Visualization of M Street in option 1.

M Street SE/SW is not a very good street. It’s has more car lanes than it needs, and it isn’t hospitable to bikes and pedestrians. Unfortunately, the options in a study by DDOT and CH2M Hill unnecessarily force a choice between bikes and transit.

Cyclists need a decent crosstown route, or maybe two. Transit vehicles should stay on M Street, to serve the densest part of the neighborhood and make easy connections to Metro. DDOT should study an option that provides both.

There should be enough room on the west side of South Capitol to fit in a transit lane and cycle tracks. In Near Southeast, if a cycle track can’t fit with transit on M Street, there are some good parallel streets it can use.

The 3 options aren’t sufficient

Several people who attended last Thursday’s meeting about the study came away feeling that it unnecessarily pitted transit against bicycles. The 3 alternatives look at somewhat extreme approaches, essentially bracketing the universe of genuinely practical ideas with a few options at the very edges. That’s a reasonable approach, but it lacks options that help both transit and bicycle traffic at the same time.

Instead, the study seems to have assumed that no option can affect single-passenger cars that much. In making this assumption, the study creates tradeoffs for the limited space left after reserving most of it for cars. But what about greater tradeoffs between vehicular capacity and other modes?

Option 3, keeping the road with 3 car lanes in each direction, should be a non-starter. M Street doesn’t need that much car capacity, and it doesn’t serve the other modes well.

Option 1 looked at adding a transit lane, which could be extremely valuable, but then modeled removing the existing bike lanes on I Street entirely in order to add vehicular capacity there. If the team wants the public to think about that one extreme, we also need to understand what would happen in the alternative that adds the transit lane but then converts I Street to a full cycle track on the other hand. Or, what about putting a cycle track on M and keeping transit in shared lanes?

The area is growing rapidly, and single-passenger cars are a spatially inefficient way to move people. There’s already a freeway nearby, which should be main route for cars. M and I Streets need to serve the neighborhood, and with limited road space, do so in the way that moves more people in less space. That’s transit and bicycling.

Keep transit on M Street

Option 2 would provide a cycle track on M, but it would move streetcars and the Circulator off it, to parallel streets south and north. That’s not a good option either. M Street will be the center of the neighborhood, and is where transfers to Metro will take place. Asking every streetcar rider who wants to shop on M Street or connect to Metro to walk a quarter mile will cut down potential ridership significantly.

DDOT concluded that in this scenario, it would need to use the Circulator south of M and the streetcar to the north. But the streetcar can do the most good on the south side. The streetcar is an economic development tool. It helps bring in development and new residents and shops where mobility and perceived mobility are some of the biggest obstacles.

Portion of diagram showing where streetcar (green) and Circulator (blue) could travel in option 2. Click for full map (PDF).

The streetcar could spur sluggish growth around the ballpark and later in Buzzard Point. Along I Street there are a few parcels slated for development, but most of the road’s length passes through already-built residential areas that aren’t likely to change. It does make sense for the Circulator to pass by Nats Park, since many people use it to reach that destination, but way up on I Street the streetcar would be too far away to maximize its potential.

There’s room for bicycles and transit

Option 1 would create a dedicated transit lane along M Street from 7th SW to the 11th Street (SE) bridge, but no cycle track. The CH2M Hill study designed this with a 67-foot cross-section. That’s about the width of M Street east of South Capitol, but in Southwest the road is 80-84 feet wide.

Option 1.

West of South Capitol, it should be possible include a cycle track as well. One way to do that could look like this:

The wide section of M Street, with both cycle track and transitway. Image by Dan Malouff.

There would be some design challenges and tradeoffs. Should the cycle track go inside or outside the transit lanes? Putting them between the car lanes and transit lanes would require cyclists to cross over streetcar track in order to get to the sidewalk and buildings, which isn’t ideal, and cyclists would feel less protected riding between lanes of cars and transit.

On the other hand, putting the cycle tracks between the transit lanes and the sidewalk would make streetcar riders walk across the cycle tracks at transit stops. That would be unusual, but not unheard of around the world. Vancouver has some bus stops like that, for example. Here, many riders would probably stand in the bike lane, at least until everyone got used to the arrangement.

East of South Capitol Street, where M Street is narrower, it is more difficult to fit in both bikes and streetcars.

One option would be to squeeze in cycle tracks by eliminating the median, narrowing the cycle tracks to half their originally-designed width, and narrowing the sidewalk to only 7.5 feet. This would be less than ideal for both pedestrians and bicyclists, but it would be a compromise that would keep everyone on M Street.

The narrow section of M Street, with both cycle track and transitway. Image by Dan Malouff.

DDOT’s standards for sidewalks in commercial areas are 10 feet, and bike lanes of this type at least 5 feet. That’s not unprecedented in DC; Georgetown and U Street, with very high foot traffic, have had extremely narrow sidewalks for years. That creates an unpleasant pedestrian experience, however. Narrow sidewalks on M Street also might preclude having things like street trees and sidewalk cafes, which are important as well.

Another option that avoids narrowing the sidewalk would be to build the cycle tracks in SW only, and then put them on parallel strets on the SE side. From M Street, the cycle tracks could use Half Street SW to deviate one block south to N Street and Tingey Street, where they could continue past the ballpark and Yards Park to connect to the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail around the Navy Yard. When the Nats close N Street for games, they could keep it open to bicycles.

Meanwhile, DDOT could build another good bicycle facility on I Street, to the newly 2-way Virginia Avenue, atop the CSX tunnel to 11th Street and the new local bridge. I street, which isn’t very high traffic, could remain as painted bike lanes, and Virginia Avenue could get 2-way cycle tracks. Riders could use either of these routes to get across the area or reach any destinations there.

A potential arrangement of transit and bicycle facilities. Red is streetcar. Blue is cycle tracks (dark blue) and bike lanes (light blue). Green is the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail (the Maine Avenue segment will be built as part of the Wharf development). Image by David Alpert on Google Maps.

DDOT and CH2M Hill will be taking feedback from the public on these 3 possibilities and creating a final report. That’s not even the end of the process—they then plan to conduct an environmental review that may consider a different or larger set of options. The environmental review should indeed consider many more options than this study did, and think about more tradeoffs than just bikes versus transit.

What do you think is the best solution?

Dan Malouff is a transportation planner for Arlington and professor of geography at George Washington University, but blogs to express personal views. He has a degree in urban planning from the University of Colorado and lives in northeast DC. He runs BeyondDC and contributes to the Washington Post .

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.