D.C. Restaurants Will Get More Outdoor Space, And Some Street Traffic Will Be Reduced The speed limit on D.C. local roads will drop from 25 to 20, and restaurants will be able to apply for more outdoor space through an expedited process.
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NPR logo D.C. Restaurants Will Get More Outdoor Space, And Some Street Traffic Will Be Reduced

D.C. Restaurants Will Get More Outdoor Space, And Some Street Traffic Will Be Reduced

The steps towards traffic reform follow years of outcry for increased legislation around D.C.'s roadways. Ted Eytan/Flickr / https://www.flickr.com/photos/taedc/49934792147/ hide caption

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Ted Eytan/Flickr / https://www.flickr.com/photos/taedc/49934792147/

D.C. will see some roadway reform as the city prepares to reopen after nearly two months of a stay-at-home order due to the coronavirus.

In a press conference Friday morning, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced a "Safe Streets" initiative that will require the District Department of Transportation to identify areas that need increased space for social distancing. Those streets will be limited to local traffic, and have a reduced speed limit of 15 miles per hour, the mayor said.

Also, restaurants (even those without outdoor permits before the pandemic) will now be able to apply for expanded outdoor space through an expedited process, with the aim to create more space as the city's food scene reopens on Friday. Bowser calls the new vision for expanded eateries, "street-eries."

Bowser also announced that the speed limit on local roads will drop from 25 to 20 miles per hour, following her administration's Vision Zero plan to reduce traffic fatalities to zero by 2024, and accounting for a pandemic-induced increase in speeding drivers.

"One thing that we have for sure learned with less traffic on the street is that people are driving faster," says Bowser at Friday's press conference. "And we see it all over. So we are making the default speed limit on local roads 20 miles per hour. While it may seem like a small change, we know that surviving accidents is strongly correlated to speed, and lowering the speed limit will help us keep people safe."

The steps towards traffic reform follow years of outcry for increased legislation around D.C.'s roadways — and some more recent calls from residents and councilmembers for the city to prioritize pedestrian safety as the pandemic pushes more cyclists and pedestrians outside.

In 2019, D.C.'s traffic fatalities fell by 20 percent from the previous year, marking the first time in three years the city had seen a decrease in deaths. Still, 27 people were killed in traffic in 2019, and advocates continued to push for stronger safety bills. A hearing in October last year went for over eight hours as residents testified about how traffic violence in the city had affected their lives.

When the pandemic shut down the city, cries for roadway reform centered around creating more space for safe social distancing — an idea that Bowser initially shot down, fearing that opening streets for pedestrian use would "send the message to people to go out and have a festival." In late April, the city did selectively expand sidewalks surrounding some local businesses, but many were still not satisfied with the measures.

Some D.C. councilmembers wrote a letter in May urging immediate open streets measures, and when the ReOpen DC task force released its recommendations for D.C.'s phased reopening, critics said the city's plans for repurposing streets still fell short of what was needed to protect pedestrians and businesses. On Memorial Day, several residents closed down their own streets in protest of the city's slow-to-move measures on street use.

Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, who chairs the council's Transportation and Environment Committee, was one of the critics of D.C.'s hesitancy to modify street use during the pandemic. She says that removing the regulatory red-tape around approving outdoor public space use is not only a smart safety measure, but a beneficial move to help the the city's businesses recover.

"I'm delighted that they've come out with these expedited applications [for eateries]. What you needed for these restaurants in the public space is a cafe license, a public space permit, an endorsement on your liquor license, you needed all of these things, a regulatory nightmare almost," says Cheh. "Now, we'll have exactly what we need, which is an expedited process that will allow restaurants to proceed with outdoor dining, because it's the only way some of them can actually have any economy of scale to make it work financially."

In regards to the city's "Safe Streets" plan, Cheh says she's happy with the decision to lower speed limits and limit some roads to local traffic, but says Friday's reforms still lack the protected network of bike lanes that she sees as a key aspect of road safety. With more residents choosing to walk or bike in the past few months, Cheh fears they may abandon their alternate modes of transportation once the city reopens, and instead take cars for commuting.

"We need to seize the moment here so we can get people who are now biking, walking, and scooter, to get them to continue that as their mode of transportation," Cheh says. "We want to capture their interest, but many won't [continue] if they don't feel safe."

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