Photo by WABA on Flickr.

When dealing with a finite amount of road and sidewalk space, how does a public agency accommodate pedestrians who want a wider sidewalk, cyclists who want a bike lane or a wider shoulder, transit riders who want a dedicated lane for faster, more frequent bus (and eventually streetcar) service, and drivers who want to move efficiently through the area?

WMATA Bus Planning Director Jim Hamre and DDOT Associate Director for Planning, Policy & Sustainability Karina Ricks engaged in some discussion on this delicate balancing act at a forum sponsored by the Coalition for Smarter Growth on November 10th.

Ricks noted that DDOT is unique among “state” DOTs in that it essentially lacks the option of adding new road capacity, and is thus tasked with getting the most optimal use out of every roadway in the District.

Hamre called on DDOT and Maryland and Virginia DOTs to add more dedicated bus lanes and make other physical changes to streetscapes, such as curb bulb-outs and relocating stops, to enhance bus operations. But Ricks encouraged the audience to consider the needs of all road users.

"I hope Mr. Hamre doesn’t want to pit bicyclists against transit riders,” Ricks said, explaining that WMATA’s priority bus corridors also happen to have the highest amounts of pedestrian and bicycle, as well as auto, traffic. Bus lanes, aside from taking valuable space away from other users, are very difficult to enforce.

Karina Ricks. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

She pointed out that, while owning and operating a car in the DC region costs about $27 per day (by AAA Mid-Atlantic estimates) and Metrorail costs about $4 per day ($3.20 daily for Metrobus) on average, Capital Bikeshare costs only 22 cents per day, and walking of course is free (shoes aren’t even required on DC streets!).

While Ricks agreed that curb bulb-outs generally make for speedier bus service, she said that each bulb-out proposal should be examined in context to determine the effect it would have on pedestrian, bicycle and auto traffic flow, as well as parking. She Hamre also questioned universal calls for bus stops to be placed at the far end of intersections, saying that allowing buses to load and unload riders while stopped at a red light is often most efficient.

One thing Ricks and Hamre did agree on is the general desire for priority traffic signaling to be implemented on the busiest bus routes. This wold mean that the timer controlling each traffic light would sense (via GPS) when a late-running bus is approaching, and the light would stay green long enough for the bus to clear the intersection, or start changing from red to green faster.

"Transportation is what allows us to be successful. It is a lifeline to employment and opportunity,” Ricks concluded. She also noted how transit service that is more responsive to a community’s needs promotes social equity. 90- to 120-minute commutes are not uncommon for people living east of the Anacostia, an area that contains only five Metrorail stations and where Metrobuses generally run east-west and seem designed to bring riders across the river. An audience member thanked Ricks for recognizing this and reminded her that residents of Wards 7 and 8 don’t always want to travel across the river but would like better service between River East neighborhoods.

Though some tension was demonstrated regarding where each agency’s purview overlaps, there was general agreement around the need for connectivity between travel modes. Hamre and Ricks were united in saying that an informed and involved citizenry is the best antidote to institutional myopia and the only way to bring about a more livable future for all.

In my next post, I’ll give an overview of upcoming studies, service changes, and other news revealed at the Coalition for Smarter Growth forum.

Malcolm Kenton lives in the DC’s NoMa neighborhood. Hailing from Greensboro, NC and a graduate of Guilford College (BA) and George Mason University (MA, Transportation Policy), he is a consultant and writer on transportation, travel, and sustainability topics and a passionate advocate for world-class passenger rail and other forms of sustainable mobility and for incorporating nature and low-impact design into the urban fabric. The views he expresses on GGWash are his own.