An ANC objects to slowing down cars on Florida Avenue because of 9/11

Florida Ave and Rhode Island NW
Florida Avenue NW at Rhode Island NW in DC by the author.

This post was also published on Greater Greater Washington

In response to a neighboring Advisory Neighborhood Commission’s request for a street safety study on Florida Avenue NW, ANC 5E, voted to send a letter to DDOT opposing any result of that study that might cut lanes in order to keep enough space on the road for drivers attempting to flee the city during an emergency like 9/11.

Recently, Florida Avenue NE has been getting a lot of attention from the city. The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) is planning a major redesign of the corridor that is scheduled to break ground next spring. But after bike advocate Dave Salovesh was killed by a driver on the street last year, the agency accelerated some safety improvements in the interim.

Those plans, however, only cover the eastern portion of the road, from H St to 3rd Street NE, while the dangerous conditions extend further west. In order to help address the larger problem, ANC 6E, which includes a portion of Florida Ave in the Shaw neighborhood, passed a resolution at their July 2019 meeting asking DDOT for a Traffic Safety Assessment of an additional segment of the corridor from New York Avenue to Georgia Ave NW.

Traffic Safety Assessment (TSA) is a formal mechanism for District residents to bring particular traffic safety concerns within the public right-of-way to DDOT’s attention. Any community member can initiate the process by filling out a questionnaire detailing the concerns and obtaining a letter of support from their ANC commissioner. DDOT will then evaluate the issue (which they advise takes approximately 120 days), and if they determine safety mitigation is necessary, develop a recommended solution. If those recommendations involve changes to existing traffic control and/or on-street parking, DDOT will issue a Notice of Intent (NOI) which includes a 30 business-day public comment period.

ANC 6E’s TSA resolution matched a request the Eckington Civic Association had also made and was subsequently endorsed by the Bates Area Civic Association and replicated by ANC 1B at their meeting later that month.

At the ANC 5E meeting this past month, however, that commission went in a different direction, voting to send a letter to DDOT expressing reservations about potential results of the study. Authored by 5E06 Commissioner Karla Lewis, the letter does identify that “speeding cars and red-light running have resulted in pedestrian, cyclist and motorist collisions and fatalities” and says the commission “wholeheartedly agrees with traffic calming measures that will address this issue,” however, it jumps to undercut the potential findings of the study by adding a major caveat. The letter’s support for traffic calming measures ends if the study recommends reducing the number of lanes on the street.

As justification, the letter cites the need to prepare for emergency scenarios that might prompt a mass exodus of people in cars, specifically harking back to the street conditions on September 11, 2001 when “those of us that commuted by car experienced the nightmare of traffic paralysis.”

Questionable word choice aside, this is not a particularly strong argument. Generally speaking, transportation professionals don’t plan neighborhood street capacity around black swan events. In fact, in their changes to the segment of Florida Ave in Northeast DC, DDOT has already repurposed a driving lane for wider sidewalks and bike infrastructure to good success. While the study will determine if that’s a good solution for this portion of the street as well, the agency has already shown that concerns about access to evacuation routes are not sufficient reason to take that option off the table.

This is not really about emergency access

While the written letter cites only the emergency argument, the discussion on the dais revealed additional motivation. The commissioners who voted for the measure were clear in their perception that traffic on Florida Ave at peak times is already a problem and feared a lane reduction would make driving more inconvenient.

In fact, this debate mirrors a very similar one this same commission had earlier this year. In that case, Commissioner Lewis attempted to pass a resolution calling for DDOT to prematurely terminate a curb extension pilot program on First St NW only one month after it was initiated amidst similar driver convenience concerns. That resolution did not earn majority support, however.

During the latest debate, the 5E commissioners also directed some ire at ANC 6E itself, accusing the neighboring commission of trying to disguise their preferred lane-reduction outcome in a resolution that facially only asks DDOT to keep all options on the table. Commissioner Robert Brannum (5E08) challenged 6E to a more “honest” approach of explicitly naming the design changes they prefer.

Commissioners also chided 6E for not doing more outreach to them, though they failed to mention that a member of the ANC6E transportation committee presented at their September meeting and reached out to the commissioners whose single-member-districts include Florida Avenue to solicit support on this resolution but did not receive a response.

Florida Avenue NW at Rhode Island NW in DC by the author.

Missing the opportunity

Generally speaking, debates over street size usually pit the street safety and air quality concerns of local neighbors against the convenience preferences of drivers from further away. In this case though, ANC 5E commissioners seem to view their proximity to those fast-travel driving corridors as an amenity to protect.

This a priori prioritization of driver convenience on Florida Ave specifically is misguided though. The 5E neighborhoods this street affects most (Eckington, Bloomingdale and Truxton Circle) are notable for being almost completely trapped by dangerous, high-speed thoroughfares.

Rhode Island Ave and the deadly North Capitol Street are heavy commuter roads that slash through the hearts of these communities while New York Avenue to the south is a literal interstate highway. Not directly connecting downtown to the District’s borders, Florida Avenue is the one corridor in the area that could most easily be repurposed back into a safer, slower neighborhood street.

What happens next with the traffic study

ANC 5E’s letter does not provide a formal obstacle to the Traffic Safety Assessment request. DDOT owes ANCs 6E and 1B a response either way. But 5E’s letter does increase the risk that DDOT will make the political decision to slowplay or water down that response in order to avoid potential conflict.

Hopefully, DDOT won’t let familiar ideological complaints impact its obligation to do a rigorous, honest study considering all possible options.