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Critical K Street Transitway Needs Your Help

K Street bus lanes

It’s sometimes said that the stimulus bill was the first transportation bill. That’s basically correct; you can’t go anywhere in the transportation world without hearing how a given project was, will be, or hopefully might be a stimulus grant recipient. While most stimulus spending has gone to status quo projects, some stimulus money, particularly DOT’s discretionary spending, is going to what might be truly transformational projects.

The K Street transitway here in D.C. has the opportunity to be one of those. DDOT is proposing redesigning K Street NW between Washington Circle and Mt. Vernon Square to include dedicated bus lanes. Last night, I attended the open-house style public meeting that is part of the Environmental Assessment process.

There are three alternative plans being assessed, which are summarized in the following table:

No-build Alternative 2 Alternative 3
Car lanes 4 6 during peak hours, 4 off-peak hours 4
Transit lanes 0 2 2 or 3 (buses have a passing lane)
Sidewalk width 19 feet 19 feet 21 feet
Bike lanes Shared Shared 5 feet wide, exclusive
Parking Yes Yes Limited
Truck off-loading Yes (service road) Yes (off-peak) Limited

The two build alternatives each take the center of the road and give it to dedicated bus lanes. The extra room for those lanes comes from space currently used as service lanes, narrowing of lanes and, in alternative 3, taking away parking spaces. For more detailed information on the three plans, check out David Alpert’s very good explanation of the three plans.

The more important question is why this particular plan is so important. K Street is one of the most heavily trafficked streets in the District, on all modes of transport. Currently, between 6 AM and 9 AM on weekdays, 134 different public buses travel east on this section of K Street while 89 buses travel west. This includes 26 different bus routes, including Metrobus and the K Street Circulator but also MTA and Loudoun County commuter buses. Additionally, 18 different bus lines cross this section of K Street. Accordingly, this corridor is a particularly important one to get right.

The effects of the busway are striking. According to DDOT’s projections, travel times on buses will drop quite significantly, as shown in the following table:

Eastbound AM Eastbound PM Westbound AM Westbound PM
No build 17 minutes 15 minutes 13 minutes 17 minutes
Alternative 2 13 min. 12 min. 12 min. 11 min.
Alternative 3 11 min. 11 min. 12 min. 10 min.

Given that one of the consultants on the project advised me that these numbers are probably all optimistic, due to the model they were using, these numbers are best understood as percentages, which shows very significant decreases in travel time by bus. Given the sheer quantity of bus transit operating in this corridor, those travel time reductions are, if nothing else, significant quality-of-life increases for many, many people. Nikhil Nadkarni, a Chinatown resident who takes the Circulator to work, expressed his excitement about Alternative 3 due to its faster bus times. Looking comparatively, Paris’ Mobilien project has been met with rave reviews.

More importantly, a major K Street transitway has the possibility of really reshaping our transit connectivity, if done correctly. My only criticism of the plans was that when detailing the transit infrastructure of K Street, the public hearing noted only one Metrorail station: Farragut North. This is because Farragut North is the only station directly on K Street. Of course, Foggy Bottom, Farragut West and McPherson Square are one block south, on I Street. Mount Vernon Square is two blocks north, on M Street. DDOT has emphasized the impact this will have on buses, but it could really affect our Metrorail system as well. David Alpert’s fantasy Metro map has a separate Blue Line running along M Street, partly because it’s important to increase redundancy, as we learned after the Red Line crash.

If, and only if, the K Street transitway is well-integrated not only with Farragut North but with the Blue/Orange and Yellow/Green lines in a two block radius of the transitway, it can serve some of that function. Someone coming from Arlington to Mt. Vernon Square might transfer to a rapid bus line on K Street rather than to the Yellow or Green lines. I’m not sure how you can shrink those distances of a block or especially two blocks, but if there is a way, that is the step needed to change this project from incremental to transformational.

With or without proper integration into Metro, the important thing is to do everything in our power to make sure that this transitway becomes reality. Barbara Hoage, one of the consultants working on the project, told me that because this project’s future was entirely dependent on stimulus money, public comments during this period were incredibly important to the project’s future. Before the end of next week, August 7, e-mail Kstreetcomments@rkk.com. Tell them that you support the K Street transitway. Because they are not submitting a preferred alternative at this point, you don’t have to state a preference between Alternative 2 and Alternative 3.

Alternative 3 does seem like the more sustainable option. It increases the width of the sidewalks for pedestrians, offers buses faster times and is the only plan that offers a bike lane. Some cyclists are skeptical that this bike lane, which isn’t physically separated from traffic like in Copenhagen, will be good enough. However, cyclists I spoke with at the hearing, such as J.T. Stinson, who bikes “hundreds of miles every week” and “hasn’t walked in this city in two years,” suggested that a bike lane would be better than none. As long as a bike lane on K doesn’t preclude a cycle track on, say, H, I tend to agree with them. You don’t have to suggest Alternative 3, but please, please send an e-mail to kstreetcomments@rkk.com and let them know how important it is to build a transitway on K Street. You could help reshape D.C.’s central business district with just an e-mail.

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