Opinion: Covid-19 and new developments are changing commutes. Connecticut Avenue planning must reflect this. | Login Forest Hills |

by Marlene Berlin

Mayor Bowser and the DC Department of Transportation can already claim a major road safety achievement from the Connecticut Avenue Reversible Lanes, Operations and Safety Study that began in 2019: the removal this year of reversible lanes at peak times. The design alternative that includes bike lanes won mayoral and DDOT approval almost exactly a year ago.

Now pedestrians and bus users need a win.

What would that look like? Improvements that make it easier to get around without getting into a car. This means encouraging greater use of alternative modes of transport by providing better connections to nearby shopping areas and recognizing the impact of the pandemic on our travel habits.

In a way, the study gives the following results: it provides a dedicated bike lane on each side of Connecticut Avenue, which will improve safety and ease of movement for cyclists. But it’s fuzzy on improvements to other modes of transportation other than cars, and initial design concepts for DDOT didn’t explain how buses and their passengers will be safely accommodated.

Jim McCarthy, a former ANC 3/4G commissioner who served for eight years, commuted by bicycle on Connecticut Avenue for more than 30 years. He told me that he was still concerned about the impact that bike paths will have on public transit.

“It all depends on the design, I guess, but it’s important that the bike lanes don’t interfere with the operations of the bus service, which is being used by more people than ever for cycling,” McCarthy said. “If we take climate change seriously, we need to get people out of their cars. We will not do this if the main alternative, the bus, is stuck in traffic.

We also won’t get people out of their cars if there isn’t a better alternative for non-cyclists commuting to nearby neighborhoods for shopping, dining and work. This intra-district movement has taken on greater proportions since the start of the pandemic. Federal agencies that sought to reduce their office footprints before Covid-19 continue to do so, at an accelerating pace. And increased telecommuting means leaving your home for lunch or a quick errand, not a downtown office.

“At the height of the pandemic, 60% of federal government employees were working remotely,” reports the Washington Business Journal. “Today, there is a slim chance of returning to the pre-pandemic norm, and so far few barriers to a comprehensive strategy for the entire federal workforce.”

It follows that the value of Connecticut Avenue as a conduit for downtown commuters will diminish. But there remains an important link between commercial districts, and this importance will only increase as new developments add more housing and retail.

Chevy Chase DC, which is not served by a subway station, has a small area plan for additional housing and businesses along the avenue. In Van Ness, the Days Inn is for sale and ripe for mixed-use development. Roadside Development had redevelopment in mind when it purchased properties on the northwest corner of Windom Place. UDC is actively seeking tenants for its vacant retail spaces and is preparing to host MOM’s organic market next summer. Additionally, David Franklin, UDC’s Director of Operations, reports that UDC is moving forward with student housing projects.

“UDC is currently in the process of developing a feasible housing plan, led by a national company, to determine the type of housing and potential timeline for implementation,” Franklin told me.

If new businesses and new accommodations attract people who feel they have no good alternative to driving, buckle up for traffic jams. Better east-west transit is also essential. In Friendship Heights, 1,400 apartments are under development. City Vista and other projects further up Wisconsin Avenue add more retail and more housing.

That’s a lot of potential new customers, and without more transit to and from these areas, that’s a lot of missed opportunities to connect them to Connecticut Avenue business areas. The Neighborhood Advisory Commissions that urged DDOT to conduct the Connecticut Avenue Study in 2018 may not have thought precisely along these lines, but in the resolutions, ANC 3F and 3C stated “that the overall goals of study should be to improve the safety of pedestrians, walking, and overall economic vitality of affected neighborhoods.” [emphasis mine]

Unfortunately, most of the Connecticut Avenue traffic data used for the study was collected in 2018. A goal for growth across all modes of transportation was not even considered, nor were plans to increase traffic. retail and residential density along our trade corridors.

For years, too, there has been a double standard at play. For road projects and even for cycle paths, there is the mantra that if you build it, they will come. But this does not apply to improving pedestrian access and bus operations. If there are not enough people crossing the street at an unsignalized intersection, the community cannot get a pedestrian light. And if bus ridership drops, service is reduced. The L1 Metrobus line has not operated since March 18, 2020, and in September the L2 was cut from ten minutes between buses to 12 minutes, during what were once standard weekday community hours. Gaps between buses can be at least twice as long at other times.

Many cities around the world combine housing development with planning for better public transport and pedestrian and cycle connections in neighborhoods. Concepts include Luxembourg’s 2017 mobility plan, which aims to expand public transport to handle 40% more trips. The city of Paris 15 minutes away emphasizes walking distances between homes and amenities. Barcelona superblocks close interior streets to motorized vehicles other than emergency, service and resident vehicles.

The concept of superblocks in Barcelona. (image from Barcelona City Hall)

Let’s learn from these cities. If we want residents to move to nearby commercial areas and also reduce car use, the District needs to rethink its approach to public transport and pedestrian mobility. For Connecticut Avenue, that means collecting new data and integrating the changes that are already upon us, and those of our future. And that means providing a transportation system that can accommodate commuters heading downtown, but isn’t largely focused on them.

So let’s start building a safer transportation system that gets people out of their cars and connects us to neighborhood stores, restaurants, parks, and other amenities. Let’s set a goal to become a 15-minute city.