Last Saturday, DC officials cut a ribbon on a project to rebuild on K Street NW between 3rd and 7th Streets. The road is better than it was before, but some elements that would have helped pedestrians and cyclists disappeared between earlier studies and the final project.
New pavement covers a full-depth reconstruction of the street and upgraded utilities. New granite curbs, Washington Globe lamp posts, brick sidewalk pavers, and planting beds make the sidewalk a nice place for pedestrians and outdoor cafés.
The four large, round, elevated tree boxes on the corners of 5th and K are especially nice. They’ll give trees room for their roots to grow, allowing this corner to become a beautiful shaded plaza in the future.
A 2003 Mount Vernon Triangle study from the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) and Office of Planning recommended ways to improve transportation and the public realm throughout the neighborhood. That study proposed putting bike lanes on K Street and consolidating curb cuts, which means fewer places where pedestrians come in conflict with vehicles.
There are still large curb cuts on the 300 and 500 blocks of K Street, and the project reconstructed the curbs around these curb cuts. Had DC been able to close the curb cuts now, it could have saved time and expense in the future. However, that would require the property owners to agree.
What happened to the bike lanes?
The Mount Vernon Triangle study also recommended bike lanes along K Street, but with the exception of a short segment in the 400 block, the blocks have sharrows instead.
DDOT spokesperson Monica Hernandez said in an email, “We did include bike lanes in the plans for K Street from 4th to 7th. We intentionally dropped the bike lanes at the intersections for traffic capacity reasons, to allow for the inclusion of left turn lanes, thus the actual bike lanes are short, mid-block sections with sharrows at the ends of the blocks.”
However, this makes it sound like there are bike lanes for at least part of each block. In fact, most blocks don’t have any bike lanes.
While biking down K Street last week, aggressive drivers honked at me incessantly. If there was a lane, drivers would have simply passed by. While sharrows are a helpful reminder to vehicular traffic that cyclists have a right to be in the road, it’s likely that other cyclists will have the same experience.
At 3rd Street, the project’s eastern end, there’s no transition from one very-wide lane with a sharrow to two wide travel lanes with no indication of cyclist right-of way.
Missing crosswalks hurt pedestrian safety
The project also misses out on pedestrian accommodations, especially at the corner of 3rd and K. There’s no marked crosswalk on the eastern side of the intersection. I suspect it was left out because westbound drivers accelerate as they crest the bridge over I-395, meaning they wouldn’t see the crosswalk until they were almost on top of a vulnerable pedestrian.
Any leg of an intersection is still a legal crosswalk, even if there’s no marked crosswalk painted on the street. By not designing this area to be safe for pedestrians, DDOT is just letting an unsafe situation persist.
There’s also no traffic signal here. This leaves off a visual cue for drivers to even think about slowing down. Meanwhile, drivers will be merging from two lanes into one here, meaning they’ll be looking over their shoulders and in the rear-view mirror to see where traffic is behind them, rather than paying attention to pedestrians in the crosswalk. This corner has the potential to be even more dangerous for those on foot than it was before.
The Mount Vernon Triangle report recommended a mid-block crosswalk on the 400 block, which is very long, but it didn’t become part of the project. Hernandez passed on our question about this to the project team, but she wasn’t able to get an answer. She wrote in an email, “those decisions were made by former staff during the planning phase.” It appears decisions by now-departed employees, decisions to abandon elements from an earlier study, simply disappeared with those employees.
What’s with the signs?
Finally, many of the new street sign blades along K Street don’t follow the same standard as most others in the city. This happened recently on other projects where contractors have fabricated signs, like on Sherman Avenue NW.
When asked about this, the project team told Hernandez, “The signage that’s in place reflects the new federal standard which will be utilized on all new projects.” Federal standards appear to define the typeface, not the shape of the signs, and as Mike DeBonis notes, include ordinal notation (3rd instead of 3). Regardless of DDOT’s claim, it’s clear that signage on their projects are not following one universal standard.
The revitalization of Mount Vernon Square has made K Street an increasingly active and busy urban place, and it deserves a streetscape that supports the people who use it, especially pedestrians and bicyclists. While the new K Street is an improvement, there are many unfortunate omissions that prevent it from being great.