Pedestrian safety is barnstorming through the discourse in neighborhood after neighborhood. Last night, residents of Dupont Circle debated making 15th Street two-way. This morning, the DC Council held a hearing on a bill to raise fines for failing to yield to pedestrians. And in Chevy Chase, debate is raging over a special pedestrian signal at Connecticut and Morrison.
Even the American Automobile Association, which people join for emergency towing service but has historically used the revenue to lobby against transit and for more and faster roads, wants better enforcement of laws against unsafe driving that create danger for pedestrians. Everyone agrees pedestrian safety is important, but what should we do about it and how far are we willing to go to inconvenience drivers?
The Council’s bill would raise the fine above the current $50 for drivers who don’t yield to pedestrians. The current rate may be too low, and not enough to make drivers take it seriously. Portland’s goes up to $350, and in some spots in Virginia it runs as high as $500. On the other hand, too high a fine would simply generate anger and seem too punitive.
Everyone at the hearing agreed that the most important element is enforcement: the police simply don’t ticket people for failing to yield, or for talking on their cell phones while driving, or almost any other moving violation. Some have also suggested assessing points on the license for this infraction.
Meanwhile, last night’s 15th Street meeting rehashed many of the same arguments I listed yesterday. Residents continued to be about evenly split on the issue, but most importantly, everyone supported enhancing safety. The real debate was between those who believe two-way would be safer, and those who think one-way is safer. I am confident two-way is safer, but those who feel otherwise disagree on the means, not the ends.
One person proposed an interesting option: signals that are red in all directions, allowing pedestrians to cross in all ways including diagonally, and to do so without competing with turning cars. A signal that’s all red both ways while pedestrians can cross is called a “Barnes Dance”, and according to those at the 15th Street meeting, downtown DC had these until the 1970s when they were all removed.
DC has only one Barnes Dance type signal, at Connecticut and Morrison that’s the subject of neighborhood controversy. DDOT installed this signal last year, replacing a stop sign. Instead of a regular traffic light, this one is blinking yellow on Connecticut (allowing cars to go) and blinking red on Morrison (like a stop sign) until a pedestrian presses a button to cross. Then, the light waits until the lights at neighboring blocks are red on Connecticut before changing to all-red for cars and a walk sign for pedestrians. There’s also a “no turn on red” sign to make it clear that during the all-red phase, cars are not supposed to turn right.
This is great for pedestrian safety, eliminating the danger of being hit by turning cars. But some cars turn on the red anyway, so accustomed to being able to turn right on red. Instead of adding better signs to deal with the confusion, many local ANC members are pushing to convert this light to a traditional three-color signal. We should have more pedestrian signals, not fewer, and at the very least should make sure to give this one a shot before scrapping it.
Speaking of right turns on red, those can be a hazard in crowded areas. Should we restrict them? New York City disallows right turns on red, except where a sign specifically allows it. Some residents suggested restricting right turns on 15th Street at last night’s meeting. But more importantly, Councilmember Tommy Wells brought up the topic at today’s hearing. “We should think about reversing the presumption, where it’s only right on red where there’s a sign that permits it, rather than the opposite,” said Wells. That way, a car would have to stop and ensure there’s a right turn permitted instead of assuming as much and rolling through the stop. Wells is indeed the Council’s leading advocate for, in his words, “upgrad[ing] the rights of pedestrians to being the same as the rights of cars, at least.”