Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

Restore the Connecticut Avenue Boulevard!

The service lane on Connecticut Avenue between Macomb and Ordway Streets should be replaced with a wide, pedestrian-friendly sidewalk.

Connecticut Avenue’s west side is a pleasure to walk along, and has inviting outdoor cafés. The east side is crowded, cramped and pedestrian-unfriendly. Two people can barely walk abreast on the narrow sidewalk. The service lane is confusing and dangerous. All because misguided urban planners decided in the 1960s to destroy a sidewalk to make a parking lot.

Some suggest that the businesses on this strip can’t survive without the service lane and its 25 parking spaces. But every other commercial strip on Connecticut Avenue is able to thrive without a service lane. These businesses are just steps away from a Metro entrance, and are served by a rear alley that would allow people to drop off and pick up heavy items. The nearby Sam’s parking lot almost always has space available. Making this area appealing and walkable would attract people in larger numbers, benefiting all of the businesses in the area.

This service lane was a big mistake, but it can be fixed. Imagine what a beautiful and vibrant public space this could be, with room for walking, sidewalk cafés, shade trees, flowers, and benches.

Sign the petition now to ask our elected representatives to restore this vital piece of the Connecticut Avenue boulevard to its original state.

What are the options?

This stretch of Connecticut Avenue was originally designed with broad, pleasant sidewalks on both sides.

Image from

Option 1: The status quo (cars first, people second)

In the early 1960s, Washington DC was being hollowed out as people fled for the suburbs. City planners were committed creating an automotive utopia. Cleveland Park’s citizens had to fight off a proposal to run a freeway down Reno Road, which would have razed a wide swath of the neighborhood; other neighborhoods didn’t escape that fate. Throughout the city, graceful mansions were replaced with parking lots. The streetcars that once ran up and down Connecticut were shut down permanently in 1962.

The service lane was created at the behest of local merchants. This was before Metro, during the heyday of the suburban strip mall; and convenience for drivers was everything.

So the wide sidewalk was dug up and replaced with a service lane, a second row of curbside parking, and a median separating the lane from the avenue.  The vestigial sidewalk that remained is so narrow it hardly deserves the name.

This may have seemed like a good idea at a time at a time when public transit was poor or nonexistent, but it’s completely inappropriate for what’s become a vibrant urban neighborhood served by a metro stop.

A blind man is forced off the crowded sidewalk. Photo by Bill Adler.

  • It’s unsafe. Pedestrians often step off (or are forced off) the sidewalk, sometimes into the path of oncoming traffic. This is a particular problem for older or mobility-impaired persons. The anomalous traffic pattern created by the service lane is confusing. There’s an extra set of stoplights where cars leave the service lane that’s disorienting for drivers who are unfamiliar with the area.
  • It’s unappealing and hostile to pedestrians. The strip is drab and ugly; it feels crowded and unwelcoming. The only shade trees are on the median on the other side of the service lane, so there’s no shade or shelter. The whole block feels like a parking lot, not like a place designed for humans.
  • It’s a waste of space. The median, the parking spots, and the access lane combine to occupy well over three times the space actually used for parking 26 cars at most. This is some of the most valuable real estate in DC, and it’s terribly underutilized.
  • There’s no room for pedestrian amenities. A recent streetscape project conducted by Cleveland Park citizens along with DDOT has provided for beautifying the larger commercial area, with park benches, bike racks, and other amenities. There’s no room for any of this along the service lane, nor is there room for any of the 12 excellent restaurants and eateries along the strip to provide sidewalk seating.

The current configuration. Click to enlarge (PDF).

Option 2: Angled parking

A frequently proposed option is to replace the row of parallel parking alongside Connecticut Avenue, along with the median, with back-in angled parking. This approach would result in roughly the same number of parking spaces and a much wider sidewalk for pedestrians - seemingly a win-win.

Unfortunately, this proposal would be very expensive to implement (more than $3 million according to DDOT). Why? Because there’s a lot of infrastructure embedded in the median that would have to be relocated at great expense: Metro vents, streetlights, a fire hydrant, and so on. And there are a number of mature trees that would have to be cut down.

Repurposing the space currently occupied by the median is difficult because it currently houses trees, streetlights, Metro vents, and a fire hydrant. Image from Google Maps. Click to enlarge.

DDOT has been unenthusiastic about the angled parking approach in the past, and for good reason. It’s not really appropriate for a busy thoroughfare just outside downtown of a big city. And it’s not exactly been a resounding success where it’s been tried elsewhere; the city recently replaced back-in angled parking in Adams Morgan with more traditional parallel curbside parking.

Option 3: Shared road

Another possibility was proposed on the Cleveland Park listserv:

In a shared road, our sharply defined curbs on either side of our service lane would be replaced by a very graduated decline from the sidewalk level to the road level. There is not a hard boundary between what is walking space and what is vehicular space. ...

One would imagine that this creates dangers for pedestrians, but in practice cars naturally slow down to accommodate the pedestrians. There need not be any loss of parking spaces if this concept is applied to our service lane, the designated areas for parking could remain.

Shared roads make sense in cases where you need to provide occasional vehicle access to otherwise pedestrian-only areas; many college campuses have spaces that are configured this way. Some European towns have deliberately blurred the boundaries between pedestrian areas and roads in their historic centers, primarily as a traffic calming device.

In this context, though, this idea doesn’t make a lot of sense. According to DDOT, it would be expensive. It doesn’t solve any of the problem’s we’re trying to address. And imagine walking down that block with a family, trying to corral little kids while cars are trying to parallel park on the sidewalk they’re “sharing” with us. For that matter, do you want to be the driver looking for a spot to park on the sidewalk while zoo-bound kids swarm around you? Sounds like a nightmare for everyone involved.

Maybe we should let cars park and drive on the sidewalk on this side of Connecticut as well? Photo by Bill Adler.

If the whole cars-and-trucks-on-sidewalks thing is a good idea, maybe we should let cars and delivery vehicles park and drive on the Uptown’s sidewalk, or in front of Medium Rare and Cacao? Or on the sidewalks in Woodley Park or Dupont Circle, or on Columbia Road or Pennsylvania Avenue?

The service lane is already unusual and confusing. This scheme would take the weirdness to a whole new level, at the cost of millions of dollars, without improving anything.

Option 4: Cut-ins

Another proposal is to replace the off-peak parking along Connecticut Avenue with all-day parking by cutting spaces into the median. This would respond to the demand for parking in front of these shops during rush hour.

Unfortunately, it would be expensive for the same reasons as option 3 — all the median’s infrastructure would have to be relocated.

Alternatively, we could work around the existing trees, vents, etc. But this would yield at most a dozen or so spots along the entire block, resulting in a significant reduction in the number of spaces available.

Option 5: Just restore the sidewalk

Sometimes the simplest solution is best.

We all know what a wide sidewalk looks like — we don’t need consultants or drawn-out studies when we can just cross the street and see how this sidewalk was intended to be. This option isn’t expensive, either; the sidewalk could probably be restored for less than has already been allocated to study the issue.

All of us in Cleveland Park want our local shops to thrive. Restoring the sidewalk would eliminate just one parking spot per business on this strip, and would more than make up for it by being more attractive to people. For a commercial strip that’s right on top of a metro station, delivering more pedestrians to merchants is a smarter strategy than delivering more drivers. We can only accommodate so many cars, with or without this service lane; whereas the number of pedestrians we could accommodate is practically unlimited.

The most straightforward and least expensive approach is to just put the sidewalk back the way it was before the service lane was created. Click to enlarge (PDF).

The commercial strips in Woodley Park, Dupont Circle, Kalorama Triangle, and other comparable neighborhoods thrive without surface parking lots. There’s no reason why ours can’t as well. In the end, the question is whether we want this to be the kind of neighborhood where people drive up, do their business, and leave — the Rockville Pike strip-mall model that results in alienating, unfriendly spaces — or the kind of urban neighborhood where people come and spend time because it’s fun and beautiful and accommodating to humans.

A recent poll on the Cleveland Park listserv showed lopsided support (more than 2 to 1) for replacing the service lane with a wide sidewalk.

Cheap and abundant “Shop-N-Go” parking will never be this business district’s comparative advantage, nor should it be. Let’s leave that to the suburbs, and focus on making this a lively, walkable, and human-centered place where people actually want to be.

If you agree, please sign the petition now to ask our elected representatives to restore this vital piece of the Connecticut Avenue boulevard to its original state.

Herb Caudill lives in Cleveland Park with his wife, Lynne, and two young boys. He has lived in DC since 1995; he taught math as a Peace Corps volunteer in West and Central Africa, and currently runs DevResults, a web-based mapping and data management tool for foreign aid projects.