Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

D.C. hopes to make Maryland Avenue safer for pedestrians

January 20, 2012 - 02:51 PM
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Bikes, walkers, and more will benefit. (Photo: DDOT)

Washington, D.C. may be a walkable enough city, but with more cars and bikes than ever, it's hardly a safe pedestrian oasis. Yet the District Department of Transportation wants people to walk more often. To accomplish this, the city has crafted plans for safer pedestrian corridors, with appropriate infrastructure and better commuter education. The city's latest big project hopes to revolutionize how pedestrians, bicyclists, and other vulnerable travelers navigate Maryland Avenue NE, specifically in the blocks east of the Union Station Metro and north of Eastern Market, along the Maryland stretch from 2nd Street NE east to 14th Street NE. You can see the relevant area, which includes Stanton Park, mapped here.

"[Maryland's] not a particularly high-crash corridor, but it's really a livability issue," said George Branyan, DDOT's pedestrian program coordinator. "It's a good candidate for some revamping."

And how's that possible? This Maryland Avenue corridor, after all, is estimated to endure 9,000 to 11,000 vehicles passing through every day, many traveling the speed limit of 25 miles/hour and a few racing far faster. Analysis showed a volume of 800 vehicles driving along Maryland during a weekday evening rush hour and suggested that the average speed of cars did fall between 21 and 25 miles/hour. Busy, busy, busy ... and scary for a pedestrian who just wants to cross the street. From 2008 to 2010, there have been an average of around 50 crashes or so a year there. Are there ways that DDOT can transform the corridor and help a congested, risky mess of drivers, cyclists, and walkers?

Yes, says DDOT, and its planners hope to show people how at the Maryland Avenue Corridor Pedestrian Safety Project interactive workshop on Saturday, Jan. 28 from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Sherwood Recreation Center, 640 10th Street, NE. Last year the Maryland Avenue meetings attracted about 30 to 35 people, and Branyan imagines a similar turnout if not more. On Monday, his team will visit the neighborhood and hang door hangers to let people know of the coming workshop.

DDOT has two big proposals for how to change Maryland Avenue and help the pedestrians and bicyclists trying to navigate treacherous terrain. Maryland has to balance the need for its capacity of 10,000 or so cars a day with a need for calmer traffic. First, Branyan told me of their plan for a "road diet," which would potentially cut the lanes down from four to three. He said capacity doesn't actually require those four lanes — "it just encourages speeding." Although most vehicles don't blast across Maryland, he refers to a small group that does travel "very fast" and their desire to slow them down. Under a new road diet system, Maryland Ave drivers would drop their speed by "two and three and four miles/hour" or so, Branyan estimates, without a significant impact on the road's capacity.

Second is what Branyan calls "the geometrics of the intersections." Branyan refers to "L'Enfant's curse" and the difficulty of D.C.'s "monumental state avenues," which cut diagonally across the city and create some hazardous turns. Some design and engineering tweaks can help drivers pay better attention and make pedestrians and bicyclists all the safer. "We just want to slow drivers down when they make those turns," Branyan said. "7th and D is the biggest problem."

At last year's March kick-off meeting, DDOT already presented detailed maps outlining some of the infrastructural challenges and risks. Consider this impressive breakdown of the car and pedestrian traffic around D Street NE, 7th Street NE, and Maryland:

Chocolate strawberries
(Photo: DDOT; Toole Design Group)

This year's Maryland Avenue initiative traces its origins back to the 2009 Pedestrian Master Plan. The plan's vision: "Washington, DC will be a city where any trip can be taken on foot safely and comfortably, and where roadways equally serve pedestrians, bicyclists, transit users and motorists." The document describes the way DDOT and others imagine transforming the different neighborhoods of the city, ward by ward. A 2006 online survey of nearly 5,000 people found that unsafe street crossings ranked as the number one concern, with 46% of respondents naming that the most critical issue they face when walking in the District. Maryland Avenue wasn't identified in the 2009 Pedestrian Master Plan as a priority corridor, but DDOT has paired its efforts on the prioritized East Capitol Street with Maryland, in part, Branyan told me, due to the efforts of Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells. A much smaller survey about Maryland Avenue suggested local residents worry about driver education — when asked what would have the greatest impact on the Maryland corridor, 61% replied drivers following the rules of the road.

In addition to last year's March kick-off meeting, DDOT conducted the surveys and traffic analysis last spring and held its first major public meeting in June of 2011 to learn "locations where pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists have conflicts or feel unsafe, and where both crashes and “near misses” have occurred." 

At next week's workshop — the second major public meeting since last June — we'll see some of these potential solutions for Maryland Avenue on display and in detail: "The improvement alternatives that will be presented," DDOT informs us this month, "entail the reconfiguration of intersections, adjustments to parking, pedestrian safety treatments, transit stop relocations and amenity options, the addition of left turn lanes, bike lanes, removal of travel lanes, and landscaping improvements within the public space. The project team will discuss the potential impacts and gauge initial public support for each of the various alternatives that will be presented." Around February, DDOT hopes to hold ANC6A and 6C meetings on the corridor. The department hopes to finish with 30% Preliminary Design Plans by March 7, 2012. Then will come the battle for funding and deeper questions about when in the next year or two concrete improvements can happen and at what pace they are unveiled.

The traffic analysis, surveys, and a comment map help frame the pedestrian perils of Maryland Avenue — and even show residents' concern on a block-by-block basis. See that comment map here, hosted on the website of the Toole Design Group, which focuses on environmentally friendly, multi-modal approaches to urban transportation. People commented most on the intersection of Maryland Ave and 7th Street NE, with 37% of those 33 comments citing how fast drivers speed and another 33% noting the drivers who don't yield. The second highest problem area, based on the 19 comments it received, seems to be Stanton Park's surroundings, where people cite cars that speed, run red lights, and cut people off. There were about 150 comments on these maps total, with 70% of the concerns interpreted as walking-related problems.

Glancing over the common crash types on Maryland (the T-bone collision of a right-angle hit, the turning, the sideswipe), I find myself wondering how technology may help make the Maryland Avenue Corridor safer in time. The government is currently testing car-to-car communication that would specifically target such traffic-safety risks such as these. But these infrastructural changes, from road diets to geometric shifts, may be a critical way that D.C. can change its city for the better in the meantime. The Jan. 28 workshop will contain more specifics on DDOT's proposals and Branyan estimates the presentation will be posted online. The program coordinator emphasizes that an ongoing dialogue will be critical in the path toward bike, pedestrian, and driver safety in these developments. A simple road diet alone may trigger serious changes for people out there on foot.

"Multilane roadways are always much more hazardous for pedestrians," Branyan told me, and these developments will be "key to calming the corridor."

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