15th Street is DC’s first protected bikeway, and it gets heavy use. It may be time to widen it to four lanes, two in each direction, for bikes, e-bikes, scooters, and more.
A recent study by the International Institute of Highway Safety found that 15th Street was more crash-prone than similar bikeways in DC, New York, and Portland, Oregon. According to the study press release, the two-thirds-mile segment south of Massachusetts Avenue, in downtown DC, “had the highest injury risk of any protected bike lane in the study.”
The study interviewed cyclists who visited an emergency room, asked about the location of the crash, and then compared it randomly to another spot in that person’s route, according to the release. “A crash or fall didn’t have to involve a vehicle to be included in the study, and only about half did. Most of the injuries in the study were minor, and there were no fatalities.”
That last point is important because Vision Zero advocates and professionals are working to focus on serious injuries, and most of all, fatalities. While minor injuries need to be avoided as well, the priority is to design streets that won’t kill or maim. For 15th Street, alleys and driveways crossing the lane were one of the biggest challenges, and “the paper’s authors advise cities to locate protected bike lanes where there are fewer junctions if possible,” though in the case of 15th, there aren’t other streets very close by which don’t have the same challenge.
Alternatively, IIHS suggests cities “consider raised cycle crossings, which have been found to improve safety on protected bike lanes in Europe. They also suggest cities take measures to prevent pedestrians from entering bike lanes.”
In a Washington Post story about the study, Greg Billing of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association emphasized that protected bikeways make people safer than not having them. But he agreed that 15th Street, which was a pioneer of this type of infrastructure, could benefit from revisions to its design.
“WABA has ideas for how to do that, from adding clearer signage to placing bumps at or near driveways and investing in more bike signals,” wrote Luz Lazo in the Post. “Ideally, Billing said, the city would put the northbound and southbound lane on each side of the road.”
Turn 15th Street into two protected bikeways?
The 15th Street bikeway has become northwest DC’s major north-south bike highway, connecting downtown to Columbia Heights and beyond. It’s crowded, with long lines of people waiting at each light, every cycle, southbound in the morning rush and northbound in the evening.
I think Billing’s idea of a southbound bikeway on one side and a northbound bikeway on the right side is a good move not just because of the IIHS findings. Quite simply, 15th Street is like a jam-packed highway which, traditionally, if it were full of cars, departments of transportation would look to expand from one lane each way to two.
Nowadays, there are people on pedal-powered bicycles who go a range of speeds. There are e-scooters which tool along at the legally-required slow 10 mph pace. There are JUMP and private e-bikes (and, soon, the return of Capital Bikeshare e-bikes) which can be doing 25-30 mph.
Right now, at peak times, each light cycle kicks off a rush for the faster riders to jump out of the lane to pass the slow ones. That often means crossing into the opposite-direction lane, but if the occasional other-way rider approaches, people have to scramble back into the main lane. Or, they’re going out into the part of the road with motor vehicles.
Not only should DC consider dividing 15th Street into a pair of lanes, it should consider making each one a two-lane road for passing, just like almost every single two-lane car roadway anywhere. Once there’s enough traffic, DOTs want to move away from roads that are just one lane each way in part because slow vehicles impede faster ones and drivers try to pass by crossing over the yellow line.
15th Street isn’t the main car route, but it is the main bike-and-scooter route. A two-lane bikeway on each side just makes a lot of sense.
In fact, the original plans for 15th Street had the west side protected area only for southbound travel, while riders going north would ride in “sharrows” on the rightmost lane. The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) changed it to two-way after discovering 40% of the riders were using the lane in the “wrong” direction.
This plan would restore the west side bikeway to more like its initial configuration while making the rightmost lane protected and bike/scooter only instead of shared.
Billing added that even if widened, 15th should get some fixes for safety, including “1) bike specific traffic lights at every intersection, 2) protected intersections (especially where 15th intersects other [protected bikeways], 3) bike boxes and queuing boxes to turn from streets like R St southbound, and 4 raised crossings at unsignalized intersections (alleys and side streets).”
Reasons this might not be the right plan
DDOT is planning two parallel bikeways which could take some of the volume off 15th. To the west, 17th Street is slated for a protected bikeway, but so far only as far north as New Hampshire Avenue in Dupont and not yet including the segment past Farragut Square (though some advocates and businesses are pushing for it to go all the way to Lafayette Square).
In the east is the Eastern Downtown project, to put a lane on either 6th or 9th streets from Pennsylvania Avenue up to Florida. That project has been stuck for four years in the mayor’s office, according to former local transportation reporter Martin di Caro.
If and when these happen, some people who ride 15th would switch. But, they will also induce more bicycling, which helps fulfill DC’s stated goal of having 25% of trips in all wards happen by walk or bike. These lanes won’t go as far north as 15th and won’t reach all of the same neighborhoods, though instead, they will reach different neighborhoods where people need a safe bicycle route.
On 14th Street, DDOT is building new “floating bus stops” where the bike lanes travel behind the bus stops so cyclists and loading buses don’t interfere with each other. Billing and others have asked for a next step of flipping the parking and bike lanes along the rest of the street to fully protect the lanes and the riders who are accessing destinations on 14th Street.
Protected bikeways do require more width than just painted bike lanes, so engineers would need to analyze how to fit it in. Also, 14th will mostly serve people traveling to and from destinations there, versus the through route of 15th, so this would be an added benefit, not a replacement.
In downtown, a bikeway on the east side of the street would pass by some hotels and other buildings which have their own driveways, and a block of Vermont Avenue which has angled parking. DDOT would want to study the effect of upgrading another lane’s worth of space to bicycle use from either driving or parking and what that would mean for loading trucks in particular.
But with many lanes on many north-south streets serving car traffic and the few dedicated for bikes and scooters seeing heavy traffic and raising safety concerns, 15th Street is likely ripe for an upgrade. Oh, and a trampe.