The badly deteriorated Broad Branch Road in northwest Washington could become a more complete street that will accommodate pedestrians and cyclists as well as drivers, as part of a much-needed restoration.
Winding west from Rock Creek to Chevy Chase, the 2-mile-long route does double duty for recreation and commuting. It’s necessary link between upper northwest’s neighborhoods, Rock Creek Park, and downtown.
Originally a market road for local farmers, most of its current infrastructure dates to the early 20th century. Patchwork fixes have only staved off a century of deterioration. Flooding has undermined the road’s substructure, most dramatically in 2011, when the bridge over Soapstone Creek collapsed. Since it needs to replace the roadbed anyway, DDOT has taken the opportunity to update the design for modern uses.
Three constituencies use the road regularly: motorists, cyclists, and joggers. The first has no real difficulty using the road, but the road and its bridges were built for smaller cars going slower. The road, after all, was originally a market path for local farmers.
Cyclists can use the road, but they have to keep to a quick pace. It’s not suitable for children, deterring families from using their neighborhood parkland. Finally, there are no real facilities for joggers, let alone walkers, but they have to skirt the roadway to access Soapstone Valley, which feeds Broad Branch.
That means that currently, the Broad Branch only optimally serves motorists, mostly during rush hour. Early community outreach has produced 4 options for an Environmental Assessment. Beyond the no-action alternative, one proposal is to simply rebuild the road, altering it to improve safety and reduce the footprint.
A third alternative would add a sidewalk, while the most substantial would include a full-length bike lane in the uphill direction as well as the sidewalk. All rebuilding options would all include stormwater retention gardens and contextually-appropriate safety walls.
Of the alternatives, only the fourth takes advantage of the route’s potential. A quiet, wooded route with a low grade is ideal for use by cyclists and pedestrians. For commuters, Alternative 4 is ideal. It includes a 4’ bike lane in the uphill direction of traffic, but not one downhill.
Given the narrow right-of-way, this option is the best use of space, because cyclists on Broad Branch can often move with traffic going downhill, but only the most athletic can sustain 25mph uphill for two miles.
Making Broad Branch more convenient for cyclists will open up large swaths of upper northwest to sustainable forms of commuting. Residents won’t have to huff and puff up the hills and ridges that make Upper Northwest so exhaustingly “upper.” Cycling neighbors could practically coast all the way in via the bike path along Rock Creek and comfortably ride home.
The bike lane and sidewalk will also benefit locals looking for recreation in their own neighborhood. Most of Rock Creek is surrounded by steep escarpments that make access to it difficult and dangerous for residents on either end of the age spectrum. A paved sidewalk on the easy slope of Broad Branch will increase accessibility dramatically for a wide range of abilities. The valley itself would also be more usable to residents, making it more of an amenity than it currently is.
A criticism of alternative 4 is that it encroaches on the streambed and increases the amount of paving along the road. These issues should be addressed with design elements that reduce runoff. Signage at the rain gardens, as well as other sites of interest would provide an opportunity for interpretation of the park, history, and the impact of urbanization. More importantly, by making alternative modes of commuting more convenient, a complete Broad Branch road would reduce automobile pollution.
To make the most impact this project needs to be part of a larger network. The sidewalk bill is one part of this. Any plans should take into consideration the opportunity to calm traffic and improve safety by adding bike lanes on the unnecessarily wide Nevada Avenue, which is the extension of Broad Branch up a former stream valley. The potential of a Broad Branch that serves all uses should not be passed over.
Because the road needs to be so radically rebuilt, the opportunity to make these changes will not come again for many years. It is important that the road meet the ecologically sensitive needs of the population 50 years from now. Rebuilding it as a car-only route would be a serious mistake.
DDOT is interested in hearing from the public. To make that easy, any comments you post here will automatically also go to the project email address.