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My family and I just spent the past week in our nation’s capital. We had a wonderful time and are missing it already. While there, I snapped several photos of what traveling around Washington DC is like for pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users. Given that DC is about 4 1/2 times larger population-wise than Fort Collins is now, but only 2 1/2 times larger than Fort Collins’ forecasted size in another 20-30 years, I figure it’s a good idea to see what they’re doing that’s working, what’s not, and what we should be doing to build a foundation now for the infrastructure that we’ll need when we’ve doubled in size.

I’ll be posting three articles with each one focusing on a different type of transportation — walking, biking, and using public transit.

Walking

For the most part, we walked to get around in the city. We stayed in an apartment on 11th near M street, on the northwest side of town (a VRBO). The National Mall was just over a mile away. And for the most part, it was very easy to get around on foot. Though we had a few close calls with motorists, none came close enough to make us feel like our lives were in danger.

The intersection of L street and Massachusetts Avenue.

The intersection of L street and Massachusetts Avenue.

But there was one scenario which nearly got us clobbered. Thanks to the layout of the city trying to mimic that of Paris, there are several diagonal streets that crisscross the basic street grid. This paired with the fact that some streets are shifted to somehow appease some overall design stratagem, led to the creation of some multi-intersection crossings such as the one shown above.

As a pedestrian traveling north or south on 11th, there are 3 points of intersection with cars and each one has a separate crossing signal. But… and this is where we nearly stepped right out into oncoming traffic… the light two intersections up is the first thing you see as you look straight ahead. So when the “white walkie guy” (as we call it) is showing, you might think you’re good to go. But you have to look a little closer and higher up to see that there’s a “red hand of death” shining down at you warning you that the L street folks are ready to mow you over.

Though the signal at left is closest, the signal half way across (where the yellow arrow is) is the one that's at eye level and therefore the first one you see upon approach.

Though the signal at left is closest, the signal half way across (where the yellow arrow is) is the one that’s at eye level and therefore the first one you see upon approach.

In an ideal world. you’d only be able to see the hand that leads you to the next island of safety. Instead, all three are visible across this intersection and you have to be sure to look at the one most imminent.

Some crossings lasted for over a minute and the numbers counted down from the get go.

Some crossings lasted for over a minute and the numbers counted down from the get go.

That said, there are two things that I loved about the pedestrian lights. Number one: they were timed perfectly to coincide with the traffic lights (which is one of my major pet peeves with Fort Collins pedestrians signals. Their timing is often atrocious and I’ve typed up many a note on Access only to have it disappear into the ether as the app tells me that something’s wrong and I’ll have to try again later.) And number two: many of the signals in DC give you information from the get-go on how long you have to cross. So there’s no guess work. You know right away if you’ve got a lot of time or a little to make it from one side to the other.

Though I didn't see many of these signs, they did give a sense that peds have a right to the road.

Though I didn’t see many of these signs, they did give a sense that peds have a right to the road.

There’s one area in which I think Fort Collins is beating the socks off of Washington DC and that’s in terms of making the pedestrian experience pleasant. Granted, traffic is traffic and as long as we have cars, the urban pedestrian experience will include the smell of exhaust, the sound of engines and horns, and the need to navigate safely through Frogger-like experiences. But trees, flower filled planters, and artwork can go a long way towards making a walking commute pleasant. And in Washington DC the trees tended to be fairly young and short, the artwork was occasional and consisted mostly of statues, and the planters…. Well, there were a few with flowers, but not many. And we happened upon an entire row of planters filled with rocks. That’s it. Just rocks. (With some kind of sealant poured on top to keep them in place.)

A row of planters filled with stones.

A row of planters filled with stones.

My take-aways from this trip when it comes to getting lots and lots of people around on foot?

  • Getting as much information out to the person on the street is incredibly helpful. Having pedestrian signals that count down the time from beginning to end lets folks further back from the intersection know whether it’s worth increasing their gait or whether they might as well slow down because they’re not going to make it anyway.
  • Signs reminding motorists that peds have a right to the road not only helps to remind car drivers to use caution, but it also helps pedestrians feel like they belong and are welcomed to be walking.
  • And planters matter. It takes time and resources to keep the planters out on Fort Collins’ streets, but they improve the experience immeasurably. Believe it or not, flowers help to reduce green house emissions and improve a sense of community and personal well-being simply by making walking a more pleasant way to travel. Though they seem like a beautification amenity, they’re also a transportation tool.

If Fort Collins is going to be doubling in terms of population over the next few decades, we need to be making sure that we’re setting up a pedestrian system that encourages safe and legal behavior on the part of pedestrians and motorists. We’ve got to get our pedestrian lights timed properly. That’s key. And we need to keep beautification projects in mind as we build out and renew our infrastructure.