Greater Greater Washington

15th Street sidewalk closure endangers peds and cyclists

The Secret Service recently closed 15th Street sidewalk alongside the Treasury Building. Damage to the decorative balustrade following August's earthquake raised safety concerns for passers by. Unfortunately, the result of the closure has been a mess of bikes, pedestrians, and cars that is less safe for everyone.


All photos by the author.

An aftershock from the late August earthquake damaged a granite railing along the top of the 15th Street facade of the two-century old Treasury Building.

The Treasury Department, in consultation with the Secret Service, decided to close the sidewalk on the west side of the street alongside the building. This would protect pedestrians in the event additional pieces of railing broke away from the building, rather than toward it as previous pieces had.

To the credit of the Secret Service and the Treasury Department, the northern end of the closure is located at a crosswalk where pedestrians can cross to the east side of 15th. On the south side, however, the closure starts a quarter of a block past the E Street/Penn Ave intersection.


At the south end of the closure.
Realizing this misled pedestrians, Secret Service installed caution tape on the norther corner of 15th & E to prompt pedestrians to cross the street at that crosswalk.

On both ends of the closure, officials have installed clear signage instructing pedestrians to cross the street and not to walk in the bike lanes. Unsurprisingly, no one pays attention to them.


Signs instruct pedestrians to cross, peds ignore them.

Why would they after all? Across the city and the country, pedestrians are killed while walking in car-traffic lanes where a sidewalk is closed or impassable. A bike lane appears far safer to a pedestrian than walking in traffic.

Despite all good intentions, the Secret Service's closure has created a situation which is probably far more dangerous on a day-to-day basis than the relatively unlikely event of a piece of granite balustrade falling toward the sidewalk.

Pedestrians walking in both directions fill a cycle track designed for bi-directional use, which often forces cyclists erratically in and out of traffic, many times riding head-on into traffic.

The best solution would create a temporary sidewalk in the existing bike lanes and place temporary barriers to create a new cycle track in the next lane over. In order to best accommodate car traffic, DDOT could temporarily move the center line of 15th Street one lane to the east and restrict stopping in the eastern most lane, leaving two northbound and two southbound lanes.

If this cannot be accomplished for lack of political willpower, then the responsible parties could at least change the signage and instruct pedestrians to use the southbound half of the cycletrack, northbound bicyclists to use their normal lane space, and southbound cyclists to take the full traffic lane next to the cycletrack as they had to do prior to its installation anyway.

Unfortunately, inconveniencing and endangering cyclists and pedestrians is not a new subject. We have written frequently about jurisdictions' predilection for closing sidewalks without providing legitimate alternatives to pedestrians. Even in DC this happens, despite DDOT's policy that construction permit holders must replicate as best as possible the pedestrian pathway which has been closed at a construction site.

Perhaps the worst irony in this case is that the Treasury official, who writes of the sidewalk closure with absolutely no mention of how the reality of the situation plays out, is none other than former DDOT director Dan Tangherlini.

This stretch of 15th Street is a particularly good place to underline the danger and inequity of the habit of closing sidewalks without alternatives. This may be one of the city's busiest pedestrian and bicycle blocks.

According to a summer count by DDOT, the Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes between 14th and 15th Street see between 60 and 170 riders per hour during morning and evening rush hours, most of whom are coming off of or continuing onto the 15th Street cycle track.

In terms of pedestrians traffic, this section of 15th Street is the most direct path for tourists going from Lafayette Square and other points north to the main entrance for White House tours. It also is a direct connection for workers moving between the Departments of Commerce and Treasury as well as a popular route connecting the Mall to the White House.

Why should these 15th Street users bear the entire burden caused by the damage to this building? Why shouldn't motorists be asked to share in the inconvenience?

The Treasury has said it expects the current closure to last through December. Once the railing has been removed, it will be repaired off site and then placed back on the building. Treasury is estimating this will require another lengthy closure, this time during the height of the tourist season in 2012.

Unfortunately, DDOT has not had a particularly good record of enforcing its temporary pedestrian walkway policy under the Gray Administration. The north side of H Street along the CityCenterDC site and Massachusetts Ave in front of the Convention Center Marriott site are two high-profile examples. Since the federal government is enforcing this closure, it may be even less likely that DDOT will intervene to improve the accommodations for bicycles and pedestrians.

Whatever the final compromise might be, the ultimate point is that the current situation is not a tolerable solution. It should no longer be acceptable for pedestrians and cyclists to bear the full burden and inconvenience of construction projects which benefit everyone. Especially not in locations like this where there are as many of them as there are motorists.

Erik Weber has been living car-free in the District since 2009. Hailing from the home of the nation's first Urban Growth Boundary, Erik has been interested in transit since spending summers in Germany as a kid where he rode as many buses, trains and streetcars as he could find. Views expressed here are Erik's alone. 

Comments

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Thank you for writing this post.

by BFM on Sep 30, 2011 1:36 pm • linkreport

So much more dangerous and awkward now. This is why you saw me biking into the Penn Ave bike lanes from the left lane of 15th Street yesterday. Is there a repair schedule?

by David Garber on Sep 30, 2011 1:38 pm • linkreport

Why can't they do what's required to be done at every other construction site, which is to erect a cover for the sidewalk, allowing it to continue to be used?

by ah on Sep 30, 2011 1:48 pm • linkreport

I would be safer if they closed 15th Street entirely, to pedestrian, bicycle, and motor vehicle traffic. It would also provide added security against terrorists. 8-)

by goldfish on Sep 30, 2011 2:04 pm • linkreport

How about sharrows on 15th St in both directions? Cyclists would miss the protected bike lane, but they lose it below Pennsylvania anyway. Sharrows are cheap and easy.

Maybe they could add a sign explaining the sharrows, something like "Motorists share the lane with cyclists" since most people don't understand what the marking mean.

by Ward 1 Guy on Sep 30, 2011 2:17 pm • linkreport

When they first closed it, I understood, because it was something of an emergency. But when this emerged as the long term solution, it became a problem.

Also, I will gladly share the cycletrack with pedestrians when they start following the law. Most pedestrians behave as though the law doesn't apply to them. Arrogantly taking their "share" of the bike lane from right out of the middle and proceeds to walk at 2mph. Never do they look back to see if there is a stack of 6, 8, 10 or more cyclists behind them trying to also use the cycletrack at the posted speed. And need I point out that there is a perfectly good sidewalk across 6 lanes of traffic? Their entire air is one of "It is all about me. I am entitled, and the rest of you will just have to suck it up while I do my thing." These pedestrians should move to the right, use hand signals and stop walking against bike traffic. What a bunch of scofflaws. They act like they own the bike lanes.

by David C on Sep 30, 2011 2:17 pm • linkreport

And while I'm at it. These pedestrians need bells and handbrakes if they're going to share the cycletrack with cyclists.

by David C on Sep 30, 2011 2:20 pm • linkreport

we also need to get all the pedestrians license plates

by americancyclo on Sep 30, 2011 2:25 pm • linkreport

@David C a lot of the pedestrians on that stretch are tourists. They are not so much arrogant or selfish as clueless. They just need cues on where to go. As I mentioned above, cyclists (and I'm definitely one of them) should take one for the team and ride in the street just like we do in other parts of the city where there are no bikelanes. Sharrows and better signage (e.g. marking the bikelanes as temporary pedestrian sidewalks) would help make this work better.

by Ward 1 Guy on Sep 30, 2011 2:41 pm • linkreport

One more observation, before this section of bikelane was turned into a pedestrian/bike collision lane, I remember seeing a mom push a doublewide stroller in the bike lane, presumably because she thought the sidewalk was inconvenient or something. As a parent, I was horrified that someone put their defenseless baby twins in the path of my bike speeding downhill at about 15 mph. It just shows that we have a long way to go in educating people about bike lanes.

by Ward 1 Guy on Sep 30, 2011 2:46 pm • linkreport

@Ward 1 Guy
The [please use opposite sidewalk], [sidewalk closed] & [do not walk in bike lane] signs don't count at "cues on where to go"?

by ontarioroader on Sep 30, 2011 2:49 pm • linkreport

Just because I know it gets lost in writing sometime, David C. is being satirical. :)

by Steve D on Sep 30, 2011 2:55 pm • linkreport

Also, thumbs up to the covered sidewalk suggestion from @ah. Little bit of money for Treasury/Service/DDOT, sidewalk stays open for peds, lane is there for bikes, everyone wins. Closing it was fine for an emergency, but the current setup is no long-term solution. Best idea I've heard yet, far better than restriping the street or shifting lanes around.

Cover this sidewalk!!

by Steve D on Sep 30, 2011 2:58 pm • linkreport

As Steve D points out, I was jokingly paraphrasing what drivers say about cyclists. While I think this needs to be improved, in the interim cyclists should just take it slow and act like they're on the sidewalk. You may even have to get off your bike and walk it.

by David C on Sep 30, 2011 2:58 pm • linkreport

Maybe I'm missing something, but isn't the easiest solution just to move the fence closer to the building? If stone comes off it's going to fall down, not 15 feet towards the street. Blocking the whole sidewalk seems excessive.

by Greg on Sep 30, 2011 2:58 pm • linkreport

Alternatively, they could just redirect foot traffic through the Treasury building.

by David C on Sep 30, 2011 3:00 pm • linkreport

I am sorry, but is this entire posting an attempt at a pre-weekend joke?

So, because as you admit folks (both pedestrians and cyclists) are flagrantly ignoring the clear signs and barriers, and failing to take the clear and direct detour, you want to close a lane of traffic on a street that gets what, 20K vehicles a day because some people are too lazy to look out for their own safety? I am sorry, but if you want to be a dope and ignore the overly clear directions you've been given that are for YOUR safety, then you have to accept the consequences. I don't see why simple laziness and a pure lack of regard for ones own safety is reason enough to inconvenience tens of thousands of other people a day.

Whats the expression, you can lead a horse to water...

Not to mention that you could easily substitute the word "cyclist" every plance there is a "pedestrian" every single place in this posting and you would be mirroring the same concerns/issues drivers bring up about cyclists but are summarily disregarded.

I am sorry that an act of god has inconvenienced you to the point that you have to cross the street. Hopefully god won't be so inconsiderate next time.

by really? on Sep 30, 2011 3:01 pm • linkreport

Why can't they do what's required to be done at every other construction site, which is to erect a cover for the sidewalk, allowing it to continue to be used?

ding ding ding we have a winner!

They should just put up a temporary covering so the sidewalk can remain open.

Also David C's comment is brilliant.

by MLD on Sep 30, 2011 3:07 pm • linkreport

@really?

What about the impact peds in the bike lane has on cyclists? Or the impact that cyclists moving into the traffic lanes has on drivers? This isn't about people looking out for their own safety, it's looking out for others as well. And I know that personal responsibility people like to get fired up about something like this, but setting up a policy that you know people will ignore and will result in greater danger is, at least partially, the fault of the policy makers.

Finally, I tried to put the word cyclist in for pedestrian and it really never makes sense, for example..."Unfortunately, DDOT has not had a particularly good record of enforcing its temporary cyclist walkway policy under the Gray Administration." What the hell does that mean?

by David C on Sep 30, 2011 3:14 pm • linkreport

@DavidC

Why is there an impact on the cyclist? Aren't cyclists always telling us they have the full and equal access to the streets, so do what you are entitled to do and take the lane adjacent to the bike lane if you want to. The infrequent inconvenience of having the cyclist take the lane is far less obtrusive than closing an entire lane 24/7.

Secondly, this isn't "policy". Its a short term solution to an unforseeable act of god. I know everyone thinks state/local/federal governments should be able to move at the speed of light, but it was just last week that the managers of what is probably the most visited national memorial in the nation realized there were more cracks than they thought.

If I want to ignore a red light and jaywalk across the street and I get t-boned by a car, it isn't a failure of "policy", its a personal failure, one that us "personal responsibility people", aren't responsibile for. Lets quit going to such extremes to making excuses for people not acting like adults and purposely risking their own lives.

by really? on Sep 30, 2011 3:24 pm • linkreport

Why is there an impact on the cyclist?

Before closure options:

1. Ride in cycletrack free of pedestrians
2. Ride in street

After closure options

1. Ride in cycletrack full of pedestrians
2. Ride in street.

It is the changing of option one that is the impact.

The infrequent inconvenience of having the cyclist take the lane is far less obtrusive than closing an entire lane 24/7.

True (assuming you mean obstructive), but only if you're only considering the inconvenience to drivers. Closing an entire lane, making it the bikeway and making the bikeway the sidewalk is the far less inconvenient than the status quo.

Secondly, this isn't "policy"

Yes it is. A solution come to by policy makers and put into practice is policy.

Can one get T-boned while walking across the street?

Lets quit going to such extremes to making excuses for people not acting like adults and purposely risking their own lives.

Let's also quit ignoring human nature. That seems foolish does it not?

by David C on Sep 30, 2011 3:33 pm • linkreport

Lots of good points especially the covered sidewalk idea.

What I'd like to see is a post about the yellow caution tape the Secret Service has strung to the retractable security bollards at the guard shack in the northeast corner of Lafayette Park. They didn't start doing this until after the cycle track opened and I suspect it's a passive aggressive attempt at keeping cyclists from continuing through the two sections of bollards. The only alternative is to hop the curb onto the sidewalk with I'm pretty sure is technically illegal in this part of the city. Anyone else have beef with this?

by Chris on Sep 30, 2011 3:45 pm • linkreport

Small correction: The White House tour entrance is Pennsylvania and 15th, the south end of the the cycletrack. The White House tour exit is in Lafayette Square. Hence, White House tour groups generally walk south in the the cycletrack to reboard their bus which is parked on 15th down past the street vendors.

BTW The segway tour groups are the biggest hazards in the cycletrack. They are both large in number and very tall. Bikers and pedestrians cannot see around them, which is yet another opportunity for accidents.

Also noteworthy is that the Treasury use to have a guard on the 15th street side 24/7. Once the fence went up, he disappeared. Hmmmm, saving money?

by Tour guide on Sep 30, 2011 4:08 pm • linkreport

Ok, anyone willing to find out if there actually is a timetable for repair?

by Pelham1861 on Sep 30, 2011 5:05 pm • linkreport

I was riding this part of the road and two bikers passed me on the left just to almost hit a group of tourists walking 4 across who didn't move. The guy hit his breaks and the woman behind him nearly flipped over him. Jeez.

by Alex on Sep 30, 2011 5:37 pm • linkreport

Thank you for posting this. I actually asked a bike cop on the south end what else was being done or could be done to alleviate the problem. His response: Nothing, and that he buzzes pedestrians as close as he can so they get the idea that it's still a bike lane and dangerous...

by Xarici on Sep 30, 2011 5:58 pm • linkreport

Good article and discussion. Thanks. As one who uses this frequently on my commute home in DC from work in Arlington via the 14th Street Bridge I've seen all of this. I'd like to know if there are any plans to connect the cycle track to the 14th Street Bridge. The bike lanes just end and your choice is to share the sidewalk (although wide) with lots of unsuspecting tourists or switch to the road whe re there's no room because of the vendor trucks. Continuing south on 15th towards the bridge and getting around the Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial is no picnic either as there are similar conflicts with pedestrians and cars. Any ideas?

by Chris Hamilton on Sep 30, 2011 6:04 pm • linkreport

While the sidewalk closure may be a goat rope,the lion's share of the blame still needs to go to the peds who disobey the signs(3rd pic above). They very clearly tell them to use the other sidewalk and stay out of the bike lane. I see people walk in the street all the time when a sidewalk is closed rather than be safe and cross to the other side. DDOT should have one of their cross guards down there to direct the peds.

by dynaryder on Sep 30, 2011 7:21 pm • linkreport

Sadly, Secret Service is generally unresponsive to these types of issues. Consider that they tape off the N-S roads around Lafayette Square forcing those scofflaw cyclists to mix in a pedestrian only environment.

I concur that there are likely better ways to accommodate everyone on the east side of the Treasury Building. Although I recall that during work on the Executive Building on the west side (17th ST) they did something similar to the sidewalk. So perhaps there are issues that a layperson like myself is missing.

Considering the amount of illegal sidewalk cycling I see in the area that puts pedestrians at an increased risk, it's a little hypocritical for some to complain about the peds' behavior. Oh ... David C's comment was hilarious.

by Geof Gee on Sep 30, 2011 8:09 pm • linkreport

@Chris - I do that sidewalk hop almost every day, and I keep hoping some Secret Service guy will give me crap and I can ask him why they put up the tape. The minute they put up signs telling me where the bike lane is, I'll obey them. But until then, sidewalk hop it is.

by Jon on Sep 30, 2011 8:45 pm • linkreport

Chris and Jon,

I stopped to ask two of the guards about the yellow tape at the gate a couple of days after it first went up. I got yelled at by one guard for having my bike in between the two sets of bollards, but the other was nice enough to explain that they put up the tape because when vehicles come through the gates the guards have to inspect them. And cyclists whizzing through the area at the same time was creating a hazard. After a cyclist nearly ran over one of the working dogs, the guards decided enough was enough.

by tdballo on Sep 30, 2011 10:55 pm • linkreport

+1000 to covering the sidewalk. So obvious it hurts.

If it's going to be this way for almost a year (optimistically), then spend a tiny bit of money to build a semi-attractive sidewalk covering. It doesn't have to be ugly. And besides, it's already ugly with a freakin' chain link fence and yellow tape, etc.
Is that really how the White House wants it to look?

by Steve O on Oct 1, 2011 11:07 am • linkreport

I shot this video and blogged about it over a month ago and sent it to GGW, but never heard back. Good to see its finally gotten some coverage.

5 minutes in the bike lane:
http://manonthestreetdc.wordpress.com/2011/08/26/148/

by manonthestreetdc on Oct 2, 2011 11:38 am • linkreport

I'm fairly certain those sidewalks are Federal property, which means DDOT has no say in the matter. But it does seem the easiest solution is putting up a pedestrian sidewalk covering, but that's a GSA and maybe NPS decision. And neither really cares a great deal about most of their decisions' impacts on non-Federal employees.

And it's rather entertaining to read the complaints about slow-moving pedestrians frustrating fast-moving cyclists' attempts to use "their" lanes.

by Fritz on Oct 2, 2011 3:55 pm • linkreport

It's an incredibly inconvenient sidewalk closure, and I know I've braved the street plenty a time in similar situations. So I guess I don't really expect them to obey the signs.

But ... I kept to the right and watched out for my own safety and didn't plod down the street oblivious to everything blocking traffic in both directions. So there's that.

by Mr. Carlin on Oct 2, 2011 10:44 pm • linkreport

it's rather entertaining to read the complaints about slow-moving pedestrians frustrating fast-moving cyclists' attempts to use "their" lanes.

It was supposed to be entertaining. It was a joke. That's the point of a joke.

by David C on Oct 2, 2011 10:49 pm • linkreport

I commute to & from work using the bike lanes. The problem I have with pedestrians there comes mostly in the afternoon/evening. Nobody should be biking faster than conditions warrant, whether it's rain-slicked roadways or clueless pedestrians, so I usually find myself paying extra attention & slowing down accordingly for those 3 blocks. I have snarled at pedestrians twice, both times telling each to wake up & pay attention, as they were walking directly at me, going the wrong way in my lane, their noses buried in their iphones.

by Walsh44 on Oct 3, 2011 3:04 pm • linkreport

Thanks GGW for posting, albeit a month too late. By the comments received, this is/was a serious issue that deserved timely reporting and more exposure through this forum for public attention and possibly (hopefully) a solution from Treasury/DDOT will be forthcoming.

by sherman miller on Oct 3, 2011 4:35 pm • linkreport

...and the best part about this situation are the Secret Service cops at both the North and South sides of the closed sidewalk who are close enough to discourage this activity and instead allow peds to enter into the bike lane...

by sherman miller on Oct 3, 2011 4:41 pm • linkreport

Please reminde cyclist to watch out for pedestrians. I almost got hit by two cyclist in the same day. They cut across me unexpectely. Now,we pedestrians have to wathout for two dangers, cars (especially taxies), and bkiers.

May we all be carefull and safe

by geneva jones on Oct 4, 2011 9:18 am • linkreport

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