Dysfunction Junction Vol. 6: Wisconsin and M Street, NW

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Dysfunction Junction chronicles the most forlorn, baffling, and wonderful crossroads of our fair city. Ben Ball is a transportation nerd in his spare time. He lives in LeDroit Park. Ben previously wrote about 14th and Park/Kenyon NW.

“We Are Georgetown” – or so the ads tell us.  If “we” refers to a frothy mix of foreign tourists, well-to-do students, and old biddies clutching their Hermès handbags, then I’m willing to concede the point.  For quite a few of us, though, Georgetown has always felt much more like “them” – a neighborhood that feels like an appendix to DC proper.  (The oft-revisited idea of secession doesn’t help.)

It’s simple:  this intersection is over capacity.  Wisconsin is the big north-south thoroughfare, and M is the big east-west thoroughfare, but neither can deal with the jam of drivers, pedestrians and daring cyclists who just want to get where they’re going.  Naturally, the place where they meet just compounds the lunacy.

The sidewalks here are already legendary for their narrowness.  Most of the time, it just feels like the line for Georgetown Cupcake metastasized over the whole neighborhood.  Garbage cans and parking meters further promote the sense that you’re running an obstacle course.  Then the crowd of people looking to cross the street turns this intersection into a giant game of red rover, thwarting those who just want to go around the corner.  Every light change starts the Mexican standoff between entitled pedestrians, harried drivers looking to turn right, and left-turning drivers stuck in the middle of the intersection.

Continues after the jump.

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If it was just about shoppers, traffic wouldn’t be so bad.  But this intersection is actually a double bottleneck.  Virginia drivers just want to get to the Key Bridge.  Folks from Glover Park and points north just want to get downtown.  Both must cross paths at this intersection.  If you’re on a southeast-bound 30 bus, be prepared for a long ride.  If you’re not on one, it might be a while.  (The transit screens the Georgetown BID wants to install will at least allow us to sit in the cafés while we’re waiting.)  Even emergency vehicles have a hard time getting through the logjam – I saw one sit there, sirens blaring, for a good five minutes this weekend.

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If we had truly visionary leadership, we would Big Dig this thing.  Deep underground would be the start of a separated Blue Line.  Above that (but still just under the surface) would be an arterial road to easily connect Rosslyn to downtown DC.  Up top, M Street could finally become the fully pedestrian walkway and streetcar corridor that it desperately needs to become.  Bonus:  we could finally tear down the Whitehurst Freeway, an idea already forty years in the making.  But that’s all wishful thinking.  We’ll be waiting quite a while for someone to conjure up the cojones (and the cash) to fix this mess permanently.

52 Comment

  • Scrillin

    “entitled pedestrians, harried drivers”

    Hmm… that left a bad taste in my mouth.

    Anybody down there for Mother’s Day? I saw drivers blocking the crosswalks, not pedestrians blocking the street.

    Here’s a quick fix to all the VA drivers hellbent on using Key Bridge:

    Better signage and education to explain how it’s usually quicker to exit Georgetown by going East and hooking up with the Roosevelt Bridge.

    • I think the Wisconsin/M st. intersection is much better than it used to be… You pretty much had to go all the way down the street to turn before this was instituted. I have no complaints here except for the crappy parking and the closed food court in the mall there.

  • justinbc

    This one is truly awful. I used to try to think of every option possible to avoid it, but all the alternatives wind up taking almost as long. This single intersection makes me despise Georgetown more than anything the douchey inhabitants could do.

    • “Douchy inhabitants?” Really? I could think of a lot of neighborhoods in DC whose denizens merit that description more than Georgetown. Anyway, that intersection is one of the worst in the city, so I agree with you on the avoidance part

      • justinbc

        Believe me, I was in no way implying that Georgetown has a monopoly on them, or that all residents fall under that category. It’s just the ones who do live and/or frequent there annoy me a bit more than the ones who are elsewhere.

  • First, must every article about Georgetown begin with a colorful description of how disconnected/hoity-toity/spoiled/privileged/not-hipster Georgetown is compared to the rest of the city? Come on, people. Every neighborhood in the city has its good and bad qualities.

    Also, don’t tear down the Whitehurst Freeway. It’s spooky and cool underneath, with places like the new Malmaison taking advantage of the industrial vibe, and it’s a hella fast way to get from Virginia into the downtown core by skipping M St altogether. All I might ask is that a public safety campaign gets underway to remind the cyclists underneath the bridge that going a million miles an hour coming off of the C&O Canal really terrifies the peds crossing the street.

    • +1
      I spent the greatest amount of time in Georgetown right after I’d been laid off from a low-paying government job. I couldn’t afford DC and was living in West Arlington, and Georgetown was an easy bike ride from there. I loved the canal, the waterfront, the old architecture, the wonderful little art galleries, the vast number of pedestrians with a sense of fashion, the European influence everywhere… Like Adams Morgan, too many people judge Georgetown based on the madhouse that it becomes on Friday and Saturday nights. But there’s a lot more to it than that. My girlfriend refuses to go to Georgetown because she only sees the negative side of it, which is really frustrating. It’s really a nice place to spend a sunny day.

    • +1! I love the space underneath the freeway. As a resident of Georgetown, I love that this space exists as a contrast to the madness of M street.

      I get there’s a lot of Gtown haters on this blog, but there’s more to the neighborhood than shoppers and tourists mobbing the sidewalks and waiting on cupcake lines. The space underneath the freeway and the waterfront park are some of the great things about Gtown.

      • Exactly! Georgetown is one of the more uniquely beautiful neighborhoods in the city. Get to know it a bit, and you realize that it’s really easy to ignore the line outside of Georgetown Cupcakes and instead head straight for Baked & Wired, if cupcakes are even your thing.

        • I lived in New York for most of my adult life before moving back down here, and I always think of Georgetown as the Soho of DC. Both Broadway and M Street are an insanely-crowded, headache-inducing mess of pedestrians (including tons of tourists) and vehicle traffic, but many of the side streets are far more charming, peaceful, and interesting to wander (even if the much of the retail, other than the chains like Banana Republic et al, is out of my budget).

  • i actually like the whitehurst. or at least the space it creates underneath.

    • Me too. It’s also important that some of the traffic form the Key Bridge be diverted. M Street is bad enough as it is.

    • The Whitehurst Freeway is an abomination that should never have been built. I find it inexcusable that people support keeping it. I’m sorry, but on this issue I am correct.

      • That may be, aesthetically, but it’s one of the only thing relieving pressure on the intersection at M and Wisconsin… If you get rid of it you better have a pretty comprehensive plan for how people from points West of Georgetown are going to get to and from downtown.

        • ah

          +1. An alternative to the Whitehurst would be great, but between grade changes and the various connections it creates, it is virtually impossible to provide for the traffic flow without something very similar, unless you rebuild the key bridge.

      • i’m not asking you to excuse my opinions.

      • You are correct only in your own mind.

      • How convenient that you have selected for yourself the moniker I already apply to most of people who share your opinion.

  • Can I nominate Connecticut and Woodley NW for this series? I work there and see tourists and Washingtonians regularly nearly die as cars try to figure out where the heck to stop and when the heck to start again due to the terrible placement of stoplights.

    • Correction — Connecticut and 24th St (directly south of Woodley)

    • Yes, please! That intersection has gotten marginally better since they repainted some of the lines, but cars still can’t seem to figure out where they need to stop, and the zoo tourists don’t help the situation.

    • How about any of the intersections along Pennsylvania Ave SE? It’s a dream for drivers, but the lights don’t give pedestrians enough time to get across. I’m young, healthy, and a very fast walker, but I can’t make it across Pennsylvania at 11th Street before the Walk signal ends, unless I break into a run.

  • why is it that cyclists who use this intersection are “daring”? All users of that mess of an intersection (as you rightly point out) are at risk.

    • probably because there are no bike lanes, ergo, anyone riding a bike through there in a car lane is a daring fool

  • Why tear down Whitehurst? It’s a wonderful road that brings me traffic free from Rosslyn to K Street. I’m so grateful to not have to exit onto M Street! There’s often very few cars on the road — I feel like it’s my secret shortcut.

    • That exit for Whitehurst is very sneaky. I think I suffered through M Street traffic for a while before discovering it. And even now I’m likely to miss it if I’m not paying attention and prepared for it.

  • Students from Georgetown who are poor, like myself, were also allowed to go walk around on M Street. Maybe that’s changed in recent years. As one of the few American universities with a commitment to need-blind full-need admissions you’d think people would laud Georgetown for helping poor kids, like myself, get an education, if they worked their ass off in high school. So what is it that instead invites this misplaced, ignorant and casual scorn?

    • I think some of the negative comments are conflating Georgetown, the University; Georgetown, the (physical) neighborhood, Georgetown the (symbolic) neighborhood (ie, its high prices and its high-society connotations), and M Street.

      As you point out, M Street is rather diverse and democratic, as (at least during the day when I’ve been there), it tends to attract crowds from all walks of life, including a ton of tourists, college students, and teenagers (or at least people who appear to be such). Personally, I don’t love it since I don’t love large crowds, but it’s really not so different from Penn Quarter/Verizon, Adams Morgan, or any other major retail/restaurant/entertainment strip in the District. Honestly, I don’t see too many rich ladies with bajillion-dollar handbags milling around on M Street–I suspect they drive (or are driven) and stick to their quieter enclaves in the neighborhood. As for Georgetown the University, good on them for their full-need admissions. I think the stereotype of the rich, fratty, entitled college student tends to be fresh in everyone’s minds because that’s often what’s most visible. (That is, the 22-year old dropping boatloads of cash on bottle service tends to stand out…the 22-year old tending the bar to put him/herself through school, less so.)

  • Love the idea of a big dig – but seeing as how that is likely never to happen wouldn’t it make the most sense to create access to the Whitehurst from Westbound M street traffic? Get rid of the traffic island where the Whitehurst joins M by the exorcist steps and create a signaled turn lane for traffic. Add a few signs and you could greatly ease some of the traffic problems for probably $250K.

    While they are at it – remove all signs in Virginia routing drivers to the Key Bridge and instead point them to 66 and the Roosevelt bridge. Additionally – all the 30s buses should use Water/K street instead of M and Pennsylvania. Removing the buses from M would greatly improve vehicle and pedestrian traffic in Georgetown. (full disclosure I ride the 30s everyday and would be fine walking the extra 3 blocks from Water to M).

    • So basically have the 30s buses go the same route as the Union Station/Gtown Circulator? I don’t think that’s a great idea. During the PM rush hour that stretch going north on Wisconsin from Water Street through the M Street intersection is complete standstill. It takes FOREVER go through that M St/Wisconsin intersection. It’s no better than the M Street gridlock.

      Removing buses from M street won’t ease the car traffic on that strip. Maybe reducing the number of bus stops along M St may help. I ride the 30s buses into Gtown every day during the PM rush and mostly it’s delivery trucks parked on M Street during rush hour that cause problems.

  • Streetcar that goes down K and continues up Wisconsin on a dedicate right of way. Problem solved, plus there is so much schadenfraude potential in watching Georgetowners have meltdowns over not being able to drive half a mile from home and park directly in front of their favorite stores.

  • Entitled pedestrians is a chronic problem across the city. At tough intersections they just make things world.

    • what is it that makes the pedestrians seem entitled?

      • Jaywalking

      • Their insistence on exercising their rights to prevent right turners from ever turning. Far too many pedestrian that a.) expect you to yield if they are approaching the crosswalk (instead of in it, where you are supposed to yield) b.) hurry to get into the crosswalk only to slow down once they made sure you had to yield, c.) when you dont yield to a pedestrian that is simply approaching a crosswalk (again not physically in the crosswalk) they either stare you down or make a point of trying to walk in front of you, and finally, d.) the pedestrians that ignore the walk/dont walk signal and walk out in front of a turning car that has a green light.

        The law is yield to pedestrians in crosswalks. Not pedestrians approaching crosswalks.

        • So, by your reasoning, in order for me to cross a street on foot, I must be in the crosswalk before your lane gets the green light, correct? There is about 1-2 seconds max in which I have the “WALK” signal before you get your green light. If I don’t get into the street before you get your signal, you’re not going to stop for me when I’m at the corner and making myself visible?

          I’m sure you have something to say about those pedestrians who walk into the street just as soon as your light turns red, don’t you? Then again, I guess those pedestrians want to put themselves in the crosswalk before you run them over.

        • i see. yes, indeed if you are driving, and already in the crosswalk, peds should try to cross behind you, not in front. thats just human decency. and peds that slow down in the crosswalk do suck.

          is that really entitlement though? seems a bit harsh, when people are just trying to cross the street. and outside of freeways, we really fail as a society when we don’t put humans before cars.

  • Totally agree with other comments – I was surprised by the unnecessary hate on Georgetown at the beginning of this post. I do agree that it’s a traffic nightmare during rush hour, and part of the issue is the stoplight at the Key bridge/M St/Whitehurst Freeway/Canal Rd. If they could reduce the amount of traffic going through (and sometimes blocking) this intersection, it wouldn’t be nearly as backed up. Approaching from the west, they could add a direct connection to the bridge for those DC and MD drivers on Canal Rd who want to go to VA. I’m not sure what they can do for the drivers going in other directions.

  • I didn’t think Hipsters ever left their neighborhoods.

  • Ben, any possibility you could consider the 16th/Harvard/Columbia/Mt. Pleasant/Argonne intersection for a future installment?

    It’s not nearly as messed up as some, but I’m frustrated that I’ve complained to DDOT (via Jim Graham) multiple times about lanes that need arrows and don’t have them, and still no arrows have been added.

    What I’d recommended was:

    —————-
    * Harvard Road NW, eastbound – the road is two lanes between Argonne and 16th, narrowing to one lane east of 16th

    I recommend that the left lane be marked “left turn only” (for people turning onto left 16th Street going north), and that the right lane be marked “going straight only.” (Someone who needed to turn right onto 16th Street going south would already have done so via the curved lane that goes from the Columbia/Argonne intersection to 16th Stgreet.)

    * Columbia Road NW, westbound – the road is two lanes between 16th and Argonne, narrowing to one lane west of Argonne

    I recommend that the right lane be marked “right turn only” (for people turning onto right onto Argonne) and the left turn be marked “going straight only.”
    ————-

    • I’m kind of in awe of how well the whole area functions given how complicated the intersections are. I’m not sure I agree with your suggestions, though.

      Isn’t Harvard east of 16th Street 2 lanes during rush hour? That’s probably why you can use both lanes coming eastbound on Columbia Road to continue on to Harvard eastbound. As for Columbia Road westbound, it seems to me there’s no way to make lanes out of that little one block ‘mixing zone’ along the park, especially when you add in the cars coming from Mt Pleasant Street.

      Side question: it seems like you’re calling the street that Pica Taco fronts Argonne Place. I thought that was Harvard. I realize when you turn left from 16th Street at the left turn arrow by Mt Pleasant Street it says you’re turning onto Harvard Street, but it seems like that technically should be Argonne Place.

      • Yes, Argonne is only the tiny little street in front of the Chalfonte (and behind the Argonne apartment building), and it’s one-way going east(ish)bound, so there’s no turning right onto it, unless you’re into the neighborhood side streets and turning right onto Argonne from Lanier.

        I also think that whole intersection works relatively well for the way it’s set up, although I’m always navigating it as a pedestrian, so I can’t speak to any frustrations it might cause for drivers. The one-way on Argonne is probably a little annyoing, but then again, one-ways are a hallmark of city driving.

      • My bad; it is indeed Harvard, not Argonne.

        “Isn’t Harvard east of 16th Street 2 lanes during rush hour? That’s probably why you can use both lanes coming eastbound on Columbia Road to continue on to Harvard eastbound.”

        It may be two lanes during rush hour, but that’s no reason why the two eastbound lanes east of 16th Street should be unmarked. If one lane is marked “left turn only” and the other lane is marked “going straight only,” then people in the “going straight” lane would have a choice of two different lanes once they got to the other side of 16th Street.

        As it stands right now, there’s too much potential for fender-benders. No matter which lane I’m in to continue east on Harvard Street, the person in the other lane always thinks he/she has the right of way. (There was also one time when I was in the left lane and the person in the right lane was — unbelievably — trying to turn LEFT onto 16th Street, but that was sheer idiocy.)

        “As for Columbia Road westbound, it seems to me there’s no way to make lanes out of that little one block ‘mixing zone’ along the park, especially when you add in the cars coming from Mt Pleasant Street.”

        There are two lanes there. Marking one with an arrow to indicate “going straight only” and the other with an arrow to indicate “right turn only” would solve the problem. Cars coming from Mount Pleasant Street wishing to proceed west along Columbia Road would need to move from the right lane into the left lane, but that’s much less complicated and dangerous than having cars in two lanes EACH thinking they have the right of way to proceed west along Columbia Road.

  • People getting angry for the author hating on Georgetown need to lighten up a bit. It’s an easy target. That’s not what this story is about.

    I’d love to enjoy Georgetown more often, but getting there and getting back home are usually agonizingly slow exercises in futility. No Metro. If I want to take a bus, I have to transfer a couple of times. Driving is just as painful, when the area seems to now be in gridlock 24/7, and forget about parking without emptying your wallet. And biking is not always an option.

  • Thanks for the suggestions on future posts. I’ve got a running list and will definitely check these out.

    • saf

      You should also look at Georgia/Kansas/Upshur.

      • +1.

        Not sure that anything is particularly messed-up with the intersection itself, but the timing of the lights creates all kinds of backups.

        The issue has popped up on the Petworth Yahoogroup and I believe it’s on Councilmember Muriel Bowser’s radar… but nothing seems to have changed.

      • +1 on Georgia/Kansas/Upshur! But my favorite worst intersection in the whole north part of the city is Georgia/Missouri/Military NW in Brightwood. It is so terrible, and it even has lights that just direct you to nowhere–like left turn arrows on GA that if you followed them would result in head-on collisions with people zipping across Missouri who actually have the right of way. It feels like a death trap every time I have to turn left there (which is often, as Military is my best route through the park to the west side of town).

  • Busy traffic in busy city. Crowded cupcake stores.
    Boo hoo.

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