One of the two illegal parking spots that is too close to the crosswalk and scheduled for removal. Image by the author.

First Street NW in Bloomingdale is a residential street, but many drivers use it as a commuting thoroughfare, making it dangerous to people walking in the neighborhood. Residents have complained about it for years, but happily there's a plan to add better pedestrian infrastructure and to slow drivers down. There's just one catch.

The plan requires the removal of six to seven illegal parking spaces, and one local Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner (ANC) is stridently opposed to losing any parking at all. She's so opposed that she passed a resolution urging DDOT to exempt key intersections on her block from a plan, even though the two parking spaces she’s trying to protect may ultimately be removed anyway.

A long-awaited change

Conversations about calming traffic on First Street go back many years, and have picked up steam in the last few. The District Department of Transportation's (DDOT) original recommendation in the 2013 Mid-East Liveability study was to install mini roundabouts, but agency officials told neighbors in 2018 the best they could do was digital signage. Backlash to that announcement sent planners back to the drawing board, and they came back to the community last month to introduce their latest plan.

The updated proposal would install curb extensions (also called bulbouts) to each of the nine all-way stop intersections between Florida Avenue and Bryant Street NW. The extensions and accompanying large planters would visually and physically narrow the road, cueing drivers to slow down and giving pedestrians a shorter crossing.

Example of painted curb extensions from DDOT’s First Street Traffic Calming Proposal.

The plan’s scope is rather modest, and it would not radically affect parking on the street. The extensions use the existing no-parking zone of 25 feet in front of each crosswalk required by DC municipal regulations. However, in assessing the area, DDOT found that some of the intersection corners are currently in violation of that rule. So as part of this implementation, DDOT would be removing six or seven illegal parking spots.

This stretch of First Street alone has over 200 spots, and hundreds more on cross- and neighboring streets. Just this past month the neighborhood gained new spots when DDOT recategorized 38 spaces on North Capitol Street from rush-hour-restricted to permanent residential parking. That’s six times the number of spots being removed for the calming project, and a net gain of more than 30 spots.

So while the plan falls short of the more interruptive mini-roundabouts or speed bumps many residents preferred and does nothing to address the gaping hole of safer biking infrastructure in this section of the city, it still represents an improvement on the status quo. The plan earned the support of the Bloomingdale Civic Association (BCA) at its February meeting.

A bad bargain

However, Bloomingdale ANC5E06 commissioner Karla Lewis did not share the views of the BCA. At the March ANC meeting (2:14:14 mark of this video), she opposed the plan because some residents in her single-member district already complain about a lack of parking and are unwilling to sacrifice the six or seven spots in question.

As a “compromise,” Lewis offered a motion to support implementation along the northern section of First Street north of Rhode Island Avenue, but exempt the streets in her district on the south side. That motion initially failed in March, but passed at the April meeting this week. The final form exempted the intersections at R and Randolph streets.

In exchange for hobbling nearly 25% of the traffic calming plan, Lewis preserved two parking spots.

Except, not even. While DDOT Vision Zero Traffic Engineer Emily Dalphy immediately offered to shave off intersections in response to Lewis’s concerns, she later confirmed that she could not guarantee those parking spots would remain either way.

“If the commission doesn’t want to move forward with specific locations, we won’t [touch the parking], but if another resident brings up a safety concern at the intersection specifically related to something like sight-distance, our typical remedy is to pull that parking back to the 25 feet,” Dalphy said. “So I can’t say it will stay that way forever, but because that is the law it will most likely be moved at some point.”

DDOT is free to ignore the ANC’s viewpoint and proceed with the traffic safety plan, but it seems like they’re choosing not to. So the likeliest result of this resolution is that the illegal parking at R and Randolph is removed anyway, without adding any traffic calming measures in return.

Disappointing leadership

The math on this tradeoff should be non-controversial. The traffic calming measures would benefit thousands of neighbors and visitors who walk and bike on First Street to get to their homes, take their kids to the park, grab a meal or cup of coffee, shop at the farmers market, or otherwise just safely enjoy being outside in their neighborhood.

Opposing it would maybe, temporarily save two marginal car owners a slightly longer walk to their car. Lewis’s reflexive dismissal of any solution that even lightly threatens a single parking space would be comical if it weren’t so shameful.

Bloomingdale residents have been clamoring for action for over five years, and now that it’s finally here, it’s in danger of being hamstrung from the very start. At a time when the city’s failure to meaningfully address mounting pedestrian and cyclist deaths on our streets is at the center of our local political conversation, it’s more than frustrating to see local leaders object to even the mildest of improvements. It’s equally frustrating to see DDOT’s Vision Zero team so quickly discard their plans at the first sign of a single point of pushback.

Real change is going to require much bigger decisions with much bigger tradeoffs and much more entrenched opposition. If we’re going to see any progress in making our built environment safer, we need to start by changing the political culture that prioritizes the convenience of drivers over the protection of the whole community.