Hockey players on Pennsylvania Avenue between Lafayette Square and the White House. Josh Berglund on Flickr

While Toronto experiments with small scale “pedestrian only” projects, like Wilcox Street and the Ryerson Mall, it’s full steam ahead in other places around the world – and it’s catching on – Ed.

The Closed Street as a Living Street

Washington, D.C. | 04/03/2012 11:20am | 0
Will Handsfield | Greater Greater Washington

On sunny days, Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C. is filled with people. Tourists snap pictures of the White House behind them. Bicyclists and pedestrians enjoy a space where they, not cars, have the right of way.

Although the two-block stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue was closed to car traffic for security reasons, it has become similar to what the Dutch call a woonerf (plural woonerven, which translates roughly to “living street”).

This piece originally appeared on Greater Greater Washington.

On sunny days, Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C. is filled with people. Tourists snap pictures of the White House behind them. Bicyclists and pedestrians enjoy a space where they, not cars, have the right of way.

Although the two-block stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue was closed to car traffic for security reasons, it has become similar to what the Dutch call a woonerf (plural woonerven, which translates roughly to “living street”).

A woonerf is a low-speed street where pedestrians and cyclists have legal priority over drivers. In practice, cars, bikes and people on foot mix freely. Unlike a standard woonerf, Pennsylvania Avenue doesn’t have regular drivers, but it has taken on many of the elements of the woonerf. Security needs can also close them at a moment’s notice. Therefore, I like to call this a “security woonerf.”

Since the mid-1990s, cordoned-off areas have popped up throughout the city. Yet, few of them could be called security woonerven. Could this change?

UofT Wilcox Street pedestrian only thoroughfare

The two most prominent security woonerven in D.C. are on the east side of the U.S. Capitol and on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House. In these areas, activity takes place mainly on foot or bikes.

Although security vehicles operate in these areas, they’re parked most of the time, so pedestrians and cyclists essentially have the run in these spaces. These two locations are obviously popular with residents and visitors alike. Both are now important hubs in D.C.‘s expanding bicycle network and as important activity centers for all manner of activity: Tourism, lunch breaks, leisurely strolls, running, you name it.

Following the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, federal planners redesigned facilities to minimize risks to important buildings from motor vehicles. All across the city, barriers went up, starting with jersey barriers, giant planters and police roadblocks.

Over time, these evolved into permanent hardened perimeters with bollards, sally ports, guard gates and delta barriers. As much as possible, these elements were planned with an eye toward improving aesthetics, or at least in comparison to original concrete jersey barriers.

While the two security woonerven at the White House and the Capitol are great assets to the city, other cordoned-off areas are not.

The security professionals who planned these facilities gave little consideration to bicycle and pedestrian access. The spaces are attractive for walkers and bikers by default, because of their lack of traffic. However, it often isn’t easy to travel into or through the perimeter of these areas.

Another security woonerf is in the works for E Street, south of the White House. Though as many commenters noted during the design competition, cyclists appeared to be an afterthought in most of the submitted proposals.

Oftentimes small tweaks could really improve access into these potentially great spaces. Even Lafayette Square has access issues on the north side at the Madison Place sally port.


A residential woonerf. Credit: La Citta Vita on Flickr

The State Department closed C Street NW and segments of other roads next to their headquarters in D.C.’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood, but they have not replaced the jersey barriers and planters with bollards and other elements more hospitable to bicycle and pedestrian traffic. The House and Senate office buildings have several cordoned streets around them that only admit authorized cars, but the access points are difficult to get through by bike.

Although Union Station has closed off driving access through Columbus Circle for security, the space was subsequently devoted to passenger pick-up and drop-off, making this potential security woonerf very difficult for pedestrians and cyclists. Thankfully, work already underway on the Circle will improve upon current conditions.

Beyond these spaces, there are a number of closed campuses in D.C. that would greatly benefit from adopting some of the more successful security woonerven designs. Specifically, I’d love to see security woonerven at the Old Soldier’s Home, the future Walter Reed development (both the D.C. and State Department portions), and the Washington Hospital Center.

Areas around the Pentagon and Joint Base Bolling also have potential if security priorities are better balanced with pedestrian and bike permeability. Universities like Catholic, Georgetown and Howard have access, but it’s not obvious or direct. Even at the Arboretum and the Navy Yard, where trails and woonerven already exist, extended hours would vastly improve these spaces.

Regardless of why and how we established these areas, federal and local planners need to recognize their success and understand their best elements. Then they can adopt those elements into sites that have potential, but aren’t quite security woonerven yet.

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