K/Water Street in Georgetown by Travis Maiers.

DC's newest protected bikeway has been under construction along the industrial road underneath the Whitehurst Freeway in Georgetown known as K Street or Water Street. But some are saying it's causing too many traffic backups. Is there a problem requiring changes, or is this something that will work itself out over time?

The street has long felt neglected among DC roadways since the railroad through here was decomissioned in 1985. The stretch west of Wisconsin Avenue has no stop signs or traffic lights and an 18-foot-wide lane. It became known for drag racing at night and a deadly shooting in July 2017. Meanwhile, the road also leads directly to the Capital Crescent Trail, and thus draws 4,000 people on bicycles on a busy day, according to the BID's study. That's more than a whole lane of a minor arterial roadway.

People would circle for free parking down there, and tour buses had trouble turning around without hitting fences, parking meters, or fire hydrants. People riding through the waterfront park interfered with its enjoyment for others strolling along. All of this motivated area residents to seek changes to the road. The Georgetown Business Improvement District included this in its 15-year Georgetown 2028 plan and with DDOT won a $60,000 planning grant in 2016 from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments to study fixes.

The BID, the District Department of Transportation, and Toole Design Group devised a plan including parallel parking instead of angled, tour bus drop-off areas, a circle at the western end for a bus turnaround, better crosswalks, a future ped/bike bridge over Rock Creek, and most significantly, a two-way protected bikeway connecting the Capital Crescent and Rock Creek trails. The number of parking spaces would change from 142 to 99.

Installation was delayed for some time, first because of significant Pepco work and then, more briefly, Wonder Woman 2 filming. The circle is on hold because of Key Bridge construction and a boathouse analysis the National Park Service wants to complete before agreeing to final changes. But over the last month or so, DDOT and the BID have been installing the bikeway and changing the parking configuration.

Opposition arises

Since this area functioned as a sort of parking lot before, project adherents were expecting some opposition from drivers accustomed to parking for free or very cheaply who'd have to use area garages instead. (Though, they noted, many area garages won't stay open late because people just park on the street instead. This change could motivate longer garage hours.)

As lanes were closed for the bikeway, traffic congestion grew, at least temporarily. Left turns from the street would sometimes block through driving. Drivers exiting the Washington Harbor garage south of K had to wait longer and take more care while crossing the bikeway.

Sometimes issues like this mean that the road configuration isn't quite right. Other times, everyone adjusts their behavior and reaches a new equilibrium. For instance, once drivers realize there will be more traffic congestion in an area, they may stop trying to circle around this area looking for parking and just go to a garage first instead. (This is one reason why many transportation experts resist comparing traffic to water, which might “flow” to another area if blocked, and more like a gas, which expands and contracts to fill the available space.)

When the 15th Street bikeway was installed, some residents said they were nervous about crossing the bikeway to drive in and out of the alleys, though people have now become used to that and there haven't been crashes.

Image by Travis Maiers.

Jack Evans raises concerns

Peggy Sands reported in The Georgetowner that at a July 2 meeting of the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, ANC 2E, chair Joe Gibbons told the group that Ward 2 councilmember Jack Evans “wants the K Street lanes to return to their 'original configuration.'”

“Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water,” said Lisa Palmer, the ANC commissioner who represents the waterfront area. The ANC approved a resolution which did not call for any immediate reversals, but rather asked DDOT to evaluate the project within six months “with a particular focus on on ensuring that users of the roadway, including, but not limited to, cyclists and pedestrians, are being provided a safer enviroment for use than what currently exists, and that traffic operations have been improved.”

Reached by phone, Evans said he has “gotten enormous complaints” but he isn't currently asking for the lanes to be removed; he has asked the mayor and DDOT Director Jeff Marootian to re-evaluate how the project is going on September 15, in two months. That's less than the six months of the ANC resolution, however.

Evans likened this to the Glover Park streetscape in 2013. There, DDOT added a median and reduced the travel lanes on Wisconsin Avenue to one each way. Reacting to resident complaints, Evans and Mary Cheh (ward 3) successfully called on DDOT to rip out the median after it had been in place for most of a year.

Evans said he is supportive of bike lanes but only where they are “doable.” “L Street was doable,” he said, referring to the lane in the Golden Triangle and downtown areas. “When traffic is funneling down to one lane, it doesn't work.”

He also said that many cyclists were not stopping at the stop signs along the route, and called for cyclists to obey the traffic signs. He has been hit by bicyclists four times, he said, and was recently hit by a scooter rider, though he added this was in part because he had stepped into the road in front of his house seeing no cars but not having looked carefully for scooters.

Image by Georgetown BID.

Do there need to be changes?

While it may be too early to start changing things and certainly too early to abandon the project, it's reasonable to think about problems that might be reasonable and ways to address them. Georgetown resident, GGWash contributor, and Georgetown Metropolitan blogger Topher Mathews wrote,

This stretch of K has been really bad for congestion at peak times for a while. It mostly has nothing to do with the bike lane.

That said, they did change the turn lane configuration on K St and that is apparently causing problems for westbound K St traffic.

The way to address this is to remove more street parking and/or shift to rush hour parking.

Patrick Kennedy, another contributor and ANC commissioner in nearby Foggy Bottom, said,

I see people parking in the lane constantly. Some of this might resolve itself as DDOT installs additional bollards and people get used to having the lane there and adjust behavior accordingly, but there is an enormous curb cut for the garage at Washington Harbour that will need to be left totally unprotected to facilitate ingress and egress, and which is big enough for a semi to pull into for deliveries (something I saw the other night). Short of better enforcement (lol), I don't know what the answer is there.

Travis Maiers went to take some observations over the weekend. He reported,

The lane itself is pretty wide for a protected cycletrack, noticeable wider to me than say the one on 15th Street. [One reason for this was to allow emergency vehicles to use the lane in an emergency.]

Large sections are only separated with paint at the moment. It looked like some flex posts and park-its were recently put in and I assume will be fully installed along the length of the lane. Still, I didn't see any drivers really blocking the lane while I was there.

Traffic was moving pretty slowly/backing up east of Wisconsin. But it's Georgetown; its always busy! There were lots of cars, but also lots of bikes and pedestrians. If anything, it seemed to be the constant groups of pedestrians crossing at each intersection that was “slowing” things down. I thought the PBL was having very little impact on car traffic.

You could argue the street was working pretty much as it should: car traffic was moving slowly (aka safely); pedestrians were able to step out and cross at each intersection; cyclists had their own marked and protected lanes.

Tracey Johnstone suggested more green paint to better distinguish the lanes.

Maiers informally counted the usage of the lane: “At 34th Street between 1:10 and 1:25 [pm on July 14], I counted 48 cyclists in the PBL [the bikeway] and another 11 not in the PBL. At 31st Street between 1:30 and 1:45, I counted 49 cyclists go past in the PBL, 13 cyclists not in the PBL, and about 180 cars go past (all counts are east and west bound traffic). There were also many pedestrians, but trying to keep track of them as well was too difficult.”

You can weigh in using the Coalition for Smarter Growth's action form here. Tell local officials how they can best support biking and walking in this area.