Washington, DC’s Southwest and Capitol Riverfront neighborhoods are changing. According to Michael Stevens of the Capitol Riverfront BID, this area of DC is rapidly developing into a sort of “new downtown”—the number of residents is expected to double in the next 10 years, and planned development projects range from commercial real estate to hospitality and performance venues.
The neighborhoods have complicated histories. Before the 1950s, Southwest DC was a vibrant black working-class community, while the Capitol Riverfront neighborhood was largely a commercial and industrial site for the Navy. Construction of the interstate 395/695 and urban “renewal” projects in the 50s displaced residents of Southwest DC, and the decline of industry left the Capitol Riverfront abandoned by developers. Currently, the neighborhoods are populated largely by black and white middle-class residents, but the population of higher-income white residents is increasing.
But getting to the area from the rest of the city is difficult. Interstate 395/695 runs through the neighborhoods, causing North-South mobility issues. Sports, nightlife, and performance venues bring in large amounts of traffic. Transit options are plentiful, but must be improved and increased to adapt to the area’s rapid development.
A map of the BIDs in Southwest and Capitol Riverfront. Map from Nelson Nygaard.
Last week, transportation and mobility experts gathered at Nationals Park for the “Mobility Now” summit to discuss new options to serve the area’s growing transportation needs. Sponsored by the Southwest and Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement Districts (BIDs), the morning’s presentations largely focused on pilot programs, people-first planning, and prioritizing efficiency.
Takeaway 1: Experiment
Pilot programs, or short-term, small-scale experiments, allow cities, mobility planners, and communities to test-drive possible mobility solutions in a non-committal way, according to Mike Lydon, Principal at StreetPlans and co-author of Tactical Urbanism. Tactical-urbanism projects are low-cost pilots that make small-scale often community-led changes to urban environments and allow for user experience to guide and develop street design changes that work for specific neighborhoods.
Since the SW and Capitol Riverfront neighborhoods are rapidly growing, there is great promise for mobility-related pilot programs to experiment with how to serve the region before its transportation systems become overwhelmed or overcrowded.
Pilot Programs for Complete Streets: Lydon demonstrated through case studies how short-term community-based projects that redefine the street space can turn into long-term change. The “complete street” doesn’t have to be planned all at once, and can be created and adjusted to fit an area’s needs through small-scale tactical-urbanism pilots. For example, projects such as temporarily-extended intersection curbs can influence city governments to make permanent street-design changes.
Pilot programs are crucial to the success of AV programs: Marie Whittaker of the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development discussed current and future AV pilot programs in the District. The city worked with Starship in 2017 to introduce food-delivery robots in a pilot program, which is planning to expand. In the future, there is a plan for an AV pilot from the L’Enfant Metro station to the Wharf, as 10th Street is currently underutilized and provides a great opportunity to test out AVs in real-world conditions.
Takeaway 2: Plan to improve people’s lives
In his talk on traffic and the history of transportation planning in the United States, Jeff Tumlin, Principal and Director of Strategy at Nelson\Nygaard, argued that traditional methods of transportation planning and evaluating transportation projects have left out one key element: people. Wide roadways devoid of sidewalks and bike lanes allow for faster car travel, but signal to pedestrians, bicyclists, and public transit riders that they are not a priority.
This car-first transportation planning adversely affects public health: walking and biking are consistently shown to make people happier and healthier, while drive-alone commutes can cause road-rage and contribute to chronic health issues.
Transportation planning has also been influenced by racism and classism. Eminent domain was used by city planners to build highways in low-income communities of color, effectively serving as walls. Nowadays, the suburbanization of low-income people negatively impacts health and well-being as low-income people must spend more time and money commuting.
Tumlin encourages those in the transportation sector to take in this history of inequity and single-occupancy, vehicle-focused planning and instead think of people first. This requires asking questions, like how can planning lead to more equitable cities? How can transportation planners better consider health impacts?
People-first planning has five core principles:
- Work with the community: Pilot programs should encourage community feedback and involvement, and communities should be involved in the planning process.
- Remember your values: Factor in values of environmental sustainability and social equity at every step of the process. Budget according to your values.
- Design sidewalks and intersections for people: Dedicated lanes for bikes and scooters reduce non-pedestrian traffic on sidewalks and make them safer. Sidewalks and intersections should be designed with equity in mind: ADA design, always! Wider sidewalks encourage walking and can be beneficial for business.
- Prioritize high-capacity transportation: Public transit is inherently more efficient than driving alone because it fits more people in less space. Complete streets should include dedicated bus lanes, dignified bus stops, and other design features that improve bus speeds and increase ridership. Improving public transit options improves equity.
- Prioritize bikes and scooters: protected lanes for bicycles, scooters, and other forms of micromobility increase safety and entice people to use active transportation. Bikes and scooters are affordable transportation options and can make people happier and healthier.
Takeaway 3: Move the most people, not the most cars
Early in the summit, Tumlin got us thinking about this country’s history of highly inefficient transportation planning. He discussed three interconnected transportation planning processes that contributed to our current auto-dominated culture.
First, decades of prioritizing road space for cars has created a “congestion death spiral”—when roads become too congested, they are widened, which increases the number of drivers on the road, which creates congestion problems once again. Second, our current system of scoring urban mobility (i.e., evaluating how well our transportation system is functioning) only analyzes the peak 15 minutes of the peak hour of weekday traffic, which creates wasted road infrastructure and drives inefficient solutions to congestion. Third, our methods of evaluating a road’s level of service measure automobile traffic delay at intersections, which rewards road design that only prioritizes automobiles (think: no sidewalks, bike lanes, or bus stops) and punishes complete street design.
Throughout the summit, speakers noted that prioritizing efficiency means that streets should be optimized for high-capacity transit, people walking, and micromobility options rather than cars. It requires thinking about transportation as a network or an ecosystem; for example, street design needs to adequately accommodate pedestrians to best serve public-transit systems.
So what does all of this mean for the SW and Capitol Riverfront neighborhoods?
- Tumlin suggests following in San Francisco’s footsteps to repurpose freeway fragments: stubs of never-finished freeways and unnecessary freeway onramps can be redesigned as public space or as more usable street space.
- Michael Stevens of the Capitol Riverfront BID suggests looking to Boston’s Seaport, which utilizes bus rapid transit (BRT) and commuter ferry, and Seattle’s South Lake Union, which utilizes BRT and streetcars, for inspiration on how similar communities solve mobility problems.
- Curb space should serve a variety of services other than parking, such as pick-up/drop-off zones, bus stops, and other active curbside uses.
Photo of a DC Circulator bus bound for Navy Yard by Sam Kittner for Mobility Lab.