Georgetown widened the sidewalks along M Street for a weekend in mid-October. Temporarily borrowing 47 parking spaces from the street created a comfortable walking experience for thousands of people.

Photo by Sam Kittner for the Georgetown BID.

American, Georgetown, and George Washington universities all held their annual parent and family weekends October 17th-19th. Since these events cause foot traffic to spike along M Street, my organization, the Georgetown Business Improvement District (BID), placed barricades that turned street space into pedestrian walkways on M from Wisconsin Avenue to Potomac Street.

The average sidewalk on M Street in Georgetown is only eight feet wide, much narrower than most around the city. Given that we’ve recorded nearly 4,000 people using the M Street sidewalks during any given hour on busy weekends, that’s a problem.

Photo by the author.

In 2013, the Georgetown BID started Georgetown 2028, a community planning process to look at changes the neighborhood will need over the next 15 years if it is to continue to thrive and to enhance what is great about this community. The pedestrian experience is an important theme of the plan.

This isn’t the first time Georgetown’s sidewalks were temporarily widened: a sidewalk on Wisconsin Avenue added space in both 2013 and 2014 for the Georgetown French Market. That project, though, merely made room for sidewalk vending. October was the first time a sidewalk grew just to add space for pedestrians.

How the sidewalk widening worked

A lot went into making sure both pedestrian and car traffic ran smoothly throughout the weekend. We used steel barricades and some water-filled barriers to block off roadway space.

The change maintained all moving lanes of traffic and the existing bus stop. Where there wasn’t an existing curb ramp, we installed temporary aluminum curb ramps to ensure that the space was accessible for people with disabilities or stroller users. We created specialized loading plans for the businesses along M Street that load through their front doors, including four restaurants that need daily food delivery and trash pickup.

We didn’t want to encourage drivers to simply circle the neighborhood looking for a free street space. To lessen the impact of removing 47 parking spaces during one of the area’s busiest weekends, we arranged discount parking rates at nearby garages and posted signs telling drivers about them. We also made the northbound Circulator free so that people could park in garages on K Street and ride up the sometimes steep hill to the retail stores on M.

Photos by the author.

How well did it work?

After the weekend, we compared how many people walked along M Street to the average over four weekends. The data comes from automated counters which don’t cover the expanded pedestrian area. Even still, the total pedestrian traffic rose by 9.8%, yet the overall sidewalk congestion on M Street was lower than usual.

As for parking, the 47 spaces that disappeared for the sidewalk widening were replaced three-fold by available spaces in the garages. The garage at 3307 M Street reported 56% more cars than average entering their lot on Saturday the 18th.

We think those numbers, coupled with the feedback we’ve received, makes it fair to call the M Street sidewalk widening a success.

“I walked through the sidewalk closure area along M today on the north side,” wrote Eileen McCarthy, a DC Pedestrian Advisory Council member. “It certainly does help to relieve sidewalk congestion.”

“I believe any effort to make M street more pedestrian friendly will provide for a more enjoyable experience for tourists and shoppers,” added Thomas, a Georgetown visitor. “That was certainly my experience this past weekend. I can recall in recent visits to Georgetown that it was a challenge to navigate the sidewalks without being overly crowded by others. I am happy with the expanded sidewalk, and hope this measure becomes a permanent feature.”

Finally, Jamie Scott, Georgetown University’s assistant director of community engagement, wrote us to say, “the parking deals during Parents Weekend were very popular. … Our garage attendants had the information, and when the garages filled up on Friday, they directed guests to the garages in Georgetown.”

Photo by Sam Kittner for the Georgetown BID.

Let’s do it again!

The BID is currently evaluating all facets of the experience, but early feedback from residents and businesses is to do more of these types of widenings on weekends when conditions warrant. We will be meeting with our community partners to get their views and ensure we get these projects right on all the details.

For example, we learned that we need to make it easier for people to load things like small furniture pieces into a car or taxi. A 36-inch high fence makes that very challenging.

We at the Georgetown BID appreciate the District Department of Transportation (DDOT)‘s willingness to work with us to try a new way of managing our sidewalks. Support for this type of project is critical if we’re going to develop better ways to use our limited public space. It’s an experiment we’re glad we got to try.

Will Handsfield is the transportation director for the Georgetown Business Improvement District, and has worked on transportation projects in Los Angeles, Denver, and the metropolitan Washington region. Will bike commutes and lives with his wife and three children in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Capitol Hill.