How does DDOT’s Complete Streets policy affect projects? A recent bridge replacement has raised the question of whether DDOT is actually living up to its own policy. In response to criticism, they are removing a sign which prohibited bicycles and pedestrians from the temporary bridge.

In mid-April, the Broad Branch Road bridge over Soapstone Creek collapsed. This received attention from council members Muriel Bowser and Mary Cheh, whose constituents were affected by the closure. In June, it was replaced with a temporary bridge. The permanent bridge is scheduled to be rebuilt and completed in mid-September 2011.

Signage installed at the temporary bridge prohibits cyclists and pedestrians from using the bridge at all. Fortunately, DDOT has agreed to remove the problematic sign. However, the agency’s real Complete Streets problem lies not with this project but in the business-as-usual designs of the agency’s larger street reconstruction projects.

For many advocates, the prohibition on nonmotorized users at Broad Branch Road was a bad indicator. Bridges are traditionally choke points where bicycle and pedestrian access is critical. Why would DDOT install a facility it considers insufficient to handle bicycles and pedestrians, and then restrict their use entirely?

Because the temporary bridge is a structure DDOT already had available, it came with some restrictions if a temporary facility were to be installed quickly. Most notably, the bridge has a single 13-foot wide lane and no sidewalks. As a result, vehicles traveling on this bidirectional roadway must alternate in order to cross the bridge. Because of these movements and the narrow bridge width, DDOT explained in press releases that it “discourages” cyclists and pedestrians from using the bridge.

The signage installed did more than discourage, however. It entirely prohibited cyclists and pedestrians. In a phone call with us, DDOT representatives explained that the sign was too restrictive and would be removed.

DDOT was under pressure to install a temporary bridge at this location. In order to do so cost-effectively, it had to use a bridge already in its possession. The agency could not responsibly encourage all cyclists and pedestrians on a substandard bridge but did not want to prohibit expert users who needed to use the facility and could do so safely. Hence, the “discourage” policy.

While this policy is not anyone’s ideal, it is understandable. This policy seems to abide by the Complete Streets philosophy by allowing access but not encouraging use of a substandard temporary facility. This is only acceptable because the bridge’s temporary nature, and political pressure from the adjacent council members will help ensure its final replacement by mid-September.

The Broad Branch Road bridge doesn’t violate the Complete Streets policy, but is DDOT following it with its other, more permanent projects? Next, we’ll take a look at street reconstruction projects, including some constructed before the policy was issued, and one identified as a “complete street” by DDOT Director Terry Bellamy in his confirmation testimony.

Many DDOT projects do take all road users into account, but not always to the extent they should. In order to be meaningful, DDOT’s complete streets policy should have an impact on the agency’s projects. It’s not yet clear that it has.