DC Needs More Car-Free Pedestrian Corridors

Written Testimony
Mike Litt, Sierra Club District of Columbia Chapter
For the Public Hearing on  
B25-0577 - Public Life and Activity Zones Amendment (“PLAZA”) Act of 2023
Before the Council of the District of Columbia’s
Committee on Transportation and the Environment
4 March 2024

Thank you for the opportunity to submit testimony in support of B25-0577, the Public Life and Activity Zones Amendment (“PLAZA”) Act of 2023. Thank you Chair Allen and Councilmembers Nadeau and Parker for introducing it. My name is Mike Litt. I am a car-free renter in Ward 6 and Chair of the Sierra Club DC Chapter’s Sustainable Transportation Committee. Sierra Club is America’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization, with millions of members and supporters. Here in DC, we have about 3,000 dues-paying members and many thousands of supporters. 

The PLAZA Act would promote healthy and climate-smart transportation options and expand the opportunities for car-free experiences for pedestrians in the District. Although we do have wonderful parks, annual street festivals, Open Streets events, and weekly farmers and vendor markets on blocked-off streets, those tend to only serve a particular purpose, or only occur as special events throughout the year, or are few in number. The PLAZA Act would add another program, along with streateries and Open Streets, to execute the District Department of Transportation’s (DDOT) strategy to “improve walkability and pedestrian amenities with more car-free zones and plazas” in its Multimodal Long-Range Transportation Plan, also known as “moveDC.” 

The establishment of three corridors closed to personal vehicle traffic for at least 24 daytime hours per week would provide regular opportunities for a variety of activities free of the presence of cars. Pedestrian corridors have the potential to increase physical activity and the use of transit. For example, the CicloBia event, which closes three miles of streets four to six times per year in the city center of Brownsville, Texas, has been shown to meet the weekly physical activity recommendations for 17% of participants. 

Please find our recommendations for the PLAZA Act below:

We would like clarification on whether the closure to personal vehicle traffic for, at a minimum, 24 daytime hours is intended to be for a continuous 24-hour period, or whether those hours can be split up across multiple days. Having the flexibility to split up street closure hours over multiple days--for example, a weekend during the summer--will allow for more options when deciding how to best make use of the corridors. 

We support the bill’s requirement for DDOT to develop recommendations for new or improved traffic infrastructure to promote travel to and within the designated corridors, in consultation with the Pedestrian Advisory Council, Bicycle Advisory Council, and Multimodal Accessibility Advisory Council. We also support the bill’s dedicated $2.5 million to fund those improvements. Such infrastructure is critical for ensuring that the corridors achieve their full potential for health and environmental benefits, without simply diverting car traffic to other streets. The bill should also ensure that adequate enforcement of the car-free zones and traffic control measures are in place when the pedestrian corridors are open.

The bill’s requirement for feedback on the designated corridors from residents and business owners is critical for the success of the corridors. It, however, currently appears that feedback will only be solicited once DDOT has already identified corridors to consider.

We urge DDOT to also solicit ideas for potential corridors from the public before seeking feedback on its proposed corridors. 

We encourage DDOT to extend the street in each designated pedestrian corridor far enough so that nearby residents and people arriving by transit have the ability to access the corridor without needing to cross car traffic on the nearest major cross streets. This will maximize the utility and experience of pedestrian corridors as community spaces for people, not cars, and would also help promote alternatives to driving. We also encourage DDOT to consider including a grocery store in the footprint of a corridor so that people can have the experience of meeting their basic shopping needs in a public space without cars in transit. 

DDOT should designate corridors that are as long as possible, beyond the minimum of a quarter mile required in the bill. According to a 2022 review of 43 peer-reviewed studies and articles on the public health and environmental impacts of car-free days, “In all likelihood, the effects of car-free days and events in larger areas are thereby not only stronger but their positive pathways affect a larger population and potentially reduce the likelihood for environmental injustice and health inequity throughout an urban area. For successful car-free days in terms of health pathways, it is thus crucial to make sure that total motorized traffic is reduced by designating a large area as car-free and supporting alternative travel modes.”

In addition to the requirement for an estimate of the reduction in number of miles traveled before each corridor is established, the bill should also require studies on the driving, health, and pollution effects after the corridors are utilized. Such studies would contribute to the literature on car-free streets and inform policies locally and elsewhere moving forward. 

Ultimately, meeting DC’s transportation and climate goals will require a reduction in vehicle miles traveled. Coupled with other measures detailed in our testimony for this year’s DDOT Performance Oversight Hearing, the District should give serious consideration to what it would take to make permanent car-free streets and car-free zones across the District a reality. The PLAZA Act is an exciting step in that direction. 

Thank you for your leadership. And thank you again for the opportunity to submit this written testimony.