Mayor Bowser and the DC Department of Transportation can already claim a major traffic safety accomplishment from the Connecticut Avenue Reversible Lane, Operations and Safety Study that began in 2019: the removal this year of the rush-hour reversible lanes. The design alternative that includes bike lanes got the mayor’s and DDOT’s approval almost exactly a year ago.
Now, pedestrians and bus riders need a win.
What would that look like? Improvements that make it easier to get around without getting into a car. This means encouraging greater use of alternative modes of transportation by providing better connections to nearby commercial areas, and by recognizing the impact of the pandemic on our travel patterns.
In one way, the study delivers: It provides for a dedicated bike lane on each side of Connecticut Avenue, which will improve safety and ease of travel for cyclists. But it is fuzzy on improvements to other non-car modes of transportation, and DDOT’s initial design concepts have not explained how buses and their riders will be safely accommodated.
Jim McCarthy, a former ANC 3/4G commissioner who served for eight years, commuted by bike on Connecticut Avenue for more than 30 years. He told me he is nevertheless concerned about the impact that bike lanes will have on transit.
“It all depends on the design, I guess, but it’s important that bike lanes not impede the operations of bus service, which is used by more people than are likely ever to bike,” McCarthy said. “If we’re taking climate change seriously, we need to get people out of their cars. We won’t do that if the main alternative, the bus, is stalled in traffic.”
We also won’t get people out of their cars if there’s no better alternative for non-cyclists traveling to nearby neighborhoods for shopping, dining and work. This intra-neighborhood movement has taken on greater importance since the pandemic began. Federal agencies that were seeking to reduce their office footprints prior to Covid-19 continue to do so, at an accelerated rate. And increased telework means leaving your home for lunch or a quick errand, not a downtown office.
“At the height of the pandemic, 60% of federal government workers were working remotely,” reports the Washington Business Journal. “Today, there’s a vanishingly small chance of reverting to the pre-pandemic norm, and so far, little in the way of a comprehensive strategy across the federal workforce.”
It follows that Connecticut Avenue’s value as a conduit for downtown commuters will diminish. But it remains an important connection between commercial districts, and that importance will only increase as new development adds more housing and retail.
Chevy Chase DC, which is not served by a Metro stop, has a small area plan for additional housing and businesses along the avenue. In Van Ness, the Days Inn is up for sale and ripe for mixed-use development. Roadside Development had redevelopment in mind when it purchased properties on the northwest corner of Windom Place. UDC is actively seeking retail tenants for its vacant retail spaces, and preparing to welcome MOM’s Organic Market next summer. In addition, David Franklin, UDC’s chief operating office, reports that UDC is moving forward on plans for student housing.
“UDC is currently undergoing the development of a feasible housing plan, conducted by a national firm, to determine the type of housing and potential timeline for implementation,” Franklin told me.
If new businesses and new housing attract people who feel they have no good alternative to driving, buckle up for gridlock. Better east-west transit is also critical. In Friendship Heights, 1,400 apartments are in the development pipeline. City Vista and other projects further down Wisconsin Avenue are adding more retail and more housing.
That’s a lot of potential new customers, and without more transit to and from these areas, that’s a lot of missed opportunities to connect them to Connecticut Avenue commercial areas. The advisory neighborhood commissions that urged DDOT to conduct the Connecticut Avenue study in 2018 may not have been thinking precisely along those lines, but in resolutions, ANC 3F and 3C stated “that overall goals of the study should be to enhance pedestrian safety, walkability, and overall economic vitality of the affected neighborhoods.” [emphasis mine]
Unfortunately, most of the Connecticut Avenue traffic data used for the study was collected in 2018. A goal of growth in all modes of transportation was not even considered, nor were the plans for increased retail and housing density along our commercial corridors.
For years, too, there has been a double standard at play. For road projects and even for bike lanes, there is the mantra that if you build it, they will come. But that is not applied to improving pedestrian access and bus operations. If not enough people cross the street at an unsignalized intersection, the community can’t get a pedestrian light. And if bus ridership falls off, service is reduced. The L1 Metrobus line has not operated since March 18, 2020, and in September, the L2 went from ten minutes between buses to 12 minutes, during what used to be the typical weekday community hours. The gaps between buses can be at least twice as long at other times.
Many cities around the world are combining housing development with planning for better mass transit and pedestrian and bicycle connections within neighborhoods. Concepts include Luxemburg’s 2017 mobility plan, which aims to expand transit to handle 40 percent more trips. Paris’s 15-minute city emphasizes walkable distances between homes and amenities. Barcelona’s superblocks close interior streets to motorized vehicles other than emergency, services and residents’ vehicles.
Let’s learn from these cities. If we want residents to travel to nearby commercial areas and also reduce car usage, the District needs to rethink its approach to mass transit and pedestrian mobility. For Connecticut Avenue, that means collecting new data and incorporating the changes that are already upon us, and those in our future. And it means coming up with a transportation system that can accommodate commuters heading downtown, but is not largely focused on them.
So let’s start building a safer transportation system that gets people out of cars and connects us to local shops, restaurants, parks and other neighborhood amenities. Let’s set a goal of becoming a 15-minute city.