Guest Editorial: Rhode Island Row’s Pedestrian Issues

by Toni Dach

There is no doubt that the Rhode Island Row development is a huge step forward for our community.  After years of neglect and disinvestment, we are now getting a development that will bring new residents into the neighborhood, make good use of urban space right next to a Metro, and provide the community with the retail we need and desire.  Replacing a wasteful surface parking lot with a dense, mixed-use development is good urban design.  One could squabble about the amount of parking included in the development or the width of the sidewalks (with the planters) or other relatively minor issues but the development was clearly meant to be walkable and transit-oriented.  However, the design and operation of the entrance intersection is anything but walkable – or even drivable.

I cross this intersection on an almost daily basis on foot.  Most days, I feel like this is a fool’s errand.  First of all, the intersection has “on demand only” crosswalk signals, where pedestrians have to push a button and wait for a walk signal, even if they have the light.  I patiently waited three times this week for a walk signal to see how long it would take me to get the two walk signals I need to cross the intersection (wait time only…I timed from when I pushed the crosswalk buttons until I got a walk signal, stopping the clock while I walked across the street and to the next intersection).  It took me 2:58, 2:36, and 1:23 minutes to get a walk signal, in total, and the longest I waited for a single walk signal (to cross only one road) was 1:40 minutes.  This is absolutely unacceptable.  The crosswalks should provide pedestrians with walk signals every time they are crossing with the light.  I also timed the lights, and the longest I would have had to wait for both signals if I got one every time the light changed was 1:13.  Still kind of long, but much better than my average wait, and many times I would have had no wait as I lucked out and hit the lights just right.

In addition to the poor design of the crosswalk signals, the crosswalks are placed in such a location that drivers turning the corners out of the Rhode Island Place shopping center and onto the Rhode Island Row main street aren’t immediately able to see pedestrians in the crosswalks.  Though I’m not sure most drivers care if there are pedestrians in the crosswalks, anyway.  The developers have stationed a flagger with a stop sign at the entrance to the Rhode Island Row main street to help pedestrians cross in the morning.  This flagger is routinely ignored by drivers turning onto the main street, who should be yielding to pedestrians in the crosswalk.  While moving the crosswalks would most likely be an expensive and cumbersome process, placing signs alerting drivers that there’s a crosswalk after their turn, and to yield to pedestrians in those crosswalks, would be inexpensive and go a long way to improving pedestrian safety.  Restriping the crosswalks with highly visible and reflective materials would also improve their visibility and safety.  Finally, the right turn onto the Rhode Island Row main street is supposed to be “no turn on red,” allowing pedestrians to safely cross in front of stopped traffic ultimately going to Rhode Island Row and the Metro.  However, the sign indicating this says “right on {green light image} only,” and is mounted between the lights, far away from drivers.  It’s unclear in its message, incredibly hard to see, and does nothing to keep drivers, including Metro bus drivers, from turning right on red.  This substantially increases the danger of the intersection to pedestrians.

Because of the safety and convenience issues with using the crosswalks, most pedestrians cross the intersection illegally, myself included.  I’ve found that drivers have better sight-lines to see me, and me them, if I cross the Rhode Island Place driveway and Metro/Rhode Island Row exit rather than use the marked crosswalks, and many others obviously feel the same way.  I also don’t have to wait forever for walk signals, just check the lights and look for oncoming traffic.  However, this is dangerous, as evidenced by the multiple times I have started to cross the Rhode Island Row/Metro exit or the Rhode Island Place entrance/exit only to have the light change while I’m in the middle of the street.  So far, drivers have been courteous enough to not run me over, but I shouldn’t have to test their patience and risk my life to safely and expediently cross a street with heavy pedestrian traffic.

But this intersection is not just inconvenient and dangerous for pedestrians, it’s a serious danger for drivers, Metro bus drivers, and Metro bus riders.  Drivers turning left into the Rhode Island Place shopping center routinely make their turns – on a green light, not a green arrow – in front of cars and Metro buses exiting Rhode Island Row and the Metro that have the right of way.  At the same time, drivers exiting the Rhode Island Place shopping center routinely turn right on red without regard for the same drivers and Metro buses exiting Rhode Island Row and the Metro, who still have the right of way.  I got some lovely pictures of the numerous near pile-ups I see on a weekly basis for your enjoyment/horror.  Here again, some signage could vastly improve this situation, altering drivers turning left to yield on a solid green light and drivers exiting Rhode Island Place to yield before right on red.  A turn arrow could also be provided for drivers exiting Rhode Island Place to allow them continuous right turns while the left turn signal into the center from the Rhode Island Avenue entrance is activated.  This would keep traffic moving in a safe and orderly manner.  Finally, drivers make right turns out of the Rhode Island Place center from both the left and right lanes, increasing speeds around the corner, leading to near-collisions as drivers attempt to get in the proper lane to exit onto Rhode Island Avenue, and putting pedestrians crossing legally in even more danger.  Some pavement paint and possibly a sign indicating that the left lane is straight only would go miles to improving this situation.

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I have also seen a handful of drivers entering the development from Rhode Island Avenue continue straight into the Rhode Island Row/Metro one-way exit, the wrong way.  There is a Do Not Enter sign on the light pole at the intersection, but it clearly needs to be more conspicuous, either in its design or location, or both.

I have already contacted DDOT, Chairman Brown, and my ANC (Regina James, who also represents Rhode Island Row) about this issue and received an immediate response from both Chairman Brown’s staff and DDOT.  I thank Chairman Brown’s staff and DDOT staff for their immediate recognition of this issue, but I encourage other members of the community to throw your hat in the ring and inform these same representatives and officials that this intersection needs to be made safer for drivers and pedestrians to truly allow the Rhode Island Row development – and the broader community – to flourish.  It’s easy to ignore one voice, but harder to ignore a whole community’s expressed needs.  The city has a lot on the line with this development, and it would be a shame to see things as simple as traffic signage, pedestrian accommodations, and traffic enforcement seriously hamper its viability.  DDOT’s website indicates that new signage may take 4-6 months to install due to the need to review the signage before its installation, so we may also need to involve whoever our new councilmember is after the spring election in ultimately resolving this issue, as well.

EDITORS NOTE: Thanks to Toni for taking a proactive stance in the community! Help Toni make a difference by sending a message to DDOT and Chairman Brown. Contact info is below:

DDOT, Email: ddot@dc.gov, Phone: (202) 673-6813

Chairman Kwame Brown, Email: cmason@dccouncil.us (Constituent Services), Phone: (202) 724-8032

 

About the author: Toni has lived in the Brentwood community since 2009.  Professionally, she’s a trade analyst for the Department of Commerce. All views expressed in this article are that of Toni Dach’s and does not reflect those of her employer.

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11 thoughts on “Guest Editorial: Rhode Island Row’s Pedestrian Issues

  1. Toni,

    I have experienced the exact same thing you have on foot. Also, driving just to access the Metro garage/Kiss n’ Ride is a mess! Even if they enact your suggestions, I think they will have to have permanent crossing guards directing foot and vehicle traffic 24/7. Just wait till construction is finished and the shops finally open. BTW, when will the first shops open and what are they? They are long overdue!

    1. I hope that with the right signage/markings, some decent enforcement, and time the situation at this intersection will improve. When they first installed the traffic circle on Brentwood Road, we were convinced that the intersection would remain nearly impossible to cross on foot and accidents would abound due to the continuous traffic flow around the circle. A few years later, and we’re pleasantly surprised to find an ever-increasing number of drivers yielding to pedestrians and traffic actually flowing quite smoothly with few accidents at that circle. I know the intersection here is new to drivers and pedestrians, but you can’t expect it to work at all, ever, if you don’t let people know what is expected of them and very visibly make one group of users second-class citizens (pedestrians, that is, with no signage and the bare minimum of accommodation to actually cross the street). I don’t expect that new signs and some enforcement will improve the situation instantaneously, but it will help, over time.

      I think the CVS is opening soon? Other than that, all I know is what’s been announced on this blog…Dunkin Donuts, 5 Guys, DMV, opening dates unknown.

  2. Great, well-written, solidly-supported article — thanks Toni!
    I agree that the dangers you write about should be easily fixed through better signals and signage, and have contacted DDOT and Chairman Brown.

    As you probably recognize, the narrow sidewalks under the train tracks just west of Rhode Island Row and the Metro are a related safety issue.
    These narrow sidewalks force pedestrians directly adjacent to the six-lane artery often filled with cars racing well over 40 MPH.
    Maybe some a fence between traffic and the sidewalk would make it friendlier?

    I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the recompete process for the pedestrian bridge from the Metro, over the tracks, to the Metropolitan Branch Trail proceeds smoothly and quickly!

    1. Thanks for pitching in, Walter. Pedestrian issues also abound on Rhode Island Ave. On top of the issue you mention (yes, that underpass is horrendous), off the top of my head, the sidewalks for many blocks in either direction from there are narrow and uneven (like, CANNOT POSSIBLY be ADA compliant uneven) and many crosswalks have too-short signals for crossing what is, essentially, a 6-lane highway. These issues have been discussed here and in other blogs. I’m certainly not forgetting about those issues as I write this, but since I had yet to see anything written about this intersection, I felt it was important to do AND say something. No one would ever know there was a problem if no one said anything, right?

  3. Hi Toni—Thank you for cataloging the issues with this intersection. It just shows that there is more to urbanism than some new buildings: people have to think about all sides of the issue!

    Regarding your recommendations, I’m not sure if putting up more signs is the answer, especially when they take the driver’s eyes off the road (and the pedestrians in it). Apart from adjusting the signal timings, the primary goal should be to slow down the drivers and make them pay attention and not assume they have the right of way—one cheap and quick way to do this may be to narrow the roadway coming down from the shopping center with temporary curbs, similar to what was done at the multi-way intersection of 15th, W, NH, and Florida NW. Blocking the right-turn slip lane from RIA eastbound may be another option.

    Just some suggestions and definitely second your opinion that more needs to be done to ensure everyone’s safety.

    1. Appreciate your input. I’m certainly no traffic planner, so I don’t claim any expertise in how to get drivers to use the intersection properly – for everyone’s safety and convenience – I just know that drivers don’t know/don’t care what they should be doing and are making a mess of the intersection as a result. There are 2 reasons I suggested better signage. 1. The fact that people are turning in front of BUSES when the bus has the right of way leads me to believe they truly don’t *know* how to operate the intersection…I can see cutting off a pedestrian as a low-risk choice for a driver, but not turning your Civic in front of a bus moving 20 or so MPH. How will the drivers even know what to do if they’re not told? 2. Signs seem to be the most expedient, cheapest option…i.e., the option that will face the least resistance and fewest hurdles. In a perfect world, sure, I’d redesign the whole intersection, heck, the whole area.

      One thing I TOTALLY agree with is a road diet for the entrance/exit onto RIA. The slip lane has got to go. It’s extremely dangerous for pedestrians trying to cross that entrance on RIA and drivers turning left into the entrance. There also only need to be 2 inbound lanes, as you only have the options of going left or right at the next intersection. Outbound, the left turn lane and straight lane should be combined into ONE lane. Hardly anyone goes straight onto Reed St., and there’s hardly any traffic exiting Reed St., so there’s no need for a left turn arrow there. As a result, the outbound lanes would drop to 2, as well. This would allow the sidewalks to be bumped out, possibly making them more visible to turning drivers and killing 2 birds with one stone!

  4. Toni,
    Thanks for writing this. I’ve been meaning to write something about it for some time myself. Actually, I started to think about it as soon as I saw that the traffic lights had gone in. I wasn’t around for the planning of this development so I assumed that they would do a roundabout there as it seems like the best solution to me.
    Working with what is there now, the least that should be done is an extension of the pedestrian island farther out into the intersection and one incoming lane (from RIA) should be taken out (there are 3 lanes, one left turn, one right turn, one that is useless b/c the opposite side is one way outgoing.)
    A better solution, I think, would be to convert it to a roundabout. That way, you don’t need to pay for the traffic light, you shorten the distance peds have to cross, and you keep traffic flowing, albeit at slower speeds. I’m not quite sure why this wasn’t pushed for before development began (perhaps it was?).

    1. I actually missed the planning process, too. It was already planned, in its current incarnation, when I moved here. A roundabout seems like a good option, but it seems unlikely to happen. Mostly because I saw today…they’re putting OUTBOUND lights on the entrance to RIR? So the “main street” will have 2-way traffic? I’m completely baffled as to how that will work? Anyone have any insight into this?

      On the same level, they’re installing the median on the main street, and that looks great. Huge pedestrian bump-outs, lots of crossings, and a narrow roadway that will keep traffic nice and calm. It appears they’re doing one thing right.

  5. If anyone happens upon this, I forwarded a response to Greg from DDOT. It looks like the developer and/or WMATA own the streets, so any improvements in that regard will have to come from them. However, DDOT controls the lights, and said they would install improved signage in the next couple of weeks. Sounds like that’s about the best *they* can do, so if things continue to be messy here, we’ll need to lean on the developers and/or WMATA to secure further improvements.

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