Greater Greater Washington

DDOT proposes new option with cycle track for 15th Street

When a group of residents on 15th Street asked DDOT to find ways to slow traffic on their "urban highway" of a street, DDOT planners created four alternatives. 15th street is much wider than necessary, with four northbound lanes that suddenly funnel into only one after New Hampshire Avenue. One neighborhood historian told me that this road was meant to connect to the east-west freeway at S and T streets. Without that freeway, we ended up with a high-speed expressway to nowhere. What to do?


Paris cycle track. Photo by Daquella manera on Flickr.

DDOT created four alternatives: reduce the lanes to three, and add a single northbound bicycle lane; put a physically separated, two-way "cycle track" beside three lanes; convert the street to two-way operation with two lanes north, one lane south, and bicycle lanes on each side; or two-way with one lane in each direction and a center turn lane, plus the two bicycle lanes.

The two-way proposal stirred up significant debate, both here, at the local ANCs, and at the public meetings. According to DDOT's summary of feedback, 55% of emails supported two-way operation, while the rest preferred one-way (either existing conditions or one of the one-way alternatives). When asked to rank their preferences, the two-way choices earned a total of 230 "points," and the one-way alternatives 224.

Without a clear consensus, DDOT apparently doesn't feel comfortable changing the street to two-way. Besides, such a change would require new traffic signals, as would the cycle track. With little money, what can we do? Along with the feedback summary, DDOT planner Chris Ziemann sent a new, fifth option, for three northbound lanes, one northbound bicycle lane, and a southbound contraflow "cycle track" style bicycle lane:

From DDOT's letter:

The southbound bicycle lane would be temporarily separated with quick-curb and flex-posts with spaces between them for ADA accessibility, drainage, etc. At the intersections, there would be a sign indicating to bicyclists to use the pedestrian signal. This option has been used in many cities, including Montreal, Madison, New York, and Santa Cruz, but would be the first in the District and would serve as a model for others. It would also complement the request from businesses south of Massachusetts Avenue to maintain two-way traffic throughout the day. This could be a short-term solution that would not prevent the other alternatives from progressing, if it is deemed in the future that alternatives 3 or 4 are preferred.
I'd still prefer two-way operation, but this is a good compromise. We get two-way bicycle lanes, and DC's first separated cycle track, like those that have been so successful in New York. A narrower travel area for cars will slow traffic, and we don't foreclose the option to make the street two-way in the future.
David Alpert is the founder and editor-in-chief of Greater Greater Washington. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and daughter in Dupont Circle. 

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I'd like to see them take out the right hand parking lane and add more buffer and bigger tree boxes; but then I never drive in the city.

by David C on Nov 10, 2008 1:35 pm • linkreport

The troublesome thing with this is that contraflow bike lane. Contraflow lanes generally lead to increased accidents because they lead drivers to only look one way or to only notice traffic in one direction. You might run into the problem of an eastbound car only checking to the right for a northbound turn, and pulling across the near-side bike lane without seeing the cyclist traveling southbound. This gets worse if cyclists run lights or stop signs, which is not legal but is fairly common.

Alternatively, this one is less plausible, but a northbound car not noticing a southbound bicyclist while turning to the west.

I read a TCRP report recently that cited contraflow light rail operation as a major cause of accidents. I would not be surprised if the same issue existed for bicycle lanes.

by Michael P on Nov 10, 2008 1:55 pm • linkreport

I just think that 3 lanes of traffic is still way too much here. For only ten blocks, what's the use? Anyway, I like the idea of a cycle track. I just wish they'd turn the street into two way traffic, center turn lane, and cycle tracks on both sides. That said, why can't the northbound lane be a cycle track also in the 5th option?

If there's not consensus on going two-way, there's then no consensus on going with a three-lane one-way. In fact, a small majority went for the two-way options (which were outnumbered by the one way options). Not exactly the pure measure of what people actually would prefer -- or what would be best for the neighborhood.

by Neb on Nov 10, 2008 2:17 pm • linkreport

Won't the cycle track cyclists be subject to getting ticketed for going the wrong way on a one-way street ... as happens on NH Ave? Yeah, I know "we'll just change the regs to exempt them". Problem is, as we know from the NH Ave. example, that probably won't work as a practical basis.

I was at the public meeting and someone else there at the meeting predicted basically this result to me (in private) after the meeting. As he put "It's the guy in charge of the bike division of DDOT running this meeting. He has only one mandate and one concern: to get bike lanes in there. He won't do anything that might get in the way of getting bike lanes in there, including getting it turned into two ways. The whole two way bit is just a means for him to justify getting the money and the okay to get the bike lanes in there." The guy was correct.

by Lance on Nov 10, 2008 2:36 pm • linkreport

Contraflow lanes generally lead to increased accidents because they lead drivers to only look one way or to only notice traffic in one direction.

That doesn't seem as likely with this setup. If a car is going eastbound, it can only go on Green (no turn on left) and the bike has a red light at that point (true they can run a redlight, but that is always a problem). And even if a car is going westbound and wants to turn right on red, the contra-lane is way on the other side of the road and thus is not likely to be involved in an accident.

The only time you'd face a serious risk like this is if the contralane is on the right side of the road. I know all about that as a runner. I frequently run into that problem when cars are turning right on red and don't look at pedestrians crossing from the right. It's dangerous, but I don't think this lane arrangement creates that problem.

by Reid on Nov 10, 2008 2:39 pm • linkreport

I live on 15th Street between U and V. Please leave 15th one way. The traffic moves freely through the neighborhood. There are very few places where cars sit idle. If 15th is turned two way, there will be cars piled up on nights and weekends, turning and trolling for parking spots. Pedestrian crossings from N to V will be less safe, due to two way traffic and "California lefts". I don't see the cars slowing down, either one or two way.

In leaving 15th Street one way, it makes sense to designate one lane of traffic to double-parked pizza delivery cars and idling tour busses, oops, I mean two-way bike lanes. Let the bike folks pick the lane.

by Bob on Nov 10, 2008 4:25 pm • linkreport

I agree with Bob. I like it one way, but I think it would be fine to get rid of one of the lanes to facilitate additional safe bike lanes.

by Eric on Nov 10, 2008 5:14 pm • linkreport

That's why they call it a compromise-- nobody's completely happy. But the new DDOT option makes a lot of sense. We lose one lane of traffic, which slows down the racetrack marginally. We keep 3 lanes of one-way, which makes commuters (and DC drivers who live north of U) slightly less happy. We get bike lanes- both ways-- which is great for bikers, and also will slow down cars marginally.

As a 15th-Street resident, I want slower traffic, but don't want MORE traffic to be the price I pay. Two-way traffic would give us both-- slower and more of it. Three-lanes, one way gives us less of the slowing, but absolutely will NOT increase the aggregate flow of traffic.

That's certainly not a perfect outcome from the selfish perspective of the locals (like me) who'd like to turn 15th into a meadow, but it's probably the best we can hope for in the real world. And it's a lot better than what we've got now. Kudos to DDOT for their hard work.

by Matt on Nov 10, 2008 6:54 pm • linkreport

Won't the cycle track cyclists be subject to getting ticketed for going the wrong way on a one-way street ... as happens on NH Ave?

No, what DDOT is really proposing is a two-way street, but the southbound lane is a limited access (bikes only) lane. As such, bikes going south would be legal.

I'm not sure the southbound bike lane is needed. I'd rather see, right to left, a parking lane, a 2 foot painted buffer, a 5 foot bike lane, a 3 foot painted buffer, three traffic lanes and another lane of parking.

by David C on Nov 10, 2008 7:21 pm • linkreport

I'm also a neighborhood resident and like the compromise proposal. I own a car, bike frequently, and walk to work. I actually find 15th Street to be one of the easier streets from a walking or biking perspective. The one way traffic makes it very easy to cross the street when walking. And, it's efficient for drivers also. A two-way pattern would be a nightmare for the reasons mentioned above by Matt. A repeat of 16th is not a good idea.

Removing a lane, making it safer for bikers, and still leaving more than enough space for drivers is a winner all around.

by Bill on Nov 12, 2008 12:13 pm • linkreport

I am disappointed that the street will remain one-way - a very 1960s approach to city streets. However, I'm excited to get a contraflow bike lane and a protected bike lane. I bike the street frequently & find traffic very aggressive. Allowing southbound bike traffic will add an excellent new and probably safest downtown route.

by Cheryl Cort on Feb 24, 2009 10:57 am • linkreport

I am strongly opposed to adding southbound automobile traffic to 15th St. Turning the wide one-way street into a two-way street would change the character of the neighborhood, increasing traffic and making the residential side streets more accessible as a cut-through to 14th Street. My preference is to leave 15th Street one-way as it is now. My second choice is to add a single bike north-bound bike lane. The counter-traffic bike lane sounds extremely dangerous.

by Roz Cohen on Mar 1, 2009 12:52 pm • linkreport

This is DC at its finest. Take the one street that actually moves during rush hour and shut it down so that the entire street will be clogged with drivers darting from lane to lane, causing even more traffic issues. I'm going to start honking the entire way up 15th street, just to make sure the handful of losers who live on 15th street can be reminded that their selfish behavior is costing lots of people time at home with their families. Join me honking, please!

by Classic DC on Nov 3, 2009 8:39 pm • linkreport

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