City Paper is not for tourists
Motorists regularly curse D.C.’s traffic circles, but these ceremonial features are an even bigger affliction for people on foot. Most of the circles make little or no accommodation to pedestrians. And even the ones that do—notably Dupont—require dodging multiple lanes of traffic to enter or simply cross.
One roundabout, however, has just gotten a whole lot friendlier. Thomas Circle has been remade, offering pedestrian access to its interior, as well as a simpler and safer path from one side to the other. The work is not complete, but transportation department spokesperson Karyn LeBlanc says the work, including reconfiguring the traffic lights, “should be done by the end of next week, weather permitting.” July and August aren’t conducive to planting grass and trees, so the landscaping won’t be completed until fall.
Previously, Thomas Circle was a barrier island between downtown and the residential neighborhoods to the north. It was flanked by two concentric roadways, with no pedestrian cross-passage at all. The roads were separated by curbs and low but thick hedges, which made a shortcut on foot complicated—though certainly not impossible, as was demonstrated regularly.
Now, two pedestrian paths lead to a circular walkway within the park, which centers on a statue of Civil War Gen. George Thomas. Substantial pedestrian islands consolidate the routes from four thoroughfares—14th and M Streets, and Vermont and Massachusetts Avenues—into two, and make crossing the automotive flow much less of a heroic saga than at Dupont or other circles.
The $7 million project was funded largely with $4.5 million in federal transportation funds. More importantly, it received the cooperation of the National Park Service (NPS), which controls the interiors of most (but not all) of the city’s traffic circles. This is significant, because the NPS previously hasn’t shown much consideration for the pedestrians who approach its circular greens.
Other D.C. circles that allow pedestrian access are arranged to favor the avenues, even if those are not the streets that carry the most walkers. Thus 23rd Street, thick with people moving to and from the Foggy Bottom-GWU Metro Station, has no crossing of Washington Circle. When pedestrians burned their own path across the circle along the 23rd Street axis, the Park Service simply erected fences to stop them. The redesign of Thomas Circle, however, acknowledges that 14th Street is the major foot route to the circle, and doesn’t insist that design symmetry take precedence over pedestrian safety.
All the city’s circles are different, and some—tiny Scott, for example—may never be made more people-friendly. LeBlanc says her agency has “ongoing plans” for other traffic and pedestrian improvements, but she knows of no other circles on the agenda. But if and when it does remake other ones, the newly humanized Thomas Circle would make a fine model.