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Lights out on the MBT? You're on your own, DC cyclists

The Metropolitan Branch Trail is a terrific bike facility, but without better lighting, it's too attractive for crime. Sadly, it takes repeated emergencies like robberies to get our government to pay attention.

Photo by Eric Gilliland on Flickr.

On Tuesday night at 9 pm, I rode the off-street part of the trail from Franklin Street NE, south to M Street NE, and counted 19 overhead lights (as well as 5 lights on the ramp to street level) that were burned out, missing, or flashing like a strobe.

I stopped a police officer on the trail to ask if the police would have any more success advocating for working lighting on the trail than regular citizens would. Sadly, the officer said I should just email the city or call 311, as he had no more pull on this issue than I did.

Just over an hour later, MPD reported a robbery by 8-9 masked youth, armed with a gun, on the "1400 block" of the trail.

One would assume that's between where O and P Streets would intersect the trail, based on address ranges elsewhere. That is the location of the New York Avenue bridge over the trail, which has been bathed in utter darkness since the trail opened.

There have been constant problems with the overhead lights. The light just south of the Franklin Street overpass has been flashing like a strobe since October 2011 (over a year), and nothing has been done about it. DDOT employee Heather Deutch wrote on the MBT's Facebook page:

These are solar/LED lights. There is a 5 year warranty, with most components expected to last 10 years (i.e. batteries and lamps). This was a pilot project for us and the company is out of Florida. We have been having problems with the lights and with repairs being performed quickly. That being said, all the lights were repaired and working as of January 2012. There are, again, more lights out and we have submitted this information to the company. If you would like to contact them directly, the company is Sol
DDOT's bicycle program has few resources, but it's still unacceptable that they aren't able to keep the lights working. If there's a warranty, there should be an employee who deals with contracts who can get the necessary work done.

In addition, it's been clear that the stretch of the trail under the New York Avenue overpass would be a particularly dark place since that segment of the trail opened in May, 2010. The excuse for not placing lighting under the bridge was that it would soon be under construction (construction began in early 2011). That construction has been ongoing for nearly 2 years, and is not expected to be complete until September 2013.

New York Avenue bridge over the trail. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

There's simply no rationale for not putting temporary lighting under the bridge. In addition to the all-too-real threat of crime, there's the current threat of severe injury because construction equipment takes up some of the space. David Poms noted on Twitter that he almost crashed into the construction material in the darkness.

The city needs to light the underpass now and until construction is complete with a long-term temporary solution, and then with a high-quality permanent solution after that point. Riders need to be able to see construction material or gangs of criminals waiting for them in the darkness.

Geoff Hatchard lived in DC's Trinidad neighborhood. The opinions and views expressed in Geoff's writing on this blog are his, and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer. 


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Hey, the MBT at least has lights. That's one step up from the Mt Vernon trail.

by Jasper on Dec 5, 2012 3:26 pm • linkreport

A lot of young Sonnys from "Manchild in the Promised Land" know the gaps and how to exploit them in pursuit of that illegal dollar.

by Young Sonny on Dec 5, 2012 3:30 pm • linkreport

Even the working lights aren't that great at producing light so even the lighted sections are pretty dark.
Also, I've seen the police only a few times actually on the trail. I do see them parked at the entrance under Franklin St. regularly, but there are plenty of other places for people to get on and off the trail between there and R where I get off. I don't go under NY Ave. very often, but I don't think I'd like that section if I did it every day or if I was a woman.

by thump on Dec 5, 2012 3:32 pm • linkreport

Thanks for writing this and the shout out! I used to live right by this section, so I was used to taking it even in the dark. Returning there Monday after not riding it at night for several months, the construction equipment had been moved in such a way that I couldn't tell until I got very close that it wasn't as I remembered it.

On the 'bright' side, this incident did make me finally order that front mounted light I've been meaning to get.

by @davidpoms on Dec 5, 2012 3:46 pm • linkreport

With the opening of Trilogy at Noma more people should be on the trail.

by davidj on Dec 5, 2012 4:13 pm • linkreport

What we should have is a comprehensive plan for not only the trail but for the area around it. The business adjacent to the trail should be involve in helping to maintain it and promote it. It's an assets and potentially a resource.

by Randall M. on Dec 5, 2012 4:18 pm • linkreport

This advocacy for bicyclists is a war criminals!

by SJE on Dec 5, 2012 4:29 pm • linkreport

@davidpoms-What headlight did you get. I'm trying to decide on one myself at the moment.

by thump on Dec 5, 2012 4:33 pm • linkreport

For bike lights, I recommend one with at least 150 lumens. They're more expensive, but actually light up your way rather than faintly glimmer your presence to the world. I use Light&Motion.

by Clark L on Dec 5, 2012 4:46 pm • linkreport

I don't even have an idea where the MBT is located but this is absolutely unacceptable.

Inadequate lighting for a trail? HogWash!

by HogWash on Dec 5, 2012 4:57 pm • linkreport

you guys get a headlight. I can't believe your riding this time of year w/o one. Just duct tape a flashlight to your handle bars until you get a proper one. Geez.

by Tina on Dec 5, 2012 5:17 pm • linkreport

I think the police officer should notify the city as part of their job. Why should they tell the author to do it himself. I being to wonder if the police care his job.

Secondly, the explanation from DDOT is pathetic. Why is she telling the reader to contact the vendor???? Isn't DDOT job to do it? I think DDOT should have move on and get another vendor as soon possible if the vendor can't do the job. Am I missing the picture here?


by Dave on Dec 5, 2012 5:23 pm • linkreport

I have "be seen" lights Tina (and lots of high-viz stuff too). I'm looking for a "see with" light. I haven't seen a whole lot of people w/o lights, but I'm still seeing some.

by thump on Dec 5, 2012 5:27 pm • linkreport

If the lights are cobrahead on wooden poles, they are Pepco. There is a serial number on the bottom and you can go online to report the outage. My experience (in Maryland) is that it gets fixed within 30 days. GGW should do an overview of how/where to report light outages, especially on bike trails in the region, as the process tends differ between jurisdictions.

by eozberk on Dec 5, 2012 5:28 pm • linkreport

@Hogwash-Are you being sarcastic? Tough to tell here.

by thump on Dec 5, 2012 5:29 pm • linkreport

@thump -Thats reassuring!

by Tina on Dec 5, 2012 5:33 pm • linkreport

Speaking of the bridge over NY Ave., I've idly thought about whether or not you could put rollers in the road which could be set up to generate electricity and make a connection to the string of lights along the trail. Maybe then the lights could be brighter.

2. I do know for a project that I was working on, Sol was somewhat hard to reach, but yes, they ought to be following up more quickly on projects. It'd suck if they had to be sued, but municipalities sue vendors all the time.

3. The last time discussion about trail security issues came up, I wrote about the need for a security plan, and and a point how at least at the points where the trail intersects with the street grid, the city could have extended the traditional streetlight system into the trail at those points at least.

4. I was at a meeting where John Thomas, head of the Urban Forestry Administration for DDOT, said he was responsible for trail maintenance too. (But I could have heard wrong. I didn't follow up.) It'd be worth contacting him.

by Richard Layman on Dec 5, 2012 6:12 pm • linkreport

Download the new DC 311 application on your phone and submit the issue. They respond pretty quickly & the more submits the quicker the response.

by JohnDC on Dec 5, 2012 6:40 pm • linkreport

Different people care more about different things, that's a fact of life. To accuse a police office of not caring about his or her job because they did not want to report an out light betrays a lack of respect for the real danger police put themselves in every day.

by Paul on Dec 5, 2012 6:44 pm • linkreport

1. Lights do little if nothing to prevent crime
2. If you're riding at night, you should have a front light on your bike. It's not only the law, it is the #1 thing you can do to improve the safety of yourselves and others.
3. She didn't quite tell riders they were on their own. She said that DDOT is working with the vendors, but if you want to do more than alert DDOT about something they already know about and are already trying to fix, you can contact the vendor. That's not quite the same.
4. These lights are solar powered and not connected to the grid - so not PEPCO.

by David C on Dec 5, 2012 6:56 pm • linkreport

1. Lights do little if nothing to prevent crime

The research is mixed on this. However, lighting does a lot to improve perceived safety (if not actual safety), and over time improvements in perceived safety leads to more foot/bike traffic, and more traffic will eventually lead to lower crime.

by Falls Church on Dec 5, 2012 8:10 pm • linkreport

Re: Bike Lighting

The most cost effective solution is a high powered LED flashlight coupled with a bike flashlight holder.

220 lumen flashlight for $29:

Bike mount for $5:

Both items ship free.

by Falls Church on Dec 5, 2012 8:13 pm • linkreport

lights on urban trails have to make a difference, especially on trails in lightly travelled areas, adjacent to industrial and dead zones and under bridges, etc. If research doesn't show a link, likely it's a problem with the research.

see discussion starting on p. 20 here

by Richard Layman on Dec 5, 2012 9:41 pm • linkreport

I don't know about deterring crime on the trail (don't lights around ones home deter crime?) but lights definitely will improve safety by allowing a rider to see (and avoid) debris, potholes, animals, etc. But a good headlight can accomplish that too.

by Tina on Dec 6, 2012 9:15 am • linkreport

The construction sight markings under the NY Ave bridge are actually better now -- before they had those silly road closed car signs on the opposite side from the construction, as if trail users were in cars going 40mph. They kept getting blown around and were a hazard in themselves.

Now they just have a nice line of barrels/cones actually marking the construction zone. Thanks!

PS -- better lighting under that bridge would indeed be nice. I've never had any trouble with the solar lighting elsewhere on the trail -- it seems to work well even if a few lights go out from time to time, since there are so many.

by Greenbelt on Dec 6, 2012 9:23 am • linkreport

@thump, I bought this light from Planet Bike:

I already have a rear light from them which has worked well and came with a bracket, so I thought I would stick with them. Also, it was one of the cheaper ones I could find. Don't have any feedback on its illumination yet, so take that for what its worth.

by @davidpoms on Dec 6, 2012 9:35 am • linkreport

A few weeks ago, I bought this generic-brand super-bright bike light:

It's just completely and absurdly bright (well over 1,000 lumens). Comparable lights sold for well over $200 just a year or two ago. This one is $30 bucks, and beats the pants off of anything else I've seen for under $100. It illuminates the road better than my car does.

When I'm riding around town, to be courteous to others, I leave it pointed downward, and at the lowest brightness.

by andrew on Dec 6, 2012 9:53 am • linkreport

Rereading this article, I'm not sure what Geoff wants DDOT to do?

1. "There should be an employee who deals with contracts who can get the necessary work done." But Deutsch reports that they have been in contact with the vendor. "Getting the work done" is in their court and the only option if they don't respond to asking/demanding is a lawsuit. Is that what Geoff is asking for.

2."There's simply no rationale for not putting temporary lighting under the bridge." Escept that there is. And that's that resources, as he notes, are limited. Which bike program would Geoff like to fund less to provide temporary lights and maintain them?

And the headline is inexcusable Examiner-type stuff. DDOT in no way told cyclists they were on their own. They said they were aware of the problem and were working on it BUT public pressure might help move things faster. [Unsaid was that this is what moved SOL to perform the last round of repairs]. A far better headline would be "DDOT vendor unable to keep problematic lights working." Or "SOL sucks".

by David C on Dec 6, 2012 10:11 am • linkreport

What Dave C. said.

by Randall M. on Dec 6, 2012 10:28 am • linkreport

I have been riding the MBT at night since it opened. When the trouble began, I turned the flashing light on the front of my bike OFF when I entered the off-street trail, because I did not want to give wannabe gangsters a way to see me before I saw them.

I still do that. The pattern of the malfunctioning overhead lights is such that the NYA underpass remains the only truly dark part of the trail. It would be better if they all worked, but I don't feel markedly more in jeopardy with things as they are now.

That said, a gang of 8 to 10 masked kids does give me pause.

by Incredulous on Dec 6, 2012 1:39 pm • linkreport

Hey all, I tweeted the following message to the DC DDOT and the Police Dept:

The bike lane (MBT) I ride on 2x/week is dark and dangerous. @DDOTDC @DCPoliceDept What are you going to do about it?

Those with Twitter, please RT or MT! Let's get them to acknowledge and respond.

by Tanya Paperny on Dec 7, 2012 2:15 pm • linkreport

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