A General Lesson From A Street In D.C.’s Adams-Morgan

A few weeks, there was a really awful car-pedestrian collision in Adams-Morgan, D.C. As a result, there have been calls to close part of 18th Street NW to through traffic (boldface mine):

In early June, a motorist on 18th Street in Adams Morgan struck three people. The incident rekindled an old discussion about how to make a neighborhood known for its busy nightlife safer for everyone who visits, works, lives, or passes through there. One solution might be closing the street to cars.

If you’ve ever been out in Adams Morgan on a Friday or Saturday night, you know what I’m talking about. 18th Street is full of bars and restaurants, the people who patronize them, and the buses, Ubers, taxis, and personal vehicles that transport them. In short: it’s congested.

“It’s pretty clear that people recognize there is a problem but people don’t know what the solution is or the possibilities are for making it better,” says Ted Guthrie, chairman of the Adams Morgan Advisory Neighborhood Commission.

The ANC’s public safety and transportation committees have been discussing ways to improve safety on 18th Street during peak hours. At the transportation committee’s June meeting, two ideas emerged as the strongest contenders: designating specific areas where ride-hailing services can pick up passengers, and closing the street to some types of motor vehicles, or all of them.

Needless to say, some like it and some hate it, but this quote is the hint as to the real problem (boldface mine):

But the car-free idea is already being dismissed by an array of community leaders and business owners who complain that it would push traffic into streets adjoining 18th Street NW, virtually all of them lined with stately rowhouses and apartment ­buildings.

“Oh for God’s sakes,” Val Morgan, the owner of Idle Times Books, an Adams Morgan staple for 31 years, said when told of the idea. “You’re living in fantasy land. Where are all the people going to park? It would make it a dead space except for all the drunks. And drunk people don’t buy books.”

With establishments such as Madam’s Organ and Club Heaven and Hell, Adams Morgan has been a mainstay of the city’s nocturnal life for more than two decades. In more recent years, as bars and clubs in other neighborhoods have flourished, the crowds have eased somewhat. But young professionals and college students still clog the streets Thursday through Sunday nights.

The problem is, in the post-street car era (Adams-Morgan, like much of D.C., had streetcars), this neighborhood is incapable of handling massive out-of-neighborhood visitors. There is no mass transit, other than buses, nearby (depending on where you are, it’s a 10–20 minute walk to the nearest station). Adams-Morgan becoming D.C.’s party district was largely a historical accident. In the 80s and 90s, it was close to Woodley Park and the western parts of Dupont Circle, which were relatively safe (relative being the key word). As these neighborhoods became full, people began to spill into Adams-Morgan. Housing was cheap, and there was a ready-made strip for bars and restaurants. A growing LGBT community took root there. At the same time, the U Street bars and restaurants were taking (or had taken) a beating from the Metro construction, and 14th Street was not a tourist destination (to put it kindly). Georgetown had begun to ‘clean up’ M Street–that is, killing off much of its nightlife. This was also an era with massive depopulation of D.C., so driving around was easier overall. So Adams-Morgan became the place to go for fun by accident.

This neighborhood never had the transportation infrastructure to handle the visitor influx like other parts of the city, as the primary way to get to Adams-Morgan is either by walking (e.g., people who live in U Street/Shaw, Dupont Circle, or the eastern part of Woodley Park) or driving. Contrast that with parts of Logan Circle, Shaw, U Street, and 14th Street, all of which are accessible by Metro, as well as many different bus lines.

This is a problem that, if it can be resolved, requires mass transit. Shifting cars around isn’t going to help.

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