Erin Palmer’s Safe Streets Infrastructure & Public Transportation Plan
All DC residents deserve safe streets by design, reliable public transportation, and amenities in their neighborhoods.
Everyone — especially our children, seniors, and disabled neighbors — should be able to easily and safely move through our neighborhoods, whether they are walking or rolling. Everyone should be able to rely on the bus and Metro to get to our jobs, schools, medical appointments, and grocery stores. Yet, we know that most of the people who don’t own cars live in the neighborhoods that have the worst infrastructure and access to public transportation. And that these same people are the most likely to be the victims of traffic violence. We also know that many of the neighborhoods without safe streets infrastructure and access to public transportation are the same neighborhoods that lack necessities and amenities. When we design and reinforce a commuter-centered city, that’s what we get, including all the pollution and traffic that comes with it. We should build a city for us — the residents of DC.
Safe streets, public transportation, and strong, neighborhood-focused communities are important to me. I don’t drive; I walk, ride the bus, and take Metro to bring my kids to school, get to meetings, and pick up what we need for our family. This is my daily life, and it’s the lived experience of many Washingtonians. I have been hit by a driver. I have been scared for me and my kids crossing the street. I have waited for a long-delayed bus and had nowhere to sit while waiting. I have struggled to push a stroller in areas with no sidewalks. I know it’s hard to get around DC safely and easily and it’s often hard to access basic services and amenities. I also know that values-driven leadership can deliver safety, accessibility, and amenities to all of our neighborhoods.
In 2015, Mayor Bowser launched DC’s Vision Zero initiative with the goal of having zero fatalities and serious injuries on our roadways by 2024. The initiative has failed.
Fatalities are increasing, with 40 in 2021, the deadliest year on record since 2007, and 9 so far this year. These deaths and serious injuries — including several children and seniors — “highlight long-standing concerns that the District is failing to provide the attention and resources needed to reduce traffic fatalities and injuries.” Worse yet, lower-income and majority-Black neighborhoods have borne the weight of most of these deaths and serious injuries. We lack meaningful data to fully understand the scope of both serious and non-serious injuries, which can have long-term consequences for those impacted.
Failing at Vision Zero isn’t a fait accompli. Leadership and political will are necessary to push forward larger changes in our traffic safety infrastructure that put safety and sustainability at the forefront. But, as every community member and Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner knows, it’s not just the big projects that stall, and that’s part of what is so frustrating about traffic violence. Whether it’s four-way stop signs or raised crosswalks or speed humps or curb extensions or roadway narrowing and reallocation, there are simple and straightforward mechanisms to slow cars down. Yet, we see governmental inaction that results directly in deaths and serious injuries and DC Council oversight that is weak by design. More and better is possible — both as to the basics and as to the more substantial projects.
DC also has ambitious climate goals, but just like Vision Zero we will never reach those goals without reliable and affordable public transportation and walkable neighborhoods. Reducing DC’s greenhouse gas emissions and achieving carbon neutrality require a high-quality, interconnected public transportation network and intentional government action to reduce car dependence. As noted in a recent Climate Change Mitigation Study from the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board, reducing automobile dependence by boosting public transit and making communities more walkable are the only way to effectively reduce air pollution and meet our regional climate goals.
Meaningfully reducing car dependence and doing so equitably requires intentional government action that puts our DC neighborhoods first. It means prioritizing the services used by working people in DC — through more and better bus service and redesigning our roads to prioritize bus service. Bus riders in the DC area are more likely than the general population to be people of color, to be low income, and to have limited English proficiency — and I’m not content letting their needs take a back seat anymore.
Below, I outline three critical areas to make our streets safer by design, to improve and expand public transportation, and to strengthen our neighborhoods so people don’t need to drive as often:
- Make installation of traffic safety infrastructure routine. Neighbors regularly fight for traffic safety infrastructure. Yet the District Department of Transportation only seems to act in response to intense public and political pressure, usually following a tragic death or injury. We must shift the framework: safe streets should be the default rather than the result of favors, tragedies, or intense advocacy. DC Council oversight must be intentionally focused on pushing proven solutions.
- Deliver reliable and affordable public transportation for everyone. Metro, bus, and other transit services and networks are crucial to DC’s public transportation infrastructure. Yet, we see deteriorating service and reliability. Year after year, neighbors fight against reductions in service. We must shift the framework: more and better public transportation requires high-quality, interconnected public transportation networks. DC must lead in regional efforts for better transit.
- Serve neighborhoods with resources and amenities. DC is a city of neighborhoods — each with strong identity, culture, and vibrancy. Yet, we’ve seen leadership focused on a commuter-centered, downtown-focused model for DC. This results in traffic congestion, loss of neighborhood amenities, and disconnection. We must shift the framework: when we focus on neighborhoods and neighborhood-serving amenities, we center the people who live in our neighborhoods. Pedestrian-friendly, vibrant neighborhoods should be provided for existing communities, not just brand-new, developer-created spaces.
All of these measures will reduce car dependence, which is essential to reducing emissions and protecting our climate, while also designing our streets and neighborhoods to be safe, inclusive, and serve the people who live in them. Together, we can build a safer, more accessible, more vibrant DC.
New DC Council leadership can shift the framework to proactive action on safe streets.
Make installation of traffic safety infrastructure routine:
Traffic safety infrastructure is in many ways uncomplicated. We know the mechanisms that slow down cars — whether it’s stop signs or raised crosswalks or speed humps or curb extensions. Yet, we have consistently seen a lack of action from the District Department of Transportation on projects big and small. Faced with public and political pressure for more and quicker implementation, the Department recently announced a change in its procedures for requesting traffic calming. But that change is mere window dressing, resulting in nothing more than faster closures of requests with no action. In my own neighborhood in Takoma DC, neighbors and the Advisory Neighborhood Commission fought for years for traffic safety improvements around a local school — improvements that only came when a young man was hit and killed by a driver. As is so often the case, death motivated action, and that is simply unacceptable.
New DC Council leadership can shift the framework to proactive action on safe streets. Instead of accepting special parking privileges that have notoriously been abused, I remain committed to advocating on the ground and building citywide coalitions with a focus on seeing our communities up close and personal to understand the challenges. I led a citywide coalition of Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners to give up our parking passes, in part because of my commitment to good government, but also because I think elected leaders should experience the city as residents do, without special advantages. Safety doesn’t have to be an afterthought any longer.
The Council can make our streets safe by design for all DC residents by:
- Establishing a major corridor modernization plan that allocates a regular, recurring funding stream to rebuild every major arterial in DC for safety and multimodality;
- Being at the table and requiring more and better from the District Department of Transportation by holding timely hearings on, voting in favor of, and assuring proper implementation of proposed traffic safety legislation, much of which resulted from years of advocacy from community members and Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners, including:
- Walk Without Worry Amendment Act of 2021, which would require the District Department of Transportation to approve standardized designs for continuous sidewalks, raised crosswalks, and raised intersections.
- Safe Routes to School Expansion Regulation Amendment Act of 2021, which would require specific traffic safety infrastructure around schools.
- Safer Intersections Amendment Act, which would largely prohibit right turns on red at intersections — a nationwide best practice — and allow the “Idaho Stop” for bicyclists.
- Upgrading Tactical Safety Projects Amendment Act, which would require the District Department of Transportation to establish and implement an annual plan to make certain temporary traffic safety infrastructure permanent and durable.
- Prioritizing People in Planning Amendment Act, which would eliminate prioritizing commuter traffic on our streets in favor of assessments that emphasize community needs, pedestrians, and sidewalks.
- Speed Management on Arterials Signage Amendment Act, which would set the standard speed limit on major and minor arterial roads at 25 miles per hour.
- Expanding standardized traffic safety infrastructure like curb extensions and four-way stop signs through legislation, including shifting the burden to the District Department of Transportation to justify deviations from these standardized traffic safety mechanisms;
- Ensuring sustained, meaningful Council oversight of the District Department of Transportation, including by re-instituting a comprehensive, nonpartisan, and objective research service that can assess nationwide best practices and through dedicated, nonpartisan Committee support staff with safety and planning expertise (as discussed in my DC Council Accountability Plan);
- Engaging with the findings of the DC Auditor’s Office in its review of DC’s Vision Zero initiative, including through additional hearings on important audit findings and enhanced Committee consideration and use of recommendations, as a tool to ensure robust, consistent oversight to improve the initiative (as discussed in my DC Council Accountability Plan);
- Requesting the Office of the DC Auditor to audit the District Department of Transportation’s service level agreement timelines (the standard timeline for the Department to complete requests) to ensure these timelines actually reflect the amount of time to make improvements and to audit 311 for city services requests to make sure they are categorized correctly and completed before closure (as supported by Advisory Neighborhood Commissions like mine in 2020);
- Holding joint hearings of the newly reconstituted, standalone Committee on Education and the Committee on Transportation and the Environment focused on safety around schools and other facilities where children gather;
- Requiring the District Department of Transportation to use their pavement condition assessment process to determine and publicly report crosswalk condition assessments citywide;
- Instituting a photo enforcement structure focused on safety, not revenue, with traffic camera tickets starting with lower fines for first time violators and escalating significantly for the small percentage of chronic offenders, and directing all revenue be re-invested in traffic safety infrastructure to make it more difficult to drive dangerously in the first place;
- Encouraging block voting against Maryland and Virginia projects at the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board until those states agree to ticket reciprocity as a matter of fundamental fairness to DC residents; and
- Funding and conducting oversight to make sure DC has enough space in its impound lot to tow vehicles and enough staff at the District Department of Public Works to boot and tow vehicles as required, as well as revising the towing priority list to place dangerous and abandoned vehicles at the top of the list.
Neglecting and deprioritizing public transit damages so much more than just the bus schedule.
Deliver reliable and affordable public transportation for everyone:
Public transportation is critical to DC’s equity, growth, and sustainability. But, instead of building back better, our public transportation systems are failing. The current Council Chair is not committed to building the transit systems we need and deserve. For almost half a decade, his appointment to the WMATA board was his longtime friend and current campaign endorser, Jack Evans. In addition to almost never riding Metro and driving and parking illegally, Evans was forced to resign from the Metro Board amid scandal for trying to use his position to enrich his friends. Neglecting and deprioritizing public transit damages so much more than just the bus schedule. We know transit links people to jobs and students to schools. We also know that Black people are three and a half times more likely to not own a car and the costs of car ownership can add up quickly for working families. Car exhaust is a primary driver of childhood asthma, and childhood asthma rates in DC are among the highest in the nation. It is not enough to drive an electric car — we have to reduce car dependence through reliable and affordable public transportation for a more sustainable future.
The Council can truly prioritize reliable and affordable public transportation that serves all our neighbors by:
- Holding timely hearings on, voting in favor of, and assuring proper implementation of Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen’s Metro For DC Amendment Act of 2021, which would dedicate funding to improving and expanding bus service and provide a $100 monthly subsidy to DC residents (and has the strong support of Advisory Neighborhood Commissions across DC);
- Prioritizing professional qualifications in the Council’s appointments to the WMATA Compact Board, and not rewarding Council cronies like Jack Evans, as well as conducting rigorous oversight of Mayoral appointees and withholding support for any nominee who isn’t an active transit rider;
- Prioritizing the quality of bus infrastructure by calling for upgraded bus lanes and investing in physically-separated bus lanes with off-board fare payment mechanisms to build a rapid bus network in DC (as supported by Advisory Neighborhood Commissions like mine in 2019);
- Expanding Kids Ride Free to automatically mail SmarTrip cards to every eligible public and public charter school student in DC (instead of requiring school coordination and pickup), allowing elementary students attending Title One schools receive a Parents Ride Free card that allows them to accompany their child, and explicitly encouraging use of these cards outside of school hours;
- Requiring colleges and universities in DC, including the University of the District of Columbia, to participate in the U-Pass program to expand transit access for students;
- Increasing access to discounted fares for seniors by using the District of Columbia Public Libraries as a Senior SmarTrip application and distribution point, like in Montgomery County, Maryland;
- Expanding DC’s bus shelter network, including by increasing capacity under the current contract for bus shelters and standardizing installation of bus shelters at bus stops (unless the District Department of Transportation can justify otherwise), to provide critical shelter for the children that take public transportation to get to school, seniors who rely on the bus, and the many essential workers that need the bus to get to work;
- Funding expansion of the DC Streetcar along Benning Road in coordination with the Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners and community leaders that have weighed in and engaged the community extensively on this proposal, and requiring a right-of-way to the operation of the streetcar to make sure service is frequent, reliable, fast, and affordable;
- Continuing to expand both Capital Bikeshare and DC Circulator to provide more and better service with a focus on expansion in communities underserved by transit;
- Prioritizing and expanding sidewalk and bike infrastructure that fills gaps in pedestrian and bike networks to lower barriers to walking and biking in DC and improve traffic safety infrastructure;
- Charging the DC Sustainable Energy Utility Advisory Board with analyzing and recommending a model for a first-in-the-nation rebate program for the purchase of electric bicycles;
- Ensuring that any contracted or separate DC-only transit services does not undercut the living wages and benefits of Metro workers and pledging to disapprove contracts that use low-bar methods to reduce costs; and
- Implementing my proposed Council Office on Environmental Sustainability and Justice (similar in structure to the Council Office of Racial Equity) to review proposed developments and require more transit planning and investment from developers.
Focusing on neighborhoods, and not just downtown, not only reduces car dependence, but also allows us to work toward correcting the historic wrongs that have caused so many neighborhoods in our city — primarily east of the Anacostia River — to lack amenities.
Serve neighborhoods with resources and amenities:
Over the last year, I have talked to neighbors across DC about how their lives have changed during the Covid-19 pandemic. Repeatedly, neighbors have noted that despite the challenges, they have had the time and space to reconnect with family, friends, neighbors, and their local communities. It’s a reminder that there are opportunities to invest in our neighborhoods and shift the focus away from a commuter-centered, downtown-focused framework. Intentionally focusing on DC’s vibrant and diverse neighborhoods allows us to create complete communities across the city. Ideally, every community should be a 15-minute neighborhood — a neighborhood where you can access all of your most basic, day-to-day needs within a 15-minute walk of your home. Focusing on neighborhoods, and not just downtown, not only reduces car dependence, but also allows us to work toward correcting the historic wrongs that have caused so many neighborhoods in our city — primarily east of the Anacostia River — to lack amenities. I’m not afraid of thinking of new and better ways forward.
The Council can make sure we are serving each of our neighborhoods with resources and amenities by:
- Revising grocery store tax breaks and subsidies to ensure that they are only available in communities with true need to help end food deserts, not in wealthier neighborhoods like my own;
- Maximizing the number of residents who can access neighborhood amenities without needing a car by expanding the amount of housing and maximizing affordable housing at high-amenity Metro stations and transit corridors, as well as creating new high-amenity transit corridors by no longer preserving industrial land (which is concentrated in specific areas and contributes to pollution and health challenges for residents);
- Expanding affordable housing requirements and incentives — including deeply affordable and family-sized units — for transit-oriented development to make sure residents of all income levels have access to public transportation and amenities, in part by ensuring the Housing Production Trust Fund meets its statutory goals;
- Pushing for the release of the Council-mandated congestion pricing study that is more than a year overdue for release, which can determine practical next steps for exploring this congestion pricing further, particularly with an equity lens;
- Supporting downtown office to housing conversion, and including downtown in the citywide inclusionary zoning program, as proposed by the Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia, to expand housing and affordable housing in downtown DC;
- Supporting robust telework policies for the DC Council and throughout government as a means to use technology to our advantage to reduce car trips, improve environmental sustainability, and support workers who want and need greater flexibility;
- Fully funding and expanding DC’s Main Streets program to support local, small businesses and Black-owned businesses to ensure hiring and retention of program Executive Directors and continuity in services to businesses;
- Fully funding, enhancing, and ensuring oversight regarding maintenance of public spaces, including playgrounds, fields, and recreation centers, to honor these spaces as critical hubs for fun and neighborhood interaction, senior engagement, and safe zones for children and teens to play and grow;
- Moving the public restroom pilot project out of the pilot stage, funding public restrooms, and requiring that the Department of Parks and Recreation open and maintain existing restroom facilities;
- Requiring the District Department of Transportation to produce annually a list of streets that have potential for closure to vehicles to provide neighborhood-based pedestrian and bike-friendly commercial areas;
- Making it easier and more affordable to close streets for neighborhood events, block parties, and street festivals so that more small-scale community events occur regularly rather than allowing closures to be dominated by massive for-profit events; and
- Allowing business associations outside single-owner developments to apply for commercial lifestyle permits to benefit small and local business communities.