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16th Street Heights Residents Petition For A Safer Arkansas Avenue

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Residents of 16th Street Heights say their stretch of Arkansas Avenue NW is unsafe.
Martin Di Caro/WAMU
Residents of 16th Street Heights say their stretch of Arkansas Avenue NW is unsafe.

The growing number of car-free D.C. households pouring ever more pedestrians and bicyclists onto the streets is exposing the shortcomings of those roads designed primarily for cars. Drivers speed. Crosswalks are poorly marked. And occasionally someone is badly injured as a result.

Even for a city generally considered friendly to walking and biking — laced with speed and red light cameras that issue tens of millions in fines annually — Washington, D.C. has its challenging neighborhoods. But the public outcry following a gruesome injury suffered by a resident in one Northwest neighborhood is leading to some changes residents say are overdue.

Arkansas Ave. NW in 16th Street Heights

Kelly Dillon, who makes her living as a teacher, used to love camping, hiking, and athletics. In fact, on the day her life changed last October she was planning and packing for a weekend camping trip.

“I was actually standing between two parked cars on the northbound side of Arkansas Avenue in front of my house, and a speeding driver crashed into the car behind me. It crushed my leg between the bumpers of the two parked cars, so I sustained a crush injury to the artery and muscles in my lower leg and it also broke the tibia,” Dillon said.

Eight surgeries and six months later, Dillon has yet to return to work and is still rehabbing to regain full use of her leg.

“It is certainly preventing me from doing a lot of the things that I love to do,” she said.

Although the driver of the car was drunk, Dillon and safety advocates also fault the design of Arkansas Ave. Northwest between 14th Street and 16th Street for this and other crashes. Nine days ago, a tow truck crashed into the rear of a car parallel parked, almost hitting two nearby pedestrians. About a year ago there was another similar crash, said Dillon.

“Structurally there is a lot that the city can do to change traffic flows so this doesn’t happen again,” she added.

Speeding and bottlenecks a dangerous combination

The posted speed limit on Arkansas Avenue Northwest is 25 mph. You do not need a radar gun, however, to determine many drivers go much faster. On Monday morning, traffic passed the corner of Arkansas Avenue and Buchanan Street at speeds that made it seem more like a highway than a neighborhood street.

During rush hours, both lanes of Arkansas Avenue’s northbound side are wide open. During the rest of the day, the parking lane is often empty for long stretches, leading drivers to think they have an open, two-lane thoroughfare to pass slower cars. But when drivers approach a block with parked cars they have to make a choice: speed up to beat the driver on their left to the bottleneck, or just slow down and merge more cautiously. Too often drivers are speeding up.

“I have two small kids so crossing the street is always really tough. And I have them both in my arms, and I am running to avoid the cars,” said resident Megan Price. “People drive really fast, even though it is posted 25 miles per hour.”

“It’s really dangerous,” said neighbor Elizabeth Bradley. “I've lived here since 2006, and we have been trying to slow down the traffic by including more traffic lights. We've looked at [ending rush hour parking restriction] so it slows people down.”

“There are a lot of people walking out here,” she added. “Children, dogs, families, and elderly who are trying to cross the street.”

Residents petition DDOT, Mayor Gray, CM Bowser

More than 700 people have signed a petition asking District officials to study the redesign of the street while making immediate changes that would improve safety, like better signage and more visibly marked crosswalks.

The petitioners contend that Arkansas Avenue is busy enough to warrant a study. The average daily traffic along the avenue from 16th Street to Georgia Avenue ranges from 8,700 to 11,200 vehicles per day, according to DDOT figures.

After a meeting with community representatives in December, the District Department of Transportation drafted a plan. It included short-term safety fixes including installing pedestrian crossing warning signs, pedestrian pylons, and speed limit signs. DDOT also asked the MPD to install a speed camera.

DDOT continues to assess more comprehensive changes to Arkansas Avenue, said spokesman Reggie Sanders. Final recommendations on a number of items are due by May 1. The most important change would be the removal of the rush hour parking restriction, making the avenue one lane in each direction 24/7.

When two lanes are open, drivers see Arkansas Avenue Northwest as a highway to Maryland instead of a local street, Dillon said.

“We need to have roads that are safe for families walking their kids to school, for people who are commuting on foot and on bike, and we need to make sure everyone is safe when using our roads. It’s not just for cars. It is for residents and pedestrians as well,” she said.

Arkansas Ave. reflects District-wide challenge

Safety advocates argue DDOT and MPD are not adequately addressing the dangers posed to pedestrians and cyclists in Washington where increasing numbers of commuters are opting to get to work by foot, bike, or transit.

Nearly 12 percent of D.C. commuters walk to work, the second-highest rate of any large city in the country, according to a report to be released tomorrow by the Alliance for Biking & Walking. WAMU 88.5 obtained the report before its wide release.

Of all people killed in traffic crashes in Washington, 43.8 percent are pedestrians, according to federal data cited in the report. By comparison, 25.5 percent of traffic crash fatalities are pedestrians in Boston and 33.1 percent in Philadelphia. From 2009 to 2011, nearly 12 pedestrians per year were killed in Washington.

Arkansas Avenue Northwest sees far fewer crashes than the typical busy avenue in D.C. According to DDOT, 48 crashes have taken place at the avenue’s major intersections over the most recent three-year span for which data is available. During the same three-year period, the District’s 20 most hazardous intersections average between 94 and 226 crashes per year.


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