David Meni: GW needs to make campus more pedestrian-friendly

A new dance is catching on around GW’s campus – “The H Street Shuffle.” It goes like this: Step off the curb, peek around the food truck, turn your head to the right, then the left, dodge the person glued to their phone, take two steps forward and two steps back, apologize to driver, narrowly avoid the oncoming bicycle and sprint the rest of the way to Kogan Plaza.

The inconvenience of frequently crossing both H Street by Kogan Plaza and I Street by Whole Foods highlights an inherent problem that comes with the prime location of our campus. As an urban school, GW has a lot to consider: the needs of students, staff and faculty, as well as the needs of area residents that drive on the streets of campus.

Though the University has made considerable development in most of its construction endeavors, the campus streetscape – the design for everything from streets and crosswalks to benches and lampposts – is still lacking when it comes to creating a cohesive campus identity and making Foggy Bottom safer for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers.

Getting this right should be a higher priority for GW, given the thousands of students who live on Foggy Bottom and the students, staff and faculty who walk or bike on campus. Since District House between H and I streets will be completed soon, the timing is right for GW to reconsider – with student and resident input – how the streets and sidewalks around the new development can create a safer, more connected campus.

The University put out a draft of a streetscape plan back in 2010, which has a lot of positive components: It calls for consistency in paving (brick on east‒west streets, concrete on north‒south streets), better accommodations for trees and bike racks, and stamped-concrete crosswalks at major intersections. The plan also briefly mentions curb extensions, which would shorten the space needed to cross at intersections, as well as a mid-street crossing near Kogan Plaza.

Some of the 2010 proposal has come to fruition, like the sidewalks around the Science and Engineering Hall. GW also recently installed new stamped-brick crosswalks along 23rd Street, but those are almost purely cosmetic.

Despite these piecemeal improvements, GW has yet to publish an official streetscape plan or propose a timeline for implementation. And given last year’s University-wide cost-cutting along with difficulty funding construction projects, it’s likely that streetscape improvements aren’t a priority right now.

GW actually has a history of making dramatic changes to D.C. streets in order to benefit students and the community. In 1979, the University acquired the 2300 block of I Street, transforming it from an area for car traffic into a pedestrian plaza, now the location of the annual Foggy Bottom and West End Neighborhood Block Party.

Having safer, more inclusive streets is important. When you consider how much you interact with people while walking around, or how many times you may have almost been hit by a car going far too fast for a college campus, the impact of well-built streets becomes apparent.

Instead of the little-used sidewalk currently outside the Marvin Center, imagine a raised crosswalk — essentially a combination of a crosswalk and a speed bump — between Kogan Plaza and District House. Or, another option would be closing off sections of H and I streets to car traffic altogether (with the exception of deliveries and access to parking garages).

There’s actually precedent for similar street improvements in D.C. and at universities around the country. On C Street Southeast, the District Department of Transportation is moving forward with building a protected bike lane and a crosswalk raised to the sidewalk level – a project that’s one of the first of its kind in the city. And at Boston University, which has an urban campus not unlike GW’s, the university bought up three blocks of Commonwealth Avenue to turn them into a pedestrian mall.

A plan that’s right for H Street in particular might be somewhere in between. Instead of having to buy streets, GW could coordinate with DDOT to create a “shared-space” street that uses design cues to indicate that, while cars are still allowed, the street is mainly for pedestrians and cyclists. The design of a shared space often includes brick and cobblestone paving, making the street level with the sidewalk, and less street parking – though the food trucks could still stick around.

While a plan like this may seem far-fetched, something similar is already being implemented elsewhere in D.C. The new wharf development of D.C.’s Southwest Waterfront will have 12 blocks of shared space in a busy commercial area.

Many conversations at GW revolve around how our urban campus can create a better sense of cohesion and community. Designing our public spaces in a more inclusive way is a much-needed start.

David Meni, a graduate student studying urban policy in the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration, is a Hatchet opinions writer. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.

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