The Secret Service recently closed 15th Street sidewalk alongside the Treasury Building. Damage to the decorative balustrade following August’s earthquake raised safety concerns for passers by. Unfortunately, the result of the closure has been a mess of bikes, pedestrians, and cars that is less safe for everyone.
An aftershock from the late August earthquake damaged a granite railing along the top of the 15th Street facade of the two-century old Treasury Building.
The Treasury Department, in consultation with the Secret Service, decided to close the sidewalk on the west side of the street alongside the building. This would protect pedestrians in the event additional pieces of railing broke away from the building, rather than toward it as previous pieces had.
To the credit of the Secret Service and the Treasury Department, the northern end of the closure is located at a crosswalk where pedestrians can cross to the east side of 15th. On the south side, however, the closure starts a quarter of a block past the E Street/Penn Ave intersection.
Realizing this misled pedestrians, Secret Service installed caution tape on the norther corner of 15th & E to prompt pedestrians to cross the street at that crosswalk.
On both ends of the closure, officials have installed clear signage instructing pedestrians to cross the street and not to walk in the bike lanes. Unsurprisingly, no one pays attention to them.
Why would they after all? Across the city and the country, pedestrians are killed while walking in car-traffic lanes where a sidewalk is closed or impassable. A bike lane appears far safer to a pedestrian than walking in traffic.
Despite all good intentions, the Secret Service’s closure has created a situation which is probably far more dangerous on a day-to-day basis than the relatively unlikely event of a piece of granite balustrade falling toward the sidewalk.
Pedestrians walking in both directions fill a cycle track designed for bi-directional use, which often forces cyclists erratically in and out of traffic, many times riding head-on into traffic.
The best solution would create a temporary sidewalk in the existing bike lanes and place temporary barriers to create a new cycle track in the next lane over. In order to best accommodate car traffic, DDOT could temporarily move the center line of 15th Street one lane to the east and restrict stopping in the eastern most lane, leaving two northbound and two southbound lanes.
If this cannot be accomplished for lack of political willpower, then the responsible parties could at least change the signage and instruct pedestrians to use the southbound half of the cycletrack, northbound bicyclists to use their normal lane space, and southbound cyclists to take the full traffic lane next to the cycletrack as they had to do prior to its installation anyway.
Unfortunately, inconveniencing and endangering cyclists and pedestrians is not a new subject. We have written frequently about jurisdictions’ predilection for closing sidewalks without providing legitimate alternatives to pedestrians. Even in DC this happens, despite DDOT’s policy that construction permit holders must replicate as best as possible the pedestrian pathway which has been closed at a construction site.
Perhaps the worst irony in this case is that the Treasury official, who writes of the sidewalk closure with absolutely no mention of how the reality of the situation plays out, is none other than former DDOT director Dan Tangherlini.
This stretch of 15th Street is a particularly good place to underline the danger and inequity of the habit of closing sidewalks without alternatives. This may be one of the city’s busiest pedestrian and bicycle blocks.
According to a summer count by DDOT, the Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes between 14th and 15th Street see between 60 and 170 riders per hour during morning and evening rush hours, most of whom are coming off of or continuing onto the 15th Street cycle track.
In terms of pedestrians traffic, this section of 15th Street is the most direct path for tourists going from Lafayette Square and other points north to the main entrance for White House tours. It also is a direct connection for workers moving between the Departments of Commerce and Treasury as well as a popular route connecting the Mall to the White House.
Why should these 15th Street users bear the entire burden caused by the damage to this building? Why shouldn’t motorists be asked to share in the inconvenience?
The Treasury has said it expects the current closure to last through December. Once the railing has been removed, it will be repaired off site and then placed back on the building. Treasury is estimating this will require another lengthy closure, this time during the height of the tourist season in 2012.
Unfortunately, DDOT has not had a particularly good record of enforcing its temporary pedestrian walkway policy under the Gray Administration. The north side of H Street along the CityCenterDC site and Massachusetts Ave in front of the Convention Center Marriott site are two high-profile examples. Since the federal government is enforcing this closure, it may be even less likely that DDOT will intervene to improve the accommodations for bicycles and pedestrians.
Whatever the final compromise might be, the ultimate point is that the current situation is not a tolerable solution. It should no longer be acceptable for pedestrians and cyclists to bear the full burden and inconvenience of construction projects which benefit everyone. Especially not in locations like this where there are as many of them as there are motorists.