Ward Circle is a rather uniquely designed roundabout at the intersection of Nebraska and Massachusetts Avenues NW, near American University. Traffic there is heavy and there are a lot of crashes, so DC wants to make it safer for pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers. The agency is considering four options for doing so.
Ward Circle serves vehicles traveling to and from the District as well as pedestrians from American University and a nearby Department of Homeland Security office.
A previous District Department of Transportation (DDOT) study, called the Rock Creek West II Livability Study, found that Ward Circle had the most crashes of any intersection near Tenleytown, Van Ness, and Friendship Heights. There have been 60 in the last three years, with 18 resulting in injuries.
While many circles in the District are roundabouts, Ward Circle has a cat’s eye shape thanks to two interior lanes that cut through the center as a continuation of Nebraska Avenue. One cause for all the crashes, as well as traffic delays, is that drivers often illegally turn left from these lanes into the roundabout (on to Massachusetts).
Another cause for concern are the crosswalks located where Massachusetts Avenue intersects the circle. While the crosswalks on the Nebraska Avenue entrances are protected by lights, pedestrians on Massachusetts are protected from traffic only by “yield to pedestrians” signs.
This leaves pedestrians vulnerable to distracted drivers— when DDOT studied Ward Circle, it found that drivers rarely yield to pedestrians in these crosswalks. Also, not having lights at the crosswalks slows traffic when drivers do stop.
Any attempt to fix all of this would have to account for another factor: the green space in the middle of the circle, which the National Park Service owns. While people cannot currently access the space, it houses the eponymous statue of Artemis Ward at the center, and it offers environmental benefits as well, like absorbing rainwater.
At a recent community meeting, DDOT proposed four ways to change Ward Circle’s design. The goal is to make the circle safer, make traffic flow more smoothly, and minimize the impact the changes have on the green space. The details are below:
Option 1: A classic roundabout
The first design option would convert Ward Circle into a full roundabout by removing the two interior lanes that carry Nebraska Avenue. It would also place signals at the Massachusetts entrances to the circle, making the crosswalks at these entrances safer for pedestrians and cyclists using the sidewalk to navigate the circle. This design doesn’t include crosswalks for getting to the green space.
According to DDOT Western Area Planner Theodore van Houten, who led the community meeting, this design would increase pedestrian safety thanks to the signalized entrances on Massachusetts. With this option, there wouldn’t be much effect on the green space, and the statue would stay where it is.
When it did its analysis, DDOT concluded that this design would negatively affect traffic because it would require more cars to stop for longer at the newly signalized crosswalks at the Massachusetts Avenue entrances.
Option 2: The cat’s eye, but with legal turns from Nebraska onto Massachusetts
This option would remove the possibility of illegal turns from the interior lanes by simply making the turns legal. It would also remove the roundabout, making the interior turn lanes the only options for turning off of Massachusetts Avenue onto Nebraska or vice versa.
This option would still leave pedestrians with minimal access to the green space. And according to DDOT, it would also have a negative impact on traffic flow because it would force all traffic turning left onto Nebraska or Massachusetts to use the interior lanes, rather than going around a full roundabout as they currently do.
However, this option would make the circle safer for pedestrians by installing signals at the Massachusetts Avenue entrances.
Option 3: Run roads straight through the circle
The third option would make left turns onto Massachusetts Avenue from the interior lanes legal by turning the center of the circle into a four-way intersection. Dedicated right turn lanes would let cars branch off onto Massachusetts and Nebraska Avenues. Two lane streets would also be preserved on the outermost part of the rotary; they’d primarily be for Metro buses and AU shuttles, but also for cars picking up and dropping off passengers.
Unlike the other options, this one significantly reduces the number of crosswalks available to pedestrians trying to navigate the circle. According to DDOT’s analysis, it’s the only one that would have a negative effect on safety for pedestrians and motorists.
This option would also reduce the amount of green space in the intersection and leave the Artemis Ward statue without a home.
Option 4: Keep the circle as it is now, but add more traffic signals
The final option would make the fewest physical changes to the circle as it is now. Instead, it would simply add traffic signals to the Massachusetts Avenue entrances to the circle and improve signs and paint in the interior lanes to make it more clear that it is is illegal to make a left turn from them.
While this option would make the circle safer for pedestrians and cyclists crossing Massachusetts Avenue, it might not stop drivers from making illegal turns into the roundabout from the two interior lanes.
Could the green space get more attention here?
While some of these redesigns move in the right direction, it would be great to see DDOT work with the National Park Service to make the green space in Ward Circle usable for residents, students, and employees in the area.
Dupont Circle and DDOT’s redesign of Thomas Circle in 2006 are great examples to look at. While the area surrounding Ward Circle is more suburban than Dupont and Thomas Circles, long-term developments at the old Superfresh site and the Spring Valley Shopping Centre up the street are aiming to make it denser and more walkable. An accessible and useable green space in Ward Circle could serve these future communities and make it easier for pedestrians and cyclists to navigate the intersection.
Until then, making Ward Circle easy and safe to traverse for pedestrians and cyclists is critical. In that regard, options one and four would be an improvement from the current set up and leave room for further development in the future.
Residents can submit comments on the proposed designs at DDOT’s Ward Circle project website or by emailing Ted van Houten, DDOT transportation planner, at firstname.lastname@example.org. DDOT is scheduled to begin taking the next steps on designing and building this coming spring.