C Street NE near RFK Stadium is a mega-street with fast-moving traffic. A project to calm traffic and make it better for walking and bicycling is moving forward, after transportation officials almost cut back the project but reversed course in the wake of community uproar.
Residents in the Kingman Park, Rosedale, and Hill East neighborhoods in this area are very eager for this street to be less of a freeway off-ramp and more of an actual city street. They have advocated since at least 2008 for slowing traffic in the area. DDOT commissioned a study in 2010 and a more detailed design in 2015, which culminated in a January 2016 report.
The recommendation called for reducing C Street from 3 driving lanes each way to two (plus parking lanes), adding a protected bikeway on each side at sidewalk level (rather than at street level, sort of like the one at the Wharf), and adding bulb-outs around the parking lanes. There would be space for stormwater rain gardens and raised crosswalks for better pedestrian safety. It was an exciting project.
The project then moved into the engineering design phase, where engineers drew every intersection, every crosswalk, every parking space, modeled the traffic performance, and planned where the concrete and everything else would go. There were regular community meetings through this period. DDOT presented a nice detailed design in February of this year, and residents showed up to an April meeting expecting more of the same.
Instead, they suddenly showed up to discover big changes. A bunch of the bulb-outs were gone on the north side of the street for about six blocks. One block would lose parking to create a right turn lane, and other blocks would still have parking, but with a note that after the project is complete, DDOT would evaluate whether traffic was backing up too much and there needed to be a morning rush hour restriction to have three through lanes. The south side would lose bulb-outs on one block and have evening rush hour restricted parking.
In short, DDOT was giving itself an opening to back down and move more cars if traffic was backing up too much.
Residents say, no way!
The response was swift and virtually unanimous. Residents at the meeting gave overwhelmingly negative comments about the change:
The fact that @DDOTDC would consider making C Street NE wider and more car-friendly after DECADES of neighbors fighting to make the street safer for bikes and peds feels like a slap in the face. https://t.co/Zcmxc2EZk2— Maria Helena Carey (@TheMadameMeow) April 27, 2018
Drawing from best practices for multimodal design, Volkert engineering listened to community feedback & incorporated it into each iteration of the C St NE redesign. @DDOTDC has now butchered their recommendations… And at what cost $ to tax-payers? pic.twitter.com/HtfB3TWQRx— Kingman Park Kaleidoscope (@kpkindc) April 28, 2018
Yes! @DDOTDCDirector this deserves your full and undivided attention. Where is the synergy of governance? Where is the safety priority of the community in the design changes? Clearly unacceptable! @MayorBowser @VinceGrayWard7 @DCMOCRS @NE_DC_11 @ANC7DCommission @WABADC https://t.co/uFoR2Gg91N— Sherice A. Muhammad (@MzSherice) May 10, 2018
DDOT restores almost all of the original design
At a follow-up meeting this month, DDOT engineers presented another iteration of the design. They have restored almost all of the bulb-outs and parking. They do propose having two driving lanes instead of one at 21st Street heading east, and adding right-turn lanes on the north (westbound) side at 16th, 17th, and 19th streets.
In a statement to people who emailed, DDOT said,
DDOT has reviewed all of the public feedback and, in response to those concerns, has made additional modifications to the plans which are now being proposed in a June 2018 draft of the 65% streetscape design. The June draft maintains most of the February 65% design plans and addresses the public concerns related to the April draft. The only changes now remaining from the February draft are critical safety changes to separate high volume turning movements from bicycle traffic in order to enhance the protection of people biking in the corridor.
In addition to revised design plans, we have posted a technical memorandum describing the model validation issues which led to revisions to the February design and final traffic analysis based on the June design. We think the changes remain consistent with the original purpose and need for the project, and we are excited to advance a project that meets community goals and objectives.
GGWash contributor, WashCycle blogger, and bicycle advocate David Cranor is excited:
This is going to be a great project. It's going to be a signature project from a biking standpoint. They've really done a lot to make biking safer and more appealing. Walking will be better too and the whole road should get safer.
The redesign was handled badly, but makes sense and was made better in the most recent design. From a bike standpoint, very little has changed through the 3 designs. Pedestrians will have longer crossing distances, at some intersections but those are controlled intersections. Some parking will be lost, but that's a good trade.
At the meeting, a number of participants still wanted to see DDOT be more aggressive for safety:
C St NE summary: we’re moving in the right direction, but some impt safety measures are still need—left turn signals, smaller lane widths (10ft), lower traffic volumes at 19th St, move 19th St bus stop to SW corner, no right turn on red thru entire corridor, etc). #KingmanPark pic.twitter.com/qFYvU9graQ— Kingman Park Kaleidoscope (@kpkindc) June 12, 2018
Why did DDOT do this?
According to the presentation from that meeting, DDOT engineers re-ran the traffic analysis and decided that some of the assumptions in the original model might not have been right, or aren't any more. For instance, it apparently didn't consider that C Street has a 3% uphill grade, which slows drivers. Since the earlier study, DC has retimed some signals. And the “Highway Capacity Manual” prescribes using a “Central Business District” mode when there are narrower streets, bus stops, and sharper turns, as there will be in this plan.
In other words, the engineers punched some stuff into the computer and it came back saying there would be more traffic than the 2015 study estimated. From the way it was communicated, it sounded to a lot of people like DDOT was putting the desire to move as much traffic as possible ahead of safety.
It speaks volumes about your actual commitment to #vzdc that the revised plan removes 24/7 safety improvements for #walkdc in order to move a few more cars during peak hours. @allwalksdc @MayorBowser @charlesallen @CMCharlesAllen— J_uptown (@J_uptown) May 2, 2018
However, Cranor argued that it's a little more complex. He said:
The motivation for the change wasn't exclusively about moving traffic faster, but also about making it move safer. They were concerned that if traffic backed up in one lane behind a right turning car waiting on pedestrians, that people would swerve out of that lane into the one moving straight and that this is something that leads to crashes.
DDOT's April presentation does bear this out, if you read closely. It says, “After further traffic analysis, DDOT staff was concerned about diverting traffic onto neighborhood streets and the potential for increased queueing and crosswalk blockages along C Street NE that could negatively impact safety benefits of project.” (That's engineer-speak for what Cranor said).
It's clear this wasn't communicated very well, since people in the meeting certainly got the impression it was about traffic volume, and the report also is filled with engineer-speak about the like. Communicating with laypeople has always been a weak point for DDOT engineers, and they could be a lot more successful if they worked to improve in this area.
Too much reliance on the computer?
WABA wrote in a blog post attacking this change, “Traffic models only tell the driving part of the story and they are notorious for overestimating future driving habits. We should not compromise safety today to avoid theoretical delay in 20 years.”
According to DDOT Chief Project Delivery Officer Sam Zimbabwe, DDOT is willing to do more on C Street but wants residents to recognize that there could be more traffic on other streets. DDOT doesn't want people to be surprised and upset at the consequence.
Though, one frustrating element for advocates is that even though traffic models can be quite imprecise, especially far into the future, engineers tend to take them as gospel. Put something into the computer and something else pops out. And since the computer is just modeling traffic flow, even if your goal for the project is not to increase traffic (here, it's to reduce speeding and otherwise improve safety), you're going to get traffic-oriented answers out much of the time.
Traffic models are a tool to measure potential outcomes. Nothing more. The decision for what outcome we want, for how our streets should function, is a choice that reflects the values of our community.— Bill Schultheiss (@schlthss) April 28, 2018
If the priority is traffic flow for 2 hours a day, what do you lose for 22? https://t.co/i4YTAwDY1P
Also, traffic engineers often assume that freely flowing traffic is safest, and thus argue that they need to make a change “for safety” to move cars if there is congestion. Yes, when cars are backed up people might change lanes unexpectedly and get a crash, though that crash rarely leads to serious injury. But if drivers are speeding or taking turns too fast, they can strike people on foot or bike, even fatally. Slower cars overall means more safety, but not in a way that fits traffic engineers' usual assumptions.
Advocates say there's a trust gap
Many advocates I've spoke with appreciate that DDOT reversed course and did the right thing, and are truly excited about the project. However, they are also frustrated that after years of work, they found out about major changes unexpectedly at this meeting.
Cranor wrote, “Mostly DDOT messed up in the way they surprised everyone with the re-design. They should have approached key people first and kicked the idea around. Come to them with the problems first.”
Residents also worry: if this can happen to C Street, will it happen elsewhere?
On C Street, residents were united in support of this project. It helped that it was good for car parking (a perennial third rail of transportation), and for cyclists, and pedestrians, and maybe just bad for Maryland car commuters who don't vote in DC.
What about when the alignment isn't so strong? Or when the road is narrower (as nearly every single one is) and there isn't room for everyone to get what they want? DDOT has set goals of zero traffic deaths (Vision Zero) by 2024 and shifting mode share to 50% transit and 25% walk/bike by 2032. It'll be hard to achieve those goals quickly if projects can be altered so radically and so suddenly because a computer model spits out a different answer than it did before, or when the model tail is wagging the transportation dog.
But let's not lose sight of the outcome: Residents will be able to enjoy protected bikeways in each direction, better sidewalks and crosswalks, bulb-outs and parking, and a more pleasant street befitting this community. DDOT hopes to finish the design later this year and begin construction in late 2019.
Thank DDOT for fixing this
Even though a lot of people were frustrated at what happened and still are nervous, our public officials are people and they make mistakes. I don't think this was malicious on DDOT's part, and I think they really see this as having mis-stepped, heard feedback, and corrected the situation.
We should support DDOT when they do that. Click here to write a quick note thanking DDOT for pushing forward on a C Street which is better for people walking and biking, and being willing to put the traffic models down to keep the eye on the big picture of safety and sustainability.