The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) is testing out a pilot program that will close the block in front of one school in each ward for Walk to School Day, scheduled this year for Wednesday Oct. 12.
DDOT transportation planner Gina Arlotto told the September meeting of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6B about a Safe Routes to Schools pilot program that would close a portion of the street right in front of schools to vehicles.
The pilot program would take place at one school in each ward. In Ward 6, the pilot school selected is Watkins Elementary (420 12th St. SE).
Arlotto said plans currently call for closure of 12th Street between D and E Streets SE, but may be “tweaked”. Hours have not been finalized as they are being determined in cooperation with school administration.
The street may be closed for a few hours around drop-off and pick-up, Arlotto said, or it could be closed for the duration of the school day, in which case DDOT will program the space.
“The Most Dangerous Space for a Child”
The program was launched after DDOT observations throughout the District showed that the block in front of the school is the most dangerous space for a child as they enter and leave, the planner explained.
Arlotto said all over the city, planners observed similar issues at schools: a lot of careless drivers, including parents, blocking cross walks, double-parking, dropping students on opposite sides of the road from the school and allowing them to cross alone –which is, she said, one of the most dangerous things parents can do. “I’ve seen a lot of near misses just from my observations this year,” Arlotto noted.
The goal is to allow for safer transport on a critical day and to promote the use of alternative modes for transportation, Arlotto said. DDOT will also raise awareness for neighbors and commuters about safety and hand out materials on safer drop off and pick up procedures.
The program has general support from DC Council and the Mayor’s office, Arlotto said and may make it into city-wide legislation implementing similar closures for the first day of school in the next couple of years.
Citing a need for such events, Arlotto pointed to Tyrone Belton and his daughters, then eight and six years old, who were struck by a car on Walk to School Day 2021 as they crossed at a crosswalk with the signal.
There will be no parking during the hours of the closure, although moving barriers will allow for some resident movement and access for ADA bussed students. The block will be manned with traffic control officers and DDOT staff. Neighbors will be notified by fliers before the event.
Commissioner Corey Holman (6B06) said that Watkins was one of the easier schools for the pilot program, citing both street geometry and in-boundary attendance.
“It’s a good idea, and I’d be excited to see what you come up with in the future,” Holman said of the pilot. But, while he hoped the program could be expanded if the pilot was a success, Holman said if other schools are included, “there are hard choices that need to be made.”
Other commisioners said that while they supported the idea of the pilot, they thought the plan would simply decentralize chaos from the front of the school to the corners. Commissioner Kirsten Oldenburg (6B04), who lives across from Watkins, said promoting student safety is a great idea, but a better idea would be to help parents conduct drop-off and pick-up safely.
Capitol Hill hosts the most highly attended Walk to School Day event in the city with 12 schools fanning out from Lincoln Park. This is expected to increase the number of expected pedestrians that day and redistribute drop-off times, Arlotto said. DDOT traffic control officers will also be in place at both ends of the eclosure and able to move people along and wave them to places they can park. “At least, in my mind, for one day, all of that chaos isn’t right in front of the school,” Arlotto added.
Arlotto said that while the event may mean some inconvenience for motorists, DDOT feels very strongly that the idea, used in many European cities, is worth taking a look at and to see if it can be rolled out more widely in the coming years.