This evening is the DDOT public meeting about 15th Street. It’s from 6-8 pm at the 15th Street Presbyterian Church, 15th and R. The format will be an “open house” style, where you can peruse the materials and leave comments but don’t need to sit through a whole long meeting; there will be presentations at 6:15 and 7:15 about the options.

WABA, CSG and other organizations support Alternative 3, which is two northbound lanes, one southbound lane, and two bicycle lanes, replacing the current configuration of four northbound lanes and no bicycle lanes. Alternative 4 is also good, with one lane in each direction and a center turn lane, but that will probably create more traffic than alternative 3.

Here are some reasons to support the change:

  • It’s safer. Traffic speed is the top factor in whether crashes are fatal; a 40-mph car hitting a pedestrian will kill that pedestrian 85% of the time, but at 30 mph only 45% are killed, and at 20% only 5%. Skeptics of the change say that it’s safer because traffic going only one way is easier to see and avoid; with only three lanes instead of four going slower, it won’t be hard to see and avoid traffic, plus a lower chance of death is much more important. The biggest safety impact is at corners; when traffic is moving at high speed, drivers tend to whip around corners. Also, the faster you drive, the narrower the field of view that your brain pays attention to (because it’s focusing more as objects come at your faster). That means that when turning, it’s easy not to see people crossing at the corners. Some CakeLove/Love Cafe employees were hit crossing U Street recently, and the high speed on 15th is likely a factor.
  • Neighborhood feel. Right now, walking across town, there’s a big perceptual barrier when you get to 15th Street. Even though 16th has more traffic and is a more major road, somehow 15th feels like the barrier instead. Some people are used to the road the way it is. That doesn’t mean it can’t be better. Our neighborhoods should feel like neighborhoods, not freeways.
  • Bicycle facilities. Bike lanes are good. We need more of them. This change will create them.
  • Lower collateral traffic. One-way streets create extra traffic by forcing people going to or from that street to circle the block.
  • Improve the 15th and Florida intersection. When 15th Street goes from four lanes to one at Florida Ave, everyone speeds and jockeys to get in line or make their turns, which is dangerous.
  • It’s even OK by LOS standards. Since there’s so little capacity north of Florida, narrowing 15th won’t substantially lower the overall road capacity (to the extent we’re paying attention to LOS).
Here are some counterarguments and my responses:
  • Two-way will create morning traffic. It will just have one lane going southbound. Few people will get off 16th or 14th and go a few blocks crosstown just to take a one-lane street southbound. Maybe a few will, but not enough to make it feel like “traffic”.
  • I like the predictability. It’s easy to cross against the light on 15th now because the traffic comes in waves and since the road is too wide, it’s empty the rest of the time. But if just a couple people get hit because crossing against the light is so inviting and speeding drivers aren’t expecting people due to the freeway feel, their injuries will be more severe.
  • 16th and 14th have more pedestrian crashes according to the Pedestrian Master Plan. According to the map, the difference is very small, and 14th and 16th both have a lot more foot traffic because of the destinations on those streets. Therefore, it looks like 15th is worse per pedestrian-mile or person-crossing or by some such metric.
  • Change the light timing instead, or put in red light cameras to cut speeding. Light timings don’t really slow down cars; most cars just speed, then brake, then speed again, then brake. Red light cameras have some influence but not much. The biggest factor that influences drivers’ speed is their perception of the street. The wider the road and the straighter the street, the faster they go. More red lights on a super-wide street lead to frustrated drivers; if the street feels narrower, you’ll get slower drivers.

Please come to the meeting and voice your opinion. Even if you still disagree with me, please come and speak up. But I hope you will agree and support alternative 3 (or 4).

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.