It happened with remarkable speed. On May 29th, Mayor Muriel Bowser and the DC Department of Transportation (DDOT) announced the Slow Streets Initiative, in which 20 miles of streets would be designated as shared pedestrian, bicyclist and vehicle zones for the purpose of recreation while social distancing. On June 8th, they announced the locations of the first five miles. Within ten days, signs went up on the first Ward 3 slow street – 36th Street between Everett and Yuma Streets.
While we at Forest Hills Connection support the idea of slow streets, we had questions about the initiative, especially about the criteria being used to select each street and the law regarding people walking or running in the roadway.
DDOT has not posted this information on its Slow Streets Initiative website, but we learned (thanks to StreetJustice.news reporter Gordon Chaffin) that DDOT had addressed the criteria questions during meetings of the DC Bicycle Advisory Council and Mobility Accessibility Advisory Council. On Monday, June 22nd, I signed into the virtual meeting of the DC Pedestrian Advisory Council. (Disclosure: I was a founding member of the DC PAC and served for three years, including one year as its chair.)
What are slow streets?
Emily Dalphy, a DDOT engineer, presented an overview of the Slow Streets Initiative at the meeting. Slow streets are “neighborhood streets with low traffic volumes that already tend to serve local traffic only,” her slides explained.
The speed limits on these streets are reduced to 15 mph. Drivers are expected to use a slow street only if their destination is within two blocks away. And drivers should expect to share the roadway with walkers, runners, cyclists and users of other non-motorized modes of transportation.
As the slide below states, DDOT is prioritizing streets that:
- Connect neighborhoods to essential services/businesses, transit service, existing and planned bike facilities on major streets, and recreational trails; and/or
- Have been identified by neighbors or by prior DDOT studies as having concerns about speeding or “cut through” traffic due to their location and design.
Among other criteria: The streets cannot be bus routes. And they must be “local” streets.
What are “local” streets?
Under the Federal Highway Administration definitions, local streets are defined by what they are not: higher volume roads including arterials (such as Connecticut Avenue) and collectors (such as Albemarle, Linnean, and Fessenden Streets).
However, these classifications, based on prior usage, do not take into consideration the impact of Covid-19 and the shift to teleworking on traffic patterns – pedestrian and vehicle.
The purpose of slow streets
The District’s statement announcing the first seven slow streets said they would “give residents more space to social distance while moving around outside.”
Dalphy’s slides expanded the purpose to include serving as “‘first-mile/last-mile’ connections for residents traveling to and from essential businesses and for residents who work essential jobs.”
That may be difficult to achieve since such streets are often not “local” streets. Albemarle and Fessenden are used by both residents and motorists to get to commercial areas. And pedestrians need to be in the roadway at times to maintain social distance, even though these streets carry heavier volume of traffic.
One community member asked whether specified walking routes under DC Safe Routes to School, such as Reno Road for Murch, would be considered, although Reno is not classified as a “local” street. Dalphy acknowledged that this was a “local” street initiative, but the Safe Routes to School recommendations would be referenced going forward.
Another issue raised was liability – where would pedestrians stand if struck while in the roadway? Current laws specify where pedestrians lawfully can cross the street, and make it unlawful to be on the roadway. Dalphy reassured meeting attendees that DDOT is working to change these laws.
Eileen McCarthy, chair of the Pedestrian Advisory Council, believes this may take legislative changes to rectify. She is concerned about pedestrians having the leverage to make good on insurance claims.
The next slow streets
For the first five miles of DC’s slow streets, no community input was solicited by DDOT. When asked about this, Dalphy emphasized that for the next phase of the rollout, DDOT is approaching communities for their feedback.
Residents are invited to email their questions about the Slow Streets Initiative to DDOT’s Vision Zero Division: firstname.lastname@example.org.
DDOT’s Community Engagement team is also accepting ward-specific feedback on locations. You can also call DDOT at 202-673-6813. Mention “slow streets” and the operator will connect you to the appropriate DDOT representative.