Yannik Omictin is the Student Association’s vice president for government relations and co-founder of the GWU Urban Studies Initiative.
Last Wednesday, the Foggy Bottom and West End Advisory Neighborhood Commission approved a plan to extend sidewalks on campus to allow for enough space to physically distance. But there was a better plan on the table that was abandoned. We had a historic opportunity to return our streets to the people, but the University and the ANC prioritized cars instead.
Let’s back up for a moment. In many ways, GW is at the mercy of ANC commissioners and the rest of the D.C. government. The District employs a unique form of hyperlocal, representative government, which divides the city into single-member districts of a few thousand people. The mid-block crosswalk on H Street, the introduction of a helipad at the hospital, the dedication of the 4th floor of Marvin as student space and every master facilities plan GW has ever created were all either proposed or thoroughly reviewed by the eight-person commission. Approved projects, like new crosswalks and protected bike lanes, can take years to snake through local bureaucracy, drawing the ire of administrators and students alike. The ANC itself has a history of contention with GW dating back to when students were routinely defeated in commissioner elections, despite the fact that students make up a majority of at least four of the eight districts.
GW is the only university in D.C. with no control over the vehicles it allows to roll through campus – therefore, with no control over the amount of space allotted to pedestrians and bikers. On the surface, this demonstrates that the University is integrated with the rest of the city. Our streets play host to frantic State Department and World Bank employees. But in a practical sense, it means during a crisis where space can mean the difference between a deadly outbreak and saving lives, GW has to take every precaution, and every chance it can get, to exert influence over campus. A resident recently chronicled the width of sidewalks throughout the city, finding that in a map that the sizes of the vast majority of sidewalks in Foggy Bottom and across the city fall well below the threshold for effective physical distancing.
And our streets aren’t exactly bastions of safety when we’re not in a pandemic. I’ve seen people get sideswiped in front of the Science and Engineering Hall by a driver who fled the scene, and we’re familiar with the makeshift memorial along I Street to commemorate two people who were killed when they were struck by a vehicle in 2019. You’ve probably seen at least a near miss or two somewhere on a street within the campus.
City data backs that up – in the last decade, there have been 90 vehicle-involved accidents on the four on-campus blocks of H Street. But this data was almost entirely collected by the Metropolitan Police Department, not the District Department of Transportation, which may have led to significant underreporting. Independent estimates put the true number at hundreds of more incidents in the last decade.
In the last ANC meeting, we had an opportunity to quickly create a significantly safer campus, a campus that truly felt like ours, if only temporarily. Commissioners seemed open to supporting any good plan that kept people safe, even if it meant closing some streets to commuters and through traffic. Administrators and student leaders were brainstorming alternate plans for Vern Express shuttle loading and alternate parking in underground garages.
But for some reason, ostensibly to reduce backlash from commuters and other car-hungry folks, GW pulled back its request. They opted only to ask for extended sidewalks on one city block, with no limits on vehicle traffic.
The plan is better than nothing, but our helpful mapping tool tells us that nearly doubling sidewalk size still won’t be enough to reduce the risk of coming in contact with other pedestrians. Sidewalks would go from 7 or 8 feet wide to some 14 or 15 feet – from being “very difficult” to traverse in a physically-distant way to being only “somewhat difficult/somewhat easy.” Considering that few sidewalks in the District carry the volume of pedestrians of those in Foggy Bottom, “somewhat difficult” to physically distance just doesn’t cut it.
Our streets weren’t safe before. Now, they host two pandemics – one, ongoing pedestrian injury and death at the hands of drivers, and the other, a deadly, hyper-contagious virus that preys on those forced to walk too close to one another.
The least GW can do is demand the complete closure of the streets where students live, study and walk around our neighborhood. Even if our on-campus population is reduced below what’s typical, we can’t expect to keep students safe from drivers and this virus if we’re not giving them enough space to walk and stand safely apart.