Public Meeting on the Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue Project

People Bicycling on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue
Image: Author
Greater Southeast traditionally has few bicycling amenities, some lanes, some trails but few lanes that get people to the downtown core or across Wards 7 or 8. The Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Revitalization project doesn't fix this but it adds a few hundred more feet of infrastructure to an area that's lacking it. The bigger question is what does it mean?

At the Wednesday, May 31, 2017, District Department of Transportation (DDOT) public meeting on the revitalization of MLK Avenue SE at the R.I.S.E Demonstration Center, DDOT planners were introduced to the Congress Heights community.

This section of MLK in Congress Heights is one of the few stretches of commercial and social activity in Ward 8. Congress Heights Day is celebrated near it, four schools are adjacent to it, the check cash, Martin's Cafe, Pro Cut Family Barber Shop, and Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen are on it. People walk, bike, and drive to its business and schools; they catch the A or W series of Metrobuses to work or services; some just sit with others or by themselves to watch the world. For what it is, this is what some people love about MLK. Naturally, change of almost any type is sometimes met with uncertainty, skepticism, and resistance.

Presentation at R.I.S.E Center
Image: Author

Connecting needs of current residents with the thoughts about future development, Council member Trayon White Sr. spoke about the potential of new projects planned or underway at the of the sprawling east campus of St. Elizabeths. He noted the need for protected and signaled crosswalks as shown in the plans as more people will be attending events and crossing the neighboring streets as well as how DDOT would meet the basic services of the people he represents, pothole filling, adding speed bumps to streets where children were struck, and other basic street repairs.

Project Background
According to DDOT, the first meeting to discuss the rehabilitation of MLK began as a Corridor Traffic Study that analyzed current conditions for all transportation modes to support the Vision Zero Initiatives, which aims to eliminate traffic-related deaths by 2024.

While the project states that all mode were considered, the corridor improvements listed by DDOT focus mainly on improving pedestrian infrastructure. This includes intersection realignments, installation of street furniture, roadway resurfacing, and the reconstruction of sidewalks, curbs, and landscaping.

Bicycling Improvements
There is a common misconception shared by many that African Americans do not ride bikes. Uniquely, this idea is strongly held by African Americans, although the reasons why are many. The League of American Bicyclists and the Sierra Club stated in their report, The New Majority: Pedaling Towards Equality, that the fastest growth in bicycling is among people of color - Latino, African American and Asian American populations. According to their analysis, between 2001 and 2009, those three groups grew from 16 to 23 percent of all bike trips, with African American bicycling growing by 100 percent.

While DDOT spoke of creating a complete street, one that accommodates multiple users, they did not include much with regard to bicycling. The plan proposed connect lanes from 4th street, with the current bike lanes along the southern sections of the project. The plans does add sharrows, improvement to pick up and drop off for schools. Planners did indicate a potential for a new capital Bike Share station at what would be open space due to the elimination of high speed right at Alabama and 5th Streets.

The segment above represents the lower portion of the of the study corridor from about South Capitol Street to 1st Street / Upsal Street S.E. The plan creates a shared bike / vehicle lane which would include rush hour parking restrictions.

This segment includes currently existing bike lanes. It will replace current sidewalks and new crossing markings. The segment from 4th Street to Alabama Avenue contains no bike lanes.

General Roadway Improvements
The planners discussed changes to the site plan as a result of the initial meeting held in 2015 and a subsequent meeting in 2016. This planned presented DDOT's 30 percent conceptual design for the project. This includes the addition of pedestrian safety features including the elimination of a higher speed turn lane off of MLK to 4th Street, the elimination installation of a median and pedestrian bump outs to shorten the distance pedestrians need to travel across the street and reduce U-turns and other vehicle actions that could injure pedestrians.

The presentation highlighted that desire to slow down vehicular traffic with the proposed use of up to six traffic signals: a combination of standard signals and pedestrian-activated High-intencity Activated Crosswalk  signals. DDOT also included making Randle Street SE one-way, creating queue space for Democracy Prep.

Public Feedback
Many, many signals
Image: Author
With about 10-15 people in attendance, the discussion focused on concerns raise mainly by a few, who stated that their positions reflected those of residents. Early on, a member of the District Bicycle Advisory Council spoke about the inclusion of  bicycle lanes to this corridor as he was a frequent bicyclist. A few commented with regard to bicycling that as speeding is problematic and because African Americans wouldn't bike on MLK, lanes should not only be excluding from the project but removed from where it currently exists.

Some attendees suggested that bike lanes are not for the community, not what the community wants. Some said that lanes, along with a proposed median would hurt local business.  A woman stated that a median on Malcolm X  or anywhere in the project area would block the entrance to Popeye's. Later, an ANC commissioner stated that her constituents viewed shared lanes or bike lanes in general were 'not welcomed in the area', that the lanes 'should not impede vehicles', as they 'have no motors'. An man stated that bike lanes should be disregarded as they could potentially cause more accidents.

How to proceed
While a few others stated that they bike regularly and wanted more bike infrastructure privately, they did not speak publicly. The ANC commissioner who was publicly opposed to bikes stated while she personally enjoys biking with her son, she felt obligated to voice her opposition based on her constituent requests, who also wanted speed bumps installed, potholes filled, and better delivery of basic services.

It's not that people in this community hate bikes, they bike there all the time and have done so for decades. What they want is the power to decide for themselves. While bicycle advocates can vigorously discuss reports and necessity, they sometimes fail to consider that no one wants a government entity and perceived carpetbaggers telling them what to do or want to want. For those who lifvee there, perhaps they need to be sold on the idea that bikes, cars, and people can coexist.