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U-turns on Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes pose safety risk

A driver, talking on a cell phone, started to make an illegal U-turn across the Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes and almost hit Bill Walsh. He recorded the experience in a video:

Cyclists have been pleading for action against dangerous and illegal U-turns on Pennsyl­vania Avenue for some time. Justin Antos captured a recent U-turn on his camera as well, and many cyclists have reported the similar experiences using the #stoputurnsonpenn hashtag.

Councilmember Tommy Wells wants to stop the practice. His staff have obtained crash reports from DDOT for Pennsylvania Avenue and have been analyzing them for some time. Based on those reports, it appears that U-turns are by far the most common cause of bicycle-related crashes in the Pennsylvania Avenue lanes.

Here is the police narrative from one report, for a crash on October 27, 2010, where a taxi driver injured a cyclist:






Solutions: Enforcement? Bollards?

What can be done? Police could more strictly enforce the no-U-turn rules, and DDOT could add more clear signs or markings. Walsh himself made this suggestion:

Most of the crash reports Wells' office provided show that police did indeed ticket drivers for U-turns after crashes, at least when it was clear from the driver's statements or witnesses that a U-turn was involved. The fact that many drivers admitted to the U-turn may tell us that drivers don't realize it's illegal or unsafe, and the right signs might help.

On the other hand, police don't seem to ticket drivers for U-turns when there's no crash, and many federal and local police cruisers often actually park right in the lanes.

Darren Buck suggested more plastic stanchions or "flexposts." There are already short sets of these at each corner to make it clear to drivers that they shouldn't use the bike lane as a turn lane, but their absence in the center seems to give drivers license to make U-turns:

Earlier plans for the bike lanes included bollards along the whole length of the blocks, but the Commission on Fine Arts, a federal panel which reviews projects on federal land an in key areas near federal property, wasn't thrilled:

The Commission approved the proposed design without colored pavement on the bicycle lanes or median, noting the importance of the avenue's design character as a prominent visual symbol of the nation. The Commission also recommended against the installation of reflective plastic stanchions, commenting that these would be intrusive and incompatible elements in this iconic streetscape.
DDOT ultimately decided to go ahead with some stanchions at the corners anyway, apparently believing this was a reasonable compromise between CFA's desire to keep objects out of Pennsylvania Avenue and safety. It may be time to revisit that decision and install stanchions mid-block.

Wells says he's asked Chief Cathy Lanier for more enforcement, as has Jack Evans, who said MPD "has promised additional enforcement for cabs and all cars."

Any physical changes, Wells points out, will probably not happen until after the Inauguration in January, when all of the traffic signals and other objects on Pennsylvania Avenue get taken out for the parade. DDOT will have to re-install the existing bollards at at that time, which would make it a perfect opportunity to put more bollards in while they already have crews out there.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. 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 two children in Dupont Circle. 


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What can be done?

Ban Maryland drivers from DC?

by Vinh An Nguyen on Oct 11, 2012 12:05 pm • linkreport

Yep. Things like this happen regularly.

This morning on my 25 minute bike ride through downtown I had about three or four cars blocking bike lanes or double parking; a cab and a car cutting me off and blocking the bike lane for a drop-off; two salmon bikers; two red light crossing bikers; several cars riding with a wheel in the bike lane; and a whole swatch of pedestrians jay-walking against my green light(s).

Yesterday, while walking, I was nearly run over by a WMATA bus who thought he had the right of way crossing left through a striped pedestrian crossing with a green. Oh, and Arlington County parked its cars in the short two-way bike lane between Lynn and Moore @ Lee. Oh, and there was an unmarked police car driving on the mutli-use trail between Braddock Rd and King St. WTF?

These problems will not be solved by posting more signs. And quite frankly, I don't know how you would enforce such a random U-turn. What could help is a massive public service campaign about chilling the F out in traffic and paying a bit more attention. The big problem here is entitlement. People think that they can break the law for a minute because it doesn't hurt.

by Jasper on Oct 11, 2012 12:17 pm • linkreport

"Ban Maryland drivers from DC?"
And you know that driver is from Maryland because...?

by ceefer66 on Oct 11, 2012 12:17 pm • linkreport

The bollards should absolutely go in. When I used that route to commute to work, I routinely saw people making U-turns, and it's dangerous. The streetscape wouldn't be harmed by the addition of bollards, and safety would be greatly enhanced.

by Dan Miller on Oct 11, 2012 12:25 pm • linkreport

Regarding the sensibilities of the Fine Arts Commission: Nothing says "America" like enabling cars to more easily run into cyclists on our nation's premier avenue.

by Greenbelt on Oct 11, 2012 12:29 pm • linkreport

What can be done? How about making hitting pedestrians and bicyclists with your car an arrestable aggravated assault offense?

If someone walked up to a bicyclist/pedestrian and hit them with a hammer they would go to jail. Hitting them with a car should be no different.

by DAJ on Oct 11, 2012 12:32 pm • linkreport

Bike lanes: ghettos for cyclists. Stay in them, or else. (Ghetto, n. a : an isolated group b : a situation that resembles a ghetto especially in conferring inferior status or limiting opportunity)

by crin on Oct 11, 2012 12:33 pm • linkreport

A cheaper, less obtrusive but probably just as effective way to enforce this would be those raised yellow curb things that they use for temporary bulb-outs. If they're raised and painted yellow, it says "Hey, cars, stay out of this area"

by Dave Murphy on Oct 11, 2012 12:33 pm • linkreport

And you know that driver is from Maryland because...?

"That" driver is irrelevant. But the large majority of egregious driving I see in DC (and VA too for that matter) is by cars with MD tags.

by Vinh An Nguyen on Oct 11, 2012 12:33 pm • linkreport

Blah, blah, biker this, car that. Why anyone even participates in any biker / car discussion here anymore is beyond me. It's all been said 75 time before.

Moving on.

by anonsy on Oct 11, 2012 12:44 pm • linkreport

Simply put if pavement is accessible to motorists they WILL use it. Though I have to wonder if the u-turn problem would be as severe if DDOT had stuck with the original planned lanes.

Cycletracks on busy streets really should have some sort of physical barrier to prevent cars from overrunning the cyclists.

by JeffB on Oct 11, 2012 12:46 pm • linkreport

Putting aside the larger issues and arguments, I'm just glad this particular cyclist wasn't hit.

by JD on Oct 11, 2012 12:54 pm • linkreport

@ anonsy:Moving on.

Clearly you don't get nearly run of your socks on a regular basis.

by Jasper on Oct 11, 2012 1:06 pm • linkreport

I agree that the residency of drivers is t the important point, but for the record you can pretty clearly see that the car had Maryland plates (freeze it at 22 seconds)

It's important to remember that in the end, the CFA is only advisory. The city can simply not listen to it. That's why if the CFA rejects a proposed changed to a Georgetown house, you can appeal that decision to the Mayor's Agent. So I think DC should say "Thanks for the advice CFA, but this is a question of safety so we're going to do it anyway". Not only bollards but painted lanes too.

Enforcement is important, but as with just about every undesirable driver behavior, a change in road design will produce much more results.

by TM on Oct 11, 2012 1:17 pm • linkreport

Regardless of the obvious questions and comments that have been enumerated above, why was this bicyclist videotaping while riding? Isnt that kind of dangerous too?

by jimmycrackcorn on Oct 11, 2012 1:17 pm • linkreport

How does he record? I would like to start myself.

by on Oct 11, 2012 1:19 pm • linkreport

Did Wells ask Lanier how we are going to get more enforcement when MPD regularly violates the bike lane laws?

by SJE on Oct 11, 2012 1:22 pm • linkreport

Just out of curiosity, anyone know why the lines separating the cycle lanes from the car lanes aren't painted yellow? I know it wouldn't prevent the problem, but yellow lines are generally seen as more of a "do not cross" than white lines.

by another Josh on Oct 11, 2012 1:23 pm • linkreport

Re: jimmycrackcorn --- I assume he was using a helmet camera throughout his entire ride. These are becoming cheaper and more popular. NYT had a write up on that "trend" a month or two ago if you're interested.

by John on Oct 11, 2012 1:25 pm • linkreport

He has a helmet cam.

by JD on Oct 11, 2012 1:25 pm • linkreport

I think I will drive up and down Pennsylvania Ave. in my car, with a video camera, and show all the lights cyclists run and the illegal turns they make.

Instead of bollards, how about jersey barriers so everybody stays in the correct lane and doesn't make illegal turns?

by ah on Oct 11, 2012 1:29 pm • linkreport

In the video from the post, you can clearly see the "no left turn, no U turn" sign (0:14) right before the motorist attempts the U turn. These signs exist at nearly every intersection along PA Ave. I'm not sold that more signage will do anything.

In fact, if you look at some of the other YouTube videos that he's posted, you can see it there too. In "A bike commute in Washington, D.C." a white utility van makes a U-turn in front of him at 4:27, clearly captured on camera.

U-turns on PA Ave are so common that I'm surprised when a day goes by when I don't see it, rather than vice-versa.

by Rob P on Oct 11, 2012 1:33 pm • linkreport

I think I will drive up and down Pennsylvania Ave. in my car, with a video camera, and show all the lights cyclists run and the illegal turns they make.

Be my guest - I would be very interested to see this video.

Personally I do not see many cyclist violations on Penn because there is a lot of car traffic and cross traffic.

by MLD on Oct 11, 2012 1:33 pm • linkreport

@ ah:I think I will drive up and down Pennsylvania Ave. in my car, with a video camera, and show all the lights cyclists run and the illegal turns they make.

Good idea! At the same time, you will register how many participants in traffic break the law. Drivers, bikers and pedestrians. The enormous difference between bikers and pedestrians on the one hand, and drivers on the other hand is that bikers and pedestrians rarely threaten the life and safety of others because they are moving slower and are not surrounded by a ton of steel.

by Jasper on Oct 11, 2012 1:36 pm • linkreport

@ah - Since you will of course be scrupulously observing the speed limit, it will be useful to have a record of how many cars pass you.

by Ben Ross on Oct 11, 2012 1:49 pm • linkreport

@ another Josh:

The CFA generally opposes strong design elements on Pa Ave, and colored paint was considered visually too strong for the initial design.

The discussion seems to have left open options for adding it and other measures after the initial period, if driver and cyclist behavior requires it.

I think that after almost three years it might be time to go back to CFA and offer some sensible revisions.

Also, "Mr. Powell [Hon. Earl A. Powell, CFA Chairman] acknowledged the careful attention to protecting bicyclists from turning cars, but also raised the issue of bicyclists not obeying traffic rules."

by DaveS on Oct 11, 2012 1:52 pm • linkreport

Why can't we get past this fallacy that someone else's bad behavior excuses nearly killing someone? Law breaking on the roads is rampant out there, regardless of transportation mode and it doesn't necessarily make any of it OK.

by Rob P on Oct 11, 2012 1:58 pm • linkreport

Cameras everywhere!! But that truly is scary. And people can bitch and moan about bad cyclists, but the truth is that it's drivers who pose the more serious threat. (Not the more egregious threat, or the more frequent threat--the more serious and lethal threat). I don't like the Penn Ave bike lane. Driving unprotected up the middle of a busy street just sounds like a bad idea.

by MJ on Oct 11, 2012 2:23 pm • linkreport

An equally dangerous problem is the loads of pedestrians who wait in the middle of the bike lanes while trying to illegally cross the street.

This and the U-turns are why I NEVER bike in those bike lanes and wont until I actually see enforcement.

by Ryan S. on Oct 11, 2012 2:26 pm • linkreport

This seems like a no-brainer. If we are giving tickets for speeding on 295, we should be ticketing HEAVILY for breaking U-turn laws. Fill the budget gap with these, and put the money towards streetscape projects...


by Kyle-w on Oct 11, 2012 2:37 pm • linkreport

These U-turns are actually a good argument why having the bike lanes in the center of the road is a bad idea.

by Jasper on Oct 11, 2012 2:40 pm • linkreport

Has there been anything published on the usage of the lanes?

(I've used them once, but I don't really go down into that part of town much anymore)

by charlie on Oct 11, 2012 2:49 pm • linkreport

This is what happens when a police department essentially turns over the entire responsibility of traffic enforcement to the cameras (don't get me wrong, cameras have a place).

I drive a lot, all over the city, and rarely if ever see an officer on a traffic enforcement detail (except for the mobile camera cars) anymore. You used to see them all over.

More signs aren't the answer, bollards and things like that break easily (snow plows eat them for lunch) or simply get run over. You need actual living police officers, preferably in unmarked cars, watching out for violations.

But it is clear that this police chief simply doesn't believe in doing that. So unless you are speeding or running a red light, or commit a violation right in front of an officer (and that officer actually cares enough to do anything about it), you can pretty much do whatever you want. Those "No U-turn" or "No Left Turn" signs are essentially advisory.

by dcdriver on Oct 11, 2012 2:54 pm • linkreport


That is ridiculous. We shouldn't make improvements and try new things because people will break the law anyways, is a TERRIBLE arguement.

by Kyle-w on Oct 11, 2012 2:56 pm • linkreport

@dcdriver What are you talking about? I've just about never seen a MPD officer make a traffic stop. The only ones I ever even heard about were "broken taillight" stops when they wanted to pull someone over and needed an excuse.

I certainly don't remember a golden yesteryear of MPD traffic enforcement.

by Tim Krepp on Oct 11, 2012 3:00 pm • linkreport


What is the argument for not having plastic bollards? Snow plows eat them for lunch? This city barely ever uses its snow plows.

"People will just U-turn through them anyway" isn't a very good argument against them either.

Agreed that we need more in-person enforcement but there's no reason not to have the physical barrier so people SEE that they shouldn't do it.

by MLD on Oct 11, 2012 3:01 pm • linkreport

How about some red solo cups?

by Alex B. on Oct 11, 2012 3:03 pm • linkreport

If people are willing to drive through Logan Circle then some plastic pylons won't deter them.

However it'll deter most drivers and will do so more effectively than paint.

Don't get caught up in the thinking that we have to prepare for the worst possible accident and make sure that no one is harmed in that instance because you'll likely make things worse for everyone. See: how we design most roads and intersections these days.

by drumz on Oct 11, 2012 3:08 pm • linkreport

Exactly. Plastic pylons won't deter crazy people, but the vast majority of drivers are going to look at a row of those and think that this means you're not supposed to cross them.

You wouldn't even have to space them as closely as the ones at the end of the row - probably placing them 5ft apart or so would create a clear enough barrier that you can't easily put a car through.

by MLD on Oct 11, 2012 3:14 pm • linkreport

@MLD, I dunno about that, I've watched a number of drivers thread the bollard needle in order to park in/on the 15th Street cycletrack.

by JD on Oct 11, 2012 3:35 pm • linkreport

Me neither.
Nobody goes there anymore, it's too crowded.

by David F-H on Oct 11, 2012 3:37 pm • linkreport

We're at forty-some-odd comments now, and nobody's pointed out that this is an(other) example that John Forester is essentially right about vehicular cycling? That is, the danger that bike lanes purportedly protect cyclists from is being hit from behind, but that's rather rare. In reality, crossing and turning movements, such as the one the car attempted here, are the cause of most bike-car collisions, and having separate bike lanes exacerbates the potential conflicts.

Yes, I know that bike lanes and other visible infrastructure make novice cyclists more comfortable, even if they're not actually safer, and that the more cyclists on the road, the safer it is, because drivers learn to expect cyclists.

But perhaps there is some variation of a "road diet" that, while not including explicit bike lanes, incorporates features that inherently make cyclists feel safe and welcome.

As for flexible bollards or whatever, I would prefer some version with an abrasive outer surface--a non-rusting steel wool, say--that would really make motorists think twice about crossing over them.

by thm on Oct 11, 2012 4:00 pm • linkreport

I've only used the Penn avenue lanes a couple of times but I know if they weren't there I likely wouldn't have used Penn at all.

by drumz on Oct 11, 2012 4:10 pm • linkreport

"But perhaps there is some variation of a "road diet" that, while not including explicit bike lanes, incorporates features that inherently make cyclists feel safe and welcome."

wide lanes, sharrows, etc. I'm curious how the speed and volume of the road effects the success of those.

I am aware of the data on dangers at turns vs from behind, and I can say there are lots of arterials in Fairfax that scare the heck out of me - between drivers on their cell phones, drivers who hate cyclists, etc. I feel alot of safer watching out for getting doored in Arlington than dealing with the folks zooming close at 40MPH in FFX. Also its not like riding "integrated" eliminates all problems from turns, especially compared to a well designed segregated facility.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Oct 11, 2012 4:19 pm • linkreport

I think you should be allowed to submit video evidence like this and the city should fine the driver just like it was a speeding camera or something, no points, and give the video camera operator a small cut of the fine. There is no way that city can enforce all of the bloody cars breaking the law, but with the proliferation of video cameras we can crowdsource this to everyone's benefit.

by h_lina_k on Oct 11, 2012 5:02 pm • linkreport

Rather than spaced-out bollards, I'd like to see some type of rubberized bumper, like these, that actually makes it more difficult for a car to cross the lane:

by Jacques Arsenault on Oct 11, 2012 5:07 pm • linkreport

Those rubber bumpers are cool, but they also make it much more difficult for a cyclist to maneuver OUT of the bike lane if they want. You want to be able to do that especially if there is an obstruction or someone runs/drives into the lane, etc.

by MLD on Oct 11, 2012 5:14 pm • linkreport

Reminds me of the video of the Houston LRT.

But in this case, the trains had the advantage.

by Frank IBC on Oct 11, 2012 5:50 pm • linkreport

@MLD - Presumably the bumpers can be installed further apart.

by ah on Oct 11, 2012 5:53 pm • linkreport

Wow...I was actually taking a walk and SAW this incident. I see drivers, particularly taxis, cut across the bike lanes all the time. Even if they weren't bike lanes, the maneuver would still be illegal, so perhaps some enforcement is called for.

by Ms. D on Oct 11, 2012 7:07 pm • linkreport

Also, to many of the "why bother" comments...watching this one play out, the driver was ALSO clearly shaken, and decided their best course of action was to LEGALLY continue along their route, forgetting about whatever it was that made them want to make a U-turn. I do think, given this, they didn't know better, and, for that driver and people like them, a good reminder would help. Ignorance of the law isn't an EXCUSE, but if people are doing things because they're ignorant, we should do what we can to inform them.

by Ms. D on Oct 11, 2012 7:18 pm • linkreport

Is the paint part of the issue here? What does DC law say about the kind of paint pattern used on the lanes here? IE: In California, double yellow spaces x distance apart (is it 4 feet?) means the area has the legal standing of a median (do not cross under any circumstance). In many areas, solid white lines are just advisory (ie, like how you can cross a bike lane to park).

Does the striping actually indicate u turns are illegal?

by JJJ on Oct 11, 2012 7:18 pm • linkreport

Raised curbs or rubber surfaces will never happen on Pennsylvania Avenue. Once every four years this street hosts the inaugural parade. All of the stop lights in the middle of the street are removed. This year, they will have to remove the bollards too.

BTW Have you noticed that in the last couple of weeks the far left auto lanes are now marked with solid white lines? These replaced the dashes.

by tour guide on Oct 11, 2012 10:56 pm • linkreport

You make more friends with good road design than ruthless enforcement. Install bollards and see how much they help. I'd guess they'd reduce u turns by 80%.

by Falls Church on Oct 11, 2012 11:42 pm • linkreport

It doesn't have to be a physical, so much as a visual barrier, just to put people off the idea of doing this. Easily-removable flexiposts (yellow, with reflectors or LED lights) would go a long way. Maybe add a removable rubber rumble strip (yellow), just to jolt people when they start to edge in that direction. It works for keeping people from veering off the roadway absentmindedly, that's all we are trying to do here. Jolting people out of auto-poilot mode will get them actually looking around. People don't really read signs when they are in auto-pilot anyway, except signs they are looking for - that's why people get so many tickets. Giving out tickets is not the point - the point is to save lives.

by Lee on Oct 12, 2012 9:50 am • linkreport

@Jaspar: I disagree. Granted I've only started commuting by bike again after a 10-year hiatus but the bike lanes in the center of the street are much better than the ones on the side of the road. You don't have to worry about drivers who've parked their cars stepping out into the bike lane. Or about drivers pulling out of parking garages, looking for other cars and not the cyclist right in front of them. Or the right hook.

by lou on Oct 12, 2012 1:54 pm • linkreport

charlie, DDOT has a study of all its downtown bike facilities here.

by David C on Oct 12, 2012 10:34 pm • linkreport

Three words: Green Bike Lanes

by Brandon on Oct 13, 2012 1:32 pm • linkreport

This kind of behavior is pretty ideal for traffic enforcement cameras: it's easily definable and done at a relatively low speed.

@dcdriver: At least there's *something* enforcing traffic laws. In other cities I've lived in, like Chicago, it's almost unheard of to get cited for a moving violation until and unless someone dies. Thus, basic laws are universally flouted: over 90% of drivers in stings sped through school zones and blew right past well-signed crosswalks.

by Payton on Oct 16, 2012 12:36 pm • linkreport

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