agreement where it commits to certain community benefits in exchange for DC Zoning Commission approval of a project, to include changes to Washington Gateway. These include converting one of the planned buildings to residential from commercial, as well as changes to a controversial "bike lobby."

The Zoning Commission has yet to set a date for a hearing but a modified PUD could include specifics for how the developer works with DDOT to mitigate the likely MBT closure during construction.

You can find out more by searching here for case number 06-14D.

Bicycling


Copenhagen uses this one trick to make room for bikeways on nearly every street

I visited Copenhagen for the first time in June. I knew it was one of the bikiest cities in the world, but it's quite astounding to see what a place looks like where 52% of commuters travel by bike.


All photos by the author.

Almost every street has a type of protected bikeway. It's essentially a lane of the street but raised up with a small curb, low enough that vehicles can mount it but high enough to discourage that. (And generally, they don't.)

These are everywhere. It's not just the main streets or a few selected bike boulevards. Virtually every street of any appreciable size had one. It was almost strange to encounter a street with any traffic that didn't. The typical medium-sized street had two car lanes (one each way), two bike lanes of the same width (one each way), and a sidewalk on each side.

As an old city, the streets are fairly narrow (and, honestly, the sidewalks were pretty narrow and are made of cobblestones; it might be a bike mecca, but the walking experience could be better). So how can there be enough room?

Here's a picture. What do you notice that's missing?

If you said "on-street parking," you're right! As compared with most US cities which have parking on nearly every city street, Copenhagen has it on many smaller streets but far from all, and doesn't have it on most mid-sized and larger streets.

Could DC be like this?

There are some obstacles to DC having as much biking as Copenhagen (once again: 52% of commuters!) For one, our weather is both hotter and colder, and DC has more hills. Copenhagen is a smaller city, with about 2 million people in its metropolitan area versus 6 million for Washington.

Still, we can do so much better. We don't have to put a bikeway on every street, and maybe won't ever have the mode share to justify that, but there already is enough mode share to warrant a network of them connecting every neighborhood and spaced a certain distance in the city's core.


Instead of always blocking bikeways with construction, they keep the bikeways open!

More bikeways would also boost the amount of cycling; with DC's weather and topography we could easily double, triple, or quadruple the 2% of commuters bicycling (after all, 11% walk and they have to contend with the same weather!)

It's crazy that it takes years to build support for a protected bikeway on even one street. The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) built only 0.14 miles of protected bikeways and 4.28 miles of other bike lanes in 2015.


A few streets also do have on-street parking as well, but it's uncommon.

The MoveDC plan calls for 7.5 miles a year of bike lanes. New York built 12.4 miles of protected bikeways in 2015, and the city does have about 12 times as many people as DC proper, but that means DC is still falling short by a factor of about seven.

It's certainly true there are political obstacles to changing even a single parking space into something else, but there's a simple political solution as well: do it differently.


Copenhagen is building a new bike/ped bridge next to an existing one, because the existing one has too much bicycle traffic.

Compared to many other US cities like Orlando and Cleveland, DC is doing great on transit, on bicycling, on walking. We shouldn't forget how far we've come, either; DC had zero protected bikeways until 2009. But go around the world and it can easily become clear: we also could do so, so much better.

Government


Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, explained

DC has a small, hyperlocal form of government called Advisory Neighborhood Commissions. Commissioners, who are elected by their neighbors, help with neighborhood problems and weigh in on how places should (or shouldn't) change, but can't actually make laws or regulations. Still, despite having little formal power, ANCs have a lot of influence over how the District does or doesn't change.


Photo by Mr.TinDC on Flickr.

What are Advisory Neighborhood Commissions?

Each Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) represents a region in each of DC's eight Wards. Within each ANC, commissioners are elected to two-year terms to represent Single Member Districts (SMDs) of approximately 2000 residents. A commission can have anywhere from two SMDs (which would mean two commissioners) to twelve. ANCs are identified by their ward and a letter.

For example, I'm a commissioner in 7D, which is Ward 7's fourth (hence the letter D) ANC. I represent Single Member District 07, which covers neighborhoods called Paradise and Parkside. Some commissions represent a single community, such as 2B, which is the Dupont Circle ANC, whereas others, like my own, represent a number of neighborhoods.

Commissioners come from a variety of backgrounds. Some, like myself, are relative newcomers recruited by community leaders to serve their neighborhood while others have lived in their neighborhoods their whole lives. Even within a single ANC, commissioners can be very diverse; my own commission includes a teacher, a lawyer, government contractors, and a lifelong community advocate.

On the map below, the yellow lines represent DC's wards, the thick red lines represent the ANCs within them, and the thin red lines represent the SMDs that make up each ANC.


A map of DC's Wards and Advisory Neighborhood Commissions. Ward 7 ANCs are tinted blue, ANC 7D is green, and Single Member District 07 is highlighted in red. Map by the author. Data from DC Open Data.

ANCs weigh in on many of the decisions that the District's governing bodies make. For example, many ANCs wrote letters to the Office of Planning with comments or proposed amendments for the zoning code re-write, and most restaurants work out agreements with the ANCs on things like when they'll be open and whether they can play live music in exchange for ANC support of their liquor license applications. Commissioners can also offer resolutions and testify before the DC Council.

In practice, beyond laws about liquor licenses or zoning, government agencies consult ANCs as a way to get community buy-in for a project. For example, the District Department of Transportation often presents new plans to the public at ANC meetings, giving the community a chance to weigh in and provide feedback. Recently, ANC 6B worked with DDOT to get a pedestrian crosswalk on 11th Street SE between I and M Streets, and ANC 2B urged DDOT to reopen a bike lane at 15th and L which is closed due to construction.

Also, developers pitching new projects often seek ANC approval before going before the Zoning Commission or Board of Zoning Adjustment, as ANCs get a say with these agencies (more on that below…). The result of these interactions is often a contract between a developer and the neighborhood, called a Community Benefits Agreement.

Commissions can also provide avenues for greater community involvement and input by establishing committees that focus on certain issues, like transportation or planning and zoning.

What kind of authority do ANCs have?

The type of authority that ANCs have can vary. In some cases, they have legal standing. ANCs are automatically granted "party status" before the Zoning Commission, the Board of Zoning Adjustment, and the Alcohol License Review Board for new businesses and developments in their communities. Party status gives commissions easier access to information, notifications about upcoming hearings, and the right to cross examine participants.


Bars in DC often work with ANCs on things like hours of operation in exchange for the ANC's endorsement. Photo by IntangibleArts on Flickr.

In other areas, commissions can only make recommendations that city agencies have to give "great weight" to when making decisions. Great weight requires a government agency to respond, in writing, to concerns raised by a commission. While great weight demands that agencies explain their course of action, it doesn't actually require an agency to change its course of action.

Common critiques and shortcomings of the ANC system

ANC commissioners have complained that they are not given satisfactory explanations when agencies don't follow their recommendations; some commissioners say it's not uncommon for agency contacts to flat-out ignore them. Commissions have very few legal options to compel an agency to respond to their requests.

As a result, much of a commissioner's power is informal, coming from relationships built with government agencies, DC Council members, and the mayor's office. A motivated and skilled commissioner can draw district government attention to a neighborhood and even motivate agencies to bring resources to bear to solve a problem.

However, ANCs also reflect many of the inequalities and inequities of life in DC. Some commissions benefit from well-educated, well-connected commissioners who can afford to take days off work to testify at DC Council hearings, lobby agencies for action, and develop an in-depth understanding of how policy issues impact their community. Less wealthy communities do not necessarily have the privileges of as spare time and plenty of social capital. This places less affluent communities at a disadvantage when negotiating with developers or engaging with governmental agencies.

Commissions are also somewhat under-resourced. At most, a commission can afford to hire one part-time staff member, who usually acts as an office manager and assists commissioners with logistics, and supporting commissioners as they address concerns raised by the community.

In some cases, commissions have been accused of simply holding up any possible neighborhood change. For example, commissions have often devoted considerable time internally negotiating relatively minor adjustments projects. For example a commission can delay new development projects for months if not years. Such delays can be frustrating in a city like DC with a rapidly growing population and rapidly growing rents.

But ANCs can also positively weigh in on big neighborhood or citywide controversies by being thoughtful instead of knee-jerk. For the Hine project in ANC 6B, where a former junior high school is turning into a mixed-use development, the commission put together a task force that weighed the various interests really well and advocated for improvements instead of simply saying "no." Another example of 6B actively engaging is that with the zoning update, the commission studied and made smart suggestions while being supportive overall.

At the end of the day, ANCs matter

The fact that ANCs don't have formal power, plus that they can differ so much across the District, has led to some debates about the system's value. Some say ANCs should gain legislative powers and become a house of representatives for the District. Others say the whole system should be abolished since all it does is let hyperlocal politics trump good public policy by slowing things down.

No matter what you may think about these commissions, they do have influence over whether and how our neighborhoods will change and grow. Their importance in what gets built and what kinds of businesses can operate in the area means that they have influence in the community.

District residents should pay attention to what their ANC commissioners are saying in their name. At the end of the day, ANCs are supposed to represent the community's interests but they can only do that if the community pays attention to what they are doing.

You've got a chance to vote for your ANC commissioner this fall. Want to read and evaluate your candidates? Read candidate responses to Greater Greater Washington's ANC questionnaire here and learn where your commissioners (or potential commissioners) stand on important issues.

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).

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