DC is looking at ways to make city streets safer in and around Petworth and Brightwood. At least one neighborhood official thinks the best way to do that is to put pedestrians in tunnels— yes, tunnels. But tunnels make for longer trips for people on foot, can encourage crime, and don’t really make dangerous streets any safer.

No. Photo by Matt Niemi on Flickr.

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) put together the Rock Creek East Livability Study to come up with ideas and recommendations to improve safety and accessibility for streets in the area north of the Petworth Metro station, east of Rock Creek Park, and west of North Capitol Street.

These places are dense, walkable, and home to many people who do a lot of walking and biking. But they’re also primarily designed for cars: the roads are wide, with intersection designs meant for fast turns that encourage drivers to look for gaps in traffic rather than crossing pedestrians.

The final results of the study came out in August, and they included suggestions for things like bike lanes, traffic calming, and intersection designs that are more pedestrian-focused.  DDOT engineers hope that different street designs will bring driving speeds down and make people feel safer walking or biking in the neighborhood.

Two major traffic circles, Grant and Sherman, got special treatment in the study. Right now, both have two lanes for cars and none for bikes. Petworth residents have long complained about speeding through the circles and how it makes crossing them on foot to go straight across a dicey proposition. DDOT looked at traffic volumes and determined that each circle could probably stand to have only one driving lane, which would mean room for bike lanes and shorter crosswalks.

Grant Circle Today. Better parking, bike lanes, and wider sidewalks are proposed. Image from Google Maps.

An ANC commissioner says tunnels would be better

Petworth Advisory Neighborhood Commission 4C commissioner Talib-Din Uqdah is not a fan of the plan. He thinks the ideas proposed as a result of the study would negatively affect traffic in the area too much. In an attempt to explain to Petworth News’ Drew Schneider that he is concerned about the dangers pedestrians face, he suggested that DDOT should dig tunnels underneath Grant Circle for pedestrians to use:

Since I’m now living in a city nostalgic for days past — street cars and “barn-dancing” (sic) at downtown intersections — why don’t we consider bringing back the underground walkways that would take you from one side of a busy street, intersection or “circle,” to another?

Coming up in the 50’s and 60’s, the city’s earlier solution for pedestrian safety was to construct these underground walkways many of us used. I believe they are all closed-off now, Dupont Circle being the exception…Just something to think about — a win-win for the pedestrian and above ground modes of travel — cost should not be a consideration; all what price do we put on safety?

Here are the problems with pedestrian tunnels

It might seem like tunnels (and bridges) are a no-brainer way to get people across busy streets. There are, after all, places where they do just that, like on trails that cross over rail lines or interstates. But by and large, there are very good reasons for not making them part of our cities.

This pedestrian bridge over I-495 in Annandale makes sense. But over city streets? Not so much. Image from Google Streetview.

Simply re-routing people away from one or two intersections certainly doesn’t mean dangerous driving will stop (it could increase since there’d be even fewer people around), and there are still plenty of other people crossing the streets that don’t have tunnels.

Meanwhile, simple physics says that with a tunnel, you not only have to walk the distance to your destination, but also up or down the equivalent of a story.  It also seems perverse to make walking harder and more inconvenient under the pretext of keeping people safe, especially when other safe options do the same job with less effort.

Moreover, unless you are talking about a lot of pedestrians using a particular tunnel at all hours, you have to deal with other safety concerns about potential crime. Tunnels and bridges that are out of the way of police cars driving by make many people feel unsafe and loathe to use a particular piece of infrastructure. If people feel unsafe walking down a dark tunnel alone at night, they’ll decide to take their chances with speeding cars.

And despite Mr. Uqdah’s assertion that “cost should not be a consideration” that is simply not true. DDOT and the city certainly do not have unlimited funds, and tunnels of any type are very expensive.

Randolph Street in Petworth. Photo by Rob on Flickr

Traffic calming helps drivers too

Another bad assumption is that traffic calming is just frustrating drivers for the sake of helping others feel good. That’s simply not true. Reduced collision rates on calm streets are an obvious benefit for drivers.

Meanwhile, the fears that slower speeds (which usually just brings things down to the speed limit) just lead to increased congestion have not been borne out across the city.

Time and time again, it has been clear that a low-cost solution like traffic calming has great results for everyone when they travel, whether it’s on foot or by car. We should get away from the assumption that a tunnel or bridge is far safer than the street.

Something as simple as walking around the neighborhood should not involve elaborate infrastructure plans. Walking is good for people as individuals, it’s good for the city, it’s good for business, and it’s good for a safe and vibrant city. If people do not want to walk because they feel unsafe on the street, then it’s going to be very hard to convince them to walk somewhere else.

Suggesting tunnels as a way to keep traffic moving implies that people on foot as mere obstacles for drivers. Tunnels would make the urban environment hostile to the people that live and work there.