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

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) is backpedaling on plans to calm traffic on First Street NW. The agency told the Bloomingdale Civic Association (BCA) last week that, despite previous statements that it could install curb extensions or mini-roundabouts along the residential corridor, it can only deploy digital signs that show drivers how fast they are going to calm traffic.

“This is shameful, it really really is,” said Teri Janine Quinn, president of the BCA, in response to DDOT's comments at the meeting. “Everything that you've said are things you should have figured out two years ago before you came to us and made commitments.”

What the BCA views as “commitments” include curb extensions which narrow the roadway, slowing traffic and shortening crossings for pedestrians along the corridor, and mini-roundabouts as outlined in the 2013 Mid City East Livability Study. Quinn said DDOT has been discussing these improvements with the BCA since before Leif Domsjo became the agency's director in January 2015.

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

First Street acts a reliever to busy North Capitol Street for the two miles from Michigan Avenue to Massachusetts Avenue, despite being a primarily residential thoroughfare lined with homes and schools. As a result, it functions as a minor arterial for through traffic and not the neighborhood collector that it is designed as, according to DDOT's Mid City East study.

This elevated level of traffic creates a dangerous situation for the residents, pedestrians and cyclists along First Street who have to deal with through drivers who often back up into the neighborhood at the lights at Florida Avenue and Rhode Island Avenue, or speed through the neighborhood from stop sign to stop sign to make said lights.

DDOT faces challenges on First Street

Calming traffic on First Street has to take into account the recent drainage work done by DC Water as part of the First Street Tunnel project, as well as access to MedStar Washington Hospital Center for DC Fire and EMS, a notoriously conservative agency when it comes to altering streetcapes to slow vehicles.

Leon Anderson, a transportation safety manager at DDOT, speaking at the BCA meeting specifically cited DC Water, DC FEMS and the location of underground utilities as reasons why it cannot implement more than what he calls “driver feedback signs” at the intersection of First and V Street NW.

DC Water was unresponsive to DDOT's overtures to work together on traffic calming measures when it was working on the tunnel project, said Anderson. DC FEMS objects to raised crosswalks due to access to the medical center.

“It’s a significant challenge” for DDOT to reconfigure the intersection of First and V Street NW following the DC Water work, he said. Adding curb extensions or a mini-roundabout would require a “significant redesign” of the space, and need to incorporate the drainage work done by DC Water to remediate the frequent floods that plagued Bloomingdale.

DC Water, responding to an inquiry on Anderson's comments, says that all of the work they did on First Street was approved and permitted by DDOT.

While drainage is a serious and legitimate concern for First Street in Bloomingdale, the neighborhood is pushing for traffic calming along the corridor — or as Quinn puts it, “from Michigan Avenue all the way” to Massachussetts Avenue — and not just at one intersection. This was the proposal outlined in the Mid City East study.

In terms of raised crosswalks, Anderson does not say why these present a roadblock for DC FEMS now, after the agency had few issues accessing the medical center during the two-year closure of First Street for the tunnel project.

DDOT spokesperson Terry Owens, in a follow-up email with Greater Greater Washington after the meeting, says the agency will collect speed data along the corridor over the next two weeks and then install the driver feedback signs. He adds that it continues to explore other options, including physical improvements.

Widespread frustration

Bloomingdale residents were unhappy with Anderson's presentation. After Anderson said First Street's role as a minor arterial was one reason DDOT's traffic calming options were limited, one resident pointed out that that was “all the more reason to have traffic calming”.

ANC 5E commissioner Bertha Holliday, who has been involved in discussions over calming traffic on First Street, asked Anderson why he focused on one intersection and not the entire corridor.

“The idea I thought was to have several roundabouts on First Street. Is that no longer the idea?” she asked. Anderson had no response.

Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie is “disappointed” with DDOT's comments at the meeting, which his constituent services director Kelly Cislo attended.

“After months of discussion about real traffic calming measures, seemingly much of what was discussed is now off the table, without explanation,” says McDuffie in a statement to Greater Greater Washington. “The bottom line is that pedestrians must feel safe walking down First Street NW. And, while I recognize achieving a high level of community buy-in can be time consuming, it is what I expect of DDOT, and what the Bloomingdale residents deserve.”

Councilmember McDuffie speaks at an ANC 5E, which includes the majority of First Street NW, meeting. Image by Councilmember McDuffie’s Office.

First Street NW is just one example of the many neighborhood thoroughfares in DC where residents seek calmer traffic. DDOT can take years — as it already has in Bloomingdale — to implement changes, and, sadly, it often only occurs after someone is injured or dies. Neither are acceptable outcomes under the city's Vision Zero plan, which calls for zero pedestrian or cyclist fatalities or serious injuries on the city's road network.

While DDOT does face legitimate challenges calming traffic on First Street, they are surmountable if the will is there.