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The District Department of Transportation is preparing to end a traffic-calming project on one of D.C.’s busiest avenues a little more than a year after implementing the changes that quickly provoked a driver backlash.
After years of study, DDOT turned Wisconsin Avenue NW in Glover Park from a six-lane road to four lanes with a center turning lane, part of a streetscape project designed to improve pedestrian safety by slowing down cars. But just six months after changing the lane configuration, DDOT in June 2013 reversed the changes north of the Calvert Street NW intersection, angering Glover Park residents who claimed DDOT bowed to political pressure. D.C. Council member Jack Evans was among those who complained the narrower lane set up caused traffic backups.
Now DDOT is close to returning Wisconsin Ave. to six lanes (three in each direction when the rush hour parking restriction is in effect) south of Calvert Street, too. Even supporters of the traffic-calming project concede it did not work as planned.
“We are going to move back to the old plan but with an important caveat,” said Brian Cohen, an ANC3B commissioner who once strongly supported the slower traffic pattern. “We are going to add traffic cameras to help slow down traffic and the new lanes, once we go back to six lanes, are going to be a little less wide than they originally were. So hopefully those two factors will slow down traffic a little bit.”
When DDOT first reversed the changes north of Calvert Street, Cohen blasted the agency for giving up on the project too soon. But when Glover Park residents complained that the remaining changes south of Calvert Street continued to cause gridlock, ANC3B conducted a survey that found people favored a return to six lanes on Wisconsin Ave. by a 2-1 margin. The four-lane plan (two lanes in each direction during rush hour but only one lane each way during off-peak hours) was dead.
“For a number of reasons people in the community thought that the new pattern just wasn't working,” Cohen said.
Some neighborhood residents say the project was working okay, but DDOT did not give motorists enough time to adjust to slower driving speeds.
“We need to be patient. We need to understand that when we choose to drive — and I personally am a multi-modal person — I have to remind myself that we live in a very dense urban area and there is going to be a lot of traffic sometimes. If I choose to drive, that is what I am going to face,” said Abigail Zenner, a Glover Park resident unhappy with the project’s failure.
After DDOT changed Wisconsin Ave. north of Calvert Street back to six lanes last summer, engineers said impatient drivers had been using the center turning lane that had been part of the new traffic pattern as a regular travel lane, causing an unintended safety concern.
“The slowness wasn’t the problem. It was just that as people saw the level of service reduced they started doing what we consider dangerous moves,” said James Cheeks, DDOT’s chief traffic engineer, in an interview last August.
Today DDOT concedes the project did not go as either the agency or the public hoped.
“There was broad consensus after the fact in the community that the anticipated operations were not coming to pass,” said Sam Zimbabwe, the agency’s Associate Director for Planning, Policy and Sustainability.
Sharing road space among cars, bicycles and pedestrians is a challenge facing District planners and engineers across a city whose population is rapidly growing with residents who do not own automobiles. While Wisconsin Avenue’s wider sidewalks and other pedestrian safety improvements are permanent, the failure of the project’s most important traffic calming piece demonstrates the difficulty in taking away car lanes to accommodate other modes of travel, even in car-light Washington.