We’ve seen the plans for mega bulb-outs at 16th and U to improve pedestrian safety, and contraflow bike lanes on New Hampshire from T to W. The reconstruction of 16th and U is part of a larger project to reconstruct U Street from the intersection with Florida Avenue near 18th Street over to the other intersection with Florida Avenue, at 9th Street.
The latest engineering designs contain some excellent improvements, and a few disappointments. Let’s start with the good points:
Mega-bulb-outs on 16th. As we’ve discussed before.
Road diet between Florida and 17th. As we discussed over the weekend, the 1700 block of U will become one lane eastbound, but remain two lanes westbound. That will allow for wider sidewalks, which are sorely needed as anyone who’s walked on that block knows full well.
Portion of the 1700 block of U.
Wider sidewalk area east of 14th. A group of buildings between 14th and 13th, including the restaurant Tabaq, have stairways which jut far out into the sidewalk. DDOT will remove a few parking spaces to extend the sidewalk just in this area.
Portion of the 1300 block of U.
Bus bulb on 14th. Eastbound approaching 14th Street is a bus bulb. A bus bulb extends the sidewalk at a bus stop, allowing the bus to stop in the regular travel lane instead of having to pull out of traffic and back in. Since each bus contains about 15-50 times as many people as the typical car, making the bus wait for a chance to merge back in delays more people than if the cars have to merge into one of the two lanes while the bus uses the other.
However, the U Street project also misses several opportunities to improve U even more.
Square corners at 17th. On the northeast corner of 17th and U, which is the back of the police station, the sidewalk angles toward the building instead of making a complete square corner. Coming south on 17th there is only one lane, which oddly widens as cars approach the intersection even though there’s still only one arrow.
We should straighten the sidewalk to shorten the crossing distance and provide more space at that corner. It might not be utterly needed right now, but that block, on a high-traffic street in a major commercial district, should one day be redeveloped to create a new police and fire station inside a larger mixed-use complex with retail fronting on U. If that’s done, the new building could use some of the dead area alongside the police station on 17th, maybe for a sidewalk cafe, and a straighter sidewalk expands the possibilities.
More bulb-outs and bus bulbs. 17th has a bulb-out on the northwest corner (above) and 14th has a bus bulb. But why only those intersections? The eastbound corner at 14th is one with two lanes, one straight and left, and one straight and right. Clearly, DDOT is willing to block the straight and right lane as long as the left lane also allows cars to go straight.
That same condition applies eastbound at 15th and 13th, 11th, 10th, and 9th, and westbound at Vermont Avenue, 11th, 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th, and 17th. Why did DDOT decide to put in a bus bulb in just that one spot and not at any of these others?
Longer sidewalk widening east of 14th. The mid-block bulb-out between 14th and 13th (above) is pretty short, and it looks like there’s not much room to go around the stairways on each end. Why not make it longer? For that matter, what about making it go all the way west to 14th? That’s an extremely crowded section, and with the alley, there aren’t that many parking spaces over there (maybe 5 or 6).
Here are some other potential improvements to the current plan. DDOT may have good reason for not doing these, or it may simply have been easier not to spend time thinking about them. I’d love to hear more about whether these could have been possible (or still could be):
Far side bus stops. The trend in bus stop location is toward ones on the far side of intersections. And when we add signal priority for buses, having the stops at the far side lets them gain more speed with signal priority. This reconstruction is a good opportunity to move the stops.
Bicycle infrastructure. U Street could use more bike racks. And how about some bike boxes? Maybe we want people to use T and V instead of U, and I can understand that, but some people ride on U and some need to, to get to and from businesses or residences near U (especially if you want to obey the law and not ride wrong way on 15th, for example). Bike boxes don’t cost us much when we’re already rebuilding the street.
Loading zones. Many of the businesses have trucks double parking on U to load and unload. Instead, how about a few loading zones, maybe one per block, to serve the businesses and keep trucks out of the travel lanes?
More trees. The south side between 15th and 16th has no trees at all, and some other areas have sparser trees than they should. Trees would make the street much more welcoming. If the sidewalk is too narrow, we could put a mini-bulb-out just wide enough for a tree in the parking area, between two parking spaces. That would only take away a foot or two, and a whole block of them could probably go in at the cost of only one car parking space.
Tree grates. The plan calls for tree boxes all along the street. A tree grate lets pedestrians use more of the sidewalk and allows the tree box to be even larger, giving the tree more soil. These could be great on narrower sidewalks.
Straighten inside curve of mega-bulb-outs. The bulb-outs on 16th look cute from above with their circular shape, but there’s some wasted dead space along the inside curve on New Hampshire. Cars will just come straight diagonally from the entrance way. If that inside edge were straight, pedestrians could walk more directly to and from intersection along New Hampshire. Most likely they will step down into the street and back up again.
Overall, this reconstruction will improve U Street, and in a few cases like 16th, improve it tremendously. If we spend too much time arguing about every street, nothing may get done. Still, we only rebuild a street once a generation, if that, and we should take the opportunity to make a street the best it can be.