Image from Jacqueline Dupree.

At the public meeting on M Street SE/SW, the subject that CouncilMember Tommy Wells wanted to discuss most was change: a changing neighborhood, a changing population, a changing idea of transportation in the city and most of all a changed M Street.

While many people were enthusiastic about the proposal, ANC commissioners and leaders of other neighborhood groups were the most likely to express fear about the impact on traffic and parking.

The proposal, by Toole Design, would create separated bike lanes the length of M Street, with bus stops on the left side of the bike lane. Cyclists would cross with the pedestrian signals.

A narrow, concrete median would give crossing pedestrians some refuge, where now they have none. M Street would retain left turn lanes. The project could happen within one year, for under $300,000, and paid for with revenue from the performance parking pilot program.

Concept sketch for M Street. Photo by volcrano of diagram by Toole Design.

The current M Street is a six-lane roadway that serves about 10,000 cars per day on the east side of South Capitol and 20,000 on the west side. According to DDOT, it only takes two lanes to carry 10,000, and four lanes to carry 25,000, so the road is overbuilt. An overbuilt road invites speeding. In addition, a road that wide is harder to safely cross. Instead of being a highway, M street should be a neighborhood street.

Wells suggested taking the extra capacity and converting it into something more useful, and more beneficial, before the expected 25,000 new employees and 10,000 new residents move into the area over the next several years.If things don’t change, they’ll expect parking and traffic lanes instead of high-quality transit, sidewalks, bike lanes and negotiable street crossings.

Wells calls Near SE/SW the most multi-modal neighborhood in America. Within blocks you can find Metro, Metrobus, Circulator, major roads, a water taxi dock, a helipad, carriage horses (stabled under the freeway), and more. What’s missing is high-quality infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists.

The groundwork is already laid on the edges of Southwest.  People are biking over the 14th Street and Case bridges to and from the District, and they need a way to connect to Southwest and Southeast.  Down the road, the Nationals ballpark has the highest transit ridership of any baseball stadium in the country. A streetcar is coming, and adding bike lanes now will get people used to the idea of fewer lanes. Fewer lanes will make the road safer and more friendly.

Adam Goldberg of AARP said they support complete streets for an aging community because they help create livable communities. Older adults are over-represented in all road fatalities, but especially among pedestrian fatalities, where they make up 19% of pedestrian deaths. America is getting older, and older people walk more, bike more and drive less.

According to Goldberg, surveys have shown than many paratransit riders would prefer to ride fixed-route transit but find it difficult because their bus-stops, sidewalks and neighborhoods are not accessible.  It costs roughly $38,000 per year to provide paratransit service to someone, but only $8,000 to fix the accessibility of a bus stop.

Supportive members of the audience referred to experiences in Europe or the success with 8th Street SE, which lost a lane but is more walkable and successful as a result without backing up traffic. One cyclist who hates riding on M Street spoke of the signed bike route that instructs cyclists to use the sidewalk, where they mix with pedestrians.

Younger people generally supported the new design. One woman said she sold her car when she moved to DC because she could. Another person talked of how South Capital separates neighborhoods and how this project could connect them.

But, as with any plan to reduce road capacity, many people, especially ANC commissioners, were concerned about traffic. “You will cause M St SW to lose all hope of moving cars for hours and hours and hours,” said one attendee. Wells pointed out that when Constitution Avenue ended one-way rush hour operation traffic did not back up to Maryland as some claimed it would. If you remove lanes, Wells argued, traffic will go away as drivers find other ways to move around.

One commissioner was concerned that slowing down traffic will also slow down bus transit.  “If this appears to be a conspiracy to slow down traffic, it is. Traffic is slower on Barracks Row, but it isn’t gridlock”, Wells said. There is rampant speeding on M Street, so the goal is not to make traffic crawl, but to go the speed limit. A safer street will serve bus riders as well. One commissioner thought that complete streets are great “in a perfect world”, but what about when there are crashes or an evacuation.

Some expressed concern that there isn’t enough parking in the area and this will only make it worse, even though Wells pointed out that it wouldn’t remove any parking.  “Why not build central parking garages?”  Wells noted that there is more parking in new buildings and that even though the new Arena Stage won’t add any parking, it will be sharing parking with those buildings. The area actually has more surface parking than most.

One ANC commissioner was not opposed to a complete street design on M, but only if it came after a more through traffic study of the area.

Then there were the people who just don’t like cyclists. One particularly angry woman asked “Who are these bike lanes for? Who uses a bike to drop off their kids at school? Who brings home groceries for a family of four on a bicycle?” But after each question several hands went up from people who did those very things. To that, she responded sarcastically each time, “Congratulations, you must be real proud of yourself.” After the school question, she added, “You’re an irresponsible parent.” 

She continued, “Older people don’t even bike. This is elitist. These bike lanes are elitist and they only serve a few people. They don’t service the whole community.” She failed to note that in a city where less than half of all people drive, much of the roadway doesn’t serve the whole community either.

Another woman complained that cyclists don’t follow the law, and asked how to protect pedestrians from cyclists. Wells avoid the question a bit, but noted that “we have sidewalks for pedestrians and roads designed for cars and we want to make space for bikes. But it isn’t just about bikes.”

Though the street is overbuilt and Tommy Wells and other residents clearly want to repurpose the unused capacity, this project is unlikely to move forward without support from the ANC. Consequently, it might be a long time before we really see bike lanes on M Street SE/SW.

JDLand has another summary of the meeting and a copy of Wells’ slides. Crossposted at TheWashCycle.