Just three days into 2020 two pedestrians were killed by drivers, one was struck and killed on Pennsylvania Avenue SE, and two days later another person was killed on North Capitol Street NW, in the Truxton Circle neighborhood. It was a grim reminder of how far away we are from the reality of Vision Zero.
What’s worse, the tragedy on North Capitol Street was the sixth pedestrian death on the corridor in just eighteen months. This toll is heartbreaking, but not surprising. Along many stretches, the street’s design resembles a six-lane highway even though it passes through multiple residential neighborhoods.
This road is doing exactly what it was designed to do—move vehicles quickly through our communities with little concern for the safety of those who live, work, and attend school nearby. We need to change this.
A map of the six pedestrians killed on the North Capitol corridor between September 2018 and January 2020.
This problem is very familiar to city officials. In 2013, the District Department of Transportation’s Mid-City East Livability Study outlined the safety challenges on this street and recommended fixes, including many that could have been implemented in under a year.
Five years later, after little progress on even short-term items, the NoMa BID published the North Capitol Needs Assessment study in partnership with DDOT and with collaboration from area Advisory Neighborhood Commissions representatives and community leaders. That January 2019 study outlined a series of over sixty specific improvements, both big and small, that were necessary to make this road safer for the thousands of residents and visitors that use it every day. Of those sixty recommendations, forty-five were given a completion estimate of one year or less. But a resident-led survey in November 2019 revealed that only 12 of the recommendations had been completed at the time of the audit.
It’s time for action
It’s clear that the problem isn’t a lack of planning, but rather a dearth of attention and political will to implement solutions that have already been identified. To change that equation, a coalition of neighbors from across the North Capitol Corridor’s neighborhoods have joined together to call for action.
The coalition, consisting of ANCs, civic associations, business groups, and parent-teacher associations from local schools, has delivered a letter to DDOT asking for them to immediately finish executing the short-term recommendations from the two planning studies, and to jumpstart the process of implementing the medium and long-term fixes.
Some of those fixes include: New signage and pavement markings, protective barriers, safer lane configurations, sidewalk and crosswalk improvements, public space activations and the addition of traffic control officers.
The existing plans are a great start, though not a complete solution. For one, they don’t address the full length of the corridor. The identified fixes focus on the area between Massachusetts Avenue and R Street, but the problems extend even further North. Further planning is needed at least up to Michigan Ave to cover Bloomingdale, Stronghold and the coming development at McMillan (and ultimately to replace the cloverleaf interchange north of that).
It’s also time for bigger changes to North Capitol Street
The Mid City East Livability study and the needs assessment identify many smaller fixes, but leave some of the bigger questions unresolved. In particular, the pattern of recent deaths points to a major problem with excessive speeds, especially in off-peak hours when the lighter traffic on the wide roads invites drivers to go above beyond the 25 mile-per-hour limit.
If we’re truly going to bring traffic deaths down to zero, we’re going to need even more ambitious investments in the corridor to restore North Capitol Street to the safe, livable corridor that it used to be.
For example, the city likely needs to address the three highway-inspired underpasses that encourage drivers to pick up speed and limit pedestrian accessibility. They could also install dedicated transit lanes, add more signalized intersections, and increase automated speed enforcement to discourage unsafe driving behavior. Weighing those kinds of bigger picture plans is something the community groups that have coalesced around this letter would be in a good position to help DDOT plan as well.