DC’s pedestrian council and neighborhood groups suggest ways to improve streets during the coronavirus crisis

A stretch of Alabama Avenue SE by GKJ.

Lower speed limits? Longer times to cross? Wider sidewalks? Close spaces like Cleveland Park's service lane? These are some ideas that have been put forth in recent days to improve street space while people "social distance" amid the rising coronavirus infection totals.

A person was critically injured Monday along Alabama Avenue east of the Anacostia River, one of DC's most dangerous areas for people on foot or bicycle. And, advocates say, while traffic crashes are horrible at any time, there's the added issue that the medical system can ill afford extra hospitalizations in addition to those it'll have to cope with for COVID-19.

DC's Pedestrian Advisory Council sent a letter Tuesday suggesting several measures to boost the safety of roads for people moving around on foot while remaining socially distant. The council pointed out that while traffic crashes have declined as people are staying indoors, they haven't stopped; there were 821 crashes in the three weeks since March 12, including 203 in the last week of March.

Recommendations from the PAC include:

  • Opening parts of streets and alleys and lowering speed limits to 20-25 mph
  • Reprogramming traffic lights to give people more time or chances to cross and ensure they don't have to press a button
  • Move ahead quickly with "shovel-ready" street safety projects
  • Turn some parking into pick-up and drop-off zones near businesses
  • Prioritize needs of people with disabilities and their advisory council

Opening streets, the PAC notes, could include temporarily widening sidewalks, as Georgetown used to do on weekends, closing park roads like Rock Creek Parkway and Beach Drive, or cutting off traffic on certain streets near parks, alleys, or elsewhere. The letter says, "Many of the District’s crosswalks and sidewalks are too narrow for people to maintain the recommended six feet of social distance space."

Meanwhile, it continues, "Individuals may be subject to fines of up to $5000 and 90 days in jail for failing to maintain six feet of distance from other individuals. It is unfair for the District to impose this threat of fines and imprisonment while at the same time failing to allocate enough space for people to comply with the law.

For the traffic lights, many of them are timed to balance moving traffic against pedestrian needs, and the PAC argues pedestrians often end up with too little time to cross, small spaces to wait, or other issues. Especially given that traffic is so light, it seems logical to ensure the safest possible crossings without worrying about traffic consequences. (The PAC, mind you, would argue for higher priority around walker safety all the time, but the trade-off is even clearer now.)

Further, some intersections have what safety advocates colloquially call "beg buttons," where a walk sign does not appear unless a person presses the button. These are COVID-19 transmission risks, the PAC says, and given the lighter traffic aren't necessarily, if they are at all. (Note that some of the buttons are true "beg buttons" while others only activate an audible noise for people with disabilities; unfortunately, the standard signs for buttons don't make clear which is which.)

DC, along with some neighboring jurisdictions, has already begun designating parking spaces for pick-up and loading, such as for take-out near restaurants who can't serve any diners but are often keeping afloat with take-out orders. DDOT's map lists not only places where these are in place but also where residents or business groups have suggested them.

Cleveland Park by @CPITC used with permission.

Close Cleveland Park's service lane?

Meanwhile, Cleveland Park in the City, a group that organizes on Facebook and Twitter to make Cleveland Park "a more vibrant and livable urban community," suggested closing the oft-controversial "service lane" on Connecticut Avenue. Spanning two blocks on the boulevard's east side, this is a separate mini-roadway designed to offer more parking spaces along Connecticut, but at the cost of very narrow, 4-foot sidewalks.

Some residents have proposed removing the service lane in favor of wide sidewalks and cafe space before, and while the city didn't decide to close it, had a plan in 2017 (not fulfilled) to make the space more hospitable on foot. That debate aside, right now people don't need to park for hours for dinner, an oft-cited reason for the service lane, and takeout pick-ups can likely happen on the regular Connecticut Avenue parking space.

The group's Twitter account suggested closing the service lane temporarily, saying "4 feet is not enough space." Councilmember Mary Cheh, whose Ward 3 includes Cleveland Park, replied that she's asked DDOT to look into the concept.

Traffic crashes hurt people and impede coronavirus response

The PAC letter says that crashes are about 46% lower in late March than the same period last year, and that reduction reduces pressure on emergency rooms which need to keep their beds and equipment free for COVID-19 patients.

However, the hundreds of crashes each week still harms people immediately and also takes up medical resources. Further, the empty roads have led to many reports of drivers speeding. Eileen McCarthy, the PAC's chair, said she personally witnessed people drag racing on Wisconsin Avenue. And a person was struck on notoriously dangerous Alabama Avenue in the Garfield Heights area of Ward 8 on Monday:


Traffic crashes led to 906 emergency room visits in 2017 and 662 of those led to beind admitted to the hospital, accoridng to statistics in the PAC letter. The letter's authors calculate that even at the lower rate of crashes we're seeing now, there would be 60 emergency visits and 43 admissions during the current March to April closure period, admissions hospitals may not be able to handle if infection and hospitalization rates here increase as they have in other places.

What are other places with narrow and dangerous places to walk and road space that could easily be set up for safety?