D.C. tries to make tricky intersection safer

August 13, 2013

The new concrete in the foreground, poured during the summer construction, is a key element in changing the traffic pattern where 37th Street meets Tunlaw Road. (Robert Thomson/The Washington Post)

The District Department of Transportation rebuilt an intersection in the Glover Park neighborhood that has given travelers fits for years.

Tunlaw Road and 37th Street NW come together briefly then separate into a pattern that looks like an “X” was grabbed by the arms and legs and stretched out in the middle. A motorist approaching from one angle had to figure out what several other motorists were going to do as they approached from different angles. There was a lot of head swiveling.

James Cheeks, the District’s chief traffic engineer said all those diagonals and the wide crossing area created a “dilemma zone” for travelers, and there were some collisions.

The community was especially concerned about the fate of pedestrians. Just north of Calvert Street NW, 37th Street branches off from Wisconsin Avenue, and can serve as a north-south alternative for some of the traffic trying to avoid congested Wisconsin Avenue.

The potential existed for even more cut-through driving as the District made changes on  Wisconsin. Those changes had the effect of slowing down commuters on the main road and making the cut-through even more attractive.

In addition to the traffic volume, traffic speed was an issue. From Calvert Street, it’s a straight shot downhill on 37th to the Tunlaw intersection. And even if drivers behaved nicely at the intersection, it still was a confusing junction that required more courtesy than is likely to be found on an average city street. As the drivers stared at each other, little-noticed pedestrians — including those using the nearby Metrobus stops — just tried to survive.

“We looked at it and said, ‘What would be the best way to make that intersection safe and reduce some of those conflicts?’ Cheeks said.

The solution that DDOT designed doesn’t involve traffic lights. It was mainly a matter of new concrete, asphalt, signs and paint intended to calm traffic, provide some separation among travelers and clarify who has the right of way at any given point where drivers encounter other drivers or drivers encounter pedestrians.

It’s a bit early to tell whether the new traffic pattern will please everyone. First of all, it’s new, but this is also the season when traffic is lightest. Let’s take another look in September.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region.
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