Noisy and noxious motor vehicles are a backdrop of city life. Worse still, they’re actively hazardous. The Hatchet reported in 2019 – and not for the first time – that a student was struck by a vehicle crossing H Street. And GW’s Walking and Running Routes guide warns students that its routes “will take you across streets that are heavily traveled by automobiles.” Motor vehicle traffic makes the District’s streets just as unwelcoming to pedestrians during the day as they can seem at night. But the problem is that encounters between motor vehicles and pedestrians aren’t just inconvenient, annoying or frustrating; they can be deadly. Students, the University and city officials all have a stake in creating safer streets – and in turn, stronger communities – in D.C.
This issue is in no way confined to GW’s campus on the streets of Foggy Bottom. This year, vehicles have struck five children – two fatally – at intersections in Northwest and Northeast D.C. Video taken from a roadside memorial for 5-year-old Allison Hart, who was killed last month while riding her bike in the Brookland neighborhood, shows a deadly thoroughfare rather than an amenity for nearby residents. The latest of these incidents occurred in Southeast D.C. on Oct. 6 when a car struck two children and their father on National Walk to School Day.
Reducing traffic fatalities and improving pedestrian and cyclist safety has long been a goal of Mayor Muriel Bowser. But despite her Vision Zero plan, an initiative launched in 2015 to create a D.C. “where no lives are lost on our streets or at our intersections,” Bowser has done little in the face of climbing traffic fatalities year after year.
The solution to vehicle-pedestrian collisions is simple. It isn’t elaborate bike lanes or speed cameras, nor more traffic enforcement officers or clever urban design tricks. Reducing or eliminating potential conflict points between pedestrians and motor vehicles is the only way to genuinely decrease traffic fatalities. Or, to put it plainly, eliminate vehicle traffic from the street as much as possible.
Perhaps this sounds radical, but consider that both GW and the District collectively closed several miles of streets during the weekend of Oct. 2. With metal fencing and parked vehicles blocking the way, H street across from Kogan Plaza was closed to vehicle traffic for GW’s own Bicentennial Celebration. That same weekend, the city shut down a three-mile stretch of Georgia Avenue for Open Streets D.C. to “provide safe spaces for walking, biking, skating and other social activities.”
These closures made streets safer by reducing potential conflicts between drivers and pedestrians, but more importantly, they represent an awareness that streets lined with homes, businesses and workplaces are where public and civic life happens – not a place for cars to speed by.
University and city officials know that large crowds and free-flowing traffic don’t mix, but they approach street closures as safety precautions taken for one-off events or much hyped but infrequent glimpses into a carless future. Georgia Avenue remained closed for a single day and H Street only for the weekend. Instead, GW and D.C. officials need to recognize street closures as much-needed public policy solutions that they could and should implement right now.
For GW’s politically active student body, the fight for safer streets combines an array of issues from environmental justice to racial equity. Students chastised for living in the Foggy Bottom bubble now have the ability to restore literal and metaphorical connectivity locally and even to the rest of D.C. Those eager to create cleaner, quieter and healthier streets while working to combat the effects of historically racist infrastructure can start by contacting Foggy Bottom’s Advisory Neighborhood Commission and urging the University to put its institutional weight behind such measures.
Students, residents and officials must commit to street closures and address the challenges in doing so. Any plan for a traffic-free future needs to accommodate the reality that certain uses are far too important to limit entirely. Service vehicles like ambulances and fire trucks, commercial and industrial deliveries, public transportation, mobility aids for the elderly and disabled and even GW’s own SafeRide program are all important exceptions – but exceptions nonetheless – to such plans.
From subsidizing transit fares for students, staff and faculty, especially for those who commute into the city, to expanding or retrofitting pre-existing parking garages, GW’s influence is essential to any long-term change. But by partnering with and pressuring D.C. officials, and with strong grassroots support, Foggy Bottom – and ideally all of the District – can have safe streets.
The District’s traffic problem is a question of how our community interacts with the spaces we occupy and the types of places we want to live in. The GW community can be a driving force behind imagining safer, more engaged communities. We only have to try.
Ethan Benn, a sophomore majoring in journalism and mass communications, is an opinions writer.