On Tuesday, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) took the cover off a new initiative called Move DC, a year-long process to build a comprehensive transportation plan in Washington, D.C. They have a big event planned for February 9, a rudimentary online poll, and promise more to come.
The District has many smaller transportation plans, like the Bicycle Master Plan, Pedestrian Master Plan, a plan for the Anacostia waterfront, individual neighborhood Livability Studies, and more, but they don’t all fit together.
That means that when planners or engineers are looking at changing one roadway or intersection, there often aren’t clear objectives about how to make tradeoffs.
Downtown, for instance, at one point bicycle planners were thinking about cycle tracks on I Street and bus planners wanted bus lanes there. On 16th Street in Columbia Heights there are dueling ideas for a median, to enhance pedestrian safety, or a bus lane, to speed transit. The 14th Street plaza, meanwhile, grew the public space but slowed down cars and buses.
Should Connecticut Avenue get a median? Wisconsin Avenue get bus and/or bike lanes? Is it possible to do all of these without creating too much traffic? If streetcars go on some corridors, will there be parallel cycle tracks so cyclists don’t get caught in the rails? And should M Street SE/SW be for cars, transit, bicycles, or pedestrians if it’s not possible to give all modes what they want?
Will This Plan Have an Impact?
Many plans end up as long documents with a lot of general policy statements, some of which are vague and some of which conflict. The Office of Planning is basing the zoning update on the 2006 Comprehensive Plan, but for every policy statement it cites in support of its recommendations, opponents cite other policy statements that they say counsel against change. Many plans don’t really turn into much more than long documents on a shelf that quickly become out of date.
Other times, plans have a major impact. They might not dictate specific projects, but a good plan can give officials inside an agency ammunition to convince others. A transportation plan that sets clear objectives could cut through much of the arguing over one mode versus another. It could guide engineers toward what kinds of transportation facilities the District wants.
However, setting most any objective also means some other, competing objective loses out, especially in transportation where many decisions involve allocating limited road space. A plan could define which corridors are bus lane corridors versus bike lane corridors versus candidates for road diets or medians, but right now they’re all car corridors, and any change to the contrary inconveniences some drivers.
Is it Worthwhile to Participate?
Therefore, residents who support improving transit, walking, and bicycling will have to speak up. We’ll have to participate at the February 9 meeting and at future events in person and online. DDOT will have to balance competing imperatives to involve residents as much as possible, but not to just wear everyone down with endless events. The zoning update, which has dragged on for almost 5 years and still has the most important hearings yet to come, has forced advocates to show up to meeting after meeting where the real final decisions still aren’t being made.
There are a lot of residents who can’t attend many meetings, which is why it’s good to see DDOT plans online engagement. In some other processes, despite social media participation, decision-makers ultimately end up weighing the volume of comments at public meetings, or behind-the-scenes meetings with influential groups, more strongly.
The good news is that the people I’ve spoken with involved in the project, from DDOT planning head Sam Zimbabwe to GGW contributor Veronica Davis who is part of the public engagement team, seem to really want public input and come with a good set of overall values about the importance of sustainable modes of travel.
This effort has good promise to truly move the District forward. It’s also possible many of us will spend countless hours contributing to something with little effect. If we don’t participate, it’s also very possible D.C. will end up with a plan that entrenches bad policies of the past. I hope many of you will advocate for better transportation choices throughout the process.