WASHINGTON — In “National Lampoon’s European Vacation,” Clark Griswold, played by Chevy Chase, drives his family through London when they become stuck in a traffic circle on the east side of the Thames River. The Griswolds whirl endlessly around the circle for hours on end, unable to battle through the torrents of traffic.
A similar real-life scene is not so humorous for D.C. drivers, who have been battling heavy traffic in the West End near Washington Circle.
Amid a cacophony of horns Wednesday, a driver shouted out an open window: “It’s gridlock! Traffic ain’t moving.” Another, who claims to have been making deliveries in the West End for more than 15 years, calls the delays “nightmarish.”
After more than a year of construction, the complex junction that joins Pennsylvania Avenue, New Hampshire Avenue and K Street now sports triple the previous number of signalized crosswalks near, through and around the perimeter of the circle. Each new crossing delays drivers, who must wait to allow pedestrians to safely reach the curbs. This has caused long delays for drivers on the routes that feed into the circle, including 23rd Street.
James Cheeks, with the District Department of Transportation, says that the city began planning to revamp the circle nearly five years ago.
“It was a direct response to the community’s request for a multi-modal solution. We took six signalized crosswalks up to 18.”
More crosswalks mean more snags for motorists at an already clogged junction.
“We know what the capacity is and we know what we can handle at the circle,” Cheeks says. “There’s only so many pieces of that pie that you can give out. Now that we’re providing that time to pedestrians, there’s only so much time left. It’s very similar to … Dupont Circle.”
Cheeks notes that this is one of the most difficult intersections in the country to time. He says that one traffic study yielded about 800 pedestrians in one hour in a single crosswalk. And the newly upgraded New Hampshire Avenue, on the northeast side of the circle, has contributed to an increase in volume since it was opened to two-way traffic a few months ago.
“There’s a new approach that we had to deal with,” Cheeks says. “That in itself has a major impact on traffic.”
Cheeks says that DDOT is investigating how it can better divvy up what little time there is left after pedestrians cross safely to better serve drivers in one of the city’s most densely populated areas. In a long list of calculations and compromises, the influence of “pedestrian interference” — those pedestrians who walk against the signals or outside of crosswalks — must also be accounted for.
“We’ve met with the community and the [Advisory Neighborhood Commission]. We’ve heard the complaints [from drivers]. But we’ve also tried to meet the expectations of the pedestrians and the hospital,” he says.
DDOT has placed temporary crossing guards on the southern side of the circle during rush hours for several weeks. Traffic signal technicians were seen as recently as Tuesday working on the lights on Pennsylvania Avenue east and west of the circle.