DDOT’s efforts to make cycling safer and easier are excellent steps to making Washington a more sustainable place. But a few issues have emerged with the new Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes.
The bike lanes on Pennsylvania are trying out designs never implemented in the same way elsewhere. That means DDOT will inevitably learn and make adjustments as they gain experience with how the lanes work. Some of the design elements also arose from a need to compromise — an essential component of any public works project.
When initially striped, the bike lanes took up the former left lane in each direction. This added to the project’s controversy, and resulted in the Mayor’s decision to move the lanes to the median. But those changes created some new problems.
One issue is the visibility of the signals. Cyclists can’t see the signals they are supposed to obey until they get very close to the intersection.
This happens because all of Pennsylvania Avenue’s traffic signals are on removable posts in the center of the roadway. According to DDOT, each post can only hold 2 traffic signals and 2 crosswalk signals plus signs. Therefore, the signals and signs for each direction face toward the intersection.
A driver or cyclist looks across the intersection to the far side signals to know whether to stop or go. From most of the lanes, those signals are easily visible, but from the bike lanes in the median, the signals and signs for the opposite direction obscure the far side signal.
Another issue, which DDOT has downplayed, is the reduction in the space available for pedestrians in the median refuges. Formerly, pedestrians could stop halfway across the intersection, either because they didn’t have time to finish crossing or because they wanted to take pictures of the Capitol.
Design cues still indicate that this is possible. The stone pads, while not raised, still suggest a pedestrian safe space, especially in conjunction with pedestrian signals located in the median.
But now, two-thirds of the former refuge is part of the bike lane. The remaining third is also supposed to be a place for turning bicycles to stage. Unfortunately, the little space which remains and the design cues combine to create an additional hazard for cyclists and pedestrians.
But stationary pedestrians aren’t the only hazard. Because of its grand vistas and relatively calm traffic, the median of the avenue is a popular place to stop to view monuments and for tour guides to give a little speech.
Another drawback to the redesigned lanes is their width. They were narrowed in order to be fit into the median. But they’re still proving popular with pedicabs, which tend to take up the entire width of the lane. Passing them requires moving into the left lane of auto traffic or using the opposing bike lane. Neither is an optimal solution.
Regardless of these issues, the lanes are still a wonderful addition to DC’s transportation network. Some improvements are still necessary, but fixes can be worked out. A repositioning of the signs posted on the signal supports, for instance, could greatly improve visibility. I look forward to DDOT’s solutions to these issues.
In the meantime, if you haven’t had a chance to see the lanes yourself, the below slideshow should give you a good tour of the lanes.