For the first time, there are lane markings on the narrow section of Wisconsin Avenue NW that runs from Q Street to R. They make for a nice opportunity to study how narrow lanes work on major roadways in the District.

New lane markings along a section of Wisconsin Avenue NW. Photo by the author.

27,350 vehicles per weekday use the stretch of Wisconsin Avenue that’s south of Massachusetts Avenue. It has between four and six lanes during peak traffic, plus rush hour parking restrictions. Wisconsin also serves as an emergency evacuation and snow emergency route.

North of M Street in Georgetown, two marked lanes in each direction allow non-peak parking along the outside lanes. During rush hour, the outside lanes become the second driving lane each way. However, the roadway physically narrows by several feet after the Exxon at P until the library at R Street. North of that Wisconsin widens again and provides two, and in some places three, lanes in each direction during peak hours until it reaches the Maryland line.

Base image from Google Maps.

Until recently, the roadway along the narrow stretch, which is about a quarter of a mile, had no lane markings other than the center line. That made things unclear for drivers: were there one or two lanes in each direction? Some drove in the middle of the available space and others attempted to share the entire width for two lanes on each side.

The “new” lanes are atypical, but DDOT says they’ve been that way for a while

New lane markings went onto the strip in early October. A simple set of white painted stripes clarifies that on each side of the double yellow lines, the 16.5 feet provides two lanes of peak hour traffic in each direction. In non-peak hours, it’s one lane of traffic and a parking lane in each direction.

DDOT usually follows a standard width of 10-12 feet of paved surface width for each driving lane. Along the stretch of Wisconsin between P and R Streets, there is only 33 feet of paved width, excluding the one foot brick gutter along each side. That’s seven feet shy of the 40’ DDOT often reserves for a roadway with four lanes of peak traffic, during rush hour parking restrictions.

DDOT doesn’t usually make changes without considering engineering standards, traffic studies and (usually) community input. DDOT Director of Communications Terry Owens says adding these markings wasn’t a “change,” but rather a “clear denotation of lane configurations.”

“With no markings, it may be unclear to drivers during peak periods that there are, in fact, two lanes of travel in each direction,” he adds. But motorists who previously concluded there was only a single lane probably view this as a change. One day there were no markings and the next day there were. Visually, the roadway doesn’t resemble most District arterial roadways.

This is a chance to see narrower lanes at work

These newly clarified narrow lanes average approximately 8.25 feet wide, including the lane markings themselves. There’s also a one-foot brick gutter next to each outer lane.

Jeff Speck, a leading urbanist author and planner, has made the well-accepted case that narrow lanes make driving safer:

This logic—that higher design speeds make for safer streets—coupled with the typical city engineer’s desire for unimpeded traffic—has caused many American cities to rebuild their streets with lanes that are 12, 13, and sometimes even 14 feet wide. Now, cars are only six feet wide—a Ford Excursion is 6’-6’‘—and most Main Streets were historically made of 10-foot lanes. That dimension persists on many of the best, such as ritzy Worth Avenue in Palm Beach, Florida. Yet, many cities I visit have their fair share of 13-footers, and that is where much of the speeding occurs.

By clearly marking the lanes on Wisconsin, DDOT has created a quarter mile where we can see how skinnier, presumably safer lanes work on a major corridor. Four clearly defined and narrow lanes— much narrower than the 10-12 feet DDOT typically goes with— is probably quite appropriate for an urban street with a 25 mph speed limit.

In other words, this simple, low-cost change could go a long way toward making it safer to walk or bike along this corridor, which is adjacent to Georgetown Neighborhood Library and within blocks of Jelleff Recreation Center, Duke Ellington School of the Arts, and Hardy Middle School.

Some bus drivers appear to straddle both lanes due to vehicle width. Photo by the author.

This width may not be perfect for every vehicle or situation. The roadway math becomes a bit tighter for an ambulance on its way to Georgetown Hospital, as ambulances are typically eight feed wide. Same for 30 route Metrobuses or Circulator buses, which are eight and a half feet wide. My anecdotal observations during rush hour indicate that bus and ambulance drivers often decide to use the middle of both lanes. Most drivers will find that their cars and similarly sized vehicles will fit in these lanes with room to spare.

After nearly a month, the change hasn’t attracted any noticeable discussion or coverage. We are taking the theory to reality just like Jeff Speck envisioned in his criticism of the fat lanes traffic engineers tend to favor. It might not be clear why DDOT made it clear that this stretch of Wisconsin has two narrow lanes in each direction, but it’s fantastic that it happened nonetheless.

What if more of DC’s streets got narrower?

Mitch Wander first arrived in Washington, DC over 30 years ago as a US House of Representatives page while in high school. An avid promoter of DC living, Mitch has lived in wards 1, 2, 3, and 6. He and his wife are proud DC Public School parents. He serves as an officer in the US Army Reserve.