On May 29th, Mayor Muriel Bowser and DDOT announced a new 20 mile-per-hour speed limit on residential streets. They also announced that 20 miles of DC streets would be designated “slow streets,” restricted to local traffic, with a 15 MPH speed limit.
Slow streets allow people on foot and on bikes to give each other more space to practice social distancing on streets with narrow sidewalks or no sidewalks at all. Pedestrians and cyclists have laid claim to many neighborhood streets that have emptied of vehicle traffic because of the pandemic, but the challenge will be in maintaining physical distancing as reopening schools and businesses send more pedestrians, cyclists – and drivers – into the streets.
“Like the streateries and other expanded dining areas that are now on roads, alleys, and sidewalks throughout the city, the Slow Streets initiative is one way we can reimagine public space to make it easier to enjoy the outdoors and stop the spread of COVID-19,” Bowser said in a statement.
We think it is a good idea. But 20 miles barely seems to cover the need. The process of selecting these streets has been opaque so far. And existing laws could leave pedestrians and cyclists vulnerable should they be struck while using the slow streets as intended.
On June 8th, Mayor Bowser and DDOT announced the locations of the first of these slow streets – seven streets covering 5.5 miles in all eight wards. (View on a map.)
- Wards 1 and 2: 19th Street NW (between Dupont Circle and Biltmore Street, NW; plus most of Biltmore and Cliffbourne)
- Ward 3: 36th Street NW (between Connecticut Avenue and Reno Avenue/Warren Street, NW)
- Ward 4: 8th Street NW (between Piney Branch/Whittier Street and Missouri Avenue, NW)
- Ward 5: Newton Street NE (between 12th Street and South Dakota Avenue, NE)
- Ward 6: 12th Street NE (from East Capitol Street to K Street, NE)
- Ward 7: Grant Street NE (between Minnesota Avenue and 46th Street, NE)
- Ward 8: 15th Street SE (from Mississippi Avenue to Savanah Street, SE) and 15th Place, SE (from Alabama Avenue to Bruce Place, SE)
The choice of 36th Street NW in Ward 3 is a bit of a head scratcher, because it is, for all practical purposes, already a “slow street.” There are four-way stop signs at all but three intersections (at Warren, Appleton and Everett Streets), and the relatively short blocks between the stops discourage speeding. Connecticut Avenue to the east and Reno Road to the west provide faster north-south routes for drivers, and keep vehicle traffic on 36th mostly local – all without special signage or barriers.
DDOT has not posted information about its process and criteria for choosing the slow streets, and it has not responded to our questions about the criteria and time frame for the rollout. Our search for information has yielded only these slides, captured by StreetJustice.news reporter Gordon Chaffin during a DDOT presentation for the DC Mobility Accessibility Advisory Council.
THREAD: Last week, @TrafficEnginerd presented @DDOTDC's COVID-19 Slow Streets plan to DC's Mobility Accessibility Advisory Council. Here are the slides. More in the https://t.co/vwAVIMcnLK report coming tonight. #bikeDC #walkDC #VisionZeroDC 1/ pic.twitter.com/fYGLVMnGZs
— Gordon Chaffin (@GordonAChaffin) June 15, 2020
We hope that DDOT is drawing upon the wealth of data from previous transportation plans like Vision Zero, MoveDC and Safe Routes to School sidewalk priorities. These plans were formed with a great deal of community input. Because of them, we know where sidewalks are narrow or nonexistent, where motorist traffic is high, and where streets lead to schools, recreation centers, libraries and commercial areas.
Based on those plans, we believe prioritizing non-vehicle traffic would serve us well on these streets:
- Reno Road. Its popularity with drivers, narrow sidewalks and its importance as a walking route to Murch Elementary make this street a prime candidate. We suggest the stretch between McKinley Street and Davenport.
- Davenport Street. The street directly west of Rock Creek Park is popular with cross-city drivers traveling from Military Road to Connecticut Avenue. Residents have long complained of speeding, and now more pedestrians and cyclists are using the street due to its inadequate sidewalks.
- Fessenden Street. This busy local street has no contiguous sidewalk from Linnean Avenue to Murch and Deal Middle School.
- Albemarle Street. This is another busy local street, used by drivers and pedestrians to get to shops in Van Ness and Tenleytown.
The DC Council is also pushing for a more extensive network. On June 11th, it passed The “Connected Transportation Network Emergency Act of 2020” sponsored by Council members Mary Cheh, Brianna Nadeau and Charles Allen. The emergency legislation requires that DDOT publish a report within 28 days identifying modifications to at least 20 miles of streets in all wards of the District – all to create a network of safe travel routes for other than motorized vehicles.
Existing laws say “no” to pedestrians on the streets
But this legislation and the mayor’s orders do nothing to address laws that clearly state pedestrians have no place in the street.
Section 2305.2 states: “Where sidewalks are provided, it shall be unlawful for any pedestrian to walk along and upon an adjacent roadway.”
If a motorist strikes a pedestrian who is in the street because sidewalks are in use by others, the liability still resides with the pedestrian. There are also laws against pedestrians crossing the street in places other than a crosswalk.
The mayor and the Council need to act to suspend these laws for the duration of the coronavirus emergency. And they need to pass legislation that specifically places the responsibility of upholding the safe use of these shared streets on drivers. Otherwise, pedestrians could be cited for using the slow streets as intended.
De facto “slow streets” have spurred more walking, cycling and other forms of non-motorized forms of transportation. How smart and nimble our city is in its rollout will determine whether this trend will succeed in expanding and connecting more of us to our commercial areas, schools, and other city services. The alternative as businesses and services reopen is more car use, an outcome the District’s streets – and its residents – cannot support.