Photo from DDOT.

Should M Street SE/SW have a cycle track? Or a dedicated streetcar and bus lane? Or neither? A transportation study says we’ll have to choose.

Advocates for every mode of travel would like to have space on M Street. It’s currently the only street that goes east-west all the way through the Southwest Waterfront and Near Southeast neighborhoods. Bicyclists would like a cycle track on M, and Toole Design even sketched one out in 2010. DDOT’s streetcar plan calls for a streetcar on M. Several buses, including the Circulator, and plenty of cars use M.

The challenge is more complex because the nearby street grid is highly disconnected. L’Enfant’s plan had a regular grid of streets, and until the mid-20th century most streets continued uninterrupted for long distances. Subsequent urban renewal projects not only tore out nearby townhouses but also cut off many streets with dead ends.

If multiple streets ran through within a block of each other, one street could have a cycle track while an adjacent street could serve the streetcar, for instance. But there are only 2 long east-west through streets here, M Street and I Street.

M connects Maine Avenue in the west to the 11th Street bridge and beyond in the east. I Street, a more residential-feeling street, runs from 7th Street SW near Maine Avenue to Virginia Avenue near 4th Street SE with only one gap, at Canal Street. A DC Department of Public Works facility in the way of I Street was recently demolished, and a coming development there will reconnect I Street. The study also recommends converting the very wide Virginia Avenue here to 2-way.

Image from DDOT.

DDOT and their consultant, CH2M Hill, looked at 3 options:

  1. Create a pair of dedicated transit lanes on M Street and 2 general travel lanes, but no bike lanes. Put bike lanes on alternate streets, maybe including a cycle track on I Street. Widen I Street to carry more car traffic and take away the current bike lanes.
  2. Create a cycle track in each direction on M Street, plus 2 general travel lanes, plus a parking lane where space permits. Move the streetcar and Circulator to parallel streets. Other buses can still use the general lanes.
  3. Keep 3 lanes of traffic all the way through. Streetcars and buses would share a lane with cars.

Each option varies a bit from place to place because the road is wider in SW than in SE:

Widths of each block on M and I Streets.

Where would the streetcar and Circulator go in Option 2? DDOT suggests routing the streetcar from the 11th Street Bridge up to Virginia Avenue, then on I Street to 7th. The Circulator, meanwhile, would take M past the Navy Yard, then cut down to Tingey and N Streets a block south, pass the ballpark, take Canal Street into Buzzard Point, loop around down there, then come back up 4th Street to I back to 7th.

Why put the Circulator in the south and the streetcar in the north instead of vice versa? DDOT planning head Sam Zimbabwe said:

The Nationals currently close N Street during games and Potomac will cross at the oval with the [South Capitol Street] project. I think we also have some concerns about making the streetcar route too circuitous, and having 2 turns on and off M Street may not work very well. Unlike a bus, a streetcar really needs a full phase to make a turn, and also has some wide radii which sometimes can impact the right-of-way.

I think an important thing overall, which we talked about at the workshop, but probably doesn’t come through in just the slides, is that the alternatives were set up somewhat to define some stark contrasts among different alternatives, and are a bit at the “extremes.” The purpose of this study is not to define a single recommended alternative for premium transit (streetcar), but to define some of the planning-level scenarios and tradeoffs so that we can carry reasonable alternatives into an environmental process with some existing basic levels of analysis. Our plan is to start a NEPA process (probably an EA [Environmental Assessment]) later this fall.

What do you think is the right answer? Tomorrow, Dan Malouff and l will outline what we think.

Update: Some commenters have pointed out that instead of making I more hospitable to bicycles, Alternative 1 as presented actually makes it less hospitable by taking away the bike lanes and adding more car lanes. I have updated the post, and Dan and I will add this information to our discussion tomorrow.

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David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). 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. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.