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No one would mistake Ed Galiber’s stretch of Holly Street NW for, say, Connecticut Avenue. The quiet byway, which curves to intersect 17th Street twice, offers a handful of august brick homes on one side and Rock Creek Park on the other. It’s obscure enough that Galiber hesitates to talk about it. “Unless you know it,” he says, “you don’t know it.”
But drivers have discovered that it makes a fine shortcut between 16th Street NW and the Colonial Village and Rock Creek Gardens neighborhoods. Galiber and his neighbors recite a litany of accidents and near-accidents caused by drivers speeding down the block.
So last month, the District Department of Transportation announced plans to adopt a state-of-the-art speed-inhibiting feature: traffic circles where Holly crosses 17th.
D.C. motorists are more accustomed to encountering circles on grand arterial avenues than on residential side streets. The major roundabouts, such as Dupont Circle, were built in the late 19th century and were mainly intended to consolidate the odd-shaped lots that had been left by diagonally intersecting streets.
But in the mid-1970s, engineers in Seattle tried using circles to slow local traffic. That city now has more than 900 circles dotting its streets, and the idea has been picked up across the country. Closer to home, Arlington has built more than 30 circles since 1988, according to Jeff Sikes, neighborhood traffic-calming coordinator for the Arlington County Department of Transportation. “They’re sort of a better alternative to stop signs,” Sikes says.
The latter-day circles planned for Holly Street are a modest breed. Instead of full ring-shaped roadways—with lawns, fountains, or statues in the center—they would consist of round concrete islands built in the middle of ordinary intersections. The minicircles would force drivers to veer to the right, theoretically making them slow down and pay more attention.
District planners have been slow to embrace the watered-down version of the circles. Until they were included in traffic-calming guidelines issued in 2002, engineers favored the traditional stop-signs-and-speed-bump approach. Only recently, Department of Transportation spokesperson Bill Rice says, have agency-commissioned studies recommended the minicircles.
So far, circle proposals have been limited to sites in Wards 3 and 4. Besides the ones for Holly Street, a pair has been recommended for Upton Street NW, a popular Tenleytown shortcut between Connecticut and Wisconsin Avenues. Another has been suggested for the five-way intersection of Nebraska Avenue, McKinley Street, and 30th Place NW in Chevy Chase. The Holly Street circles have reached the final stage of approval, Rice says, and the others are not far behind.
Galiber, for one, is not convinced traffic circles are the solution for his street. He claims a circle will make snow removal more difficult. A network of one-way streets, he says, would be preferable. Another neighbor, Gloria Mitton, is more blunt: “I think it’s a waste of money.”
The Holly Street circles are estimated to cost $3,000 each, and Sikes says some circles can cost as much as $30,000 after landscaping—much more than four-way stop signs, which require only hundreds of dollars. But Sikes says the benefits are worth the expense: Circles, he says, typically reduce average speeds by as many as 4 mph, and they also reduce the number and severity of accidents.
Robert Mosher, who lives next to Arlington’s newest circle, on Little Falls Road next to Bishop O’Connell High School, says he wasn’t certain the traffic circle would help. “I wondered what the heck they were gonna do there,” he says.
But in the month since the circle was finished, Mosher says he’s seen fewer fender benders among the school’s inexperienced student drivers. “They have to slow down. Literally, they can’t get near each other,” he says. “The guy that thought that up, he knows something.”CP