Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Pedestrianized Streets

Public Spaces


How to make better streets, quickly and cheaply

Changes to our urban landscape can seem daunting at times. But reader thm points us to this TED talk in which New York City Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan shows how New York quickly and cheaply changed its streets, sometimes with only some paint, to improve the experience for all users.

Some of these changes we already have here, such as bike sharing and parking-protected bike lanes. Others, like BRT, are in the planning stages. But are there places in the DC area that could benefit from conversion into a pedestrian plaza?

Public Spaces


A closed street can be a living street

On sunny days, Lafayette Square is filled with people. Tourists snap pictures of the White House behind them. Bicyclists and pedestrians enjoy a space where they, not cars, have the right of way.


Photo by JoshBerglund19 on Flickr.

Although two-block stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue was closed for security reasons, it has become similar to what the Dutch call a woonerf (plural woonerven, which translates roughly to "living street."

A woonerf is a low-speed street where pedestrians and cyclists have legal priority over drivers. In practice, cars, bikes, and people on foot mix freely. Unlike a standard woonerf, Pennsylvania Avenue doesn't regular drivers, but it has taken on many of the elements of the woonerf. Security needs can also close them at a moment's notice. Therefore, I like to call this a "security woonerf."

Since the mid-1990s, cordoned-off areas have popped up throughout the city. Yet, few of them could be called security woonerven. Could this change?

The two most prominent security woonerven in DC are on the east side of the US Capitol and on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House. In these areas, activity takes place mainly on foot or on a bike.

Although security vehicles operate in those areas, they're parked most of the time, so pedestrians and cyclists essentially have the run these spaces. These two locations are obviously popular with residents and visitors alike. Both are now important hubs in DC's expanding bicycle network and as important activity centers for all manner of activity: tourism, lunch breaks, leisurely strolls, running, you name it.

Following the tragedy at Oklahoma City in 1995, federal planners redesigned facilities to minimize risks to important buildings from motor vehicles. All across the city, barriers went up, starting with jersey barriers, giant planters, and police roadblocks.

Over time, these evolved into permanent hardened perimeters with bollards, sally ports, guard gates, and delta barriers. As much as possible, these elements were planned with an eye toward improving aesthetics, or at least in comparison to original concrete jersey barriers.

While the two security woonerven at the White House and the Capitol are great assets to the city, other cordoned-off areas are not.

The security professionals who planned these facilities gave little consideration to bicycle and pedestrian access. The spaces are attractive for walkers and bikers by default, because of their lack of traffic. However, it often isn't easy to travel into or through the perimeter of these areas.

Another security woonerf is in the works for E Street, south of the White House. As many commenters noted during the design competition, though, cyclists appeared to be an afterthought in most of the submitted proposals.

Often, small tweaks could really improve access into these potentially great spaces. Even Lafayette Square has access issues on the north side at the Madison Place sally-port.

The State Department closed C Street NW and segments of other roads next to their Foggy Bottom headquarters, but they have not replaced the jersey barriers and planters with bollards and other elements more hospitable to bicycle and pedestrian traffic. The House and Senate office buildings have several cordoned streets around them that only admit authorized cars, but the access points are difficult to get through by bike.

Although Union Station has closed off driving access through Columbus Circle for security, the space was subsequently devoted to passenger pick-up and drop-off, making this potential security woonerf very difficult for pedestrians and cyclists. Thankfully, work already underway on the Circle will improve upon current conditions.

Beyond these spaces, there are a number of closed campuses in DC which would greatly benefit from adopting some of the more successful security woonerven designs. Specifically, I'd love to see security woonerven at the Old Soldier's Home, the future Walter Reed development (both the DC and State Department portions), and the Washington Hospital Center.

Areas around the Pentagon, and Joint Base Bolling also have potential if security priorities are better balanced with pedestrian and bike permeability. Universities like Catholic, Georgetown, and Howard you can get through, but it's not obvious or direct. Even at the Arboretum and the Navy Yard, where trails and woonerven already exist, extended hours would vastly improve these spaces.

Regardless of why and how we established these areas, federal and local planners need to recognize their success, and understand their best elements. Then they can adopt those elements into sites that have potential, but aren't quite security woonerven yet.

Are there other places we could have a great security woonerf? Also, can you think of a better term? Whatever you you call them, if streets have to close for security, we would all benefit from making more of them living streets.

Public Spaces


Don't cut new Tysons Corner in two

Fairfax County is planning to turn Tysons into a dense, walkable, urban center. This transformation will include the creation of street grid and better bike and pedestrian facilities. But two major thoroughfares will weaken pedestrian circulation and divide the new Tysons in two.


Photo by VaDOT on Flickr.

Route 123 and Route 7 are major 6-lane roads running through the heart of Tysons Corner. The Silver Line will run along portions of either road, meaning that many pedestrians will be entering Tysons along these arteries.

But the construction of the Silver Line through Tysons Corner isn't the only work being done in the corridor. Fairfax County is currently widening Route 123 from 6 to 8 lanes.

The creation of a grid of streets coupled with bike/ped improvements is necessary to facilitate movement within an urban Tysons, particularly to and from the metro stations. The widening of 123, however, moves Tysons Corner in the opposite direction.

As a pedestrian, crossing 6 lanes of a major arterial road can be daunting. Adding an additional lane in each direction can make it even more difficult. Since Route 123 runs parallel to the Silver Line through the middle of Tysons, residents and employees will inevitably need to cross this busy street.


Route 123 in Tysons Corner. Image from Google Street View.

Last night the National Building Museum hosted an event on the Tysons redevelopment plan. Matt Ladd, a Fairfax County planner, said that lanes on 123 are 12 feet wide. The plan calls for a reduction to 11 feet, but that still means pedestrians would have to cross an 88-foot road, not counting any turn lanes.

This certainly isn't impossible. Infrastructure improvements like pedestrian islands and leading pedestrian intervals can make crossing easier. The problem is that crossing major streets like this isn't attractive and it makes for a pedestrian-hostile space.

Ladd also mentioned that the county's plan calls for wide sidewalks and a double row of trees along 123. These additions will make walking along the road more pleasant but don't make it any easier to cross.

Crossing 123 will be even more difficult at the Tysons Central 7 metro station because the tracks are at grade. Pedestrians will either have to cross over or under the tracks to get from side to side. Again, this isn't an impossible scenario. But if the county wants to make Tysons a walkable, accessible urban space, it will have to solve these barrier problems.

Today's Tysons lacks any real neighborhoods, in large part because of wide roads, on-ramps, mega-blocks, parking garages, and other major built environment factors that break up any coherent community. The new urban Tysons will overcome some of these, but a major 8-lane highway will act as an abrupt and unnatural edge to any future neighborhoods or districts that will stunt their growth and weaken them.

If residents find it too difficult or unpleasant to cross major roads, they may choose to patronize businesses on their side or use parks that are easier to reach. The physical division can also create social divisions and isolate communities.

The county can't just rip up state highways, so the roads will always be an issue. But planners must be careful to prevent the roads from becoming enormous barriers to a true urban space. The county could narrow the lanes further and convert one lane for street parking.

Ladd suggested that because the county is planning for redevelopment over 40 years, these options could become a reality at some point. Hopefully the county doesn't wait that long to solve the problem. Encouraging strong urban growth in a transit-oriented Tysons Corner should be a priority now, not decades down the road.

Development


Video shows plans for Crystal City redevelopment

Arlington County produced a video to explore its plan to redevelop Crystal City over the next 40 years.

Board chairman Zimmerman walks around Crystal City and discusses some of the county's goals, which include encouraging higher density development, introducing streetcars, improving open space and protecting affordable housing.

Some residents of Crystal City are concerned about greater density and worsening traffic. Arlington County has created the Crystal City Citizen Review Council to work with residents to ensure the county adheres to the comprehensive plan.

County planners hope to reshape Crystal City, which is filled with superblocks of bland office buildings and hotels. There are few inviting streetscapes or pedestrian-friendly facilities. The plan also hopes to create a coherent grid of streets.

Public Spaces


Make North Capitol Street a true gateway

North Capitol Street, framed by the Capitol dome and used by hundreds of commuters and visitors, stands as an oft-overlooked example of a highway mentality misapplied to an urban setting. To rectify this longstanding gash in the city's fabric, DDOT should look into reshaping of the less appealing highway-like portions of North Capitol Street around Rhode Island and New York Avenues.


In Boston: once an elevated freeway, now a beloved city park. Photo by the author.

North Capitol Street was originally a wide urban boulevard that hosted a streetcar line (predecessor to today's Metrobus route 80). Truxton Circle, which sat at the intersection of North Capitol and Florida Avenue until 1947, provided a focal point and pedestrian refuge that enhanced the corridor's visual appeal.

However, planners in the 1950s were more concerned with getting automobile commuters from the north into and out of downtown quickly than with aesthetics or neighborhood cohesiveness. They sped through traffic by building underpasses beneath Rhode Island and New York Avenues and replacing Truxton Circle with a signalized intersection.

Things could have been worse. Much of the neighborhood could have been bulldozed to make way for a proposed expressway. But these underpasses have remained eyesores that detract from a community whose century-old turreted rowhouses otherwise maintain considerable curb appeal.


Looking north from D Street. Photo by Chris Petrilli on Flickr.
The District government has already undertaken some studies towards enhancing North Capitol. Improvements for the segment north of Michigan Avenue around the Old Soldiers' Home have been proposed, but the segment from Michigan Avenue south to M Street remains largely unexamined.

Well-designed enhancements to North Capitol would enhance the community, improve safety by increasing pedestrian activity and putting "eyes on the street," and would serve as an amenity to attract business investment in a corridor the city has targeted for commercial revival. It would also serve as a nice complement to the current plans for the McMillan site development, which would make the view of the Capitol from the site a focal point.

DDOT should begin by studying the cost, feasibility and impacts of decking over the dug-in portion of North Capitol between Rhode Island Avenue and T Street and creating an attractive public squarereplacing a noisy eyesore with a neighborhood amenity. Should a full decking over prove prohibitively expensive, other more affordable aesthetic enhancements, such as covering the fences with native flowering vines, ought to be considered.


The planned park covering Dallas's Woodall Rodgers Freeway. Photo from the Dallas Observer blog.
Converting highway corridors into public parks is becoming a trend amongst American cities. Boston exemplifies how greatly a city can be enhanced when an ugly highway corridor is put underground and converted into a well-designed park. Dallas also seeks to convert its Woodall Rodgers Freeway into greenspace.

Improvements to the North Capitol Street and New York Avenue intersection should also seek to address traffic bottlenecks. The ramp from southbound North Capitol onto New York Avenue, which is now used by two high-ridership Metrobus routes and several delivery trucks, is a notorious one. A redesign of this intersection that improves traffic flow, while also leaving space for a greenery or a public monument or fountain would greatly benefit this developing part of the city.

Instead of a noisy, unattractive mini-freeway that benefits those driving through Bloomingdale/Eckington/Truxton Circle/NoMa at the expense of those who live along it, future residents and business owners and patrons could benefit from visual enhancements that complement the surrounding Victorian architecture and the view of the Capitol, while still allowing traffic to flow smoothly. Turning this part of the North Capitol Street corridor into a desirable destination would generate benefits that could exceed the significant costs of remaking parts of the infrastructure.

Public Spaces


Where could DC make space for pedestrians?

Since the pedestrianization of Broadway, the Times Square Alliance has found that foot traffic in Times Square is up 15%.

The BBC has a great video about counting foot traffic in New York's busiest pedestrian space:

What places in our area would be nicer as pedestrian spaces, either part or full time?

At Thursday's Cities in Focus event at EMBARQ, an audience member asked about pedestrianizing 18th Street in Adams Morgan. DDOT Director Gabe Klein said he has had discussions with Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham about closing 18th Street to cars on the weekends, and the department is continuing to pursue the idea.

Initially skeptical, Graham and 18th Street business owners have apparently shown growing interest. This is not surprising since, much like Times Square little more than 18 months ago, 18th Street has reached a point where it doesn't really work for pedestrians or motorists.

Other places where this might be beneficial, especially on weekends: M Street in Georgetown, as Georgetown Metropolitan wrote, 7th Street downtown, or King Street in Old Town Alexandria. Where else might this work?

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