3 years after DC first installed bike lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue, drivers making illegal U-turns continue to endanger cyclists. DC officials hope that a small and relatively unobtrusive physical barrier called the Zebra could prevent them, but will federal agencies go for it?
Drivers frequently make illegal U-turns across the lanes, which run down the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue, so much so that they’ve become the most common cause of bike crashes there. Bill Walsh, a local cyclist and an editor at the Washington Post, recently recorded a video of a taxi driver making a dangerous and illegal U-turn, and Justin Antos documented one illegal U-turn per minute one day.
Area cyclists want better enforcement, but writing more tickets may still not stop drivers from crossing the lanes. Next month, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) will present a proposal to the US Commission of Fine Arts, a federal board which has power over design issues on and near federal property.
City and federal agencies have clashed over physical dividers for bike lanes
When DC first built the Pennsylvania Avenue lanes, they had a wide median and significant buffering spaces between the lane and motorized traffic. That design might have discouraged U-turns, but city officials removed it after pushback over losing one general travel lane in each direction.
Last Thursday, Mayor Gray announced that DDOT will work with other agencies that have authority over Pennsylvania Avenue, including the CFA, National Park Service, Federal Highway Administration, and the National Capital Planning Commission to find a physical divider that can deter drivers from making U-turns and win approval.
The Metropolitan Police Department held an event on Friday where representatives from the Taxicab Commission and the Washington Area Bicycle Association handed out educational material informing drivers about illegal U-turns. Metropolitan Police Department Assistant Chief Lamar D. Greene said that a physical separator or some sort of barrier was the best way to solve the problem.
Soon after the installing the lanes, DDOT placed white stanchions near the corners, where the lanes often have no striped buffer area separating them from general traffic lanes, and where some drivers would mistake the lanes for left turn lanes.
CFA, however, “recommended against the installation of reflective plastic stanchions, commenting that these would be intrusive and incompatible elements in this iconic streetscape.” Because Pennsylvania Avenue is one of the most heavily photographed and visited streets in the United States, the CFA is very sensitive to anything that might affect views of the Capitol.
DDOT still placed some stanchions at the corners, but did not use them midblock, where they could have stopped U-turns. The agency also removed them for the winter and is only now restoring them.
Next month, Jim Sebastian, Bicycle Program Coordinator for DDOT, will submit a proposal to the CFA for protective devices called the Zebra. Spanish company Zicla specifically designed them for cycle tracks and bike lanes. Zicla can make them black with reflecting strips so they blend into the pavement.
If CFA is open to the Zebras, DDOT will probably install them on a test block of Pennsylvania Avenue as a trial before putting them elsewhere, Sebastian said.
A barrier is the only way to make the lane safe
While it’s great that the MPD is starting to enforce the bike lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue, it’s not enough to prevent illegal U-turns and places an additional burden on an already-stretched police force. The best way to change behavior is with a physical barrier preventing drivers from entering the bike lanes.
Cyclists who have long complained that the Pennsylvania Avenue lanes are unsafe are starting to avoid them, undermining Mayor Gray’s “A Vision for a Sustainable DC,” which calls for a 25% cycling mode share by 2032. Making cyclists feel safe here should be a priority, though it doesn’t have to conflict with the needs of drivers and the interests of CFA and other agencies.
After 3 years, there’s some hope for a solution that can create a physical barrier and protect the street’s aesthetics. Hopefully, the CFA and other federal agencies will be willing to allow some change to ensure cyclist and pedestrian safety.