The District of Columbia Department of Transportation and the Georgetown Business Improvement District are examining different options to improve pedestrian safety in response to growing pedestrian and traffic volumes.
One of the most congested intersections is M Street and Wisconsin Avenue, which, according to BID Transportation Director Jonathon Kass, is “the principal intersection of Georgetown.”
“When you have two wonderful retail quarters intersecting, usually you want that to be a fantastic place for pedestrians,” Kass said. “We have very much the opposite situation there. We need to be throwing every tool we have at that to make it more pleasant, more safe.”
According to Kass, historic streetlamps with large bases reduce sidewalk width, an issue that is compounded by having multiple buses at one stop due to large numbers of customers waiting for transportation. Short time spans to cross M Street from east to west also jeopardize pedestrian safety.
Last week from April 8 to 13, BID and DDOT experimented with placing traffic control officers at the intersection of M Street and Wisconsin Avenue to assess potential solutions. If BID and DDOT determine the traffic control officers have been useful, BID will push for more traffic control resources at other key intersections, such as the Georgetown end of the Key Bridge.
In addition, Kass hopes automated enforcement options, such as red light and speed cameras, can protect pedestrians and get motorists to comply with the law.
“We want pedestrians to follow the law, but it’s a little bit crazy to tell them they have four seconds out of a minute and a half to legally cross and then have those four seconds be obstructed,” Kass said.
Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2E Chairman Ron Lewis, who acknowledged the need for new traffic controls in the Georgetown business district because of increasing vehicle and pedestrian density, is a proponent of speed cameras.
“Get a couple of tickets, and suddenly [drivers] are very mindful of the speed limit,” Lewis said. “They are probably the most effective thing that DDOT could use to get the traffic calmed down and pedestrians safer.”
Despite mounting pedestrian safety concerns, BID is pleased with the increasing foot traffic in Georgetown.
“The reason we have so many pedestrians in Georgetown is because we have a lot of places where they want to go,” Kass said. “It’s a good problem to have.”
Although both Kass and Lewis see the need for new automated options, underground utility issues make the installation of additional poles for the equipment impossible. The only option that will work with the existing traffic control structure is a new type of camera that can clamp onto existing poles, which are not currently available to BID.
Washington, D.C.’s budget for the current fiscal year and Mayor Vincent Gray’s proposed budget, which goes into effect in October, both allocate money for these traffic improvement options. Funding is currently being used toward technological pilots and research into the best methods and locations for implementation.
HAWK signals, which allow pedestrians to push a button to trigger lights that stop traffic at crosswalks, are an example of one such pilot. They have been employed in various neighborhoods throughout the District and were installed last week in Cleveland Park on Connecticut Avenue NW between Ordway and Newark Streets NW.
Although they are proven to enhance safety — a study on one HAWK signal showed that 97.1 percent of motorists complied — Kass said that they represent a failure to create a culture in which pedestrians have the right of way.
With the HAWK signal, pedestrians can no longer step into the crosswalk and expect cars to stop. Instead, they must push a button and wait for a light to mandate yielding traffic.
“There is something lost in the process,” Kass said. “You are yielding some of the rights today in exchange for safety.”
BID is currently assembling a task force and working groups to examine the future of pedestrian safety as part of BID’s “Georgetown 2028” plan. BID is now working to engage key stakeholders, including property owners, residential neighbors, city agencies and others involved in the Georgetown community to pinpoint areas in need of improvement and possible solutions.
“The product of the plan will be a vision and an action agenda that we hopefully bring to all the stakeholders — residents and business owners — for a consensus about where we are going together,” Kass said.