DC non-car transportation stakeholders met this week at the Capital Trails Symposium. The nerds—and they would call themselves that—spent all day in sessions discussing the past, present, and future of DC’s bike trails. The gathering, organized for the fifth time in 2018 by Washington Area Bicyclist Association, included some interesting takeaways for DC commuters.
I’m choosing to write about the conference tidbit that most affects me, but I’m more than self-interested. The get together was about mostly off-road trail systems that face challenges in planning, design, implementation, and maintenance. But, on-street bike facilities have similar problems. Maybe more. The curious case of 8th Street NE is a microcosm of this street and trail design effort. It’s simple on paper, but complex when decision-makers optimize strategy to least-bother stakeholders. When you don’t pick sides and build in reverse order of political complexity, it might take a quarter century to change a street that isn’t safe today.
The Bike Lane Next to My Apartment will Take 25 Years to Build
During the session debuting the Coalition’s first comprehensive map of DC-area trails, I learned that a half-mile section of trail next to my apartment would take 25 years or more to build. Between Franklin and Monroe Streets NE, there is a section of the Metropolitan Branch Trail that runs along 8th Street NE. To the South, the MBT runs interruption free to Union Station. To the North, the MBT runs beside the Arts Walk, the Brookland/CUA Metrorail Station, and up to the top of Catholic University. A section is under construction now to get the MBT up to the Fort Totten station, and plans are well developed to finish the off-street trail at the Silver Spring Transit Center. But the MBT section next to my place? 25 years!
The map says: “Plans exist to turn this portion into trail more than 25 years from now (beyond the scope of the Capital Trails Coalition’s timeline).” The Trails Coalition plans to finish DC’s entire network of trails before they believe this tiny on-street section can be built. Until this week, I thought the segment was one to three years away from being done. It turns out, this 0.5-mile bike lane proves how even small design changes get stuck in the mud of stakeholder bickering.
Edgewood’s Mix of Residential and Industrial, Old and New, Complicates a Short Bike Lane
According to Garrett Hennigan, Community Organizer at WABA, DDOT presented alternative designs for the 8th Street section in 2017. But, the agency chose not to move forward because of the street’s awkward mix of uses. DDOT hasn’t offered the next steps, and the stakeholders don’t seem motivated enough for WABA and Rails-to-Trails to estimate complete before literally decades from now.
8th Street NE is a mix of older industrial buildings and newer, mixed-use buildings that sprouted up in the last 20 years of transit-oriented development. Long-time industrial tenants on the East side of the street like Sunbelt Rentals use the road to load and unload large vehicles. According to Hennigan, DDOT has learned from older bike lanes that trail use doesn’t mix well with curb-side industrial. But other parts of that street—and the future land use vision for Edgewood—include transit-oriented residential and retail. Several schools are operating within a few blocks of 8th. It would not be safe for children to ride bikes next to offloading trucks, but they do that now. Those kids walk to and from school along 8th Street, which doesn’t even have a sidewalk on the side of the street with industrial uses.
If the right side of 8th Street NE is too hazardous for the MBT segment, why not put the bike lane on the left/West side? Well, that’s a curbside parking lane used by the long-time residents of townhomes and rowhouses on that side of the street. DDOT almost never takes away street parking for residents Yet, residents and neighborhood stakeholders complain about how dangerous the road is now as trail traffic mixes with young students and industrial traffic. 8th Street NE is not safe now, and a cookie-cutter bike lane design won’t make it safer.
Only Ambitious Design or Land Use Change Will Permit MBT’s Completion
According to Hennigan, 8th Street NE needs more ambitious street design ideas or land use changes for the MBT to connect bike commuters and runnings the whole way up to Silver Spring. More nuanced designs for the 8th Street bike lane requires pissing some portion of the stakeholder group. DDOT doesn’t usually move forward on a bike lane unless the stakeholders support the path.
Right now, 8th Street NE includes a travel lane both ways and a parking lane on each curb. MBT commuters must use the street to follow the trail further North. DDOT could create a parking-protected cycletrack on the West side of the road, pushing the West parking lane and travel lanes East. That would remove the East parking lane, which is used heavily by parents and visitors to the Hope Community Charter School at the bottom of the block. 8th Street NE also has fairly wide lanes, so there’s a chance narrow bike lanes could fit within the existing street design. However, guidelines for bike lanes now include five feet of space per direction. It’s hard to claw back ten feet when right-sizing a car lane only gives you two feet. DDOT could make the street one way, but that would anger all the stakeholders.
DDOT Doesn’t Seem To Have Any Urgency on the 8th Street NE Bike Lane
Asked about the choice for 25 years as the timeline, Rails-to-Trails and WABA didn’t have detailed rationale other than that being the planned lifespan of the Capital Trails Coalition. WABA’s Hennigan was not optimistic that DDOT would implement a more creative design before industrial landowners on the street left the neighborhood. Hanover Company is planning to replace two large lots on the East side with a residential building, but that project hasn’t won regulatory approval. The ground was broken this fall on the fourth and final Monroe Street Market residential building. Edgewood land values are increasing with Metro-oriented development and nearby Catholic University anchoring housing demand.
Resident Advocacy will Change 8th Street Faster than DDOT Planning
8th Street users, increasing new residents, probably won’t put up with a dangerous street for 25 years. As much as road users argue about blame when street interactions get messy, everyone realizes over time that the street just doesn’t work. It becomes clear that greater enforcement doesn’t work as a sustainable solution. Choices DDOT and other authorities make on a daily basis, especially priority setting, bare the real answer to for whomst is the street?
In the words of Kristen Jeffers, founder of The Black Urbanist and presenter at the Symposium, “rather than design their way out of needing to enforce, many cities, including the District, are designing infrastructure that requires way too much oversight and enforcement to be effective.” Perhaps DDOT will speed up their timeline and design an 8th Street bike lane that connects the MBT’s two halves and makes everyone safer on my block.
Listen to the 2018 Capital Trails Symposium
Listen to most of the sessions from the symposium here.
0:00 - Intro & Welcome Plenary
24:15 - Meet the Public Web Map
1:05:15 - Fireside Chat with Vaughn Perry
1:39:55 - Including Trails in Regional Planning
2:19:10 - E-Assist Bikes and Trails
3:15: 50 - Fireside Chat with Anthony Williams
3:48:20 - Transit and Trails
4:34:35 - Outro & End