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Car lanes vs. bike lanes: Proposals for busy Connecticut Avenue draw mixed reviews

A reversible lane arrow is seen in the middle of Connecticut Avenue in Northwest Washington. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

A congested commuter thoroughfare in Northwest Washington is slated for a reduction in vehicle capacity as part of a transformation that pits neighborhood residents against suburban drivers who could face longer trips to work.

The District is considering adding bike lanes and making other changes to a 2.7-mile segment of Connecticut Avenue NW, where city leaders envision a corridor with less vehicle traffic and better access for pedestrians, transit users and bicycles. The $4.6-million makeover would add a northbound and southbound bike lane and remove reversible rush-hour lanes — a source of confusion among drivers — resulting in fewer car lanes.

The concept, which has broad support among bicycle users and road-safety advocates, is worrisome to drivers and some businesses over fears that a bike lane would reduce already-scarce parking. It puts the District in a tough position as it aims to become more bike-friendly, setting the needs of suburban residents who commute by private vehicle against D.C. residents embracing other modes of transportation.

“Everyone who lives, works or has a business here knows that people [driving] are going too fast,” said Gloria Garcia, who lives along Connecticut Avenue and leads the nonprofit Van Ness Main Street, which represents more than 50 businesses in the corridor. “We all would like to see Connecticut Avenue change from a highway to something that’s more neighborhoody.”

The District Department of Transportation is advancing the plan at a time when commuting levels are well below normal and questions remain about the post-pandemic commute in the Washington region.

At the center of the plan is a push to remove rush-hour lanes from Woodley Park to the Chevy Chase neighborhood of Washington, a stretch of six-lane road that carried an average of 32,000 vehicles daily before the coronavirus pandemic. The two reversible lanes allow four of the road’s lanes to carry southbound traffic during the morning rush, then reverse in the evening to carry northbound traffic out of the city.

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As the road is reduced to four lanes, a protected bike lane would be added in each direction, with parking and loading zones removed on one side of Connecticut Avenue. More than 300 parking spaces would be eliminated, according to a DDOT analysis. The new configuration would cut parking availability outside of rush-hour and car-lane capacity in half for peak direction travel during rush hour.

The proposal would remove rush-hour parking restrictions, enabling all-day parking on one side of the road. It could be at least four years before construction begins.

The city is also considering removing the reversible lanes without building bike lanes. In that plan, which would lower the project’s cost to $1.9 million, there would be three lanes in each direction during peak hours and two in each direction during nonpeak hours. Parking would be preserved on both sides of the road with rush-hour restrictions remaining.

Ed Stollof, project manager at DDOT, said at a recent public meeting that the bike lane option would provide the most safety improvements and is more in line with the city’s long-term transportation goals, including reducing traffic fatalities under a Vision Zero program. Connecticut Avenue is designated to have a protected bike lane corridor in the city’s transportation plan.

“A bicycle facility along the avenue will slow traffic down in the area, and would provide for increased safety,” Stollof said. “Bicycles and scooters would not be on sidewalks, they would not be in general traffic stream, and so you would basically have increased pedestrian safety, as well.”

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The proposal, he said, responds to calls from residents to remove the reversible lanes, improve conditions for pedestrians and bicyclists and tackle bad driver behaviors. Planners are also recommending decreasing the speed limit from 30 mph to 25 mph.

Because travel capacity would drop, city officials say as many as 7,000 vehicles would divert to other routes, including Broad Branch to the east, and Reno Road and Wisconsin and Massachusetts avenues to the west. Those routes could handle the spillover traffic, officials say.

Trade-off between parking, bike lanes

Protected bike lanes that remove vehicle capacity are often unpopular with drivers, but transportation officials increasingly view them as a tool to boost safety for bicyclists and other road users — and for creating a more comprehensive transportation system.

The District has 16.6 miles of protected bike lanes and has a goal to install 20 additional miles within two years.

Along Connecticut Avenue, the prospect of a reconfigured road with spillover traffic on neighborhood streets has prompted mixed reviews.

“The trade-off is clearly between parking and bike lanes,” said Mark Rosenman, a longtime resident of the Cleveland Park neighborhood.

Parking, or lack thereof, has long been a concern to businesses and residents in the corridor, said Rosenman, who recently circulated a petition signed by 46 business owners urging the city to use caution in decisions that reduce parking levels.

Rosenman said businesses aren’t opposed to bike lanes, but are concerned the change would make it more difficult for customers in cars to access their businesses.

“The question is: How can we work out a compromise that both preserves parking and provides bike lane access or bike safety?” he said.

David Cristeal, a Van Ness neighborhood commissioner, said some businesses are warming to the idea of a bike lane after learning more about the plans. City transportation officials say they will work with businesses block-by-block to establish a parking plan that meets their needs.

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Although the bike lane proposal — and its removal of vehicle capacity — has raised flags, the removal of reversible lanes has found widespread support. Their operations have been suspended during the pandemic because of lower traffic volumes, but residents say the covered signs and lane markings are still confusing to some drivers.

Nearly half of crashes in the corridor occur during the hours when reversible lanes are in operation, which is only about 15 percent of the time, according to a DDOT analysis. More than one-third of crashes are attributed to the reversing lanes, the city says, often the result of driver confusion about timing of the lanes, or making left turns or U-turns from an incorrect lane.

Removing the lanes would bring a 36 percent reduction in crashes during peak hours, according to DDOT.

Stitching together bikeable neighborhoods

Connecticut Avenue is one of the busiest north-south routes linking upper Northwest Washington to downtown, as well as a major carrier of traffic from Maryland to the heart of the city. It carries more traffic than Wisconsin or Massachusetts avenues, which run parallel.

About half of its traffic doesn’t start or end in the corridor, indicating that a large share is moving through to get downtown or to other destinations.

City officials say the proposed improvements — between Legation and Calvert streets NW — would help to resolve a growing number of conflicts on sidewalks due to more cyclists, scooters and pedestrians sharing the same space. They say it also would create safer conditions for people crossing the street after six lanes of traffic becomes four.

Yael Krigman, who owns a bakery shop in Woodley Park, said she expects the bike lane outside her store near the National Zoo would increase foot traffic. Some studies have found that replacing street parking with a bike lane can bring a boost to nearby businesses.

“The commuters who are going down there at 50 miles per hour, they don’t even see my business because they are moving too fast to get through it,” said Krigman, who also is a member of Woodley Park Main Street. “So I’m very pleased with the prospect of slowing down Connecticut Avenue.”

City planners and bicycle advocates say the bike lane option could spur more bike traffic in the corridor. While about 300 bicyclists use the corridor daily, more than 3,000 bike trips would be made on the route after a bike lane opens, according to city estimates.

“With protected bike lanes, Connecticut Avenue could stitch together so many small pockets of bikeable neighborhoods, connecting so many more destinations,” said Garrett Hennigan of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association.

The city is taking comments on the proposal until May 1, and is expected to issue a recommendation this summer with additional meetings in the fall. Funding would need to be secured for design and construction.

Gawain Kripke, a resident of Woodley Park, said a protected bike lane would make it easier for residents to travel to businesses without having to get into a car. His two children, he said, would ride their bikes to school in Van Ness.

“We tried it once or twice, but it was so scary that we never did it again,” he said. “A protected bike lane will make Connecticut Avenue fun, accessible and safe. And it will also make a lot of people feel like they can ride in the neighborhood safely.”

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