The two build options for the K Street Transitway trade off space for cars, buses and bicycles.

One option would create a two-lane busway in the center of K Street, leaving three general-purpose lanes on each side. The other option, on the other hand, makes the transitway three lanes, where the third lane lets eastbound buses pass each other in some spots and westbound buses pass each other in other spots. That option also contains a bicycle lane along the length of K Street.

While at first glance the plans seem to provide a clear choice between more accommodation for cars versus more for buses and bikes, the difference isn’t that simple. Making a true “complete street” that works for all modes is not easy.

K is a major regional street, serving as a major east-west corridor and connecting to the Whitehurst Freeway and Key Bridge on the west. Huge numbers of buses use the street, from the Circulator to local Metrobuses to commuter buses from Loudoun County and Maryland MTA.

Currently, the road has four main center lanes used by through traffic and many buses. Medians separate the center lanes from side access roads mainly used for parking, loading, and some turns. The access roads disappear around Farragut, McPherson, and Franklin Squares, which extend partway into the K Street right-of-way. Unlike European boulevards, the side roads spend most of their time unused or blocked by non-moving vehicles. It doesn’t create a welcoming retail environment and doesn’t maximize the potential of this important corridor.

The 1600 block of K Street under the two-lane transitway option.

The transitway project proposes to move the medians inward, creating a narrower center space for buses only (possibly including taxis at night) and making the now-wider outer sections the general travel lanes for cars. One option makes the transitway two lanes, one in each direction, with a three-lane road on each side for other purposes. In this option, trucks and taxis would be able to stop in the rightmost lane to load and unload, and it may allow off-peak parking. Bicycles would also use the rightmost lane or share other travel lanes. When parks pinch the right-of-way, the general travel lanes would narrow to two in each direction.

The 1600 block of K Street under the transitway with passing lane option.

The second option removes one general-purpose lane in each direction, leaving only two. Instead, the transitway widens to three lanes outside of the areas adjacent to the parks. At many bus stops, the third lane allows buses to pass each other. Sometimes the eastbound bus lane widens to two while westbound remains one, and sometimes vice versa. In addition, a bicycle lane runs the entire length of the street adjacent to the sidewalk. Since there are only two general-purpose lanes, trucks and taxis would not be allowed to stop there. To allow some loading, this plan would cut loading zones into the adjacent sidewalk in a few places.

A major difference between the two options is commuter buses. Commuter buses stop less often but for longer periods of time. In the two-lane transitway option, therefore, they would not use the transitway but would rather stop in the curb lane of the general-purpose lanes. The transitway with passing lanes would accommodate commuter buses as well, where Circulators and Metrobuses could stop behind the commuter buses but then go around to continue on their way.

Therefore, while the initial reaction is to assume the transitway with passing lanes is better for buses, bus speeds would be very similar between the two options. The two-lane transitway would allow buses to run all the way from 9th to 21st, with stops, in about 12 minutes on average, while the passing lane option shaves that to about 11 minutes, mostly by reducing dwell times. Meanwhile, the current configuration requires as much as 17 minutes for buses to traverse the same distance.

At WABA’s urging, many cyclists attended the meeting to evaluate the impact of the alternatives on cyclists. Reactions were mixed. On the one hand, a bike lane all along K Street gives cyclists a facility that’s not present today and isn’t present in the two-lane transitway option. However, would trucks and taxis simply park in the bike lane on a regular basis, forcing cyclists to leave and making it more harrowing? Some agreed with my suggestion yesterday to focus instead on high-quality separated, buffered bicycle lanes (“cycle tracks”) on parallel one-way streets, while others felt that it was important to make K Street truly multimodal. They also pointed out that even with parallel bicycle facilities, some cyclists will be traveling to and from destinations on K Street.

There may be ways to better separate the bike lane. One person suggested raising it up to sidewalk level, placing the gutter and curb between the roadway and the bicycle lane and essentially making the bicycle lane a specially painted extension of the sidewalk. Many European towns do this with their bicycle lanes. The bicycle lane could also occupy a middle height, or have a mountable curb separating it from the roadway. However, other cyclists worried that such treatment would make it difficult for cyclists to pass slower cyclists, dog walkers, or others that might intrude on the lane, as they couldn’t easily jump over to the car lane if necessary.

This project is part of the region’s application for the competitive TIGER stimulus grants. Without that money, it’s unlikely DC or the region can find funds to build it. Since the deadline for the grant applications is September 15th, project officials are moving extremely fast with the Environmental Assessment, planning to submit it to FHWA in mid-August. They won’t be picking one of the two options for the application; final design decisions would happen if and when USDOT funds the project, and the design may blend elements of both.

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David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle.