Written with Erik Weber
At the Public Meeting on Complete Streets improvements for M Street the subject that CouncilMember Tommy Wells wanted to discuss most was change: a changing neighborhood, a changing population, a changing idea of transportation in the city and most of all a changed M Street SE/SW. And while many people seemed to be encouraged by the proposed M Street road diet, that group did not include the elected community leaders. Those who introduced themselves as ANC commissioners or leaders of other neighborhood groups were the most likely to express fear about the impact on traffic and parking.
Wells started the meeting with a discussion of the neighborhood, the way it has transformed and how a changed M Street could make it better. In the next few years, there will have been between $1.5 & $2.5 billion in development around the Capitol Riverfront/SW Waterfront areas, something akin to a small city. These neighborhoods are projected to host 25,000 more employees and be called home by an additional 10,000 residents. He went on to a common theme of his, how near SE/SW is the most multi-modal neighborhood in America. Within blocks you can find Metro, Metrobus, Circulator, major roads, a water taxi dock, a helipad, carriage horses (stabled under the freeway), etc... What's missing is high-quality infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists.
For this reason, he wanted to do a study to determine how to make M Street less of a barrier and more of a boulevard. He approached Toole Design about doing a bare-bones study and proposal and convinced the BID to cover the $8,000 cost. It was then presented to the BID, because they paid for it, and some ANC commissioners were concerned that they had not been informed of it sooner. So, the purpose of the meeting was to determine if the current M Street is what the neighborhood needs for the future.
At this point, he handed the meeting over to Adam Goldberg of AARP to discuss Complete Streets. AARP supports complete streets for an aging community because it is part of creating liveable communities. Older adults are over represented in all road fatalities but especially among pedestrian fatalities where they make up 19% of pedestrian deaths. America is getting older, and older people walk more, bike more and drive less. He presented a somewhat generic idea of what is, and what isn't, a complete street. But as he pointed out, there isn't one kind of complete street. It is very much context dependent.
He did make a convincing financial prudence argument. Surveys have shown than many paratransit riders would prefer to ride fixed-route transit but find it difficult because their bus-stops, sidewalks and neighborhoods are not accessible. It costs roughly $38,000 PER YEAR to provide paratransit service to someone, but only $8k to fix the accessibility of a bus stop.
Wells again spoke, this time about the current state of M Street. It's a six lane roadway that serves about 10,000 cars per day on the east side of South Capitol and 20,000 on the west side. According to DDOT it only takes two lanes to carry 10k and four lanes to carry 25k, so the road is overbuilt; and an overbuilt road invites speeding. In addition, a road that wide is harder to safely cross. Instead of being a highway, M street should be a neighborhood street.
Wells suggested taking the extra capacity and converting it into something more useful, and more beneficial, before the additional 35,000 people move in. If things don't change, they'll expect parking and traffic lanes instead of high-quality transit, sidewalks, bike lanes and negotiable street crossings. The groundwork is already laid on the edges of Southwest. People are biking over the 14th Street & Case bridges to and from the District and they need a way to connect to Southwest and Southeast. Down the road, the Nationals ballpark has the highest transit ridership of any baseball stadium in the country. A Streetcar is coming, eventually and adding bike lanes now will get people used to the idea of fewer lanes. Fewer lanes will make the road safer and more friendly. [JDLand has a copy of Wells' slides]
The Toole Design proposal would create separated bike lanes the length of M Street, with bus stops on the left side of the bike lane. Cyclists would use pedestrian lights in places where they had priority. A narrow, concrete median would give crossing pedestrians some refuge, where now they have none. The left turn lanes are maintained throughout M St SW as are many of the other turn lanes. The whole thing could be done in one year, for under $300,000 and paid for with revenue from the Performance Parking Pilot program.
People were more supportive than not. Some talked of time in Europe or the success with 8th street SE, which lost a lane but is more walkable and successful as a result without backing up traffic. One cyclist who hates riding on M street spoke of the signed bike route that instructs cyclists to use the sidewalk, where they mix with pedestrians. Younger people generally supported the new design - one woman said she sold her car when she moved to DC because she could. Another person talked of how South Capital separates neighborhoods and how this project could connect them.
But, as with any plan to reduce road capacity, people - mostly commissioners - were concerned about traffic. "You will cause M St SW to lose all hope of moving cars for hours and hours and hours." Wells pointed out that when they took away one-way rush hour flow on Constitution it did not back up traffic to Maryland as some claimed it would and that if you remove lanes, traffic will go away as drivers find other ways to move around. One commissioner was concerned that slowing down traffic will also slow down bus transit. "If this appears to be a conspiracy to slow down traffic - it is. Traffic is slower on Barracks Row, but it isn't gridlock", Wells said. There is rampant speeding on M Street, so the goal is not to make traffic crawl, but to go the speed limit. A safer street will serve bus riders as well. One commissioner thought that complete streets are great "in a perfect world", but what about when there are crashes or an evacuation.
There was concern that there isn't enough parking in the area and this will only make it worse, even though Wells pointed out that it wouldn't remove any parking. "Why not build central parking garages?" Wells noted that there is more parking in new buildings and that even though the new Arena Stage won't add any parking, it will be sharing parking with those buildings. The area actually has more surface parking than most.
One ANC commissioner was not opposed to a complete street design on M, but only if it came after a more through traffic study of the area.
Then there were the people who just don't like cyclists. One particularly angry woman [update: the elected First District Ward Six Rep for the South West Neighborhood Assmebly[sic] Grace E. Daughtridge] asked "Who are these bike lanes for? Who uses a bike to drop off their kids at school? Who brings home groceries for a family of four on a bicycle?" After each question several hands went up, to which she responded sarcastically each time "Congratulations, you must be real proud of yourself" and adding after the school question "You're an irresponsible parent." She continued "Older people don't even bike. This is elitist. These bike lanes are elitist and they only serve a few people. They don't service the whole community." Failing to note that in a city where less than half of all people drive, much of the roadway doesn't service the whole community. Another woman complained that cyclists don't follow the law, and asked how to protect pedestrians from cyclist. Wells avoid the question a bit, but noted that "we have sidewalks for pedestrians and roads designed for cars and we want to make space for bikes. But it isn't just about bikes."
Though the street is overbuilt and Tommy Wells and other residents clearly want to repurpose the unused capacity, this project is unlikely to move forward without support from the ANC. So it may be a long time before we see bike lanes on M Street SE/SW.
Crossposted at greatergreaterwashington.org