Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Children: The most vulnerable navigators of our transit systems

September 19, 2011 - 09:32 PM
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All hail good street lights. (Photo: John Hendel)

Yesterday afternoon, the District Department of Transportation celebrated the installation of new traffic lights with a ribbon cutting at the corner of Georgia Avenue and Taylor. The intersection was filled with yellow, white, and green balloons (that would pop at random, scaring passersby) and held in front of the Yes! Organic market, with free Yes! water bottles and San Pellegrino. Attending the event were several children, a few local officials and residents, as well as DDOT director Terry Bellamy and Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser. This has been a busy couple weeks for ribbon-cutting ceremonies — the mayor and multiple council members had feted the new medians of Connecticut Avenue just last Thursday.

When I first arrived at 3 p.m., a couple Petworth residents walked by looking bemused.

"It's always something..." one man muttered as he walked by the formal display blocking easy passage of the intersection and storefront. Another man, whose destination was Yes! Organic, approached the three cops waiting idly for the event to start and asked them what the occasion was. A ribbon-cutting, they told him. "Over street lights?" the middle-aged man replied with wonder and a smile. "That's outrageous."

Councilmember Muriel Bowser arrived by 3:11 and immediately began greeting the crowd. "You've never seen people so excited about a traffic light," Bowser told me when she came to shake my hand. "You'll see why."

The ceremony itself unfolded naturally enough. The event celebrated the new traffic light at Georgia and Taylor, yes, but also a few blocks south at Georgia and Otis, all funded as part of middle Georgia's Great Streets project. Bowser highlighted another dimension to pedestrian life that I hadn't thought of as much and that was incredibly relevant to these new traffic lights, and I had to admit, she was right — I did see why they mattered in a new way.

"We are very excited about the millions of dollars being invested into Georgia Avenue," Bowser told the crowd. Not only would these streets be prettier as a result of Great Streets, she said, but it would be "safer ... especially for people who are walking, and especially for some of those standing behind me." The $7.9 million middle Georgia Great Streets project began in mid-2010, expected to last 18 months and fancy up the Georgia blocks from Webster to Otis.

Chocolate strawberries
(Photo: John Hendel)

Around Bowser gathered — in perfect photo-op form — about 10 children from the Spanish Education Development Center about a block away, all there ready to cut the big red ribbon with the councilmember. She began thanking various people, from DDOT to ANC commissioners to local police to the neighborhood's residents. When she thanked the neighbors of 4000 Georgia Avenue, one of the people in our small crowd called out, "About time!" in a tone that was more affirmative than complaining. "What we're here to celebrate today — the installation of a stop sign at Georgia Avenue and Taylor," Bowser declared under the cloudy skies. People continued to pass by the crosswalk, fully equipped with the bright white "walk" lights that help ensure safety.

The small crowd broke into applause at Bowser's many supporting words. She passed the microphone to DDOT director Bellamy after a few minutes.

"We are glad we were able to get it before school opened up," Bellamy said about the traffic lights in his matter-of-fact tone.

At 3:25, Bowser asked if people were ready to cut the ribbon and posed for more photos as she and the children maneuvered the giant pair of scissors.

Beyond the warm and fuzzy intentions of the ribbon-cutting event, the brief ceremony did serve a useful community function. To fix the city's broken or vulnerable spots, DDOT also has to communicate to the people what work the department is doing. I've seen this in meetings, in past press events, like at the Anacostia Metro station when D.C. announced its partnership with the EPA, in DDOT's Twitter account and press releases, in its improvement work along the Met Branch Trail. Communication matters. 

Yet as much safety as this new traffic light brought to Petworth children, its installation also underscored the reality that many intersections lack such important transportation fixtures. How long was Georgia and Taylor dangerous? How many others were in the same position, with neighbors lobbying for safer traffic lighting and crosswalks and whatever else? I also thought of neighborhoods that stood to lose more, without as much of the Great Streets streetscaping funding. Specifically, I began thinking about the concern that the lower Georgia streetscaping wouldn't happen due to $1.44 million shifted from that project to another project in Northeast D.C., which inspired close to 400 signatures in protest and a letter from Councilmembers Bowser and Graham.

I asked DDOT director Terry Bellamy about the concern over recent Great Streets funding shuffles, but he showed no sign of worry or that there would be any change in the Great Streets projects there. He said a federal TIGER grant, a program through which half a billion dollars will be awarded by the U.S. Department of Transportation to different projects in need across the country this year, will be facilitating the Great Streets projects in Lower Georgia. Bellamy expects DDOT to coordinate with Howard University planners. I now suspect he referred to this grant for priority bus transit because Bellamy spoke of a bus lane that will be added from the portions of Georgia alongside Howard down to Florida Avenue. Many improvements to Georgia will indeed take place due to this TIGER grant, including a bus-only transit lane stretching a third of a mile from Barry Place to Florida Avenue, but I don't see many of the streetscaping benefits of Great Streets associated with this federal grant. Further coordination with Howard on these TIGER grant plans for Lower Georgia will take place later this fall, Bellamy said.

"The projects are still ready to go," Bellamy assured.

Whatever will continue, let's hope the children of Northwest D.C. have enough allowances for pedestrian safety to walk the streets. They truly are the most vulnerable, whether on the sidewalks, buses, in cars, or on Metro. They rely on professional bus drivers and parents and others. For that reason I'm equally happy to applaud these steps forward in pedestrian safety — especially in a neighborhood making as many advances in recent years as Petworth.

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