The DC Department of Transportation is months into a study of Connecticut Avenue’s reversible vehicle lanes. In the current phase, DDOT is using computer models to look at how different lane configurations and usage would impact travel and safety along the 2.7-mile primary study area between Calvert and Legation Streets NW, as well as on feeder streets and on nearby arterials.
DDOT collected bike and pedestrian data in January and February of this year, and used 2018-2019 vehicle data to come up with four concepts to run through its models.
An overview of the concepts
Currently there are six lanes dedicated to motor vehicles, whether moving or parked. During morning and evening rush hours, those parking lanes become travel lanes, and the two center lanes reverse to give southbound traffic four lanes in the morning, and northbound traffic four lanes in the evening.
Concept A keeps the reversible rush hour lanes, and adds bike lanes and removes parking on both sides of the street.
Concept B is the existing lane configuration without reversible lanes. It is the only concept without bike lanes.
Concept C has no reversible lanes and no parking. It adds protected bike lanes and left-turn lanes which could be configured as pedestrian islands instead. DDOT says this concept can accommodate “floating bus islands,” like the one seen on the right side of the Concept C rendering below.
Concept D has reversible lanes, bike lanes on the west side of Connecticut Avenue and off-peak parking on the east side.
You can view the four concepts and explanations here. The presentation also includes a table comparing the concepts. And there’s a fifth, no-build concept. DDOT here would consider enhancing the reversible lane signage and signals to make their operations easier to understand. It would also look at lowering the speed limit and increasing enforcement.
Ed Stollof, the DDOT project manager heading up the Connecticut Avenue study, went over the concepts during the July 21st meeting of ANC 3F, and said that the team would spend the next two and a half months evaluating them.
A note about reversible lane signage
A 2011 DDOT study of reversible lanes focusing on Connecticut Avenue points to the lack of overhead signage on the roadway creating the more hazardous conditions. The signs now in used are not adequate, according to the “Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices,” a bible for traffic engineers, and should only be used as a supplement to overhead signs or signals.
The study goes on to explain: “Opposition to mast arms restricts the District’s ability to use overhead lane control signs for reversible lanes. Lane control signs are only used in construction projects. The most stringent opposition to mast arms and overhead signs has been the Fine Arts Commission because of its concerns about aesthetics.”
Stollof told Forest Hills Connection that DDOT is in talks with the Fine Arts Commission about the use of overhead reversible lane signage on Connecticut. Without such signage, it is doubtful whether the safety of the reversible lanes could be improved.
The study’s missing elements: Pedestrians, speeding… and the pandemic
The plans for the Connecticut Avenue reversible lane study were first presented to community members and ANCs 3C, 3F and 3/4G in November 2018. The overwhelming feedback was that its scope needed to broadened to include “optimizing” Connecticut Avenue for pedestrians and cyclists as well as motorists.
The missing pedestrians
One way to look at this study is a rebalancing of the real estate and management of intersections devoted to cars. The DDOT concepts that add bike lanes are a start. However, the lack of infrastructure improvement focused on pedestrians is a glaring omission. DDOT has heard this from ANCs and from the Pedestrian Advisory Council, which advises the Mayor’s Office and DDOT.
From an engineering standards standpoint, conditions along Connecticut Avenue look good for pedestrians. There are no missing sidewalks. The crosswalks are clearly marked.
However, “We have heard from people that access and the safety conditions play out a little bit differently, especially if you are trying to cross or waiting at a longer signal,” said DDOT’s Cynthia Lin, the deputy project manager who went over current road conditions at the July ANC 3F meeting.
“The extent of the study is really just looking at curb to curb, so we wouldn’t necessarily be changing sidewalk widths,” Lin said. “But we can look at opportunities to increase access and safety within the design of the roadway.”
Pedestrian-friendly roadway design could include medians. DDOT could also move bus stops to signalized intersections. To further protect people crossing the street, pedestrians could be given longer crossing times and shorter wait times. Drivers could be prohibited from making right turns at red lights, and signals could be programmed with “leading pedestrian intervals” to give pedestrians a head start before the traffic lights turn green.
The missing speed stats
Also key to protecting all street users: addressing speeding. At the late 2018 community meetings on the Connecticut Avenue study, people brought up vehicle speeds as a major safety concern. Increasing automated traffic enforcement was mentioned as a remedy.
DDOT’s report on existing conditions did not find evidence of excessive speeds.
ANC 3F Chair Monika Nemeth asked about that at the July 21st meeting. “Upper Connecticut Avenue at times seems like a highway,” she said. Nemeth referenced a DDOT finding that bike usage is highest south of Porter Street, and she observed that higher vehicle speeds – or the perception that there’s speeding – might be a reason there were fewer cyclists counted on Connecticut Avenue north of Porter.
DDOT’s Stollof said the average speed between Calvert and Legation was between 25 and a little more than 30 miles per hour. He acknowledged that the speed data “smoothes things over.”
“What this data is not going to show us is if somebody tries to speed up, say, to beat a light,” Stollof said. “We might want to go out to the corridor and just do an observation to see if there’s people doing non-compliant driving.”
In an email after we published the article, Stollof clarified: “We can go out the corridor and observe if potential red light running/people trying to run a red light is occurring. We can look at ticketing statistics to see the extent to which red light running and/or speeding has been defined as an issue based on current enforcement within the corridor.”
The pandemic changes the calculations
The concepts being studied involve tradeoffs: Less to no parking vs. protected bike lanes. No reversible lane for increased safety vs. lower vehicle throughput at intersections. They also involve data collected before the pandemic.
Car usage on Connecticut Avenue might be permanently changed by telework and by a mode share shift to bicycles. In a phone conversation, DDOT’s Stollof said he recognizes this. He emailed this research by Kittelson and Associates, which spent two months surveying 1,000 U.S. commuters about working from home. Nearly half (46%) of those responding would like to continue to telework two to three times per week, and 14% said they want to do it all the time. Their employers seemed supportive, too, with three quarters willing to accommodate telework.
When they do travel to their workplaces, almost a quarter of respondents said they plan to change their mode of transportation. That meant more car, bike and walking trips and less transit use.
Next to the Silicon Valley, the DC metropolitan area has the highest share of jobs that can be done at home.
Around the Washington area, DCist reports traffic volumes have returned to at least 90 percent of their pre-pandemic levels, but with substantial changes in the distribution of the traffic. In Virginia, where traffic is nearly back to normal, there is hardly any congestion during the previous morning peak hours, 6 a.m. to 9 a.m.
The Connecticut Avenue reversible lanes have not been operating during the District’s Covid-19 state of emergency. Will we need them if working from home continues to be part of this new normal?
DDOT’s current budget for this project does not allow for more data collection during this phase, but in our phone conversation, Stollof told me that DDOT could analyze could look at potential decreases in traffic based on mode share shifts to bicycles and other non-vehicle modes.
The study’s next steps – and ours
DDOT is currently analyzing the concepts and is continuing its public engagement process and interagency meetings. That includes contacting businesses to determine their loading and parking needs. This fall, DDOT is planning a public workshop. It will then recommend a concept and come up with a preliminary design. Environmental documentation based on the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process is projected to begin in January and be completed by the end of June 2021.
In the meantime, Connecticut Avenue will continue to operate without reversible lanes. Stollof explained the lanes’ operation will be reinstated only when rush hour congestion on Connecticut Avenue warrants the change, and that ANCs would be notified before any action would be taken.
We do not have to wait for the completion of this study to deal with speeding on Connecticut Avenue. ANCs can engage the DDOT Traffic Engineering and Safety Division about lowering speeds through traffic light timing and adding automated red and green light cameras to ticket for speeding.