Photo by Yancey Burns reproduced with permission.

Florida Avenue, NE is very dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists. The sidewalk on one side is too narrow for people to walk and doesn’t meet ADA requirements, while the roadway has more lanes than necessary. How quickly can change come? Can the DC government put in temporary fixes? How soon?

If DC expands the sidewalks permanently, it will require new stormwater outlets and pipes, resloping the roadway, upgrading lighting, and more. But could the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) use planters, paint, bollards, and other temporary items to create safe walkable and bikeable places in the meantime?

DDOT is hoping to do just that, said Sam Zimbabwe, Associate Director for Policy, Planning and Sustianability at DDOT. The agency will soon kick off a study to consider how to make Florida Avenue safer, which Zimbabwe hopes will finish by early 2014; temporary fixes to implement the recommendations could come as early as next summer.

Temporary changes can make a difference for safety

There are multiple precedents from elsewhere in the country for how a combination of temporary barriers and paint can quickly recapture excessive asphalt to improve pedestrian safety. New York City, in particular, has led the way under the leadership of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan to improve safety for all modes of transportation and create great new public gathering spaces at the same time.

While large projects such as the Times Square renovation have gotten most of the attention, smaller projects throughout the city have included painted bulb-outs to reduce sidewalk crossing distances, and removing “slip lanes” to slow traffic at turns.

In New York, the city DOT provided basic planters and paint to delineate the new expanded pedestrian and bicyclist areas, as well as some simple furnishings. Local business groups and others then provided the plants and additional benches, tables and other items.

Pearl Street Plaza in NYC. Photo by NYCDOT on Flickr.

In DC as well, local developers, businesses and schools could help maintain certain blocks. For example, the NoMa BID includes the 200-300 blocks, Two Rivers PCS and Union Market developer Edens each own property in the 400 block, and Gallaudet abuts the 600-900 blocks. All are willing to take on the landscaping and other maintenance work adjoining their properties.

DC has some precedent for these types of temporary safety upgrades. After a person was killed at 15th and W, NW, DDOT installed temporary bulb-outs and retimed the signals. There’s now a permanent design, but in the meantime, people there have enjoyed a safer intersection for the last 4 years and for however many more years it will take to permanently reconstruct the intersection.

Temporary fixes at 15th and W, NW. Photos by Stephen Miller.

Why can’t DC do this now?

Must there be any kind of study? Why not simply install some temporary measures tomorrow?

Zimbabwe explained that DC faces some constraints from federal law and the regional Transportation Planning Board (TPB). Florida Avenue is one of DC’s “major arterial” roads, is considered a regionally significant piece of the transportation network, and is part of the “expanded national highway system” under the recent federal MAP-21 transportation bill.

In order to change a part of the transportation network that used federal funds in the past, or a regionally-significant link, DC (or Maryland or Virginia) has to go through certain steps. It has to submit the project to the TPB’s Constrained Long-Range Plan (CLRP). TPB takes the list of projects, runs models to determine the overall effect on regional air quality, and makes sure that the air quality is below certain levels as required by the federal Clean Air Act.

Therefore, DDOT cannot go out tomorrow — or even this year — to restripe Florida Avenue to reduce lanes for ADA compliant walking areas or bicycle facilities. Instead, it has to decide what it wants to do, submit the project next February, and wait for the TPB to approve the project, along with the others in the region, later in the spring.

For 2013, DDOT submitted streetcar routes, bus lanes on H and I Streets, making New Jersey Avenue NW two-way, and more, but nothing about Florida Avenue. A 2010 NoMA transportation study recommended removing a lane on Florida Avenue NE, but DDOT has not yet included this project in its portion of the CLRP project list.

The best-case scenario at this point is for temporary fixes to happen in about 18 months. In an email, Zimbabwe says that an upcoming study will “assess short-term low-cost design improvements” which DDOT could potentially install in late summer 2014, in addition to planning for the higher-cost, permanent changes.

Paint, signs and barriers are cheap and easy to move around. By trying temporary fixes, DDOT could make the road safer immediately, and also determine what works well before spending more money on a permanent change.

Politics can present obstacles as well

Besides having bureaucratic processes from TPB and federal rules, DDOT officials may feel they need a lot of studies to weather any political opposition that might come up.

Groups like AAA have criticized DDOT for moving too quickly on projects which convert driving lanes for other transportation users. In Glover Park, a traffic calming project is not yet complete, and yet Georgetown residents are already calling to reverse the changes.

It will likely take continued public pressure, and support, from the neighborhood and others to ensure that DDOT can move ahead quickly with temporary pedestrian and bicycle improvements without waiting for a long design and construction process for permanent fixes. Hopefully by the end of next year (at the lastest), DDOT has the opportunity to use Florida Avenue NE as an example for relatively rapid, low-cost upgrades that improve safety for all modes of transportation.

Tony Goodman is an ANC Commissioner for 6C06 in Near Northeast/NoMA and member of the DC Pedestrian Advisory Council. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, he is a Construction Project Manager with a Masters degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Michigan and has lived in Washington, DC since 2002.