Wisconsin Ave. Needs a Major Overhaul

Does anyone actually like Wisconsin Ave.? Whether you’re walking on it, biking on it, driving on it, it’s almost guaranteed to be an unpleasant experience.

But it doesn’t have to be that way, particularly for pedestrians. Some simple changes to the way Wisconsin Ave. is shaped could dramatically improve the pedestrian experience, without significant affecting the traffic flow. These changes could even add parking.

Impossible you say? Not at all. Follow GM as he takes a stroll down Wisconsin Ave. highlighting where the worst problems are, and how to fix them:

Between R and Reservoir:

Let’s start at R St. and head south. Looking down the street, what do we see?

A dragstrip, that’s what. From R down to Reservoir, Wisconsin Ave. is a wide two lane road. There is parking on the west side, but it is not frequently occupied. Due to the fact that this is a long stretch of road and downhill, cars drive way too fast on it.

Solutions: This road is way too wide. When drivers drive on wide roads, they drive faster than if the same road were narrower. Since parking is not scarce on this stretch, we ought to install one or two bulb-outs from the west sidewalk.

Bulb-outs are where the sidewalk is built out into the roadway. They are frequently used at interesections or for bus stops, like this:

Photo from Streetsblog.

On this stretch of Wisconsin there is not a bus stop. Nonetheless, we could build one or two bulb-outs and install benches in order to make use of the added sidewalk space. Moreover, the bulb-outs would make it clearer that this stretch of Wisconsin allows parking by delineating the parking lane better. This would also increase drivers’ safety when they park their cars and get out.

And most of all, the added bulb-outs would shrink the perceived width of the road, and drivers will slow down accordingly.

Intersection of Reservoir, Wisconsin, and 33rd:

This is a horrible intersection. A child was killed here in July. Cars never stop for pedestrians in the intersection. Just Sunday, GM got honked at simply for crossing in the crosswalk. Enforcement can improve the situation temporarily, but long term a structural solution is needed.

One problem is that there is a jumble of different crosswalks, some with crosswalk lights and some without. Here’s where they are (the green are crosswalks with lights, the red are those without lights):

On top of the confusion over who exactly has right of way, there is the added chaos caused by having drivers trying to turn onto Wisconsin from either 33rd or Reservoir.

Solutions: The simplest answer would be to make this intersection completely lighted. By adding a stop light and crosswalk lights, the confusion over who has the right of way would be eliminated. Plus, cars coming off of Reservoir could more easily turn south on Wisconsin and cars coming north on 33rd could more easily turn north on Wisconsin.

There are some objections to this solution. First, residents of 33rd St. might object to the light. They’ll see that more drivers heading north through Georgetown will use 33rd instead of Wisconsin. Right now that choice is discourage due to the difficulty turning north on Wisconsin. A similar change was noticed by residents of Reservoir west of Wisconsin after that light was added.

Secondly, people may object to the addition of a light just 40 feet or so south of another light. Although, a similar arrangement exists down at Q and Wisconsin, and that intersection seems to work well.

Finally, there’s an objection based on the idea that when you regulate traffic with lights, it causes cars to go faster. The theory is that the more priority you give to drivers, the faster they drive since they feel less obligated to look out for pedestrians or bikers. This theory is best demonstrated in the inverse by woonerfs.  Woonerfs are streets where cars are permitted but where they are given lower priority to pedestrians and bikers. The closest thing DC has to a woonerf if Pennsylvania Ave in front of the White House (although Poplar St. in Georgetown is pretty woonerfy too).

Whether a light is installed or not, bulb-outs for the crosswalks should absolutely be installed. They would go a long way towards convincing drivers that pedestrians have the right of way. (Some other possible changes to the crosswalk are discussed below)

Wisconsin Ave. From 33rd to Q St.

Wisconsin south of this dreadful intersection is like Wisconsin north of it, but with parking on the east side, not the west side:

The thing is, the road isn’t any narrower south of Reservoir than it is north. If there is space for cars to park on the west side above Reservoir, than it figures that there is space for cars to park on the west side south of it too (and no, the yellow line doesn’t shift over to make more room on the parking side).

Solution: While this stretch doesn’t get quite the same amount of speed as the block below R, it nonetheless is a long stretch of unnecessarily wide pavement. Ten or so parking spots should be created on the west side, and the rest of the stretch should be filled in with sidewalk. It could look like something like this:

This would have several benefits. It would add more parking. It would narrow the width of the road, and thus slow down speeders. And it would increase the sidewalk space significantly.

Unlighted Crosswalks

Finally, in the heart of the Wisconsin retail corridor is a series of crosswalks that don’t have crosslights or stop signs to aid pedestrians to cross. They look like this:

Even though pedestrians have the right of way, most end up feeling obliged to wait for a break in traffic or for traffic to back up before attempting to cross. It doesn’t help at all that there is no signage informing drivers that pedestrians have the right to cross on the crosswalk.

Solution: Obviously the first thing we need is better signage. There should be street signs telling drivers to yield to pedestrians. These signs should include normal streetside signs as well as those signs in the middle of the road.

Creative changes to the road painting could help as well. Having the lane markers go zig-zag before the crosswalks would do a better job to alert drivers to yield. These lane markings are common in the UK:

And again, sidewalk bulb-outs in selected locations would emphasize the crosswalk and make crossing safer. Even if these bulb-outs simply made the crosswalk that much shorter would help a lot, particular for the elderly and the physically impaired.


If these improvements are adopted, it leaves little room for bike lanes. While GM definitely would like to see more bike lanes in Georgetown, he thinks prioritizing pedestrian safety is more important for Wisconsin Ave. That said, “sharrows” could be installed easily. They’re not as good as true bike lanes, but they improve bike safety none the less.

Moreover, if all these changes were made, they would result in an overall safer Wisconsin Ave. That would make biking on it safer as well.


These simple changes would dramatically improve the safety and appearance of Wisconsin Ave. It would not significantly affect traffic (no travel lanes would be removed) yet it would still increase parking and sidewalk space.

The simple fact is that Wisconsin has been designed terribly. We shouldn’t wait for another death to realize that and fix it.


Filed under Transportation

12 responses to “Wisconsin Ave. Needs a Major Overhaul

  1. This is an excellent post with several good recommendations. Many residents, myself included, would like to see a Wisconsin Avenue streetcar that connects the terminus of the Benning Road/K Street route with the Tenley and Friendship Heights metro stations further north on Wisconsin Avenue. It would likely be possible to have north/south streetcar tracks in the center of Wisconsin Avenue and maintain vehicle lanes for north/south traffic if curbside parking was eliminated. This would help narrow these sections of Wisconsin Avenue, providing the traffic-calming benefits you mentioned.

    In the meantime, the Glover Park Transportation Study (http://www.tooledesign.com/projects/gloverpark/ ), prepared by the Toole Design Group, has many recommendations that can be applied to this section of Wisconsin Avenue at minimal cost. This report calls for dedicated bike lanes going south on New Mexico Avenue. This section of New Mexico Avenue is very similar to the section of Wisconsin Avenue that you describe: a wide, downhill street with prevalent speeding. Dedicated bike lanes will help narrow the street, slowing vehicle traffic while also enhancing safety for cyclists. I ride to work 3-4 days per week and I’m very experienced riding in traffic but I stay on 35th and 37th Street to avoid the vehicles on Wisconsin Avenue.

    The suggestion for a bulb-out on Wisconsin between R and Reservoir is a good idea. Although there is no bus stop here, this might be a location future Capital Bikeshare station, since the library is across the street. Perhaps there can be the Capital Bikeshare station here with the dedicated bike lane going south on Wisconsin mentioned above.

    Another traffic-calming improvement in the Glover Park Transportation Study is a landscaped median for Wisconsin Avenue. This will help narrow the street while enhancing a ‘sense of place,’ letting drivers know they’re entering Georgetown.

  2. Ken Archer

    Georgetown definitely needs bulb-outs in the neighborhood. But wouldn’t bulb-outs on Wisconsin require lifting rush hour parking restrictions? If so, then a dedicated bus lane, or narrowing of Wisconsin through bike lanes or sidewalk widening, might be better solutions for Wisconsin Ave.

  3. Jonathan

    Have we forgotten that Wisconsin is a major artery at 4+ lanes width over its entire course?

    During rush hour, this area has two lanes of traffic each way. It’s not a ‘wide two lane road’ by any stretch.

    While lots would like to think of Georgetown as a bucolic village, it’s not. There are several hundred thousand SF of offices, plus untold SF of retail – housing thousands of employees.

    Given the lack of metro or other high-density and relative dearth of housing density compared to office space, it’s foolish to believe that a majority of these employees aren’t driving in and out of Georgetown.

    Maybe this occurs in blogger-transit-fantasy-land world where executives jump on a bus or ride a bike and sweat through their suit, but not in reality.

    People drive. A majority of Georgetowners, both residents and workers, drive.

    Fix the intersections to protect pedestrians. Signalization of two intersections within 50 feet works fine at Q, why not here?

    Show me another major arterial avenue in the District that goes to a two-lane bottleneck in the middle of a high-traffic area and I’ll happily eat my words.

  4. asuka

    Spot on, Jonathan. We must remember that the street does not belong to us. That being said, the stretch of Wisconsin from Calvert to M street simply doesn’t work, and should be redeveloped so that ALL forms of transportation – traditional, alternative, and pedestrian – move more efficiently. Reducing the number of lanes or reserving lanes for under-utilized modes is not going to achieve that. Of course, I invite anyone to provide some data from a study of Georgetown’s traffic patterns that suggests otherwise. Given how vocal some of these proponents are, you’d think that wouldn’t be too difficult.

  5. Ken Archer


    Are you disagreeing with something in GM’s post?

  6. Jonathan

    Yes. The whole proposal goes a little too far in chasing an ideal that isn’t actually matched with reality of how the street works, in the hope of changing the mode split… “If you build it, they will come” proposals.

    The assumption that this is a two lane street is false. In practice, it’s 3-4 lanes of traffic at most times of the day. GM ignores the fact that the proposed changes (effictive narrowing, bulb outs, etc) would significantly diminish capacity on a major arterial roadway in an area where usage statistics show a mode split significantly biased towards car traffic… Proposal not matched with the reality of the way the street is used. Narrowing the street isn’t going to increase pedestrian usage, it’s just going to lead to increased gridlock on an already at-capacity roadway.

    Adding benches and other pedestrian amenities also doesn’t actually address the way the street is used. Pedestrian traffic on Upper Wisconsin (between Q and R) is largely retail/tourist traffic. The traditional ‘Georgetown’ retail area ends at Reservoir. Not many retail/tourist feet are going between Reservoir and R – the character of the retail above R is much less tourist/passerby focused, thus, there’s simply not much reason for the majority of the foot traffic on Upper Wisconsin to go north past Reservoir… hence the underutilization of the sidewalks on the block between R and Reservoir. Adding benches isn’t going to change the fact that this is a natural ‘dead zone’ for a majority of Georgetown pedestrians – they simply have little reason to be there. Again, proposal not matched with reality of usage. Adding amenities isn’t going to make more tourists walk to the top of the hill – they’re going to get there and turn around when they see an empty office building and an HSBC bank.

    In an ideal world, we’d have a mode split in the aforementioned areas of upper Georgetown that is more skewed to pedestrians and bikes. In which case, these changes make sense. In reality, it’s not. So we need to buttress pedestrian safety situation while accomodating the real-world usage.

    There’s a similar situation with the dedicated bike lanes proposed on I and L streets downtown. During rush hour, these streets are at capacity, just like Wisconsin in the area GM describes. Adding bike lanes here (to serve a comparatively tiny minority of the mode split) yields the same effect as narrowing Wisconsin – decreasing capacity of a street that’s, in reality, already at or exceeding capacity much of the day. All in pursuit of an ideal (adding bike lanes will convince car commuters to ride to work) that isn’t going to happen.

    Fix the intersections, don’t narrow the streets. Cars are a reality for the next several decades, and disproportionately decreasing their utility by giving limited street space on maxed-out streets to other uses won’t force people into other modes – it’ll just degrade the existing situation for the vast majority.

    I support the idea of increasing pedestrian safety, but it doesn’t need to come by further degrading the way that the street is used by the VAST majority of its users.

  7. Old Georgetowner

    What Jonathan said.

    P.S. You do know, don’t you GM, that Wisconsin was a buffalo trail, and then an Indian trail, before it was somebody else’s road? And that’s why a couple blocks around R are “too narrow”?

  8. Andy

    I like this idea and the ideas proposed for Glover Park but I am very hesitant to endorse them. If we want streetcars (please bring them!) these street scape changes may inhibit the streetcar line.
    What would be better would to slow the traffic, install speed & redlight cameras and control more of the crossings.
    On 33rd and Wisc – control the light but don’t allow northbound traffic on 33rd turn North or South on Wisconsin.
    Remove a great number of the bus stops on Wisconsin between R and M – one every 3 blocks.
    Working with the BID and other community organizations to finalize one or two street car plans now – it’ll show D-dot that we want it, there is support and it’ll be easy to develop.
    I suggest that the right lanes on Wisc between M and Q become streetcar/bus lanes and then from Q to Friendship Heights the streetcar moves to the center lanes with islands in the middle for passenger entry/exit.

  9. Ken Archer

    @Jonathon, Asuka & Old Georgetowner,

    I’d like to challenge two premises of your argument.

    (1) Changing the Street Won’t Change the Mode Split: Do you think adding a Georgetown Metro station would change the mode split? Then why wouldn’t adding a bus lane increase bus riders, adding a bike lane increase bikers and adding bulb-outs increase pedestrian traffic? The principal is induced demand. If you widen a road to make it safer and faster, more people will drive down the road making it less safe and slower. It’s the same with any other mode of transportation.

    (2) Traffic Calming is an Attempt to Recreate some Bucolic Village from a Bygone Era: I’m not trying to bring back 1900. I’d be happy with 1990, when I went to high school in DC and there were 25% fewer cars on the streets. I have a toddler now, and am terrified to walk the streets of Georgetown with him, particularly Wisconsin & M, because of the speeding cars. Did you know that DDOT offered to widen the sidewalks of M street in the early 2000s when the manholes were blowing up in the air, and our ANC rejected the offer? We had opportunities over the past couple decades to retain the historically mixed use of M & Wisconsin, and rejected them. And now we’ve turned M & Wisconsin into traffic sewers.

    If Georgetown is going to be a multigenerational community that is inclusive of children and the elderly, then we have to take back our streets and balance the mode split through a complete streets initiative.

  10. asuka

    Ken, I’m still waiting on a link to a Georgetown-specific traffic study that supports your positions. There has to be a better justification for what you’re advocating than anecdotal conjecture based on your time spent in Prague.

  11. Ken Archer


    This thread is not about streetcars. I haven’t referred to Prague at all in support of GM’s argument that we need greater mode balance on Wisconsin avenue between drivers, bikers and pedestrians. That is, if we think Georgetown should be a multigenerational community that is inclusive of children and the elderly. Do you think that what’s Georgetown should strive for?

    The increase in VMT in DC that I referred to above is obvious, but is also documented at the NHTSA site (http://www-fars.nhtsa.dot.gov/Main/index.aspx).

  12. Jonathan

    This is a terrific post. I hope the new Mayor reads GM!

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