Photo by Pak Gwei on Flickr.

Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten is the latest commentator-

driver to be angered by speed cameras in DC. Weingarten says M Street SE’s 25-mph speed limit doesn’t match its 6-lane highway form, and he’s absolutely right. That’s why M Street needs to be redesigned.

Weingarten complained this morning about getting two tickets, for $125 each, for speeding on M Street SE en route to buy seafood at the waterfront.

He writes that trying to obey the speed limit is “unnatural and frustrating, like trying to type with mittens.” He also employs his clever wit to formulate new digs at speed cameras, like compar­isons with Soviet Communism and claims they “extort money from drivers having the audacity to travel city roads at the speed of — this is literally true — a hippopotamus, running.”

Weingarten is absolutely right about one thing. M Street SE’s design is totally incompatible with the 25-mph speed limit. At three lanes each way, it’s far too wide.

The limit was lowered to 25 mph last year in response to a series of pedestrians — this is literally true — getting killed hit crossing the street at New Jersey Ave and M St, SE, ironically right in front of the headquarters of the US Department of Transportation. That’s also why the camera is there, not to entrap drivers but to actually get them to slow down.

Update: In fact, minutes after this article first ran, DC Fire and EMS tweeted about a pedestrian being struck on the 500 block of M Street, SE—on this very road we are discussing.

This road, heavily used by pedestrians traveling around the neighborhood or going to and from the Metro, should be more of a neighborhood main street than a high-speed raceway to bypass the SE-SW freeway. But years ago, traffic engineers using the “move traffic as fast as possible” mindset built the road as a raceway anyway.

Just two lanes each way would be sufficient for the traffic volume west of South Capitol, and one lane each way on the east, according to DDOT metrics. If the road is 50% to 200% too wide for the traffic, no wonder Weingarten thinks of hippopotami when he drives there.

The solution is to redesign the road. If it feels like typing with mittens, make it a touch-screen iPad instead where you don’t need to type so much. Fortunately, a well-respected road design firm, Toole Design, already analyzed this road for us.

Concept sketch for M Street. Photo by volcrano of diagram by Toole Design.


Toole’s plan would give M Street a “road diet” from 3 lanes each way to two. A narrow median would go in the center to create small pedestrian refuges, and each side would get cycle tracks.

Tommy Wells tried to promote this idea, but a few of the very residents of the Southwest Waterfront and Near Southeast whose walks to the store would become safer objected. Opponents focused on some elements of the plan that would encourage cycling, while giving short shrift to its pedestrian enhancements.

Meanwhile, however, David Garber won election to the ANC for 6D07, which encompasses all of M Street SE, and Grace Daughtridge, one of the most strident critics of the plan (who claimed neighbors were “bad parents” for biking with their kids to school or the store) lost a bid for an ANC seat in Southwest.

Maybe it’s time for the ANC to take another look at this plan, especially if the commissioner for the eastern half will support the concept. Not only can it make the neighborhood safer and more pleasant for residents, it could help Gene Weingarten drive slower and feel better doing it.