It’s confusing and inconvenient to cross the intersection of Pennsylvania and Potomac Avenues on foot, to get to and from the Potomac Avenue Metro station. Could a different intersection design work better?


Two early concept designs for the intersection.


The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) kicked off an environmental study of the intersection with a public meeting Thursday night. This was the first of 3 meetings they will hold this year. They’ve also posted their presentation online.

Last week’s was a “scoping meeting,” the required first meeting of a NEPA process. Next, the team will develop alternatives, present them to the public, review their impacts, have public agencies review the draft document, and present a third time.


The intersection today, with sidewalks in red and parkland in green.


Redesign would accommodate crossing straight through

According to the study team, many people end up crossing straight through the intersection, and have worn a “desire line” in the median. They are crossing between signals, however, which may not be very safe. The team plans to design the intersection to help people cross safely in the direction they want to.

A prior study proposed rebuilding the intersection as a square, which would include crosswalks directly through the center from the Metro. However, that concept design hadn’t gone through engineering review, and included turns too sharp for buses, Geoff Hatchard reported from the meeting.


2006 concept for a square.


The presentation has two concept sketches for the intersection. One would make Potomac Avenue end on each side at a T-intersection with Pennsylvania, and another would build an oval, though smaller and rounder than the one in the 2006 concept.

These sketches don’t show crosswalks across Pennsylvania Avenue except in the center, but the planners explained in person that they will indeed include marked crosswalks at every intersection. That’s important, especially since by DC law, every place a street meets another is a legal crosswalk, whether or not there are stripes.

Factors to consider in the design

The team stressed that these are not the final options, just early concepts, and they will refine and develop them more throughout the next phase of the process. As they do, here are some concepts they should keep in mind:

Traffic calming: One of the ways to make this intersection safer for pedestrians is to slow down the vehicles.  DC recently installed a speed camera Pennsylvania Ave between 12th and 13th, which is a little over one block to the west. However, cars still speed through this stretch of road.  The alternatives should include engineering solutions that will calm the traffic.

Seamless transit connections: This intersection has a Metro station and is a major bus transfer hub.  Many of the pedestrians in this area are trying to transfer between buses or bus and Metro.  The current configuration usually leads pedestrians to dash across Pennsylvania Ave to catch a bus. The proposed alternatives should consider bus stop locations.

Location of the CaBi station: When DDOT designed the original “square” concept, the Capital Bikeshare program didn’t exist. The station is currently located on the southwest corner of Pennsylvania and Potomac Ave. 

One of the residents at the meeting pointed out that the current location is awkward if a rider wants to go westbound on Pennsylvania Ave. Also, people taking CaBi to or from the Metro have to cross Pennsylvania to reach the station. DDOT should consider where to locate the bikeshare station to make it as easy as possible to access the bikes and to help riders enter the flow of traffic safely.

Cyclist safety: One of the proposed concepts is a traffic oval. The engineers on this project explained that the traffic ovals are a method to calm traffic.  While that may be the case from a technical perspective, traffic circles and ovals can be a cyclist’s worst nightmare, especially when there aren’t any identified bike lanes. In trying to address pedestrian safety, DDOT should not create unsafe conditions for cyclists.

Connect projects on both sides of the river: Another NEPA process is underway for reconfiguring the Minnesota Avenue-

Pennyslvania Avenue intersection, immediately east of the Anacostia River. A NEPA process for Barney Circle, on the immediate west side of the Anacostia River, will start later this month. DDOT needs to make sure as these projects progress, the designs connect communities on both side of the river.

Rethink the Kiss-and-Ride: The Potomac Avenue Metro Station has a Kiss-

and-Ride area that adds to the pedestrian-vehicle conflicts in this intersection. Stations in urban neighborhoods generally don’t have Kiss-and-

Rides, and this might be the time to remove it.

What will happen with green space? The National Park Service controls the current median of Pennsylvania Avenue, and would likely control the larger green space if DDOT chooses an oval-type design, Brian McEntee reported from the meeting. However, NPS does not have the resources to maintain its small parks around DC very well, and regulations often inhibit actively programming the space for the neighborhood.

This was a primary concern of many people at the meeting, McEntee said. Many worried this would create a dead space without any activity. Some suggested a playground; NPS rules have interfered with efforts to build a playground downtown as well.

DDOT will present its alternatives at the second public meeting sometime this spring.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Surface Transit. 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 here are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.

Veronica O. Davis, PE, has experience in planning transportation, urban areas, civil infrastructure, and communities.  She co-owns Nspiregreen, LLC, an environmental consulting company in DC.  She is also the co-founder of Black Women Bike DC, which strives to increase the number of Black women and girls biking for fun, health, wellness, and transportation.