18th Street in Adams Morgan. Image by Mr. T in DC licensed under Creative Commons.

In early June, a motorist on 18th Street in Adams Morgan struck three people. The incident rekindled an old discussion about how to make a neighborhood known for its busy nightlife safer for everyone who visits, works, lives, or passes through there. One solution might be closing the street to cars.

If you’ve ever been out in Adams Morgan on a Friday or Saturday night, you know what I’m talking about. 18th Street is full of bars and restaurants, the people who patronize them, and the buses, Ubers, taxis, and personal vehicles that transport them. In short: it’s congested.

“It’s pretty clear that people recognize there is a problem but people don’t know what the solution is or the possibilities are for making it better,” says Ted Guthrie, chairman of the Adams Morgan Advisory Neighborhood Commission.

The ANC’s public safety and transportation committees have been discussing ways to improve safety on 18th Street during peak hours. At the transportation committee’s June meeting, two ideas emerged as the strongest contenders: designating specific areas where ride-hailing services can pick up passengers, and closing the street to some types of motor vehicles, or all of them.

“We are still in the search for ideas,” said Wilson Reynolds, an ANC commissioner and chairman of its Planning, Zoning, and Transportation Committee. “We could improve what is clearly a serious situation, not just at night and weekends.”

Designated spots for Uber and Lyft pick-ups could ease congestion

A 2012 streetscape revitalization project made a number of beneficial changes, such as widening sidewalks, and creating a median that delivery trucks use as unloading zones during the day and police and traffic control officers stand in at night. That came at the cost of reducing the travel lanes to one in each direction.

With one lane each way, and lots of people coming and going, it’s easy to see how traffic on 18th Street can get backed up and present safety hazards to motorists and pedestrians. Witnesses said the driver of the truck that struck three people swerved to get around a bus that was stuck behind an Uber driver who was dropping off passengers. The police officers reportedly were trying to keep traffic moving.

Designating pick-up points for Uber, Lyft, and other ride-hailing services has been done in DC and other areas. It happened during the 2017 presidential inauguration, when the apps connected drivers and riders in areas outside the security perimeter around the National Mall and Pennsylvania Avenue parade route. There are also pick-up points around Nationals Park to help direct traffic on game days.

“In cases where there are street closures and peak traffic, we often provide in-app passenger messaging and driver communications to help ensure passengers and drivers can connect,” says Steve Taylor, Lyft's DC general manager. “In some cases, we set up designated pick-up and drop off locations around an area with street closures, which allow passengers and drivers to meet at a designated point.”

Uber didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Closing the street to all motor vehicle traffic would be a tough sell

Another suggestion is to close 18th Street entirely to all motor vehicle traffic during peak hours. Businesses along either side of the street and the Metropolitan Police Department probably wouldn’t like that approach, according to Kristen Barden, executive director for the Adams Morgan Partnership Business Improvement District.

“That needs to be a longer process,” she says. “I don’t think MPD is in favor of that. They want taxis and Ubers to come in and take people away at the end of the night.”

The way things are right now, MPD, working in partnership with District Department of Transportation officers, sometimes blocks off southbound traffic between Columbia and Belmont roads. It doesn’t happen every weekend, Barden says. And if it does occur, they don’t do it until businesses’ closing time approaches.

Margarita Mikhaylova, an MPD spokeswoman, says blocking the southbound lane tends to keep people on the east side, which is where “the vast majority” of bars and restaurants are located. Think of neighborhood staples like Madam’s Organ, Amsterdam Falafelshop, and the Diner.

“Busses and cabs are not restricted but all other southbound traffic is,” Mikhaylova says. “This allows emergency equipment to get in rapidly. Experience shows us that ambulances and additional officers are often needed at that time.”

Any changes would have to go through DDOT, which didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Closing the street to all motor vehicle traffic and establishing a pedestrian mall could make it take longer for an ambulance to reach someone who needs medical help. If the street is full of people, they would have to move (or be told to move) out of the way. And if the street is blocked off with physical barriers, someone would have to lower them.

Other cities have figured out pedestrian zones. Can DC?

Other cities have successfully carried out plans for closing streets to motor vehicles. Barcelona has a system of “superblocks,” as Stephen Hudson explained earlier this year. A superblock is a cluster of blocks in which through traffic is prohibited and the speed limit is only 10 km/h (6 mph).

This summer, Seattle is holding its “Pike People Street” program. It’s a series of ten Saturday evenings when certain blocks in the Pike/Pine area are open only to pedestrians from 6 pm to 3 am.

The city tested the concept in pilot programs it conducted in 2015 and 2016. The most important lesson it learned was that road closures work best when there’s a consistent schedule. That makes it easier for pedestrians and motorists to plan ahead. Another conclusion was that bringing in furnishings and programming, like seating and small-scale performances, can keep a street full of pedestrians from feeling too empty.

If DC does anything to address safety on 18th Street, it will take a while. The ANC commissioners and business leaders I spoke with all agreed that it would take support from the ANC, the police, and DDOT. And they’d want to work with Uber and Lyft, WMATA, and other groups and agencies that play a role. It’s hard to make a change in the status quo, so just think how hard it would be to make a change as big closing a busy street.

“I would think it would take someone higher than an ANC level to get that rammed through,” Guthrie, the ANC chair, says.

UPDATE: This post was edited to reflect the correct name and title of Steve Taylor, who was quoted above.