Looking north along First Street NW in Bloomingdale. Image by the author.

It is time to make Bloomingdale's main street, First Street NW, safer. The thoroughfare is lined with homes and businesses but regularly becomes crammed with through traffic trying to avoid North Capitol Street, leading to unsafe conditions for people who walk and bike.

First Street is designed as a collector, or a slower-speed street that moves local traffic to larger arterials. In practice, it acts as a minor arterial because it parallels North Capitol street (a major arterial) continuously for the nearly two miles from Massachusetts Avenue to Michigan Avenue, according to the DC Department of Transportation (DDOT).

This higher volume of cut-through traffic results in less-than-safe conditions for residents who walk, bike, and live adjacent to First Street. Drivers often roll through stop signs to make the light, and traffic backs up through Bloomingdale as drivers wait to cross Florida Avenue NW and Rhode Island Avenue NW.

Cars often back up on First Street waiting for the light at Florida Avenue. Image by the author.

Metropolitan Police Department data shows five reported crashes that injured pedestrians or cyclists on First Street between Florida Avenue and Rhode Island Avenue since 2015. All of the incidents involved vehicles.

One crash that injures a pedestrian or cyclist is one too many under the District's Vision Zero plan, which calls for zero pedestrian or cyclist fatalities or serious injuries on the city's road network. First Street is a microcosm of this larger effort to make all of the city's streets safer.

Mental speed bumps could encourage drivers to slow down

DDOT, after an involved public participation process including community meetings, walking tours, and mobile design workshops, found in its 2013 Mid City East Liveability Study that residents wanted to calm traffic on First Street and to dissuade through traffic from using the thoroughfare.

The agency recommended mini-roundabouts as a way to break up the sight lines and calm traffic along the street.

An example of a mini-roundabout. Image by NACTO.

Roundabouts, mini or otherwise, force drivers to slow down and pay more attention to their surroundings. Implements like these that slow drivers without their necessarily realizing it are often called “mental speed bumps,” a term coined by Australian traffic activist David Engwicht and cited by Tom Vanderbilt in his seminal 2008 book Traffic.

“Rather than hit people over the head with speed bumps they would resent and signs they would ignore, better results could be achieved if drivers were not actually aware that they were slowing down, or why… Instead of speed bumps, which tell drivers to drive as fast as they can before they hit the next speed bump, Engwicht argues intrigue and uncertainty — the things that active cities are filled with — are the best remedies for traffic problems,” writes Vanderbilt.

One concern with roundabouts Bloomingdale residents raised is whether larger cars, like minivans or SUVs, would be able to get around them. DDOT's proposed infrastructure would be passable by vehicles up to 30-foot trucks, like a standard U-Haul or local delivery truck.

This 26-foot U-Haul moving truck could go around DDOT's proposed mini-roundabouts. Image by U-Haul.

A safe First Street benefits residents

Bloomingdale is a neighborhood of public transportation users, cyclists, and pedestrians. A 52.7% majority of working-age residents commuted via these three modes in 2013, the latest data from the US Census' American Community Survey shows.

Public transport was by far the most popular way to get to work, with 30.8% of Bloomingdale residents turning to DC's bus and rail services. Another 13.9% biked and 8% walked, according to the data.

Calming traffic on First Street helps residents. The public transport users, who are also pedestrians, and those who walk to work benefit from fewer cars trying to get through Bloomingdale to destinations further afield, and cyclists will be able to navigate the thoroughfare with fewer concerns that they will have to deal with aggressive through drivers.

Image by DDOT.

In addition, neighborhood residents who drive would benefit from less congestion and fewer backups on First Street.

This data also speaks to the concern raised at a recent Bloomingdale Civic Association (BCA) meeting that many cyclists, like drivers, are using First Street just to pass through Bloomingdale. In fact, many residents bike and the number is growing — more than doubling from just 4.6% of residents in 2000, Census data shows.

But we cannot forget the bigger picture. Pedestrians and cyclists who use First Street, whether they live in Bloomingdale or not, are more likely to stop and get a coffee at Big Bear Cafe or a drink at Boundary Stone. In addition, more non-vehicular eyes on the street is proven to improve safety.

Pedestrians and cyclists add the life to streetscapes that make cities great.

It is time for DDOT to act on calming First Street. Mini-roundabouts may or may not be the best solution today as they were in 2013, but that is why a neighborhood discussion on the issue has begun. The BCA is planning to take up the issue in the coming months.