Photo by Helen Duffett.

DDOT is installing a Barnes Dance at 7th and H Streets, NW, an intersection with particularly high pedestrian volume. Georgetown Metropolitan suggested one at Wisconsin and M. Should DC spread these far and wide?

Not so fast. A Barnes Dance, also known as a pedestrian scramble, can improve pedestrian safety. But, as with most changes, there are tradeoffs. With all the turns at Wisconsin and M, the kind of Barnes Dance at 7th and H wouldn’t work, and the traditional kind might not be improve conditions for pedestrians.

The traditional Barnes Dance was popularized (and got its name) in the 1950s and 1960s. It involves three phases for the traffic signal. In one, pedestrians cross in all directions, including diagonally. The other two let traffic go in one of the two directions, but prohibit pedestrians from crossing parallel to the traffic.

By giving pedestrians free run of the intersection for 1/3 of the time but keeping them entirely out the other 2/3 of the time, the traditional Barnes Dance increases pedestrian safety, at least in theory, by separating pedestrians and traffic. However, it also inconveniences pedestrians by making them wait.

That sounds like some other 1950s-60s era ideas for “safety,” like separating all pedestrians in skybridges that force them to walk out of their way to cross streets. Pedestrians tend to ignore overpasses, and likely would also ignore the “don’t walk” signs. As Streetswiki points out, that eliminates the safety gain.

The Streetswiki article also notes that by stopping pedestrians from crossing when vehicles want to make turns, the Barnes Dance could move traffic more quickly. Therefore, like skybridges, a traditional Barnes Dance could end up adding driver convenience, not pedestrian convenience, while wearing the guise of a pedestrian improvement.

But DDOT isn’t doing a traditional Barnes Dance. Instead, they’re doing something that is definitely a boon to pedestrians. Pedestrians can now cross diagonally or orthogonally during the all-walk phase, but also cross orthogonally parallel to traffic.

On its own, that would hurt motor vehicle flow a great deal, so DDOT eliminated turns. That way, there aren’t the pedestrian-vehicle conflicts that could hurt safety and also slow down drivers trying to go straight. Of course, this depends on driver compliance.

This is a good example of a policy that puts pedestrians first. However, it comes at some cost to traffic flow, if only to turns. At Wisconsin and M, there are lots of turns. In fact, DDOT is planning to add another turn from eastbound M onto northbound Wisconsin. And a lot of buses, including Circulators, turn from M to Wisconsin.

If a Georgetown Barnes Dance prohibits pedestrians from crossing during the phases where cars and buses are moving, it’ll hurt pedestrians more than help, and many will just violate the laws anyway. If it allows pedestrians to go and also allows turns, it might gum up traffic more than we can accept.

The more important improvement in Georgetown is to put in priority bus lanes approaching the intersection, so that buses don’t get stuck with long waits to turn. With the volume of buses there, they are moving far more people most of the time than all the other cars combined. The intersection should prioritize the more numerous and more space-efficient pedestrians and bus riders.

A Barnes Dance at 7th and H makes a lot of sense, since it has enormous pedestrian volumes due to the Metro station entrance and there are plenty of parallel streets for turning and through vehicles. But this applies to very few places in the city, perhaps a few other intersections right at downtown Metro stations. We should make all intersections safer for pedestrians. In most cases, that probably doesn’t mean a Barnes Dance.