Petworth residents say changes to a dangerous traffic circle should go further

A version of this article by Kelly Blynn, co-founding member of All Walks DC, has been cross-posted on Greater Greater Washington. Kelly Blynn is a former DC resident and an advocate for sustainable transportation and equitable development. She is now a graduate student in the Masters in City Planning program at MIT.

Many people in Petworth lament how dangerous it is to cross the street and get to Grant Circle, one of their neighborhood parks. DDOT has an initial plan for addressing the problem, but pedestrian advocates say the real way to make the circle safer is to make the streets narrower and add more crosswalks.

Photo of Grant Circle by Eric Fidler on Flickr.

Photo of Grant Circle by Eric Fidler on Flickr.

Like a lot of circles in DC, Grant Circle has a design that’s invites people to use the interior space as a park but, more recently, has made moving traffic between its several intersections a major priority.

Drivers tend to speed through Grant Circle, partly because it has two wide lanes surrounding it that encourage passing. With drivers entering from the eight different intersections around the circle, and sometimes speeding to pass each other, it can be a harrowing place for people on foot or riding bikes.

Streetview of Grant Circle today. Image from Google Maps

Streetview of Grant Circle today. Image from Google Maps

Every few months, a new thread starts up on the Petworth neighborhood listservs about near misses or actual crashes around Grant Circle like one last week, when someone drove their car into the circle.

“Grant Circle is an absolute mess for pedestrians,” wrote one resident recently. “When I drive, I often hesitate to stop for pedestrians because I know cars will zoom around me and make it much more dangerous for the people that are crossing. When I do stop I often go between both lanes to try to ensure the pedestrian safety which is obviously not the best thing to do.”

While well-intentioned, that second solution obviously isn’t a safe alternative to Grant Circle’s hazards.

“The design of the circle is so wide and big that instead of helping to slow down cars, it makes them to speed up,” added another. “If so many of us have already had nearly misses, some tragedy will end up happening.”

Plans to calm Grant Circle’s traffic have fallen short of a bigger vision

After hearing from community members and ANC commissioners, DDOT released initial plans to both add new striping to the streets around Grant Circle and to narrow their lanes. Both should calm traffic as it enters the circle.

DDOT's immediate plans to add striping to Grant Circle to narrow lanes and calm traffic as it enters the circle. Image courtesy of DDOT.

DDOT’s immediate plans to add striping to Grant Circle to narrow lanes and calm traffic as it enters the circle. Image courtesy of DDOT.

This is a step in a process that started in 2009, when DDOT completed its Pedestrian Master Plan. The plan’s goals were to make it safe and comfortable to walk anywhere in the city, both through city-wide policy solutions and targeted changes to certain streets’ designs.

The Master Plan placed a heavy focus on L’Enfant’s radial avenues, which is where the majority of today’s crashes involving pedestrians happen. It plan designated “priority corridors” in each ward, which were places that saw a lot of pedestrians, had a dangerous design, and had a lot of crashes involving pedestrians as a “priority corridor.”

New Hampshire Avenue, including Grant Circle, is Ward 4’s priority corridor, and it was slated to get bumpouts along New Hampshire and a new design to calm traffic around the circle. These plans represent a more complete vision to calm traffic than the initial striping DDOT is proposing, though new ideas in traffic engineering could help even more.

Grant Circle’s two-lane design is needlessly dangerous

Every street intersecting Grant Circle is one lane in each direction, except for New Hampshire Avenue south of Grant Circle. There, New Hampshire has two lanes in each direction until it turns into Sherman Avenue, which has one lane in each direction.

If New Hampshire has one lane in each direction north of the circle and again a few blocks south, does it really need two lanes in the first place?

The two lane design means that parents with kids, dog owners with dogs, elderly people and those with disabilities, and anyone else trying to get to the park have to contend with serious traffic, which enters the circle from eight different points, to do so. And while relatively few cars use the passing lane, those that do tend to speed and pose an extra risk to people walking.

Grant Circle today. Image from Google Maps

Grant Circle today. Image from Google Maps

Let’s consider some possibiltiies

All Walks DC has a few thoughts for how Grant Circle could be made safer to walk and bike to and through.

When you look at Grant Circle’s interior paths, you can see where the original designer intended for people to be able to cross into and through the circle (though for some reason it leaves out paths to 5th Street NW). But out of the 12 places that those interior paths intersect Grant Circle, only 5 have crosswalks today. Some streets, such as Varnum on the East, don’t have any crosswalks at all, meaning that all the neighbors on that street have to walk a block south to use a marked crosswalk.

One simple fix would be to to add the crosswalks that are obviously missing.

DDOT's 2009 plans for Grant Circle include a raised brick inner lane to calm traffic. Image from DDOT.

DDOT’s 2009 plans for Grant Circle include a raised brick inner lane to calm traffic. Image from DDOT.

Narrowing Grant Circle to one lane would make crossing on foot much safer. DDOT’s 2009 plan includes a proposal to make the inner lane raised brick, which is a half step in this direction. But while this would discourage speeding and passing, it would likely be expensive, and there are probably better uses for that space.

For a lot less money, DDOT could bring down speeds and make Grant Circle more pedestrian and bike-friendly by allowing parking in the inner lane and building bumpouts at all the crosswalks.

Bumpout on 18th Street in Adams Morgan. Image from Google Maps.

Bumpout on 18th Street in Adams Morgan. Image from Google Maps.

DDOT could also car lanes by creating a protected bikeway, which the Move DC plan calls for, along the outside of the circle.

Finally, it’s worth considering using lanes to increase park space, which has happened in New York City. Extending Grant Circle outwards would be more complicated due to coordination with the National Park Service, but would add about a half acre to the area of the park.

Calming traffic around Grant Circle is an important part of kicking off DC’s Vision Zero efforts, as it would be an example of a community-supported project to make a street with known dangers safer for people walking. Several residents have already noted dangers around Grant Circle on DDOT’s Vision Zero map, which you can view and add to here.

If you live nearby and would like to sign a petition for a safer Grant Circle, click here.

DC will extend the 15th Street bikeway and add a pocket park, but crosswalks are still missing

This article by David Alpert was originally posted on Greater Great Washington. It has been cross-posted here with permission from the author and input from All Walks DC.

DC’s 15th Street NW protected bikeway will soon extend a few blocks north, past a dangerous intersection. The area will also become safer for pedestrians. But one thing is missing: a few crosswalks.


View on 15th Street near V Street looking toward the intersection with W Street and Florida and New Hampshire avenues. Image from Google Maps.

The current 15th Street bikeway lets cyclists ride in both directions from Pennsylvania Avenue to V Street, but north of there, 15th Street is one-way northbound. Someone wanting to get from the bike lane on W down to the bikeway has to ride a block in the wrong direction, use the sidewalk, or take busy 16th or U Streets.

The intersection where 15th crosses W Street, Florida Avenue, and New Hampshire Avenue is also a bad one for walking. A pedestrian was killed there in 2009. DC officials put in temporary barriers to extend the curbs, and promised a more permanent redesign. This is it.

Rendering of the proposed extension. Image from DDOT.

Rendering of the proposed extension. Image from DDOT.

WABA wrote,

The final plans will extend the two-way protected bike lane from V St. NW to W St NW and will be separated from traffic by granite curbs. The bike lane will also incorporate curbed pedestrian refuge islands between the bike lane and travel lanes to provide a safe place to wait for people walking.

That’s not the only improvement for pedestrians. Today, as drivers head north on 15th, the road divides gently into two, one continuing up the hill on 15th and the other going to W and Florida. That, coupled with 15th being a wide, one-way road with timed lights, encourages speeding in this portion to beat the lights at Florida.

The branch to Florida will go away and become a new pocket park. There will be a number of the planted areas that also retain stormwater, which have been popping up around DC. To turn right onto W or Florida from 15th, drivers will instead make a more standard right turn onto Florida, and then can turn right again to W.

Last year, planners hoped to extend the lane all the way up the hill past Meridian Hill Park to Euclid Street. That portion will have to wait a little longer, but this was a necessary first step.

What about the crosswalks?

Amid all this good news for people walking, there is one conspicuously missing piece, which you can see in this image Greg Billing tweeted from the community meeting. There are four legal crosswalks (which I’ve marked with red lines) without crosswalk markings.

Photo by Greg Billing on Twitter of DDOT presentation, marked up by the author.

Photo by Greg Billing on Twitter of DDOT presentation, marked up by the author.

If you’re walking along the east side of 15th Street, you will have to detour all the way to the northeast corner of Florida and W (blue line in the diagram) instead of using the small triangular island. Now, it’s true that this is what you would have to do today, but pedestrian-unfriendly design now is not a good reason to continue it.

According to DC law, all four sides of any intersection are legal crosswalks, whether marked or unmarked. That means it would be legal for someone to cross at the “missing” crosswalks. Traffic engineers sometimes push to leave out crosswalks because having people crossing the street would interfere with “traffic flow” more than they feel is appropriate, but people can still cross the street anyway.

DC now has a Vision Zero policy, which means it’s a priority to try to eliminate any traffic fatalities. It’s safer to slow down the traffic flow and let people cross instead of inviting a crossing without an actual crosswalk. And while it’s legal to cross, people in wheelchairs, pushing strollers, and others can’t take advantage of the legal crossing since there are no curb ramps at these missing crosswalks.

Billing asked about this at the meeting, and as he reported on Twitter, the team said “something about traffic movement, etc. But, the @DDOTDC project manager quickly realized that it should be possible.”

DDOT spokesperson Keith St. Clair provided this statement:

DDOT believes the redesign of this complex intersection cluster achieves a very good overall balance between pedestrian, bicyclist, and vehicular traffic, safety and operations. The design of this intersection has been thoroughly vetted by the ANC and the community.

There are currently four unmarked crosswalks in the new design that are not accommodated with ramps, markings and pedestrians signal heads:


However, unmarked crosswalk A, on the north side of New Hampshire Avenue, is so close to the crosswalk running east-west on the south side of W Street that it is effectively repetitive of what already exists. To include unmarked crosswalk B, on the east side of 15th Street across Florida Avenue, would create hazards for pedestrians because the through and heavy right-turning vehicle traffic from northbound 15th Street move at the same time. Timing it to allow a protected crossing phase here for pedestrians would impact the signal timing of the whole intersection, resulting in delays for both vehicles and pedestrians.

The utility of unmarked crosswalks at C and D is not substantial given that the distance to get to the east or west side of the intersection to proceed southbound on New Hampshire or 15th is relatively short. Furthermore, if C and D crosswalks were marked and signalized, pedestrians would still have to cross east or west from the island to continue southbound.

The project is currently scheduled to start construction on Aug. 24.

This is “all too common” around DC

The triangle where New Hampshire Avenue meets 20th and O streets, just south of Dupont Circle, is also missing sidewalks to cross 20th along the north side of O, and to cross New Hampshire on either side of O.


New Hampshire Avenue and 20th and O streets, NW. Image from Google Maps.

This area was recently redone as part of a major reconstruction of New Hampshire Avenue which turned it two-way and added bike lanes—very welcome steps. The crosswalks were missing before the project, too, but it didn’t make the situation better.

The same issue arose near Fort Totten, when DDOT removed slip lanes at a pedestrian-hostile intersection of Riggs Road and South Dakota Avenue. Initial plans left out a crosswalk so there could be more turn lanes; following community outcry, then-DDOT Director Gabe Klein had the agency reconsider.

Pedestrian Advisory Council co-chair Tony Goodman said in an email,

That’s actually been a major focus of PAC discussions this year. From a pedestrian safety standpoint, there is no reason to not stripe a crosswalk on all four sides. It rarely makes sense for traffic operations either. It’s a massive inconvenience and also can be quite dangerous to make extra crossings, especially for those with difficulties with mobility or vision.

This sort of situation is all too common in DC where an avenue meets a street. Those angled intersections often force pedestrians to deviate from their straight-line travel and hunt out what is essentially a permanent detour. Mass Ave in particular is horrible for that, all across its length.

What other areas do you know about that have missing crosswalks?

The author, David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and daughter in Dupont Circle.

Clarifying All Walks DC’s Position on Unmarked Crosswalks

A recent news story in the Northwest Current titled “Residents call for solutions after crashes” (June 24, 2015) described All Walks DC as wanting “all crosswalks in the city without traffic signals to be studied and considered for removal”. We want to clarify that All Walks DC does not advocate for the removal of unsignalized crosswalks in DC. Rather, we advocate for safe and convenient walking throughout DC, including safe crossings at all intersections. The removal of crosswalk markings, while intended to improve safety, has the effect of discouraging pedestrians from using these intersections and reducing the ability of people to walk from one place to another. Instead of discouraging people from crossing at intersections deemed unsafe, we advocate for making those intersections safe to cross through improved street design and enforcement. We hope that this clears up any confusion.

Response to Proposed Ban on Sidewalk Bicycling

All Walks DC is devoted to improving safety for all those who walk in DC. We ask our DC City Council members to take an evidence-based approach to improving conditions for pedestrians. Motor vehicles kill or injure hundreds of pedestrians every year in the District. However, bicycling, like walking, is a low speed, space-efficient, transportation mode; bicycling reduces the strain on the transit system and can serve as an alternative to car trips, all of which support better walking conditions. We believe most bicyclists riding on sidewalks do so because they don’t feel safe on the street, or even in the existing bike lanes. Where high quality bicycle infrastructure exists, such as on 15th St NW, L St NW, and 1st St NE, very few people ride on the sidewalk. We believe Councilmember Graham’s proposal to ban bicycles from sidewalks would discourage people from riding bicycles, while failing to address the underlying problem of streets that are not safe for all users. As an alternative, we encourage the City Council to fund and support the implementation of the elements of MoveDC that will most effectively reduce sidewalk bicycling where it is problematic and improve conditions for pedestrians and all street users.