Walk This Way: Expanding Pedestrian and Bike Safety to the Whole District Won’t Be Easy
On Monday morning, District Department of Transportation Director Gabe Klein sat at a dais at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments boardroom, next to the Dutch ambassador and other Netherlandish dignitaries. They were there to talk about how their country makes it easy to bicycle, before mobile workshops that would assess D.C.’s bike friendliness.
Although the Dutch could brag about their capacious bike parking facilities and dedicated cycle tracks, it wasn’t wholly an instructor-student dynamic. In many instances, the foreigners ended up praising D.C.’s bicycling infrastructure, from signage to new bike lanes to high usage of helmets. Klein tapped away at his Android phone for parts of the presentation–he’s familiar with the Dutch innovations, having brought a few of them to D.C. already–and looked up to smile at photos of children cycling to school. When his turn at the mic came, Klein delivered a stirring encomium to bold action for a bike-centric city.
“We can’t say we want to be more sustainable, but we also want to widen our roads and make it easier to drive, it just doesn’t work that way," he said. “I’ve wanted to be more aggressive over the last few years than we have been."
Even in the confined political environment of Washington–where many streetscape changes have to be vetted by multiple levels of city and federal government–Klein has hurled himself into elevating pedestrians and bikes over cars, with the idea of increasing both access and safety (a tricky thing, since more people on foot and two wheels means more targets for vehicles to hit). Aside from a few high-profile reversals–like the wide Pennsylvania Avenue NW bike lanes that later had to be slimmed down–he’s mostly gotten his way. DDOT is now retrofitting so many streets for bikes that the agency is trying to figure out how to contract out the work, rather than doing it all in-house. One need: More paint stripers, to keep up with all the traffic flow revisions the agency wants.
Some of these initiatives started before Klein replaced Emeka Moneme, an elaborately credentialed management professional who left for a higher-paying job at Metro. Most, though, accelerated during Klein’s 20-month tenure. The department had bike and pedestrian specialists, but Klein says they were “hampered by the rest of the organization not getting, or prioritizing, bike and ped work"; he gave them more authority and visibility. Klein set a goal of installing 80 miles of bike lanes; 49 have been done. For traffic calming, 782 speed humps have been installed in the last two years. In Chinatown, pedestrians can now cross diagonally at one intersection, in a throwback traffic management scheme known as a “Barnes dance."
Klein also became ubiquitous. He went to community meetings, appeared on radio shows, started a blog and a Twitter account, narrated YouTube videos, gave out his e-mail and phone number, and even showed up at this year’s antiquarian Tweed Ride. At every chance he gets, he uses that public profile to coax people out of their cars.
What’s stopping the DDOT director now? It’s true that Klein could be replaced in a Vince Gray administration, though his position is considered to be safer than those of some other cabinet members. Assuming he stays on, the biggest obstacle to the development of a walkable, bikeable city is, in many parts of the city, a dearth of places to walk and bike to.
There’s not much point in putting down a bike lane that runs for miles before getting to a grocery store, after all, or putting in stoplights when there aren’t enough pedestrians to use them. Places like Adams Morgan and Dupont Circle were only waiting to be connected by bike paths; drivers there are already used to dealing with foot traffic. But in the suburban expanses of Wards 4, 5, 7, and 8, where parking is plentiful and amenities scarce, Klein’s DDOT could find itself waiting for development to catch up.
The challenges to making D.C. foot-friendly are baked into the street design. The long, grand avenues that give the center city its vistas turn into speedways to the suburbs on the outskirts. When they intersect downtown, they create irregular traffic patterns that confuse drivers. Those oddities might be why D.C. has a higher pedestrian accident rate than comparable cities. In 2008, the latest year for which the Federal Highway Administration keeps data, 26.5 percent of people killed in traffic accidents here were pedestriansªthe highest rate in the country.
Pedestrian deaths have stayed fairly steady, though, while the number of people walking and biking to work has increased. Which is due at least in part to the efforts of George Branyan, DDOT’s pedestrian coordinator since 2005. Branyan, an avid cyclist, has been applying a box of tools to D.C. streets to shift the balance of power from cars to pedestrians.
Take signaling. Something as simple as letting pedestrians walk before the light turns green for cars can cut pedestrian accidents dramatically, since drivers see people in the crosswalk before turning right. DDOT has installed some 50 of these “leading pedestrian intervals." They’re also piloting what’s called a “hawk signal," for intersections that don’t have a full stoplight, at Georgia Avenue and Hemlock Street NW. A pedestrian pushes the button, and one bulb flashes yellow before another bulb starts flashing red, which means cars stop briefly and it’s safe to cross. For the least busy streets, there’s a simple flashing LED light that pedestrians can activate to notify cars at night.
How does DDOT know these types of things work, after a short pilot? It’s all about driver compliance rates. To test them, DDOT staffers will activate the signal, walk into the road, and record how many times cars stop. On a regular crosswalk with no signals, only about one in four cars will stop, on average. With the hawk signal, that number goes up to 97 percent.
Beyond signaling, there’s the physical shape of streets. One by one, DDOT is making its way through the city’s major arterials, taking away lanes when the traffic volume doesn’t justify them–both Sherman Avenue NW and Pennsylvania Avenue SE invited speeding, and will be slimmed down to prioritize bikes and pedestrians. Next, Branyan wants to take on Maryland Avenue NE on Capitol Hill.
That’s all engineering. Laws about traffic safety, though, need to be enforced, which the Metropolitan Police Department probably doesn’t have the resources to do. (Unless you’re in Ward 3, or other low-crime areas–there, Branyan says, you’re more likely to get a jaywalking ticket than anywhere else.) The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments-sponsored Street Smart campaign escalates enforcement for a few weeks twice a year, just to remind people of what the laws areªbut after the crackdown ends, it’s easy for drivers to forget.
To fill in the gaps, MPD already has 52 red light cameras that record infractions, and is looking at much more sophisticated technologies that can pick up bad behavior even away from traffic signals, take down license plates, and send you a ticket in the mail. With no police overtime, electronic surveillance can dramatically reduce dangerous behavior like rolling right turns at red lights, now subject to a $100 fine.
Fundamentally, psychology matters, says transportation planning consultant Jennifer Toole, whose Toole Design Group designed D.C.’s pedestrian master plan in 2009. “We’ve learned a lot more about what compels a driver to be cognizant of a pedestrian," she says. “We know it takes more than just putting a crosswalk down."
One of DDOT’s recent initiatives have been “livability studies," so far targeted at three neighborhoods, where residents are participate in a community planning process to guide transportation infrastructure investment. Poring over maps, they circle problem intersections, point out where bus shelters should go, and flag streets that lack sidewalks. Although the most pedestrian fatalities occur in densely packed Ward 2, if more people ditch their cars in lower-density wards, they’ll need streetscape improvements to stay safe. (On upper Connecticut Avenue, citizens undertook a similar project themselves, presenting their desired improvements to city agencies; other neighborhoods need a little more nudging).
But the biggest obstacle to alternative transportation, says the Far Northeast study’s community liaison Samuel Jordan–including Deanwood, Benning, and Capitol View–is simply the lack of destinations.
“It’s almost as if the community were made more attractive to cyclists, there would be more people using bikes, but then, you still have the question of destinations," Jordan says. “Bicycle to where? You need destinations to make the bicycling worthwhile."
Driving cash into things like grocery stores and coffeeshops is beyond DDOT’s power. But the department has leverage when it works with the Office of Planning, which creates blueprints for neighborhood growth that can include commercial development as well as transportation improvements. DDOT can also connect far-flung, relatively uncrowded neighborhoodsªwhich some residents like pleasant and sereneªto downtown with transportation routes. The popular Circulator bus service, for example, will likely soon run a line across the Anacostia River. And the 11th Street Bridge will be the most accessible connection yet for car-free transportation.
To support DDOT’s efforts, the D.C. Council instituted a Pedestrian Advisory Council this spring, with each councilmember getting one appointment. It’s chaired by Neha Bhatt, deputy state policy director at the national advocacy group Smart Growth America and a former staffer to Ward 6 Councilmember and walkability champion Tommy Wells. Bhatt is also a Ward 7 resident, and says she doesn’t lack for transportation options: She rides her bike to work every day, and takes a Zipcar when she needs to drive. During the six years she’s lived east of the river, Bhatt says she’s started to notice more commuters crossing the Benning Road Bridge on bikes.
But it hasn’t been all easy. A few years ago, Bhatt got into a serious accident, and it took her a long time to get back in the saddle. This last summer, she was hit again by an SUV while riding on the sidewalk. Now, she bubbles with ideas and plans, from pushing ped-friendly legislation to leading walking tours.
And she’s in a hurry. Having a pedestrian master plan is great, Bhatt says–but it should move faster.
“Instead of taking 10 years, let’s get it done in two years," she says.