How to Widen Sidewalks on the Cheap

Photo courtesy of BYT.

Last weekend was the phenomenal French Market on Book Hill. It was the event’s tenth anniversary and was the best one yet. With luck, an innovation from this year will point the way towards more street fairs in Georgetown: wider sidewalks.

If there’s one thing most people agree on it’s that Georgetown’s sidewalks on M and Wisconsin are far too narrow. GM would love a permanent fix whereby most, if not all, parking on M is taken away to widen the brick sidewalks. But that would be a huge and expensive project, possible someday perhaps but not anytime soon.

The French Market demonstrated, however, how we can temporarily widen the sidewalks with fantastic results. As you can see above, the city removed parking on Wisconsin Ave. and set up fences between the pedestrians and the traffic. Thus essentially doubling the width of the sidewalk.

Crowding was always a problem with the French Market, but extra space substantially reduced that.

The city has traditionally been reluctant to shut down only part of the road. It cites the greater risk to pedestrians from possibly intermingling with traffic. But the French Market’s success should demonstrate that it is a good tool that should have wider use.

A long time ago GM floated the idea of shutting M St. down completely on summer afternoons. That’s probably too radical of an idea. But why not eliminate parking on M St. every weekend and set up these fences? Hell, maybe we could shift traffic over one lane and shut down two lanes on one side. That would give enough space for outdoor vendors, benches and umbrellas. A veritable Times Square.

It’s worth just trying it a few times to see how people like it. Removing parking on M would have a minuscule effect on overall parking, particularly if the BID succeeds in getting more visitors to use the many garages below M St.

And if after a few years this trial run is successful, then we will be all the better position to convince the city to make the change permanent.



Filed under Transportation

21 responses to “How to Widen Sidewalks on the Cheap

  1. Down in my part of the village, they have just put up barriers where the new condo building is being built along the canal, since the sidewalk is taken up by equipment, to create a math for pedestrians. I would vote for them widening it as well, it makes crossing the street so much easier and safer.

  2. Nemo

    Broaden the sidewaIks. It would not be prohibitively expensive. There should be no parking on “M” Street between Rock Creek and Key Bridges anywhere, any time. The same goes for Wisconsin Avenue between “K” and Calvert Streeets. Until such time as a street car line can be built between GWU Metro and Chevy Chase Metro, the Circulator should run a shuttle along that route on weekend nights every 15 minutes. People who want to come to Georgetown to enjoy its nightlife need to forget about driving and parking there.

  3. fwiw, the reason I am now more inclined to support municipal parking structures is to provide capacity so that we can do things like take parking off M St. Nice post.

  4. Kate Whitmore

    I can count the times on one hand that I have parked on Wisconsin Avenue or M Street in the last three decades. Parking should go!

  5. dave

    Who is against this idea that keeps stopping it? It seems like this idea or a variant of it has been floated for a while but it never gets done. Whether it be widening the sidewalks permanently (how about more street valet parking into the garages?) Closing M or Wisconsin on weekends or those sidestreets between K and M Street, etc. or this cheaper solution with just barriers. Anything is better than what we have. I’m all for it.

    Im not sure why some folks are sometimes so pro-car yet complain about traffic.

    Is the BID against it? Evans? Small but loud NIMBYs against any change? Who?

  6. Topher

    I was told (didn’t verify) that during the huge Georgetown Project 12 years ago, the city offered to widen the sidewalks and the ANC declined.

    Other than that I think it’s less a question of anyone “blocking” it as no one seriously proposing it (beyond blogs, etc.). I should say that the ANC hates, hates, road closures (particularly Bill Starrels who represents lower Georgetown). So there’s that. This is why I think this solution could be so good. There’s more of a fear over traffic gridlock than there is over losing a few dozen parking spots.

    If anything, it will be the BID and it’s new leadership that will be the ones to finally step forward with a plan to actually do this. I’m hopeful that the success of the French Market will make their job selling it that much easier.

  7. The fenced-off lane was a good temporary solution. The sidewalks are too narrow even without a special event taking place.

  8. JMW

    Here here. Georgetown, including merchants, DC and residents, visitors alike would reap huge rewards from this simple change – widening sidewalks (and permanently), which would not be that expensive and would cause no more disruption than any other major construction project we see all over the city every day. What’s needed is leadership and determination to make it happen. Part of the solution is free parking at the gtown park mall, whenever that’s finished.

  9. JWS

    Having lived here for 16 years, I see no need to widen the sidewalks. What is the evidence that this needs to happen? Are people too impatient? Are people too large?

    On the other hand, dumping the cars that park on M Street and Wisconsin Ave. onto residential streets is horrible idea that would sabotage our neighborhood for longtime residents who may not be as agile or as mobile as they once were.

    Just yesterday, I walked with a neighbor who’s lived in his house for more than thirty years. He walks with two canes and was carrying a heavy bag until I convinced him to let me carry it. We had to walk two blocks to his car. If you put the parked cars on M and those on Wisconsin on residential streets, we’d have probably had to walk to DuPont.

    Make the parking on all residential streets limited to residents with Zone 2 permits. Then, we can talk about where to put all the parked cars from Wisconsin and M.

  10. Having lived here for 17 years, I assure you that the people are indeed too large these days.

  11. Andy2

    GM totally agree. Widening M street sidewalks should be a priority, but to reflect the concerns and needs of JWS it should also come hand in hand with reforming the street parking permits to ensure that residents are able to secure a spot. The BID should work with Georgetown Park mall to encourage parking there with some kind of neighborhood wide validation system and appropriate signage.

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  13. RNM

    Second to JWS. Having lived here for almost a quarter century, this imagined problem is just that imaginary. Yes, the sidewalks can be crowded at peak times…but one does not design for peak times. I am willing to walk a little slower behind some person taking up the sidewalk with their dog, stroller, etc…

    The big issue isn’t the parking, though sending those cars into the neighborhood won’t help (and everyone can keep dreaming that bikes are the answer), it is that to widen sidewalks enough to accomplish something (then again people are like water and will spread to fill the space offered) one would have to loose a lane. Which then opens up the issue of needing to put reversible lanes on M Street to handle traffic flow (it isn’t going away unless that bridge does). Maybe we could have over street signs like they do in other parts of the city signaling flow direction…not likely.

    Here is a modest proposal. If you want to live in an area with broad sidewalks…move to one. The sidewalks are part of the character that makes Georgetown appealing, as compared to say Reston.

  14. JMW

    RNM and JWS have you walked around M and Wisc lately? Maybe you’d like to see the sidewalks even narrower than they are to add even more character? Most of the bricks are new anyway, widening the sidewalks 3 or 4 feet is not going to change the character of Gtown. What it would do is make the area a more attractive destination for pedestrians – residents and tourists alike. This will benefit us all, in particular Gtown businesses. Old town has wider sidewalks and its character doesn’t seem to suffer for it. Yes this would mean losing parking on one side of the street, but if eg sidewalks were widened on M only between Wisc and 34th we’re really not losing that many spaces. A big part of the solution for parking is to make the parking at the Gtown park mall free (at least with a receipt) – the BID could pay for it. As for the side streets, nonresidents will park there regardless of the number of spots on M since M spots are metered. I do agree with higher parking priority for Zone 2 residents – the solution that makes the most sense to me is to make one side of the street Zone 2 only.

  15. Chris in Eckington

    The business community has been hostile to the idea of removing any street parking on M Street. As was noted above, there were proposals to widen the sidewalks 12 years ago when they redid M Street, but these were soundly rejected, with strong pressure coming from businesses on M Street

  16. Dan

    It definitely wasn’t the business community against this idea (probably the commuters from VA) I would take wider sidewalks any day over parking on M Street. None of my customers ever get a parking location near my store. Not having sufficient parking is just part of doing business in the city that most have accepted. This idea of widening the sidewalk would drastically help my business and make Georgetown a much more attractive, pleasant, and pedestrian oriented place to visit.

  17. Merarch

    I have to agree with Dan. I think it’s safe to assume that a large portion of customers in Georgetown aren’t finding parking spaces very near the stores they’re planning on visiting, if they even drove at all. However, 100% of a Georgetown store’s customers are using those narrow sidewalks to enter the store. Given that we have limited space to work with, I would rather see the sidewalks widened than have parking preserved.

  18. RNM

    Was thinking about the sidewalk widening issue. How about instead of widening, we better utilize what currently exists?

    If pedestrian convenience is all important, even in the face of character and look and feel of the community then how about getting rid of the various obstacles to pedestrians. Take down the street lights, clear the parking meter system, cut down and brick over the tree boxes (not just the test rubber stuff being tried out now), remove the trash cans, get rid of folding stores signs and any other obstacle that effectively limits use of the sidewalks by creating so many obstacles and choke points that pedestrians have to bob and weave to walk.

    Yes, this is a bit tongue in cheek, but it would save the BID on trash collection operations since there would be no cans…the city would save money with no need to repair, replace and power street lights too. The junking up of the sidewalk with all of these individually justifiable obstacles creates a collective mess. It is also fair to assume that any widened sidewalk would not only choke traffic flow (which as long as that pesky Key Bridge is there will keep flowing), but just open more sidewalk scape for further encroachment. First one store puts out a folding sign, then another and another…then come the sidewalk expansion of seating requests (okay, there wouldn’t be enough room for that)…still it is unlikely that widening the sidewalks would do nearly as much as getting rid of what fills them already. Then after we are done with the commercial corridor should we go after the tiny sidewalks in the residential area next?

    Or, we could just live with it since at best it is a first world problem of people with too much money and not enough sense. And yes, I do walk the sidewalks all the time and never have had an issue, never.

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