Kenilworth Terrace and Cassell Place NE, where Samanta Iqbal was struck by a driver and killed.

On November 25, 2017 DC resident Samanta Iqbal was killed after she was struck by a driver at the corner of Kenilworth Terrace and Cassell Place NE in Ward 7. The intersection had been a well-known safety hazard in the community for years, but nothing had been done to improve it.

Before Iqbal’s death, community leaders tried filing 311 requests with DC government, to no avail. Frustrated by a lack of response, they decided to try a new tactic to elevate the issue of safety east of the Anacostia River.

Cassell Place and Kenilworth Terrace NE crosswalk blocked. Image by the author.

Kenilworth Terrace’s problems aren’t unique for minority communities

Drivers on Kenilworth Terrace have long ignored crosswalks as they speed through the neighborhood. Meanwhile, out-of-town commuters and commercial vehicles block crosswalks and sight lines, making the street’s heavily-used intersections hazardous to cross.

Sadly, the community’s experience with this intersection and its fruitless attempts to improve it are typical of minority communities’ situations in metro areas nationally. According to Transportation for America’s Dangerous by Design 2016 report:

An analysis of 22,000 collisions in America found that pedestrian fatality rates in low-income metro areas are approximately twice that of more affluent neighborhoods. A study in one metropolitan region showed that the number of people on foot injured in the poorest census tracts was 6.3 times higher than in the richest census tracts. The story was similar for people on bicycles, with the number of injuries 3.9 times higher in poor areas than in rich ones.

Interestingly, people riding in cars were also more vulnerable in the poorest areas – the number of injured motor vehicle occupants was 4.3 times greater in poor areas than in rich ones. Many cities have made pedestrian safety a priority, but their efforts rarely focus on poorer areas. (Dangerous by Design, p15)

Articulating the problem and mobilizing the community

The community’s Advisory Neighborhood Commission 7D’s Standing Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure brought together representatives of multiple civic associations to figure out what to do. ANC 7D consulted with MPD’s 6th District and the Washington Area Bicycle Association, drawing on previous service requests and community engagement around transportation issues in the area.

ANC 7D solicited additional community feedback at its December meeting and produced a letter detailing 23 trouble spots in northern Ward 7. Rather than focusing on one intersection, community leaders opted to identify similar issues across the region.

A map illustrating the twenty-three trouble spots identified by ANC 7D. Click here for an interactive version. Image by the author.

Community leaders also called upon DDOT to fully implement several policies of the Vision Zero Plan in order to improve safety and bolster the community’s ability to collaborate with the agency. Policies like “VU 13: Deter dangerous parking behavior of commercial and delivery vehicles,” “TR-10: Establish a Transportation Safety Liaison within each Advisory Neighborhood Commission,” and “DD1: Strategically deploy photo enforcement” have potential to improve DDOT’s relationship with the community.

With regards to the latter policy, community leaders pointed out that there are issues with current automated enforcement practices in the neighborhood. They say the camera on the 600 block of Kenilworth Avenue NE fails to serve any apparent community need and de-legitimizes the use of automated enforcement to improve safety.

DC government’s response

Community leaders and DDOT committed to meeting on March 1 to get an update on the agency’s progress, and representatives from MPD, WMATA, WABA, and several developers and large landowners in the neighborhood also attended. However, results of the meeting were mixed.

Community members and other partners were able to ask questions about how DDOT staff think about these safety issues and got to elevate the issues’ importance. DDOT representatives committed to addressing the traffic problems impacting River Terrace and said they’d restore all of the missing markings identified in the letter.

The agency also committed to reviewing plans to improve safety at the 34th and Benning road intersection. MPD staff present committed to explore adding automated enforcement on some streets identified by the commission, and said they would improve in-person enforcement.

On the other hand, DDOT representatives seemed unaware of 311 cases requesting signs to improve safety at intersections referenced in the introduction of the letter. Moreover, some solutions to the community’s needs are tied up in a plethora of larger, multi-phased projects and studies which will take years to complete, necessitating further discussions as to what short-term improvements need to be instituted. These improvements should be integrated into larger redesigns of Ward 7’s infrastructure.

A crosswalk at the intersection of Hayes and Barnes streets SE that needs to be fixed. Image created with Google maps.

Here are some of the lessons learned

The effort touched a nerve across Northeast DC. This effort inspired the development of a similar resolution in ANC 5E, and also has spurred interest in developing a Transportation and Infrastructure Task Force which would bring together commissioners from across Ward 7. The letter also generated discussion in the Deanwood Citizens’ Association around the safety issues in their neighborhood, which is located in both ANC 7C and 7D.

There was value in producing the letter and having the dialogue, even if DDOT isn’t immediately able or ready to resolve all of the problems. DDOT staff have occasionally expressed frustration that communities provide them with mixed messages, and a letter drafted in consultation with community organizations and formally adopted by an Advisory Neighborhood Commission addresses these concerns. The letter provides a larger structure to what had previously been an unorganized collection of 311 requests, letters, and complaints made by disparate community organizations and individuals. This makes the letter a useful position paper that community leaders and organizers can use to advocate for resources.

Fixes can be a long-term process. The practices that created safety inequity in Ward 7 aren’t unique to DC, they are the products of broad national trends and decisions made decades ago. Reversing them requires prolonged engagement and relationship building with communities, government agencies, and the advocacy community. Beyond that, DC government bears ultimate responsibility for ensuring equitable distribution of resources to address aging and lacking infrastructure and to reverse the damage caused by past decisions. A good first step would be fully implementing the Vision Zero policy recommendations included in the commission’s letter.