Expanding Protected Bike Network Sparks Controversy

Understanding the Role of The Public in DDOT’s Public Engagement

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The District is installing a citywide, interconnected bicycle network. To meet District-mandated environmental goals, The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) must shift 75 percent of intra-city trips to transportation modes other than single-occupant cars by 2032. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s (D) Vision Zero Plan, begun in 2015, commits DDOT to creating traffic conditions that reduce fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2025. These mandates guide all DDOT decision making.

Bike lanes, according to DDOT, not only get cars off the road, but also have a calming effect on traffic, thus meeting both environmental and safety goals. The agency has constructed 94 miles of bike lanes since 2001 of which, as of 2020, 16.6 miles are “protected” from cars using bollards and other elements of road infrastructure. It plans to construct another 20 miles of protected bike lanes (PBLs) over the next three years.

Many residents are frustrated with DDOT’s push to expand the District’s bike network of protected bike lanes. They say their views are not being heard.

“This is an issue of competence and public engagement,” said Allan Ebert, Executive Director of the Ninth Street Association. “DDOT has tunnel vision. It only sees bike lanes, not the impact of the design on the residents, businesses, and community in general,” he said.

“The transparency of this process is just so awful,” said 18-year Hill resident Christine Mullens at a recent public meeting on bike lanes proposed for the 1300 block of North Carolina Ave. NE. “This is being shoved down our throats.”

DDOT is driven by environmental mandates to improve bike lanes over the next decade. Yet residents have high expectations for significant community input. What is the agency process for creating protected bike lanes? How can the public engage? How does the agency incorporate resident feedback?

The Network Expands

Expanding the city’s network of protected bike lanes is required according to the DDOT Engineering and Design Manual. “The Project Manager should include bicycle and pedestrian facility options on new construction and reconstruction projects,” the guide states. So, whenever a District street is torn up, the DDOT engineers must determine if it is a good location for bike lanes.

In making that determination, DDOT planners are primarily guided by MoveDC, a centralized map for the “big picture” of bike planning in DC, said Acting DDOT Director Everett Lott. It is the District’s long-range transportation plan, encompassing not only bike lanes but all modes of transit, including walking, vehicle and rail. If a street is indicated as suitable on the MoveDC plan, planners are more likely to pursue bike infrastructure there.

The type of bike lane chosen, protected or not, is also not random. DDOT engineers and planners consult a variety of metrics to assess what kind are installed on a street including the daily volume of cars and the road’s classification according to standards set by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the National Association of City Officials (NACTO). So, when the agency solicits public feedback, it is principally looking for local insight on design. The question is not usually “if” but “how” bike lanes should be installed.

“We use our best judgement to determine what streets should have the different types of facilities,” Lott said, “and it requires a pretty strong reason not to install them.”

There is one explicit legal requirement governing public engagement. The Administrative Procedure Amendment Act of 2000 requires that, 30 days before beginning a project, DDOT must issue a written Notice of Intent (NOI) to modify traffic and/or parking requirements to both Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs) and councilmembers impacted. The agency is required to make the NOI “accessible for the purpose of notification and solicitation of comments on the intent to implement modifications within the District,” the statute states. The law also mandates that the agency conduct an on-site investigation at the impacted location to determine whether any traffic and parking related revisions are “deemed necessary.”

The DDOT manual requires the agency develop a Public Involvement Plan (PIP) for every project. However, there are no specific guidelines for public engagement. On a large project, such as a corridor redesign, the agency typically presents 30, 60 and a 90 percent designs to the public for comment before initiating construction. However, the agency does not publish its PIPs. So, it is difficult to evaluate the plans other than by examining the agency’s behavior in specific instances.

This article examines four such instances: Ninth Street NW, North Carolina Avenue SE, P Street SW Alabama Avenue SE and 17th Street NW.

The Long Saga of Ninth Street

The first meeting for the Eastern Downtown PBL Project was held in 2015. In an effort to enhance north-south cycle connectivity, DDOT examined multiple corridors on which to construct new protected bike lanes. In 2017, the agency selected Ninth Street NW as its preferred route.

Public engagement, begun in 2018, stalled for three years without official explanation.

A bill introduced by Ward 1 Councilmember Brienne Nadeau (D), intended to move the project forward, led to debate about race and gentrification. Prominent African American churches had resisted the plan for years, arguing that congregant parking was necessary for their continued survival.

Alan Ebert, Executive Director of the 9th Street Business Association, speaks at an Aug. 11 event intended to draw attention to issues with a proposal for bike lanes. Photo: Courtesy Pleasant Mann

But in May 2021, the mayor funded the project in her FY22 budget. DDOT held a public meeting on July, 29, 2021.

Business owners on the 1900 block of Ninth Street NW, known as “Little Ethiopia,” feared DDOT’s plan would reduce parking, exacerbate rush hour congestion, create loading safety hazards and fail to comply with ADA protections. They united in protest.

Not enough thought has been put into the project, stated Executive Director of the Ninth Street Association Allan Ebert. “The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) continues its efforts to move forward, fast and furious, without community engagement.”

Colin Browne, Director Of Communications at Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) disagrees. “That project in particular has had just extensive, extensive public input over the course of dozens of hours of meetings,” he said. Plans are still in the initial stages; a 60 percent design was seen by the public in July and DDOT is looking at the integration of streeteries.

Part of the problem is that plans change with that feedback, said Browne. “The process is iterative, which is part of the point, but sometimes it is hard for people to know what design we’re on or what stage of the process.” Stakeholders can come and go over time, missing the chance to opine on aspects of the project that are important to them, he added.

While the iterative nature of the process can present challenges, another issue is DDOT’s reliance on ANCs to funnel public input.

Who Speaks For The Neighborhood?

Currently, DDOT is installing a protected cycle track on the 1400 through 1600 blocks of North Carolina Ave NE as part of the C Street Project, whose initial designs date to at least 2010. The project is designed to link the RFK Campus to Lincoln Park and  improve overall safety for pedestrians, motorists and cyclists.

In 2021, prompted by the planned completion of the C Street project, the agency decided to initiate design conversations for the 1300 block of North Carolina Avenue NE, omitted from the finalized C St Project design, into the tail end of this new network. At recent meetings of ANC 6A’s Transportation and Public Space (TPS) Committee, the agency presented a choice of seven possible alternatives. Either the street would lose parking, or it would lose a lane of traffic.

Delancy Gustin stands with her bike on 15th Street SE, where standard painted bike lanes are installed. Photo: Elizabeth O’Gorek.

Delancey Gustin, a resident of the 1300 block, developed her own alternative designs in consultation with neighbors concerned about the rerouting of traffic and possible loss of curbside parking. A petition posted by a group of neighbors calling themselves ‘Neighbors 4 NC Ave’ (www.neighbors4ncave.com) had more than 300 signatures by late September, and Gustin hoped ANC 6A would rally behind these ideas and advocate them to DDOT.

At the committee’s Sept. 21, Gustin presented proposals to the T&P Committee. However, she was disappointed, she said.  Gustin pointed to two issues. First, the ANC committee said their comment had to be limited to the options presented by DDOT; to reject them was to risk losing the opportunity to influence the project at all.

ANC 6A Chair Commissioner Amber Gove (6A04) with her dog Opal at the busy intersection of Constitution and North Carolina Avenues with 14th Street NE. Photo: Elizabeth O’Gorek.

Second, some commissioners said they had to take into account not only “the loudest voices in the room,” but also the wider community and the District. ANC 6A Chair Amber Gove (6A04), who directly represents the block in question, interpreted her obligation as both to represent her constituents, but also to consider the effect of decisions on the wider District.

That means that the voice of residents on the street wasn’t prioritized by the ANC the way some residents felt it should have been. “I think anger rises when people feel powerless,” Gustin said.

Some commissioners are also frustrated with both the acrimony and the pressure. While pleased that ANC decisions are afforded great weight by DDOT, Gove says the agency does heavily depend on the commission in its public engagement efforts. She believes there is no issue with the commission funneling DDOT outreach on smaller tasks such as speed bumps but said the agency would be better served to also manage engagement on large projects directly.

“Yes, we are the default community engagement process,” Grove said. “The irony of that is we’ve, what? Got $1.25-ish per person, per year in our annual budget?” The C Street NE project has a $16 million budget.

Acting Director Lott said DDOT project managers read all public comments they receive. But they don’t use them to determine outcomes because they cannot be sure they represent the community. “It is important to rely on elected officials in these matters. ANCs have a duty to weigh lots of competing interests,” he said.

However, even when a commission opposes DDOT’s proffered designs, the agency may simply ignore the feedback.

The Weight of the ANC

In September, 2019, DDOT issued a NOI to install a two-block protected bike lane to close a gap along the Anacostia Trail between Second and Fourth Streets SW. The route had been served by road markings, or sharrows.

ANC 6D objected. At their October meeting, commissioners complained that the project’s removal of 26 parking spots would threaten residents of neighboring affordable housing. Citing the lack of local transit options, they argued that these residents are dependent on vehicles for access to jobs with hours outside of the 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. shifts.

“Installing a new bike lane must not be a zero-sum game,” said Vice Chair Andy Litsky (6D01). After the ANC unanimously voted to oppose DDOT’s P Street plan, Litsky hoped the vote would lead to a real conversation that would create a bike solution that served all.

DDOT rejected these arguments, pointing out that the lanes have appeared on plans since 2005, including in the 2014 MoveDC plan. A bike lane network, the agency argued, is only as safe as its weakest block. Encountering such conditions, people either get off the road onto the sidewalk or do not ride. DDOT completed the P Street lanes in 2020.

Yet, positioning bike lanes does enter the larger world of District politics. At least in one instance, the agency dismantled its bike lanes in the face of determined political opposition.

Removal of Bike Lanes

As a Vision Zero initiative, DDOT studied methods to make a four-mile stretch of Alabama Avenue between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Southern Avenues SE safer for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers. In 2018, the project took on new urgency after three people lost their lives. After three public meetings and extensive consultation with the impacted Ward 8 commissions, DDOT installed the protected bike lanes on southbound Alabama Avenue SE in spring of 2019.

The lanes generated a huge community outcry centered largely on the removal of 12 curbside parking spots and complaints of lack of public engagement. “We need bike lanes like a hole in the head,” said one resident.

Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White (D) bolstered this opposition. “How do bike lanes make streets safer?” White asked in a social media post. The removal of parking spots was insensitive to the needs of senior residents, he contended.

After a series of public meetings during the summer of 2020 involving the councilmember and the director of DDOT, the agency removed one of the protected bike lanes on Alabama Avenue SE.

Why didn’t that message come through before installation? A different approach than weeknight meetings could have been a better tool to get community feedback, WABA’s Browne said.

“Not every public input mechanism works the same across the region,” Browne said, adding that both DDOT and WABA need to do more outreach to ensure Ward 7 and 8 residents are meaningfully involved in the transportation planning process overall.

Neighborhood Consensus?

But even when DDOT does extensive public engagement, some people still aren’t happy. The 17th Street NW bike lanes opened late this summer to tremendous controversy.

The project started in 2017 when Dupont Circle ANC 2B requested that DDOT study options to implement bike lanes on the 17th Street corridor between Florida and Constitution. The commission wanted to relieve congestion on existing 15th Street protected bike lanes.

After four years of traffic analysis, DDOT fashioned a design for bike lanes. The agency held at least six public meetings with ANC 2B and area citizen’s association to look at designs—but not to debate whether bike lanes were going on 17th Street NW.

Some neighbors consider the fact that they didn’t get to opine on whether lanes should be installed to be the very problem. “Our concern about DDOT is, they’re proceeding without community engagement and they don’t care. This is here, and it’s going to go in, the Mayor has a mandate,” President of Dupont East Civic Association Nick DelleDonne said of the agency’s engagement.

The two protected bike lanes on 17 Street NW eliminate a vehicular travel lane.  There are now one lane of traffic and one painted bike lane in each direction. Parking remains on both sides of the street. Public reception has been decidedly mixed.

The bike lanes “play Russian Roulette with the vitality of the community,” said DelleDonne. Delivery trucks parked on sidewalks and on intersections create chaos, he pointed out. This is dangerous for pedestrians and snarls traffic, he said.

Richard Wetzell lives on 17th Street NW. Not only does that description not match his experience on the street, he said, it also places cyclists and other road users unnecessarily in opposition. “The assumption that the interests of pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers are in conflict should be questioned,” said Wetzell, a pedestrian, resident, cyclist and driver in his 60s. “It’s not a zero-sum game. If scooter riders can now use the new bikes lanes, then they’re off the sidewalks and that’s better for pedestrians,” he pointed out.

Often, the complexity of road planning can erode public engagement. Planning for 17th Street NW, for example, took over three years.

Putting the Public in Engagement

As the examples above demonstrate, the main consistency to DDOT’s public engagement process relating to the installation of protected bike lanes, other than the issuance of an NOI thirty days prior to construction. The agency’s internal mandates and nonpublic PIPS make it difficult to evaluate their engagement efforts.

Moreover, the agency’s reliance on advisory neighborhood commissions to funnel neighborhood feedback can leave it blind to the concerns of those living on impacted blocks.

However, in many ways, focusing on the public engagement process alone betrays a larger fallacy in understanding on the public’s role. DDOT grants residents a voice, but a limited voice. The agency consults them for feedback on choosing among its internally generated designs. Alternative plans offered by residents are not generally given consideration. Criticism is treated as merely advisory. Driven by the mayor’s mandate, DDOT’s installation of protected bike lanes is not an “if” but a “when.”

“There will be a lot of change coming for many neighborhoods. Not every street will get bike lanes, but a lot of them will,” DDOT Bicycle Specialist Will Handsfield told a meeting of ANC 6A.

DDOT planners say protected bike lanes must happen to successfully confront societal issues like traffic safety and global warming. The agency is obligated to find the right balance between the goals the city is achieving and the issues on the ground. That will impact neighborhoods, whether residents like it or not.

The extension of the District’s bike network will have a huge impact on residents, businesses and traffic congestion. Given the outcry the provision of protected lanes has generated, their installation could be a messy affair.