Looking down on Pennsylvania Avenue from the Old Post Office Tower. Image by Adam Fagen licensed under Creative Commons.

A recently-completed analysis of Pennsylvania Avenue in downtown DC has verified what locals already know. While the Avenue has a strong civic identity and character and is well-served by multiple modes of transportation, it does not provide an engaging experience for daily users. It also suffers from a lack of connectivity to surrounding areas.

This analysis is the first phase of an initiative that will eventually determine how to improve Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the US Capitol. The initiative's partners include the National Capital Planning Commission, the General Services Administration, the National Park Service, and the DC government.

Pennsylvania Avenue Strengths.

Here's what's good on Pennsylvania Avenue

The Avenue, which is one of the most famous in America, still retains the grandeur, beauty, and location that makes it an important destination. It has a high concentration of federal offices and commemorative elements that attract tourists. 

It's also an important location for events — most notably the presidential inauguration — as well as parades, runs, walks, concerts, and more that keep it busy most weekends. An unintended consequence of the closure of E Street by the White House is that it has reduced traffic, especially on the weekends when offices are closed. This has made it easier to coordinate closure of the road for civic activities.

The Avenue is well-served by transportation. It's close to multiple Metrorail stations, has convenient highway access, and features several local, commuter, and tourist-related bus services. The Avenue’s central median protected bike lane provides bicycle access with excellent views of the Capitol, and several roads crossing the Avenue are bicycle-friendly.

The wide sidewalks along the Avenue and pedestrian-friendly routes on 7th and 14th streets make it a strong pedestrian connection between downtown and the National Mall. However, the study notes that the Avenue is overbuilt for the traffic it gets.

Pennsylvania Avenue Challenges.

Here's where there is room for improvement

The authors state that the closure of E Street has left people with no reason to use the Avenue to pass through the area, and no significant draw for them to come and linger there on a daily basis. Of course cyclists and pedestrians can — and do — still pass through.

The monumental buildings, the road's geometry, the isolation of its parks, and the poor allocation of sidewalk space — such as the absence of sidewalk cafes — means it's not a place that encourages people to linger. During office hours, most of the buildings have an inward focus, with internal cafeterias, restaurants, and retail as opposed to sidewalk-fronting ones. Outside of office hours, they generate little evening or weekend activity unless there are programed events.

Despite the transportation options, the authors identified several issues limiting connectivity. The block-long single-use buildings, predominately filled with offices, discourage pedestrians from walking between President’s Park and the Capitol Grounds. While there is good connectivity north of the Avenue, the south side is challenged by large single-use buildings, obstructed views, security barriers, ventilation grates, and poor maintenance. 

Future efforts will address how to improve on what is working and to mitigate, change, or remove what is not. Stay tuned!