The vast expanse of concrete and cars that is Pennsylvania Avenue NW west of the White House could become a street with world-class bicycling and pedestrian facilities. This could give DC a fantastic new piece of infrastructure to use as a model for future projects.
If the project gets built, the stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue NW between 22nd Street NW and the White House will get wider sidewalks, protected bikeways, and better street crossings. The project also involves building dedicated bus lanes in both directions down H Street.
Right now, this part of Pennsylvania is pretty wide and pretty unfriendly to anyone who isn’t traveling in a car: It has six traffic lanes, not including parking. This means long crossings for pedestrians looking to get from one side of the street to another. Meanwhile, there are zero facilities for cyclists.
This stretch of road is primed for a redesign because some blocks simply don’t have the car traffic necessary to justify so many lanes. Pennsylvania Avenue used to carry more traffic before two blocks in front of the White House were closed after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. Today, drivers must turn off of Pennsylvania Avenue onto H and I streets NW instead.
This plan would make Pennsylvania Avenue a haven for pedestrians and bicyclists
The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) has some pretty grand plans in store for the redesign. The recommended alternative for the street involves two one-way protected bikeways—one running each way down the sides of the street protected from traffic by a concrete median with landscaping. It also involves wider sidewalks and an additional row of trees, which will make for a prettier view down the street.
The protected bikeway itself isn’t the only reason this project it’s so great. It’s the details that really make it: No mixing zones between bicyclists and cars, floating bus stops, and landscaping to protect the bike lane instead of easily demolished (and easy-to-weave-through) flexiposts.
Cars and bikes won’t mix before intersections
A small but important feature of DDOT’s proposed design is that it doesn’t involve bicycle lanes mixing with traffic lanes before intersections. The protected cycle track will stay protected all the way down the block. This is a huge contrast to say, L and M streets NW, where cyclists suddenly have to veer left into traffic and a painted bike lane to make room for right turn lanes. These so-called “mixing zones” pose problems for drivers who might not understand what’s going on and bicyclists who would rather be in a straight line, and it’s great to see DDOT recommend against them in this project.
Floating bus stops will give bicyclists and transit riders their own space
Another great feature in this design is the floating bus stops. Instead of making bus riders wait on the curb and then cross over the protected bikeways to get on the bus, these floating bus stops would give bus riders a space to wait on and board their bus without holding up cyclists or worrying about getting hit when people wait to board. While they still have to cross the bike lane, they can do so less frequently instead of forming a queue across it when the bus arrives.
The M Street protected bikeway features a floating bus stop in the West End, and it’s good to see this important piece of protected infrastructure featured in the Pennsylvania Avenue project.
A protected bikeway with actual protection
The final detail that really makes this project stand out is that the bikeways are protected by concrete planters, not plastic flexiposts. Anyone who has biked down the 15th Street cycletrack knows that the flexiposts are pretty easy prey when it comes to cars: they can be knocked over or easily avoided, turning the bikeway into a whole extra lane for cars.
The proposed Pennsylvania Avenue cycletrack would be protected by concrete planters up the entire length, except of course at driveways and intersections. From 19th Street to the White House, the planters will have trees, which will improve the view up the street and offer some shade for cyclists.
These bike facilities are a great direction for DC to head in
At a recent public meeting about the Pennsylvania Avenue and H Street projects, public support for the protected bikeway and expanded pedestrian facilities was strong. This is a vast improvement over the two-way on-street protected bikeways like 15th Street NW and 1st Street NE, which have limited capacity and passing options. When the Pennsylvania Avenue NW facilities get built, they will be a great example for other parts of the city to point to when asking for bicycle infrastructure.
We need to keep asking for—and supporting—the best infrastructure
Of course, nothing is perfect. As a modern feminist woman, I know that you don’t get what you don’t ask for, so here we go: If DDOT wants to make the cycle tracks wider, I wouldn’t complain. There was also vocal support at the meeting for extending bicycle infrastructure up to H Street to connect the new infrastructure to the 15th Street protected bikeway down Vermont Avenue—and to connect the 15th Street protected bikeway to itself when it picks up by the Department of the Treasury.
Finally, there was support for testing the idea of closing Pennsylvania Avenue NW between 19th and 18th Streets to traffic. This would unite the two halves of Murrow Park and give DC a pedestrian street.
With this design, people who want better streets for cyclists, pedestrians, and transit riders have a great new example to point to as a best practice. There's no reason a design like this shouldn't exist on all of DC's arterial streets if we truly want to prioritize transit, cycling, and walking in DC.