The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) has a backlog of critical infrastructure projects. It's faced with the challenge of cross-jurisdictional cooperation on Metro, mobility alternatives to cars, a shortage of housing, and more. Nonetheless, the agency’s director is upbeat about efforts that are currently (or will soon be) underway aimed at making it safer to get around the city via all modes.
DDOT Director Jeff Marootian, speaking at a “fireside chat” at a transportation conference last weekend, expressed pride in the approach his agency has taken to implementing Vision Zero, piloting new forms of mobility, working with regional partners to improve Metro, and more. However, he offered very few specifics about new initiatives and avoided taking definitive stances on controversial questions.
Marootian, a 20-year DC resident who previously attended George Washington University, started by expressing his pleasure at having worked under former DDOT Director Gabe Klein from 2008-2010 to get some big projects off the ground—primarily Capital Bikeshare, which was controversial at the time.
Marootian returned to DDOT in 2017 after having worked at the US Department of Transportation to help “bring a localized feel to the federal level and drive federal dollars to critical projects around the country.” The director summed up his current job as figuring out what investments have “the biggest bang for the buck, solve the most problems, and help the most people.”
Arlington-based Mobility Lab held its eighth annual TransportationCamp on January 12, an “unconference” that is also held across the US and as far away as Australia. (Unconferences differ from traditional conferences in that sessions are generated on-site by attendees according to their interest and expertise.)
Although the majority of the estimated 500 attendees came from the Washington metropolitan region, folks in town for a Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting infused perspectives from around the country. That meant most topics were not regionally-focused, though a few sessions highlighted local figures and issues, including this discussion with Marootian.
On Vision Zero and Safe Routes to School
Marootian describes the Vision Zero rulemaking finalized within the past two weeks as a significant win, and “something our team and many incredible community organizers have been working on for years.”
He added that sidewalk, roadway, and alley modernization have been a huge priority for him and DC Mayor Muriel Bowser. “We may all be multi-modal, but fundamentally we are all pedestrians at some point in the day,” he pointed out.
Marootian said DDOT is working its way down a list of assets and intersections, from those in the worst condition to the best, “paving some of the worst streets and paving sidewalks where there are critical gaps.” Many of these projects are to build sidewalks required by law or are related to Safe Routes to School. Making this effective requires equal measures of remote data collection and analysis, and of direct observation in the field—that is, experiencing the site as a pedestrian.
DDOT wants to learn what strategies have worked and not worked elsewhere to better adapt them to a local context, Marootian said. He emphasized that each rebuild or redesign of a street is not a stand-alone project, but is rather “all in the rubric of safer streets” for every type of user. He cited ongoing efforts to harden left turns, eliminate right turns on red, and delineate “slow lanes” for the use of transit vehicles, cyclists, and scooter riders.
So why didn't DDOT opt for a blanket right-on-red ban as some other cities have done? Marootian said that DC residents remain divided on the issue, but DDOT is “looking at geometry, signal timing, and other factors to ensure that what we do is the safest possible for all. In some, our approach is to reconstruct the whole intersection.”
Metro, housing, HQ2, regional challenges, and more
“The way to incentivize behavior is actually incentivizing it by making Metro and buses better,” Marootian declared. “Metro is a safe and reliable system. I’ve commuted on it for the past 15 years. But we know it needs capital investments so we can tell people it’s working better.”
Marootian admitted that he cannot make regional decisions, but said he can lead the conversation and work to bring people on board. “I think about my role as identifying challenges and opportunities,” he said. He cited Capital Bikeshare as a successful regional initiative that established productive cross-jurisdictional lines of communication. He believes that Amazon bringing part of its second headquarters to Crystal City/National Landing is “an overall positive driver for the changes we’ve wanted to get done.”
He touted the Bowser administration’s priority on affordable and workforce housing as “a core theme of all agencies, not just housing-fcused ones.” He spoke of transportation as a way we think about strengthening places, but admitted that there is no one single solution or one way to address all the issues related to gentrification. “I work with my colleagues with other agencies to connect those things,” he said.
Asked how DDOT is helping better connect Wards 7 and 8 with the rest of the city, Marootian said the agency will soon redesign the intersection of Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road NE in Ward 7, which is one of the city’s most dangerous. Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge will be replaced with a design that includes a better bicycle and pedestrian path, and Alabama Avenue SE in Ward 8 will be redesigned.
Dockless bikes and scooters and other new tech
Dockless bikes and scooters continue to expand in popularity and usership, and “offering people these options and making it safer to use them gets to what we’re after for transportation and sustainability,” Marootian said.
DDOT does pilot projects with dockless bike and scooter companies to “set up success by expecting failures and challenges” and allow them to demonstrate the technology. The agency takes the same experimental approach with technologies most people never see, like new traffic signal management systems, he explained.
DC is a unique testing ground for new transportation technologies because it’s a “hip city that’s growing” and attracting many car-free residents. “We have both small-p and large-p politics here. The exciting challenge is to harness that energy to get what we want to see across the finish line,” Marootian said.
One weird DC-area dynamic: Region is often an early adopter/test city (think bikeshare, new urbanism, etc) but also slow to roll out individual projects.#transpo19— Dan Malouff (@beyonddc) January 12, 2019
Automation is more than just cars. What do we as government need to do to get ready for that? Most important thing: rebuild infrastructure, irrespective of any new tech. — @DDOTDC director Jeff Marootian at #transpo19 (paraphrased)— Aayesha (@aayesha) January 12, 2019
Will the DC streetcar be expanded?
I asked Marootian about where the DC Streetcar goes from here. He said DDOT just celebrated the 3 millionth ride on the H-Benning Line and is currently in the initial design phase for the eastward extension, which will bring the line about two miles further east down Benning Road NE and up Minnesota Avenue NE to the Minnesota Avenue Metro station.
Marootian anticipated the time from initial design to revenue operation would be about six years. He said the expansion is under environmental review, but offered no timeline for design or construction. He also would not commit to pursuing dedicated transit lanes for streetcars.
“We’re working hard every day to drive the project forward” and “looking at new technologies,” Marootian said.
Looking forward to 2019
The last question went to GGWash Edit Board member Dan Malouff, who asked what Marootian is excited about for 2019.
Marootian responded that he was not quite ready to talk about the endeavor he thinks is coolest, but said “the community across the city really embraces” Vision Zero, that he looks forward to expanding designated pick-up and drop-off zones for taxis and ride-hailing services, and that DDOT is about to break ground on some big construction projects that have been in the works for over a decade.