Livability in the U.S. Capital

In 2010 the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) launched a Livability Program, recognizing that strong communities rely on the interplay among transportation, public health, housing, cultural resources, and the natural environment.

Transportation, in particular, is central to livability. Travel options govern one’s mobility choices; the operations of transportation facilities impact safety and comfort; and the design of public spaces affect the character and enjoyment of Washington’s neighborhoods by residents and visitors alike. It is these neighborhoods—21 zones of them—on which the Livability Program is focused (see Box 1 on the following page). DDOT is developing a transportation plan for each zone, with three goals:

  • Ensure safe passages for all users of the street network;

  • Prioritize sustainable living; and

  • Foster prosperous places by building and operating streets as unique urban places.

The program was born out of a desire for enhanced livability. Some past projects in the District included spot improvements, such as traffic calming measures, which were implemented amidst controversy and lack of outreach about impacts and alternative solutions. The Livability Program seeks to educate and engage communities in the development of recommendations to improve neighborhood quality of life.

Finally, the Livability Program seeks to generate discrete and implementable solutions. As all planning departments know, there are always more plans than there are completed projects. Particular sensitivity to this in the District meant that DDOT wanted to acknowledge all recent plans in each neighborhood zone, carry forward old recommendations that still held merit, and generate fresh, short-term recommendations. In short, the agency’s customer service focus meant that they did not want to just generate another study with no results and focused the program on neighborhood streets as opposed to arterials or complex problem intersections.

Neighborhood Focus: Rock Creek

DDOT selected Parsons Brinckerhoff to pilot the first Livability Project, the Rock Creek West II Livability Study. Led by Parsons Brinckerhoff’s Washington, DC office, the firm helped define transportation livability, set up a project website, developed a public and stakeholder outreach strategy, and developed both systemwide and spot livability recommendations. The project was completed in early 2011.

The area west of Rock Creek Park—which for this study, included Tenleytown, American University Park, Friendship Heights, and Chevy Chase—is one of the most highly educated, high income, and automobile-oriented parts of the District. It is rich in community-oriented anchors such as public schools, recreation centers, community centers, libraries, three universities, and small and large parks. Although the area is primarily single-family residential with multimodal transportation amenities, it is divided by major commuter routes and large traffic circles that act as pedestrian barriers between destinations while serving an important regional commuter role in the transportation network.

Engaging the Public

The Rock Creek area is a highly engaged one. Because of this, the study team offered a variety of ways for the public to give input and have a dialogue. In addition to the project website, public meetings, and a stakeholder task force, one of the most successful parts of the project was an online livability survey.

DDOT directly asked residents of the study area to voice their transportation livability concerns via an online survey. The survey, available for almost one month, asked residents where they lived, what they liked and did not like about their streets, and what locations in the study area concerned them. The response was very strong. In all, 400 respondents made a total of 1,082 comments about 176 intersections in the study area through the online survey alone.

The online survey was structured so that respondents could express their concern in a variety of ways, providing DDOT with enough data to pinpoint particular issues while maintaining ease of use and brevity for the survey respondent. For each concern respondents provided, they could also provide its location, time of day, and from which mode (i.e. pedestrian, motorist, cyclist, etc.) they experienced the issue.

In addition to the survey, DDOT and Parsons Brinckerhoff held public meetings to provide a forum for detailed feedback on livability examples and issues, using break-out groups, map labeling, and traditional presentations. Because livability is often a highly localized matter, the study relied heavily on public input for baseline data. Public input, accident data, traffic volume data, and field visits were the basis for livability recommendations.The survey showed that the most frequently cited livability concerns were related to aggressive driving, with speeding motorists topping the list (see Box 2). The majority of respondents (64 percent) had concerns as pedestrians, and most respondents (81 percent) said that their concern was applicable at all times of the day.

Systemwide Ideas

The study area includes a robust network of all types of streets, which follow a traditional state DOT functional classification system. While some areas have a grid structure, major arterials such as Connecticut Avenue and Wisconsin Avenue break up some local and collector streets, reducing connectivity. 

Though most of the streets in the Rock Creek area perform as intended, their functions have traditionally been defined in terms of automobile volume and access. To incorporate multimodal characteristics and follow Livability Program goals, this study expanded on traditional classifications and developed street types.

The new street types were created to incorporate land use into transportation functions (as applied to arterials), to simplify classifications (minor and principal arterials were made one category), and to include a typology that prioritizes bicycles. The street types also better characterize streets, as described below, allowing for the creation of system-wide recommendations. These street types are compatible with functional classifications, and are described in the following sections.


Local Street

Low-speed and low-volume, providing a comfortable environment for the most vulnerable users. Livability treatments are very appropriate for local streets. Examples include curb extensions (paved or pervious), gateway treatments, neighborhood traffic circles, speed humps, traffic diverters, on-street parking, road diets and lane narrowing, and distinct paving or other materials.

Bicycle Boulevard

Shared roadways with bicycle priority, connecting to destinations and other bike facilities. Typically overlapping with local streets, these routes carry a low volume of vehicles traveling at low speeds. Bicycle boulevards should have smooth pavement, gradual slopes, narrow cross-sections, and street trees. Appropriate livability treatments include many of the same as local streets, as well as consistent and distinct pavement marking, signage, bicycle boxes and/or bicycle traffic signals at complex intersections.

Collector Street

Provides a connection across neighborhoods and between local streets and arterials. Collectors should be low-speedand safe for all users. Because many collectors travel through residential areas, they should emphasize speed limit compliance and safe travel. Appropriate livability treatments include curb extensions, neighborhood traffic circles, bicycle sharrows, gateway treatments, narrow medians, digital speed indicator signs, and speed tables.

Residential Arterial Street

Pass through residential areas with medium or high density. The large amount of pedestrian traffic means that livability treatments should balance the operational priority of vehicles with the safety priority for all users. Appropriate livability treatments include curb extensions where there are dedicated parking lanes, reduced curb radii at intersections, bicycle sharrows where appropriate, bike lanes or cycle tracks, distinctive paving materials, and medians.

Commercial Arterial Street

Pass through commercial or mixed-use areas. These streets host a mix of high pedestrian volumes and vehicles traveling through or into parking lots, garages, or driveways. Appropriate livability treatments include curb extensions where there are dedicated parking lanes, bike lanes, distinctive paving materials, medians, high-intensity activated crosswalk (HAWK) signals, and mid-block pedestrian crossings.

Tangible Recommendations

Using the extensive public input, traffic and accident data collected, and systemwide recommendations, the project team identified areas of focus for more detailed recommendations. The focus areas included intersections and short street segments. The nearly 50 specific recommendations focused on enhancing pedestrian visibility and safety, clarifying and calming traffic on local streets, slowing traffic on arterials and cut-through streets, increasing access for pedestrians and bicyclists, and discouraging cut-through traffic on local streets.

Examples include curb extensions, neighborhood traffic circles, pedestrian beacon (HAWK) signals, signal timing changes, improved signage, speed indicator signs, modified traffic circulation, and low impact development (LID) treatments including pavement removal. Most of the recommendations range in construction cost from $2,000 to $500,000.

Current State and Next Steps

DDOT has continued to meet with the stakeholder task force and the local Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs) of the study area to prioritize livability recommendations for immediate implementation. About 50 percent of the shortterm recommendations—primarily consisting of low-cost recommendations that yield immediate results, such as adding leading pedestrian intervals to traffic signal timings, street markings, and signage—have been implemented in the first few months following the study. DDOT is continuing its efforts to coordinate directly with the community to prioritize remaining short- and long-term recommendations to ultimately promote healthier, more prosperous, safer, and more livable communities in the Rock Creek area.


Image Header Source: Jessica Juriga

Geographies: United States
Sectors: Other
Topics: Planning & Sustainability