Who's blocking L Street today, and what can we do?
Who's blocking the L Street bike lane today? A delivery driver, most likely. That's the conclusion I've reached after 4 months of chronicling obstructions in the city's newest bike lane.
I started the blog, "Who's Blocking the L St. Bike Lane Today?" on a whim after the lane (technically a cycle track) opened. Since then, readers have submitted a steady stream of pictures showing vehicles blocking the lane, on top of the pictures I've taken myself.
While I do use the lane frequently (and thus have a personal stake in it being unobstructed), I don't view this as an exercise in vigilantism. My goal is to highlight larger trends, not to shame or mock individual drivers.
While swerving around a parked car into moving traffic on a bike can be dangerous, I realize there are many greater evils in the world and on the road, and am weary of perpetuating the perception of, broadly, the hysterically entitled cyclist by fixating on what is a ultimately a minor inconvenience in most instances. That said, the L Street bike lane is supposed to facilitate bicycling, not parking, and blocking the lane is, at least nominally, illegal. When the lane is blocked, it doesn't serve its purpose.
Who IS blocking the L Street bike lane today?
Overall, very few people actually "park" in the L St. bike lane. The majority of vehicles blocking the lane are delivery trucks supplying the many offices and stores that line the stretch. Looking just at the 156 photos on the site to date, 60% have been of delivery vehicles, while 30% are personal vehicles, and 10% belong to police.
Based on my observations, the median length of time for vehicles blocking the lane is 1-3 minutes. That's long enough to run in to a building, drop something off, and return. However, it's not uncommon for a delivery driver to treat the lane as a loading dock for loading and unloading large shipments, a process which generally takes 10-20 minutes.
Obviously, this is not a comprehensive sample. Because I took many of the pictures, they tend to over-represent weekday, daytime activity, and concentrate on the 1700 block of L. Still, they should provide some insight into the patterns of usage that have developed so far along the lane, as well as a starting point for potential solutions.
What can we do?
Deliveries, and delivery vehicles, are an increasing necessity in today's economy, and accommodating their activity will be an ongoing challenge as cities continue to densify and pursue more multi-modal streetscapes. This is especially true in central business districts like the Golden Triangle, where businesses and office workers (myself included) rely on quick and affordable deliveries engendered by the online economy.
While it may be tempting to vilify the individual delivery drivers, many of whom work long hours under tight deadlines, as you veer around them on your bike, doing so ignores the larger enforcement, policy and design pressures that shape the situation on L Street.
Enforcement: Willfully running a solid red light is universally taboo in America, and a pressure that is strong enough to dissuade drivers from doing it. Today the societal taboo is clearly not as strong against blocking bike lanes, but targeted enforcement can help change perceptions.
In all of my observation I have only seen one ticket issued to someone blocking a bike lane. Indeed, police cars are often guilty of the offense themselves, and not while on official business. Most of the photos I've taken myself of police cars blocking the bike lanes have occurred while the driver was visiting Robeks, a fruit smoothie store on the block.
Even though the actual penalties may not serve as a deterrent (many delivery companies simply write them off as a cost of doing business), an enforcement campaign can start to change attitudes about the practice and encourage delivery drivers to use dedicated loading zones or the service alleys that connect many larger buildings on L Street.
Design: The blocking problem is not nearly so great on the 15th Street cycle track. This may partly result from there being fewer blocks where the lane runs past commercial streets. Also on 15th, parking serves as a buffer between the 15th Street lane and the active roadway. Not only does that offer an alternative for delivery drivers and others, it creates a physical barrier of parked vehicles, impeding easy access in a way that the plastic pylons cannot.
Before the L Street Lane was installed, Mike Goodno, Bicycle Program Specialist at the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) said that a similar arrangement would not be possible on L, as it would limit the street to one through lane outside rush hour.
One option could be to relocate the current parking from the south side to the north side, between the bike lane and the active roadway. Currently, parking and loading is permitted in the southernmost lane outside of rush hour; during rush our, the lane becomes a third through lane, though obstructions in this lane often remain throughout rush hour, leaving two effective through lanes in most cases.
Goodno says that is a possibility, and in fact DDOT is planning to have (full-time) parking next to the forthcoming lane on many blocks of M Street. However, Goodno noted, there could not be parking next to the left turn lanes, or for some distance before the start of the "mixing zones," where drivers merge into the bike lane to turn left. That would substantially reduce the amount of parking on L Street.
Alternatively, DDOT has floated the idea of installing a curb along the L St. lane to prevent vehicle incursions, though so far there has been no activity. Likewise, Goodno said they are considering adding more posts, which today appear every 20 feet.
Policy: Most blocks of L Street now combine some dedicated loading zones and short-term metered parking along the south side of the street. In my observation, the loading zones are nearly always occupied with delivery vehicles, suggesting that drivers are willing to use them provided they can find a space. Likewise, the metered parking on the street is consistently occupied as well, typically by passenger vehicles.
The difference, of course, is that those drivers have the option of parking off-street in one of the numerous commercial garages in the area, while delivery vehicles cannot. Though it would almost certainly draw criticism from some quarters, the city could convert existing metered parking along L Street to loading-only lanes, giving delivery drivers more legal options to park. If and when performance parking comes to the Golden Triangle, it could also ensure that spaces are more likely open for delivery drivers.
My experience watching the L Street bike lane has not revealed an existential struggle amongst warring factions for turf on one of downtowns busiest arteries. Rather, I've seen drivers, bikers, delivery guys, cops, and pedestrians (who, lest we forget, are often one in the same) working to coexist in a new multi-modal reality that they all generally accept, even if they're all still getting used to it.
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