Florida Avenue NE is a very difficult, dangerous place to ride a bike. DDOT studied how to fix the problem, and then put forward a plan that seems to ignore some of its own key findings about what makes the road so harrowing.
Since a tragic 2013 pedestrian fatality, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) has been studying ways to make Florida Ave NE between First Street and H Street a safe corridor for people who walk, bike, and drive.
Florida Avenue has a chronic speeding problem
Statistics and personal experience tell us that Florida Avenue is a dangerous and stressful place to bike and walk. As an example, between 7th & 8th Street, DDOT analysis shows that the average weekday driver exceeds the 25 mph speed limit by between 5 and 10 miles per hour.
In the same block, the 85th percentile speed, or the speed that 85% of drivers will drive at or below during free-flowing conditions, was 33 mph at morning rush hour, 38 mph at evening rush hour, and almost 45 mph overnight. During the study period, the fastest recorded speed was 70 mph.
A growing body of research shows that speed kills, and lower vehicle speeds result in fewer and less severe crashes. A pedestrian struck by a vehicle at 20 mph has a 90% chance of survival, but a 90% chance of death at 40 mph.
Florida Avenue NE, as designed, is undeniably dangerous. If DDOT is serious about Vision Zero, its initiative to eliminate traffic fatalities and serious injuries in the District, it will need to address this chronic speeding problem.
Florida Avenue has wide driving lanes and narrow sidewalks, and nowhere to ride a bike
Speeding is a chronic problem in this corridor because the road design encourages high speeds. Florida Avenue is up to six lanes and 67 feet across. Some lanes are up to 17 feet wide. And while this width may help move cars during rush hour, it far exceeds the needed capacity during off-peak times, leading to a wide-open road and comfortable speeding. Even DDOT’s own traffic models show (on pages 60 and 61 of this study) that the road could function quite well with one fewer travel lane in each direction.
Since so much width is dedicated to moving cars, pedestrians face a long list of challenges on Florida Avenue. The sidewalks are in poor condition, but also comically narrow. On one block, the sidewalk is just two feet wide due to a light pole in the middle, rendering it impassable to anyone with a walker, stroller, or wheelchair.
Pedestrian crossings are very long, and many of them are unsignalized. These challenges are particularly dangerous for senior residents, wheelchair users, and deaf students attending Gallaudet University. The area is in sore need of wider sidewalks and shorter crossings.
Finally, Florida Avenue is a key link in the bicycle network—there's the Metropolitan Branch Trail (MBT) to the west and the West Virginia Avenue bike lanes to the east—but it lacks any kind of bicycle facilities. A continuous, low-stress, protected bike lane is required for most people to even consider riding here, and right now, Florida Avenue is just the opposite.
DDOT has a plan, but it misses the mark
In 2014, DDOT presented three proposals that gave a range of options, including fewer travel lanes, wider sidewalks, buffered bike lanes, and improvements to the streetscape. DDOT asked the public to weigh in both at a public meeting and in an online survey (the Washington Area Bicyclist Association supported these alternatives). Almost two years after the last public meeting, DDOT released a final report.
Now, the plan is to widen sidewalks on the southern side of the street, add six blocks of narrow bike lanes where they fit between 3rd and 8th Streets, add trees, upgrade lighting and add turn lanes at some intersections. The bike lanes won't connect to the MBT or West Virginia Avenue, and DDOT will keep an extra car travel lane.
This is surprising given that DDOT's report acknowledged that speeding, excess road capacity, wide lanes, inadequate sidewalks, and nonexistent bicycle accommodations are major safety problems on Florida Avenue. This plan of action clearly sacrifices essential bicycle and pedestrian safety improvements to keep extra travel lanes and minimize vehicle delay.
Citing the need to balance local and regional uses of Florida Avenue, the study’s recommended alternative keeps most of the features that the study admits contribute to illegally high vehicle speeds and undeniable safety concerns. It's a move that would add unsafe bike lanes where it is easy to put them in, and nowhere else. For a project explicitly about safety, this project does not promise to do much for bicycle safety.
On Tuesday, February 21st, DDOT will host a long-awaited meeting to share preliminary engineering designs. There is plenty of time to improve the plans, but not without strong pushback from residents asking for designs that make all road users safe.
DDOT’s planning study includes many great ideas for a safe and inviting Florida Avenue corridor that encourages biking and walking and keeps safe even the most vulnerable road users. Join us on Tuesday, from 6:30-8 pm at New Samaritan Baptist Church (1100 Florida Avenue NE) to hold engineers accountable and demand that this project make Florida Avenue a place where safety is a reality and not a dream.
A version of this post ran on the Washington Area Bicyclist Association's website on Thursday.