D.C. traffic calming steps don’t please all travelers along Wisconsin Avenue

Robert Thomson
Columnist August 17, 2013

The District Department of Transportation just rebuilt an intersection in the Glover Park neighborhood that had given travelers fits for years. It’s the latest installment in a set of traffic safety projects along the Wisconsin Avenue corridor.

This particular one looks like a winner, but not all of the changes along Wisconsin Avenue were well received. What they have in common is that they tend to slow down traffic. So whether a particular change is pleasing often depends on exactly where you live along the corridor and whether you are driving or walking.

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. View Archive

The overall project encompassed about a mile of crowded Wisconsin Avenue from 34th Street NW up through the Glover Park neighborhood to Massachusetts Avenue. The goal, said DDOT spokesman Reggie Sanders, was to “give streets back to the communities and diminish the number of cut-throughs” in which drivers would bail out of the main drag, Wisconsin, and add traffic to the adjacent streets.

DDOT made changes in the avenue’s traffic pattern, shrinking the number of lanes in sections, adding some left-turn lanes, widening sidewalks and creating some other improvements intended to make Wisconsin Avenue crossings less threatening.

Many neighborhoods across the D.C. region will recognize these elements as “traffic calming.” Montgomery County did it on Arcola Avenue in Silver Spring, which drivers use as a shortcut between main roads. The Virginia Department of Transportation did it on Lawyers Road in Reston. DDOT did it on Military Road west of Rock Creek Park.

The results can be very good for safety but sometimes have unintended consequences. Traffic calming measures are meant to slow down drivers. On Wisconsin Avenue, they really slowed down drivers on a major city commuter route. This annoyed the drivers, and also worried people off the avenue who feared the traffic slowdown would make alternative routes even more attractive.

DDOT undid some of the measures between Calvert Street and Massachusetts Avenue. Other changes remain under debate, and DDOT officials say they continue to work with the communities involved.

That brings us to the latest change, the remodeling of the intersection just west of Wisconsin Avenue where Tunlaw Road and 37th Street NW come together briefly then separate again. The pattern used to look like an X that was grabbed by the arms and legs and stretched out in the middle.

A motorist approaching from one angle had to figure out what other motorists were going to do as they approached from different angles. 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, 37th Street branches off from Wisconsin Avenue. So 37th can serve as a north-south alternative to Wisconsin Avenue.

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 drivers hate to break their momentum for things like stop signs.

“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.

As on Wisconsin, the solution DDOT designed was mainly a matter of some new concrete and asphalt, signs, and paint to slow down drivers, curb their path and clarify who has the right of way at any given point.

When I introduced this topic on the Dr. Gridlock blog, a reader offered a great description: The redesign turned the X into two T’s.

It looks quite logical, but August is 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. We will take another look in September.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or e-mail drgridlock@washpost.com.

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