DC resident Jeffrey Long was killed Saturday afternoon while biking west in the M Street NW protected bikeway. At New Hampshire Avenue, a driver turning right across the bike lane collided with him and he fell under the truck. The intersection geometry and bikeway design in this location likely contributed to this crash, and DDOT should make fixes as soon as practicable.
Like many of the state-named avenues, New Hampshire Avenue cuts across the city's street grid on an axis roughly 45 degrees diagonal to the rectilinear streets. But this intersection is made even sharper because M Street jogs to the south between its intersection with 21st Street and its intersection with New Hampshire Avenue.
This makes the right turn from M Street, which is one-way westbound, onto New Hampshire Avenue very sharp. If 21st Street were not one-way southbound, most of these turns would likely use that street.
Another oddity exists here too. A mixing zone exists everywhere a vehicle is permitted to turn right across the M Street protected bikeway, which was installed in 2014. Along the block, the bikeway is otherwise protected from moving vehicles by a buffer and parked cars.
When approaching an intersection where right turns are allowed, a right turn lane forms and the bike lane and right turning vehicles weave across each other. This way, through cyclists are to the left of right-turning vehicles.
There are two exceptions to this. At 22nd Street, cyclists stay against the curb. Right turns are regulated by a right turn arrow, and cyclists proceed through the intersection with a green bike signal while the right turn arrow is red.
The other exception is one half block east, at New Hampshire Avenue where Long was killed. There, right turns are permitted, but the bike lane stays against the curb. It's screened visually from vehicles by parked cars.
I live less than a block from this intersection, and I use it frequently. I'm mostly a pedestrian here, though I do bike through it occasionally. The geometry makes the pedestrian crossings of M Street, especially the east leg, very long. There's a lot of dead space in the intersection that is only used by turning trucks, which have a longer wheelbase.
If DDOT were to ban right turns here, it would open up the possibility of constructing a bulb-out in this location to shorten the crossing distance and better protect cyclists. I noted this during the March snowstorm that hit DC, calling for this “sneckdown” to be made concrete.
Contributor Travis Maiers mocked up an example of how rebuilding this corner could look.
And in fact, I proposed a similar solution to DDOT at a recent meeting for a nearby bikeway project. The DDOT official I spoke to was under the impression that right turns were already banned here, and thought that could be a possible solution. Hopefully DDOT will consider that possibility with some urgency.
However, banning right turns here may garner some opposition largely because the network of one-way streets makes alternate routings more complicated. While 20th Street offers a way to get north and east, anyone originating along M Street west of 20th Street has few good options. This affects drivers as well as cyclists.
Both M Street and N Street one block north are one-way westbound. This breaks the typical DC pattern of having one-way couplets on adjacent blocks. While O Street is two-way, it doesn't go any farther east than New Hampshire Avenue. P Street feeds into Dupont Circle, leaving Q the next eastbound street to avoid the mess of Dupont Circle and still provide access east of 19th Street. Because of that, New Hampshire Avenue provides a useful connection that avoids more circuitous routings.
If right turns must be permitted at this intersection, DDOT has two other options that could be used to protect cyclists and pedestrians from right-turning cars and trucks. First would be to institute a mixing zone design like the ones present along M Street at 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th, 20th, 24th, and 25th streets. This would prevent or reduce the risk of right hook type crashes, like the one that killed Long. A mixing zone design would improve visibility of cyclists, and would crucially put cyclists to the left of turning vehicles.
The second option would be to phase protect cyclists by signalizing right turns, like is done at M Street and 22nd Street. Under this scenario, cyclists would move through the intersection with through vehicles and pedestrians, while right turning vehicles would be held by a red right arrow. When it's time for right turns to go, the right turn light would turn green and the bike signal and pedestrian signals would hold their users.
Both of these options would likely require removing parking spaces along the north side of M Street adjacent to Duke Ellington Park. But this short block only holds four parked cars under the best scenario.
Living near this intersection, I can attest that few people make this right turn onto New Hampshire. But the angle of the intersection and the location and visibility of the bike lane contribute to it being an unsafe turn for cyclists. The dead space required because of truck turning radii also makes the crosswalk very long and creates lots of exposure for pedestrians. The crosswalk is so long that the upraised hand flashes for about 35 seconds, meaning that pedestrians who aren't already waiting when the walk sign comes on generally don't have time to cross.
Over the past few years, DC has made great strides in constructing new safer and lower stress bike infrastructure, but we cannot assume that the infrastructure already built is fine. In many cases, DC's bike lanes and cycletracks from previous years need safety upgrades. M Street was one of the first cycletracks in the city, and DDOT learned a lot from observing it in action. Those lessons learned went into design decisions along L Street, but fixes along M Street have lagged.
The District has adopted Vision Zero. It has signalled its commitment to reducing the number of deaths and serious injuries on our roads to zero. Now that there's been a death here, the city must put words into action.
We need a plan to reduce risk at this intersection, and that plan must be focused on the safety of our most vulnerable road users: pedestrians and cyclists. One death is already too many. It's past time for DDOT to bring safety fixes to this intersection.
On Thursday, July 12 there will be a memorial ride for Jeffrey Long from 5:15 - 6:15 pm. Attendees are encouraged to wear white.