Pedestrian Safety Guide and Countermeasure Selection System


Case Study No. 91

Reconfiguration of Thomas Circle

Washington, District of Columbia

Prepared by Hannah Owensby, UNC Highway Safety Research Center.


In the 1950s as vehicular traffic increased in and out of Washington, District of Columbia, Thomas Circle was redesigned to better accommodate automobiles. This new design limited the connectivity to other streets and created a hostile environment for pedestrian and bicyclists.


Thomas Circle is a historic landmark located at a major city hub in the old city of Washington D.C. The mid-century design changes not only contributed to numerous conflicts for pedestrians and bicyclists but also prevented access to the green space and historic statue of General George Thomas at the center of the Circle.

Thomas Circle before renovation.


In 2005, Washington, District of Columbia, in cooperation and support with the National Park Service, Federal Highway Administration and the State Historic Preservation Officer, decided to reconfigure the Circle with the original historic vision. The redesign enhances the surrounding environment for urban activities by addressing several needs related to accessibility, safety, historic preservation and recreation.

The project restored the Circle to its original formation, preserving the historic character of the site, while at the same time integrating critical improvements to promote safe and efficient travel for drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians. The redesign improves accessibility for pedestrians by adding numerous pedestrian crossings connecting the Circle to the surrounding communities. A unique bike lane design surrounding Thomas Circle encourages bicycling as a viable transportation option to and around the center city. The design also includes pedestrian access to the green space and statue at the center of the Circle, which created new opportunities for recreation.

The restoration of the site to its original design creates new and exciting opportunities for recreation in and around the Circle, including, for the first time ever, access to the green space at the center of the Circle. By improving access for residents, commuters, and visitors, the project facilitates important interactions that strengthen the cohesiveness of the urban environment.

Thomas Circle after improvements.

The design approach for the restoration of the Thomas Circle was distinctive in its emphasis on pedestrian accessibility and streetscape that promotes greater connectivity among the surrounding communities and the central business district. The project set a significant precedent for future transportation planning and design projects. The emphasis that was once placed on improving the streets for vehicular traffic is now refocused on implementing context sensitive recommendations to connect people to the area's diverse communities and historic resources.


The reconfiguration of Thomas Circle benefits the city's pedestrians in numerous ways. Discussions at neighborhood advisory meetings and in press coverage, including both local and national newspapers, have shown that public opinion of the area has greatly improved. Today, pedestrians and bicyclists are commonplace in and around the Circle. Pedestrians are thriving in the area and taking advantage of the newly accessible green space for picnics, sunbathing, and a simple shortcut across the circle. The site's improved connectivity with the surrounding communities enables easier access to existing destinations along the area's main corridors and creates new opportunities for development.

These improvements have occurred because the design changes minimize the risks of interactions between vehicles and non-motorized traffic. Large pedestrian refuge islands allow for shorter crossings, and the pedestrian signals at the crosswalks help ensure that pedestrians cross at a safe time. Pedestrian safety is dramatically improved by these countermeasures because pedestrians do not have to cross as many lanes of traffic and have a space where they can wait until it is safe to cross the roadway.


The cost of this project was $5.6 million.


William P. Carr
Director of Research, Transportation Planning and Policy Administration
Phone: (202) 671-1371