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H Street NE Needs Big Improvements for Safety and Transit. Here is Gordon’s Suggested Re-Design.

H Street NE Needs Big Improvements for Safety and Transit. Here is Gordon’s Suggested Re-Design.
By Gordon Chaffin • Issue #134 • View online

This post was originally published on January 4, 2021.
In October 2020, a motorist drove their car off H Street NE into a storefront. In November, a different driver did the same. On December 22nd, for the third time in three months, a motorist piloted their vehicle off H Street and into the Atlas Performing Arts Center. The Joy of Emotion Dance Center housed within Atlas suffered significant damage, as did the businesses struck by car operators in the previous two months.
These weren’t the first instances of absurdly dangerous driver behavior on a road classified as a major car commuter thoroughfare, but services fundamental transit routes and block-after-block of businesses who depend on walk-up and bike-to customers. Those vulnerable road users have called for a safer H Street, especially after a motorist struck and killed bike rider Malik Habib — whose bike was caught up in streetcar tracks. Neighborhood elected officials have repeatedly asked for greater enforcement of safety and transit service violations — and there have been a few, short enforcement blitzes. However, enforcement of paint-only and sign-based enforcement on H Street is caught up in the wider context where DC Police do not act on omnipresent violations and DC’s other agencies with enforcement power aren’t well funded for the task.
DC resident, safer streets advocate, and transportation tech entrepreneur Mark Sussman is organizing a letter from H Street corridor stakeholders urging DC’s Department of Transportation (DDOT) to add safety and transit improvements to the street. To add to their call and provide those stakeholders with suggestions, I/Gordon Chaffin developed a proposed re-design of H Street NE from 3rd Street to the “Starburst” Intersection. That junction is where 15th Street NE, Maryland and Florida Avenues, and Bladensburg Road NE intercept in a … we’ll call it “messy” … way.
H Street is dangerous because its design is incompatible with present-day needs. Those needs: (1) prioritizing transit riders who don’t have other travel options; (2) improving the safety of pedestrians and micromobility users using physical infrastructure to separate from vehicles; and (3) repurpose public spaces for community-led programming/placemaking in an area with gentrification. Right now, H Street NE is mostly a wide, “arterial” road designed to carry commuter traffic between DC’s downtown street grid and several other speed-focused arterial roads and a highway to the East in DC. The District government researched rubber flaps in response to Habib’s death, but streetcar track danger mitigations like that were ruled out. My belief, as a transportation expert and local reporter, is that something much more significant is needed.
My goal as a transportation journalist here is to frame the discussion with decision-makers at the needed level of scale and interdisciplinary scope. My plea to anyone who reads this: contact the nearby ANC Commissioners, the businesses on H Street, Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, the DC government authorities with jurisdiction on public spaces there. Tell them you want an H Street NE that is — in fact, and — feels safer to walk along and bike to. Tell them you want public parking spaces to be permanent “streeteries” and benefit/serve many more uses than just sit-down dining and direction from those overlooked by private investments during gentrification. Finally, tell decisionmakers you better because transit riders deserve more service coming out of COVID-19, rather than whatever WMATA and DC Streetcar/Circulator can provide after cratered ridership revenue and limited Federal financial help.
I spent 35-40 hours on this-redesign for it to be a resource to anyone with a stake in a better H Street NE — however you define that and whatever your opinion is. Raise your voice for a critical DC corridor!
Access all of the design images here on Google Drive.
  • Reduce general traffic to one lane in each direction and restrict turn movements on cross streets, so that inter-neighborhood traffic travels slower and inbound motor vehicle traffic on H is limited to essential trips. A safer H Street is one where there is less vehicle traffic and travel times increase for road users who choose to drive.
  • Preserves thru traffic access for motorists and other operators who depend on the due East-West route to Union Station (e.g., inter-city buses) without nearby parallel routes on roads fit for large vehicles.
  • Provide transit-only lanes with physical separation from general traffic in as many spaces as feasible given curbside needs to increase speed and public benefits from streetcar and transit bus trips. People keep stopping, standing, and parking in the streetcar tracks and bus stop zones.
  • Create 15-minute parking zones on every side of every block for pick-up, drop-off (PUDO) of people, goods delivery, and gig economy curbside access. This is a long-overdue reprogramming of curbside space that was needed well before COVID-19 and is now a mission-critical step for DC if the city is seriously going to create mixed-use, smart growth, climate-driven land-use.
  • Create bike, scooter, and moped (“micromobility”) parking zones on every side of every block. My design does not create dedicated bike lane space on H itself but maximizes public space where micromobility users can arrive at H and keep their travel devices safe while shopping, dining, taking in creative arts, or coming home for the night.
  • Restore all non-PUDO parking spaces to community-led programming and placemaking. This can include widened sidewalks, on-street dining, tree boxes, or other plantings including community gardens, seasonal or ad hoc cultural performances or creative arts exhibits. Existing community groups like H Street Main Street and Advisory Neighborhood Commissions should be empowered to program these spaces with bottom-up processes that highlight the vibrant history of the neighborhood and uplift Native Washingtonian stakeholders within the neighborhood’s ongoing commercial revitalization.
  • Deploy frequent, low-cost camera enforcement modules to reduce the safety and public benefit harms of spaces that have to remain designated only by paint. As the recent Florida Avenue NE re-design shows, as with every other mixed-use public space, safety and community benefits to road changes are limited when their success depends on drivers understanding complex color schemes and choosing inconvenience to benefit theoretical neighbors with — for example — the need to access a curb cut on a wheelchair. There’s a lot of political acrimony in local DC about who does traffic enforcement and how it should be done. DDOT has started to accelerate their use of this automated traffic enforcement (ATE) and this is my lighting a fire under their ass to deploy a tranche of cameras and software barely more complicated than some ruggedized DSLRs and machine vision/plate recognition tech you can get open source off GitHub.
  • Preserves Fire/EMS access to fire hydrants, whose vehicles can use the transit-only lanes, and curbside access should be available if the 15-minute PUDO zones are enforced.
  • Preserves existing bus stops and provides space where transit buses can pass streetcar vehicles.
Main Challenges and Considerations
  • This project is limited to changes within the existing curb dimensions, making these changes feasible quicker within DC’s operating budget. CM Charles Allen could suggest it as part of the DC Budget process in the next few months.
  • H, from 3rd to the Starburst, is not wide enough for “Safe for All” bike facilities. I’ll write more about this below, curb width in the main commercial corridor isn’t wide enough to fit East/West bike facilities comfortable for all ages and abilities of rider/scooter-er.
  • This project designs for the existing land-use, even in areas where curbside properties are somewhat to very likely to change uses and adopt mixed- and medium-density uses. There are a few large plots with existing commercial buildings boarded up, the Autozone with off-street parking befuddled me, and there are 4- to 5-story, narrow lot condo popups coming online as I type.
  • All locations are approximate and I defer to a participatory decision-making process on the exact curbside dimensions and location of each feature. A big goal I have is to leave those curbside spaces under the direction and creativity of the neighborhood — which is vibrant and too often expected to rejoice at top-down changes suggested on pretty PDFs and presentation posters.
300 Block — 3rd to 4th Streets NE
  • South transit lane protection is broken for hydrant access and broken for right turns onto 3rd and 4th.
  • Giant has a garage and freight access from 3rd. No turns from 4th onto H.
  • Put a pin on 3rd and 4th for bike facility improvements that divert cycle and micromobility users to I and G as alternative East/West routes.
400 & 500 Blocks — 4th to 6th Streets NE
  • Staggered paint used in places where general vehicle traffic may cross the transit-only lane.
  • The short dashes are intended to be K-71 bollards and long dashes plastic curbing with delineator posts or concrete curb stops.
600 Block — 6th to 7th Streets NE
  • 6th Street NE is an important North/South connection in Hill East, so I kept all turn movements onto H.
  • Put a pin in 6th for bike facility improvements south and north of H to match the “safe-for-all” design north of K St NE.
700 Block - 7th to 8th Streets NE
  • The streetcar may get stuck behind a bus serving the northside stop.
800 & 900 Blocks — 8th to 10th Streets NE
  • Close off access to/from 9th onto H to create a large pedestrian crossing and additional community programming space in the “megablock” formed with the new construction mixed-use building on the southside.
  • Along with the 600 Block, the 800-900 Blocks could be marquee venues for placemaking and programming ideas from the community.
1000 & 1100 Blocks — 10th to 12th Streets NE
  • Curb cuts on the Northside of 1000 Block cause transit lane and curbside interruptions.
  • Large unseparated curbside space on the northside of 1100 Block likely to have lots of double parking which harm access to bus stop.
  • Protection could be extended in northside 1100 Block westward to the PUDO zone.
  • I propose making 10th southbound-only and continuing the contra-flow bike lane DC added in 2019 on 19th north of H.
1200 Block — 12th to 13th Streets NE
  • The future of the Autozone property is the biggest variable. A surface, off-street parking lot is extremely inconsistent with best practices land-use in a dense, transit-rich, “main street” type area.
  • Autozone has three large curb cuts on the south side of this block. Maintaining access to those points significantly limits the space length wise that transit lanes can be physically separated from traffic.
  • 12th and 13th Streets both provide a lot of North/South connectivity from H up to Florida and below the corridor, which prompts consideration of bike facility improvements.
1300 Block — 13th to 14th Streets NE
1400 Block — 14th Street NE to “Starburst” Intersection
  • I/Gordon have spent most of my time in this section, running and bike commuting to dog walk clients in Kingman Park.
  • The protected bike lanes on Florida Ave N peel away as veer into 14th. I propose widening the barrier there to create a protected buse+bike lane and continue that facility below H down to (at least) Maryland Avenue NE. We can’t be dumping novice bike and scooter riders into mixed traffic at that veering corner.
  • As a general rule, double left-hand turn lanes are very dangerous and the last resort of suburban roads and highway junctions trying to clear queues of waiting cars. The current double-left turn southbound on 14th above H is dangerous. To reduce the complete clusterfuck of cars trying to get into the left-hand turn lane, I propose shutting off the veering left turn you can make from Westbound Florida Avenue to go southbound on 14th.
  • To bridge the eastbound Florida Avenue NE protected bike lane, I propose adding a one-way protected bike lane on H from 14th to the Starburst and reducing Florida Avenue NE going westbound to one vehicle travel lane to add a westbound protected bike lane that would connect to the existing PBL that begins art approximately the Fire Station.
  • The Starburst itself is a mess and it causes unsafe conflict points in these nearby intersections.
  • Maryland Avenue NE will have a slightly modified design approaching the Starburst soon with its road reconstruction and safety improvement project installing now, however, it doesn’t include safe-for-all bike facilities. Bladensburg Road NE is
Future Phases and Critical Upgrades Near H Street NE to Add to this Suggested Re-Design
  • “Safe-for-All” Bike Routes for Greater Circulation and Safe Routes to School: Surface streets near H have decent coverage with paint-only bike lanes, but they need to be upgraded to safe-for-all designs that focus on attracting users off H and delivering much safer routes to several schools in the area.
  • “Starburst” Intersection Southeast to Oklahoma Avenue NE: While H Street NE is limited by narrow curb widths until the Starburst, there’s more room to work with from that junction eastward to OK Ave. The Streetcar moves to the center lanes, which deliver much better transit service reliability than curbside lanes. DC’s Benning Road NE bridge reconstruction and streetcar extension project stops at Oklahoma. So, there’s a missing section where motorists now have the open pavement to accelerate inches away from pedestrians and transit riders. The Kingman Park and Langston neighborhoods need a safer thoroughfare for all users on Benning in this section and it has room for safe-for-all bike facilities.
  • Hopscotch Bridge Reconstruction and Street Reconfiguration: I started this H Street Redesign at 3rd Street NE where the Hopscotch Bridge lands because that span is slated for reconstruction and surface road reconfiguration. That’s a big capital project, like the Benning Rd effort, and requires coordination with other large projects like the Union Station reconstruction.
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Gordon Chaffin

This is Gordon Chaffin's newsletter. By day, he's a local journalist and current events storyteller living in Washington, DC. The goal: produce writing and multimedia -- civic participation resources -- that include, inform, and equip stakeholders with the least power to improve their community. On evenings and weekends, Gordon is a freelance audio/video producer and photographer. Topics of interest: transportation -- especially non-car transit -- plus housing, environmental justice, social and gender policies like family-medical leave, and education -- especially early childhood. Please send news tips to gordon[AT]streetsensemedia[DOT]org and freelance job inquiries to gordonchaffin[AT]gmail[DOT]com.

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