Does anyone actually like Wisconsin Avenue? Whether you’re walking on it, biking on it, driving on it, it’s almost guaranteed to be an unpleasant experience.
But it doesn’t have to be that way, particularly for pedestrians. Some simple changes to the way Wisconsin Ave. is shaped could dramatically improve the pedestrian experience, without significant affecting the traffic flow. These changes could even add parking.
Impossible you say? Not at all. Follow me as I take a stroll down Wisconsin Ave. highlighting where the worst problems are, and how to fix them.
Between R and Reservoir: Let’s start at R St. and head south. Looking down the street, what do we see?
A dragstrip, that’s what. From R down to Reservoir, Wisconsin Ave. is a wide two lane road. There is parking on the west side, but it is not frequently occupied. Due to the fact that this is a long stretch of road and downhill, cars drive way too fast on it.
This road is way too wide. When drivers drive on wide roads, they drive faster than if the same road were narrower. Since parking is not scarce on this stretch, we ought to install one or two bulb-outs from the west sidewalk.
Bulb-outs are where the sidewalk is built out into the roadway. They are frequently used at interesections or for bus stops, like this:
On this stretch of Wisconsin there is not a bus stop. Nonetheless, we could build one or two bulb-outs and install benches in order to make use of the added sidewalk space. Moreover, the bulb-outs would make it clearer that this stretch of Wisconsin allows parking by delineating the parking lane better. This would also increase drivers’ safety when they park their cars and get out.
And most of all, the added bulb-outs would shrink the perceived width of the road, and drivers will slow down accordingly.
Intersection of Reservoir, Wisconsin, and 33rd: This is a horrible intersection. A child was killed here in July. Cars never stop for pedestrians in the intersection. Just Sunday, I got honked at simply for crossing in the crosswalk. Enforcement can improve the situation temporarily, but long term a structural solution is needed.
One problem is that there is a jumble of different crosswalks, some with crosswalk lights and some without. Here’s where they are (the green are crosswalks with lights, the red are those without lights):
On top of the confusion over who exactly has right of way, there is the added chaos caused by having drivers trying to turn onto Wisconsin from either 33rd or Reservoir.
The simplest answer would be to make this intersection completely lighted. By adding a stop light and crosswalk lights, the confusion over who has the right of way would be eliminated. Plus, cars coming off of Reservoir could more easily turn south on Wisconsin and cars coming north on 33rd could more easily turn north on Wisconsin.
There are some objections to this solution. First, residents of 33rd St. might object to the light. They’ll see that more drivers heading north through Georgetown will use 33rd instead of Wisconsin. Right now that choice is discouraged due to the difficulty turning north on Wisconsin. Residents of Reservoir west of Wisconsin noticed a similar change after that light was added.
Secondly, people may object to the addition of a light just 40 feet or so south of another light. Although, a similar arrangement exists down at Q and Wisconsin, and that intersection seems to work well.
Finally, there’s an objection based on the idea that when you regulate traffic with lights, it causes cars to go faster. The theory is that the more priority you give to drivers, the faster they drive since they feel less obligated to look out for pedestrians or bikers. This theory is best demonstrated in the inverse by woonerfs. Woonerfs are streets where cars are permitted but where they are given lower priority to pedestrians and bikers. The closest thing DC has to a woonerf if Pennsylvania Ave in front of the White House (although Poplar St. in Georgetown is pretty woonerfy too).
Whether a light is installed or not, bulb-outs for the crosswalks should absolutely be installed. They would go a long way towards convincing drivers that pedestrians have the right of way. (Some other possible changes to the crosswalk are discussed below.)
Wisconsin Ave. From 33rd to Q St.: Wisconsin south of this dreadful intersection is like Wisconsin north of it, but with parking on the east side, not the west side:
The thing is, the road isn’t any narrower south of Reservoir than it is north. If there is space for cars to park on the west side above Reservoir, than it figures that there is space for cars to park on the west side south of it too (and no, the yellow line doesn’t shift over to make more room on the parking side).
While this stretch doesn’t get quite the same amount of speed as the block below R, it nonetheless is a long stretch of unnecessarily wide pavement. Ten or so parking spots should be created on the west side, and the rest of the stretch should be filled in with sidewalk. It could look like something like this:
This would have several benefits. It would add more parking. It would narrow the width of the road, and thus slow down speeders. And it would increase the sidewalk space significantly.
Unlighted Crosswalks: Finally, in the heart of the Wisconsin retail corridor is a series of crosswalks that don’t have crosslights or stop signs to aid pedestrians to cross. They look like this:
Even though pedestrians have the right of way, most end up feeling obliged to wait for a break in traffic or for traffic to back up before attempting to cross. It doesn’t help at all that there is no signage informing drivers that pedestrians have the right to cross on the crosswalk.
Obviously the first thing we need is better signage. There should be street signs telling drivers to yield to pedestrians. These signs should include normal streetside signs as well as those signs in the middle of the road.
Creative changes to the road painting could help as well. Having the lane markers go zig-zag before the crosswalks would do a better job to alert drivers to yield. These lane markings are common in the UK.
And again, sidewalk bulb-outs in selected locations would emphasize the crosswalk and make crossing safer. Even if these bulb-outs simply made the crosswalk that much shorter would help a lot, particular for the elderly and the physically impaired.
: If these improvements are adopted, it leaves little room for bike lanes. While I definitely would like to see more bike lanes in Georgetown, I think prioritizing pedestrian safety is more important for Wisconsin Ave. That said, “sharrows” could be installed easily. They’re not as good as true bike lanes, but they improve bike safety none the less.
Moreover, if all these changes were made, they would result in an overall safer Wisconsin Ave. That would make biking on it safer as well.
Conclusion: These simple changes would dramatically improve the safety and appearance of Wisconsin Ave. It would not significantly affect traffic (no travel lanes would be removed) yet it would still increase parking and sidewalk space.
The simple fact is that Wisconsin has been designed terribly. We shouldn’t wait for another death to realize that and fix it.
Cross-posted at The Georgetown Metropolitan.