02 Nov 2009

Council Member Tommy Wells Talks Transportation with THIH

Image by Imagined Reality on flickr

Image by Imagined Reality on flickr

THIH recently sat down with our local council member, Tommy Wells.  We addressed a number of issues which, broadly, we have classified as transportation, crime, development and schools.  Over the next week we will be sharing the contents of the discussion.  Today, we begin with transportation.

We consider our neighborhood to be a village but the reality is there are a few major roadways that can make the area decidedly unfriendly.  Northeast has major commuter arteries in Constitution Avenue and C Street plus the continuing construction on H Street.  In Southeast there are trouble spots on Independence and Pennsylvania Avenues.  Then we have 10th Street, a.k.a. the “Northeast-Southeast Freeway.” During rush hours and heavy afternoon travel times, these streets and others are plagued with congestion, angry commuters, speeding, a general disregard for the rules of the road and the resulting accidents.

Councilmember Wells may not have been a transportation expert before, but he has says has learned quite a bit on the job. He has a particular vision for how transportation can support lifestyle choices, and he would like to see the philosophy of  the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) move away from one that focuses on moving commuters in and out of the city, a process he terms “undoing new urbanism.” Instead, he’d like to see the perspective evolve to reflect new lifestyle choices, like the migration from the suburbs back to the city.

Follow over the jump to learn about specific ideas and proposals for improving transportation in the neighborhood.

Turning this philosophy into the new reality of transportation planning will mean taking a different approach to building roads.  Wells says current thinking revolves primarily around  using traffic lights to control the flow of cars.  This does not necessarily mean slowing cars down.  Rather, the idea is move cars as quickly as possible.  The Council Member would like to see a plan that is not just about cars, but one that considers all users: cars, public transportation, pedestrians and bicycles.   Ultimately, he would like an outcome where “a parent would feel safe with children riding bicycles to school.”  This has lead him to champion the idea of a complete street.  Wells sees a model for this in plans to put a separate bike track, with a barrier, on M Street, Southeast.  The pitfall to avoid, he says, is to be careful to not impact existing parking.  And those new multi-space parking meter stations?  Those are generating some of the funds needed for alternative transportation projects.  Yes, a portion of parking meter money goes back into the neighborhood.  Currently, of the revenue generated over $250,000, 80% is going to pay for the cost of the meters while the remaining 20% is being spent on alternative transportation –  things like better signage for pedestrians, more bike racks and BigBelly trash cans (solar powered compacting cans that can dramatically reduce the number of trash pickups required).

Transportation utopia is not created overnight.  In the meantime, Council Member Wells is focusing on local transportation hot spots.  For instance, streets like C Street and Constitution Avenue, Northeast, are our neighborhood streets, but city transportation planners consider them arteries.  What to do when this creates tension?  There are unfortunately not many permanent solutions to be had at the moment.  While Benning Road and H Street, Northeast are still under construction, there are not many other places for cars to go.  Once these projects are finished, Wells envisions solutions that move cars to the major roads that can truly handle them while instituting traffic calming measures on neighborhood streets that need them, and DDOT has already begun work on plans to shift traffic once construction is complete.

There are temporary solutions to be had.  One-lane and some two-lane streets are too narrow for permanent speed cameras, but temporary ones can be used to great effect.  One stationed in the vicinity of 18th and C Streets, Northeast, averages 23 citations per day.  Speed humps have helped slow cars on E Street, Northeast, as has switching Constitution Avenue from one-way to two-way during the morning rush.  (Once the 11th Street Bridge is finished, there is a plan to switch 17th Street to two-way for this reason, too.)

Pennsylvania Avenue, Southeast, also has several options for improving safety and access for pedestrians, cyclists and public transportation.  The Eastern Market metro plaza and accompanying proposals for Pennsylvania Avenue were not part of our discussion with the councilmember.  He did share some ideas, though, for how the roadway can be made safer and friendlier to all users.  For instance,  adding a bike lane, reducing the number of car lanes and/or putting angled parking by Frager’s so cars will slow down.  These types of proposals – ones for complete streets – find support from a variety of groups, including seniors who want to bike and feel safe.

What about some of our most notorious intersections for accidents?  Solutions can be expensive and difficult to implement.  10th Street and Constitution Avenue, Northeast, is a good example.  Currently, Constitution traffic has the right of way with no stop sign.  There have been so many wrecks at this intersection, however, that Wells said  federal transportation officials were asked to evaluate the site.  Adding a traffic light is the common solution for a problem intersection on an arterial road.  But, at $250,000 per light, the bill comes to about $1 million per intersection.  The federal government will chip in and help pay, but Wells said their representatives concluded that the intersection at 10th and Constitution does not warrant lights and, therefore, will not pay any of the tab.  That puts Wells in a tough spot because he then has to turn to the appropriations process and get the money put into the transportation budget.  However, the trick, he tells us, is that each ward only gets so much money from DDOT.  If $1 million of the Ward 6 budget goes to lights at one intersection, there is a risk of not being able to pay for other transportation priorities.  Instead, he wants there to be a separate pot of money for lights; one that will not interfere with the Ward’s transportation budget.

Transportation is oftentimes personal and always complex, but Wells is focused on creating and implementing a vision for transportation that accounts for all users.

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  • Ken Jarboe

    Don’t forget about lights at 10th and Independence as well (same problem as at 10th and Constitution) — light at 12th and Independence — and safer crosswalks at Lincoln Park!

  • Sharee Lawler

    All excellent points — and intersections we also touched on, but only briefly. A friend lives near the 12th and Independence intersection and says accidents are a regular occurrence … regular enough that I’ve even seen one or two myself when visiting.

    With regard to Lincoln Park, we didn’t really get into it in depth but Wells did touch on the idea of “barn dance” lights. Its a configuration where everything stops and starts at once so, for instance, rather than lights being timed to accommodate auto traffic flow around the park, all the lights would instead turn red at once, offering safe crossings for pedestrians at the same time. An interesting proposal, but he also told us a trial in Northwest was abandoned because of complaints about lights being red for too long.

  • I live on the corner at 10th and Constitution. The number and frequency of accidents still shocks me. For a while, I took pictures of the ones that I was home to see, just to document that this was happening. I understand the realities surrounding putting in the lights, and wonder what, if any, effect speed humps on 10th between C and Constitution and between Constitution and Massachusetts would have?

    • Sharee Lawler

      I’m right there with you since that’s an intersection I walk, drive and bike through often. Unfortunately, as I emphasized to another commenter, the city’s classification of these major streets in our neighborhood doesn’t lend itself to traffic calming or slowing measures. I brought up the speed humps at Lincoln Park and E St, NE during the conversation with Wells and he said they’ve helped (I believe Allen also told us support for the E St humps was virtually unanimous among neighbors) but that they also just lead to people trying to avoid them by simply driving around them when possible.

  • Kyra Deblaker-Gebhard

    I understand that budget issues may prevent traffic lights, but why not try a more simple solution to start? Aren’t four-way stop signs better than nothing at all?

    • Sharee Lawler

      The point you bring up is precisely the philosophical rub Wells was talking about. WE want our streets to be safe for us — residents, pedestrians, parents, pet owners, etc. — but the city sees streets like C St NE, Constitution and Independence as arteries for moving commuters. Stop signs are, therefore, antithetical to what the city sees as the purpose of these streets. Lights can help, but are not the magic solution either because they will be, again, geared towards managing the traffic flow of commuters. Until the city changes that perspective, I don’t think we’ll be making much headway.

  • ibc

    The prevalence of crashes at 10th and Constitution is purely a function of vehicle speed on Constitution. If commuters were driving *no* *faster* than 25 mph, then there wouldn’t be any accidents. Instead they’re going 30-35 mph, and there’s no room to stop.

    I usually drive about 20 mph through here, and usually have at least MD a-hole sitting 6″ from my bumper.

    Time for more traffic cameras…

  • Daniel Beckman

    Ever visited one of those lovely walkable cities in Northern Europe? Did you see any speed humps? No, because they don’t make sense. They are annoying to sensible drivers who are already going a reasonable speed, and they are particularly a hindrance to bicyclists. Try riding your bike down a street with speed humps sometime. You’ll find yourself vowing never to go down that street again. In the short term, that may be desirable for people living on that street. But in the big picture, having all traffic concentrated onto just a few streets (because certain streets are made to be dysfunctional) does little to calm traffic.

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