Wooden handstand on bike lane. Photo by DCDOTRA.

The group making DC streets safer through do-it-yourself urbanism

A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future.​ This Article Was Originally Published August 15, 2019 On Greater Greater Washington as part of the Urbanist Journalism Fellowship.

The DC Department of Transformation—not to be confused with the District Department of Transportation—is helping cyclists and pedestrians one plunger, or traffic cone, or ad hoc handstand, at a time. What started off as a Twitter accountaimed at rectifying problems with city infrastructure, @DCDOTRA has grown into a prime example of tactical urbanism. And the great thing is: Anyone can participate.

I talked to the founder of the account (who will remain anonymous by their request—many of their projects are not technically legal) about what DC DOTRA is doing, how tactical urbanism can help make DC safer for people walking and bicycling, and how citizen-led initiatives are crucial to improving urban environments.

What is The DC Department of Transformation?

DCDOTRA: The Department of Transformation is an imaginary city department that empowers citizens to think beyond the structures of our city government. We have the capability to have a direct impact on our neighborhoods and make ourselves safer. If there’s a situation in which you feel unsafe, you have every right to fix it yourself.

That’s my philosophy rooted in the idea that we have the physical right to the city and do things with it as we see fit. I know that’s a controversial idea, but I love poking that dragon. That’s why I created this Twitter account: To inspire people to say, “I can do that, it’s really easy to transform this experience [biking, walking, or living in the city] by doing something [about the problems].”

Do people confuse you for the District Department of Transportation (DDOT)?

DCDOTRA: What’s funny is that when I made it, I was like, “I have to make it really wacky so that if people try to tag me in it, they’d know it’s not a real department.” But, people still tag me in stuff, and they still message me saying, “Hey, can we get some traffic control here?” and I’ve taken to saying “Control it yourself, or fix it yourself,” but then I actually guide them towards DDOT.

What sort of physical “fixes” do you do?

DCDOTRA: Well, we don’t do anything permanent, at least not yet. My next project might be permanent, but it’s hard to do these projects without any money. I rely totally on the charity of people coming to me and saying, “I have the materials to do this.” Like all the traffic cones I have, I’ve found on the street, abandoned outside of construction sites, or along trails. So I’m reusing these things, too.

I am inspired by the San Francisco Department of Transformation. They were doing a project in Golden Gate Park—sometime in 2012 or 2013—on an off ramp and there was a bike lane with a buffer, but since it was so wide, cars would drift into the bike lane without caring. So what they did was they got 50-60 plungers and put them up as a buffer. Within a day, the San Francisco Department of Transportation said “we’re gonna install flexiposts.” They were ashamed. I thought that was so powerful. I was so tired of being angry at cars, and yelling at drivers and I wanted to channel my anger at something more productive that would radicalize more people.

One of the first things that we did was on 14th and U Street where we did a human protected bike lane. I’ve biked thousands of miles and I’m terrified to bike on 14th Street, even though it has a bike lane. I got 35 people to come out in the pouring rain. People were willing to stand in the rain to protect a bike lane! There was also the thing in NoMa where contractors didn’t repaint the bike lane. So, one of our directors went around looking for loose stop-its and put them out in the middle of the road. People were upset that we did that. That caused DDOT to make them paint the bike lanes.

One of the biggest things that we’ve done are the handstands. There’s one at 15th and Massachusetts and another one at 15th and U. I was inspired by some handstands that I saw in Copenhagen. It was a wooden structure secured down with sand bags. I also see people using it all the time. The bottom bar is grey now because of how many people are using it!

A lot of tactical urbanists want to get rid of cars. How do you feel about them?

DCDOTRA: I’m obviously very anti-car. I tweet “ban cars” all the time. I think there is a way to get to a city with less cars, but a lot of that is shattering away at the facade of car culture. When I say, “Ban all cars,” in some ways I’m being serious, in others I’m being facetious and trying to scare people a little bit; make them say, “Woah, there’s a world in which we don’t need cars?” Well, yes there is a world in which we don’t need cars!

It’s also a climate change issue. We have no choice but to transition away from cars. Even electric cars contribute to climate change. A lot of public health issues come from cars. For me, pedestrianism is true democracy. Respecting each other’s bodies and space; there’s acceptance of people in that. It’s breaking away from being isolated in cars.

What specific things about DC make DCDOTRA important for the way that DC is growing and changing?

DCDOTRA: Cars are a money pit and my focus is on equity. With climate change coming another worry of mine is gas shortages. Working class people would be really affected by a gas shortage. If we can anticipate that and transition into a more eco-friendly way of life, then we can mitigate that long-term shock. A big revolution is also e-bikes.

Another joke that I have is that anyone can be a director [of DCDOTRA]. Last year in Anacostia, there was a bus stop without an overhang. People would bring chairs and it became a thing until they were removed. Another one of our directors painted his own crosswalk in Ward 8 in order to demand and call attention to the issue.

What do you have planned for the future?

DCDOTRA: I have to turn up the heat! But, I can’t just replace a function entirely. I’m not trying to do what DDOT can do, I’m trying to enhance and raise the bar in terms of thinking about bike infrastructure.

Often when I do these projects, a new piece of information is exposed to me. Anonymous DDOT staffers told me that they can’t drill anything into the asphalt that isn’t flexible because of federal regulations. That illuminates to me that these handstands are things we have to do on our own. Tactical urbanism is something that sprouts from the city.

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