24 Feb 2021

H Street NE needs to adapt to the needs of its residents

When neighbors complain about an intersection in the city, several things happen. Sometimes, the intersection is just a personal bother: Maybe you feel that cars are whipping around too fast down your local street, but it’s not something that affects anyone else at a larger scale. Sometimes, if there are enough people affected by an intersection, neighbors might bring the complaint to an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner or ANC. The ANC can bring this to their monthly meeting and decide to take action– usually in the form of a letter or a petition to the DC Department of Transportation for a study of the offending intersection. What happens after complaints are lodged and studies are requested seems to be up to the whim of DDOT, however. Some streets are flagged for speeding or lack of visibility or a dire need for a stop sign, but it takes years– or, more starkly, someone’s death-– in order to bring about significant change. Sometimes, ANCs band together to attempt to create meaningful change: Last week’s joint ANC 6A and 6C meeting on the safety of H Street– the highlights of which you can read here— was one more step in the right direction for a street that has seen much destruction of property and loss of life.

H Street NE at 3rd Street on December 31, 2020. Photo by Maria Helena Carey

H Street NE is the kind of wide and straight arterial that encourages cars to move faster down the street and is most dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists alike. As of 2019, 22,305 cars per day traveled from North Capitol Street to Benning Road. Arterials are large roads that, according to the Federal Highway Safety Administration, “Serve demand for intra-area travel between the central business district and outlying residential areas.” In other words, arterials cut through urban areas to make life easy for people outside of town to get into and out of town. Some people are forced to use their cars even for short distances in order to navigate arterial roads. Friend and data analyst, Charlotte Jackson, recently wrote a piece over at Greater Greater Washington about this phenomenon, which you should read.

H Street doesn’t just have local and commuter traffic. It also has busy north-south thoroughfares at 3rd, 4th, 6th, 8th, 12th, 13th, 14th and 15h Streets, as well as two grocery stores with loading docks and delivery trucks– not to mention local and commuter buses, at least five schools in close proximity, plus a healthy bike and pedestrian culture. Ironically, one of the things currently making H Street NE both safer and more resident- and people-friendly in general is one of its most hated fixtures: the DC Streetcar that opened back in 2016. The streetcar has not interfered with the X2’s ridership and has not caused crashes where anyone’s been injured. While people are busy outlining how “evil” it is, calling it stupid, disparaging it, or wondering who is faster than the streetcar, the bright red trains aren’t only providing a safe alternative for pedestrians and short-distance commuters, but they are helping set a speed standard for traffic along H Street. We should be demanding more streetcars in more places, and we should be demanding a useful extension to Ward 7– an extension the neighbors there want and need. If you haven’t yet, read Gordon Chaffin’s recap on the latest Streetcar development here.

H Street has needed a focused and targeted plan from DDOT for years: The fact that we’re only paying attention to it now is a result of the accelerating gentrification through our neighborhood, because H Street has always needed fixing. We must address the fact that H Street slashes through a mainly residential neighborhood but there have been no real efforts to make the street safer or more inviting to residents and business patrons. Earlier in the year, transportation activist and friend Mark Sussman drafted a letter which has been, so far, signed by more than 20 H Street businesses. DDOT needs to listen to the needs of District residents and District small business owners. It’s worrisome to think that ANCs have been utterly stonewalled by DDOT until very recently, but change is essential and enough people want it.


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