Credit: Josh Kramer

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Think back to March and April, in the early days of the local response to the coronavirus pandemic. Most D.C. residents were stuck at home and eager to spend more time outside. Many essential workers, reliant on buses and trains, found it difficult to commute safely. Traffic was reduced to a whisper.

Some cities, like Oakland, California, were launching bold initiatives to expand access to streets. Eventually D.C. followed suit with Slow Streets, a program that blocks private vehicles from select roads so that pedestrians, cyclists, and everyone else feel safe in the middle of the street. This month, the city is expanding the program by hundreds of blocks. But is this crucial, emergency infrastructure that benefits everyone. or is it a flimsy, temporary measure that benefits only some and is being executed too late?

D.C.’s “Slow Streets” are marked with a weighted orange and white plastic barricade with two signs and possibly one or two cones. One sign reads, “ROAD CLOSED TO THRU TRAFFIC,” and the other says, “SPEED LIMIT 15.” A typical installation sits near an intersection, inside the right lane, where cars enter the block. Eight barricades run the length of 12th Street NE from K Street NE, near the Florida Avenue NE intersection where cyclist Dave Salovesh was killed last year, straight south all the way to Lincoln Park. 

For Keya Chatterjee, a climate activist who organized ad hoc street closures in the first few months of the pandemic, the Slow Streets are welcome, but she thinks they could use some improvement. Chatterjee and other activists have three areas of concern about Slow Streets: the signage and other details, the placement of the installations, and the timing of the project. Some urbanists and at least one Councilmember are challenging whether projects like Slow Streets are equitable and democratic.

Chatterjee lives near the 12th Street NE Slow Street. “There are stretches that feel really safe and ones that don’t,” she says. “It only works on the blocks that have signs in my experience.” Crucially, the busiest intersections, at H Street NE and Maryland Avenue NE, are completely unmarked. 

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“This is an iterative process for us,” says District Department of Transportation Director Jeff Marootian. “In some cases, we’ve heard that there’s a need for additional signage, and we have either added it, or will be adding it in the future,” he says, without specifying when. Recently, DDOT added laminated, explanatory posters to the back of the barricades on 12th Street NE, but the busy intersections still have no signs.

According to DDOT, Slow Streets should be mainly local, neighborhood roads that connect to other infrastructure like protected bike lanes, and have no bus traffic. Streets where residents have repeatedly complained about speeding and through traffic are also considered.

Another important aspect of the program is the speed limit. Although different cities obviously require different programs, the speed limit for New York City’s Open Streets program is 5 mph, compared to 15 mph for D.C.’s Slow Streets. Transportation activists, including Chatterjee, question the logic of Slow Streets that are only 5 miles per hour slower than the new, default 20 mph speed limit now being installed on signs throughout the city. Even the ReOpen DC Advisory Group’s transportation committee recommended “a target speed of 10 mph” for a shared street network like Slow Streets. According to Marootian, DDOT “looked carefully at what other cities had proposed and what other cities have done and we also carefully considered our laws and regulations and where there needed to be changes to those.”

The Slow Streets program also went through a lengthy approval process. First, ReOpen DC solicited public feedback and issued its recommendations on May 21. On June 8, more than a month and a half after Oakland began its pilot program, Mayor Muriel Bowser and DDOT announced Slow Streets along with other initiatives. In mid-July, DDOT finished installing the first group of Slow Streets, including 12th Street NE, in the midst of a heat emergency when temperatures reached the mid-90s. At this point, low traffic, one of the original reasons for Slow Streets, may be returning to normal. According to Marootian, traffic is still down city-wide, but other traffic data is mixed.

Now, nearly six months into the public health emergency, DDOT plans to build about 17 more miles, culminating in a network of 22 miles by September. If the pieces look like isolated segments on the map, Marootian insists that they are intended to work with other transportation networks. “We have to start somewhere and build from that initial deployment,” he says. “And that’s how we’re looking at it—evaluating them individually and as part of a larger system.”

But there’s one place the network won’t be growing—Ward 8. According to a document obtained by City Paper that DDOT shared with Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, about 3.23 miles of Slow Streets (mapped here) had been planned for Ward 8, where residents are predominantly Black and poorer than in other parts of D.C. and is experiencing extreme levels of unemployment and COVID-19 infection. Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White effectively banned Slow Streets from Ward 8 with an amendment to the law permitting them. “Many residents in Ward 8 have not supported bike lanes and other measures that appear to force aspects of gentrification and displacement,” White states in the amendment.

In the ongoing national conversation around racial equity since the killing of George Floyd in late May, some activists have challenged the practice of quick-build infrastructure projects like Slow Streets that eschew multi-year and multi-stage construction projects in favor of timely progress and rapid feedback. Assessing these projects in CityLab, Destiny Thomas, a Black planner and organizer, writes, “by design, their ‘quick-build’ nature overrides the public feedback that is necessary for deep community support. Without that genuine engagement, I feared that pandemic-induced pedestrian street redesigns would deepen inequity and mistrust in communities that have been disenfranchised and underserved for generations.”

Marootian says DDOT prioritizes equity. “We have transportation safety projects that are happening in all eight wards of the district,” he says. “It is a priority for us to build infrastructure that connects people, that connects neighborhoods. In many cases, we’re looking to right the historical wrongs of past transportation decisions, and we take that incredibly seriously.” 

Chatterjee believes projects like Slow Streets can mitigate harm to Black residents, including from poor air quality and COVID-19. “I do think that building things quickly, that result in a lower loss of life, in a situation where that loss of life is clearly based on racial injustice, is the only way to move towards justice,” she says.

Questions persist about how long the Slow Streets will remain. A May 29 announcement reads, “DC Slow Streets will be in place for the duration of the public health emergency.” Marootian now says there is no limit to how many Slow Streets might be installed. “We want to see what works and how we can make it better and we’re very committed to doing that,” he says.

Even if traffic returns to pre-pandemic levels, weather keeps residents indoors for months, and the details are not ideal, Chatterjee thinks that Slow Streets are, and will remain, essential to D.C. “The reality is that this situation, this pandemic—where we’re going to have to be outside more and that’s going to be our social setting—is not going away any time soon,” she says.