Greater Greater Washington

Will cycletrack barriers on Pennsylvania Avenue work?

In response to drivers making U-turns across the Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes, DDOT has completed the first stage of installing a special kind of barrier called a Zebra. Now that the Zebras are out in the wild, will they work?


An SUV makes a U-turn on Penn in between the new Zebras. Photo by jwetz on Twitter.

Last summer, Mayor Vincent Gray announced that the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) would work with stakeholders to address an increasingly dangerous problem with illegal U-turns on Pennsylvania Avenue. DDOT's solution was to install Zebras, a bicycle lane separator from the Spanish company Zicla.

The low-profile barriers can separate bike lanes from vehicle traffic without being visually obtrusive. DDOT chose the Zebras because their low profile does not interrupt the viewshed to the US Capitol, a serious issue for the Commission on Fine Arts (CFA). They're also bolted to the pavement, meaning they can be removed for the presidential inauguration parade every 4 years.

In September, the CFA approved a pilot project to install the Zebras on two blocks of Penn. Yesterday, DDOT installed Zebras on the south side of Pennsylvania between 12th and 13th streets NW. According to Mike Goodno, DDOT Bicycle Program Specialist, DDOT installed the Zebras on only one block for the time being in order to assess their effectiveness.

How effective will they be?

DDOT's construction plans call for spacing the Zebras at 10-foot intervals on each edge of the bike lane. However, the manufacturer's specifications recommended placing them no more than 2.5 meters, or 8.2 feet apart. Subsequent measurements on installed Zebras show the actual separation to be approximately 15 feet center-to-center in violation of DDOT's construction plans for this project.

This may or may not be narrow enough to prevent drivers from entering the bike lane. However, Zebras also have no sharp edges, which are not only safer for cyclists, but allow emergency vehicles to drive over them when necessary.


How Zebras are supposed to be installed. Photo from Zicla.

Why did DDOT exceed the minimum recommended separation? One possible answer is that the Zebras will be located on each side of the bike lanes in a staggered arrangement. This creates a combined separation of approximately 5 feet. However, the rows of Zebras on either side of the bike lanes are 15 feet apart, meaning drivers can still cut across them.

In order to determine the Zebras' effectiveness, DDOT took counts of illegal U-turns prior to installation and will take additional counts now, in addition to doing a review of crash data. The agency will also look at public feedback about the Zebras to gauge the pilot program's success. The test results will determine if DDOT will install Zebras along the entire length of the cycle track.


First stage of Zebra installation on Pennsylvania Avenue, other side to follow soon. Photo from the author.

The Zebras' spacing may lower their effectiveness, reducing the chance of a successful test and making cyclists less safe. Hopefully, DDOT's test will encourage transportation officials to install them not only throughout the corridor, but in the manner that the Zebras' manufacturer recommends.

Ryan Sigworth is an urban planner at the Maryland National Capital Parks and Planning Commission. He bikes or takes public transit to work from his house in Adams Morgan, where he has lived car-free with his wife and cat since 2009. He is a cyclist, urbanist, and smart growth advocate who blogs on his personal blog, The DCyclist. 

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We can only hope this is due to DDOT's incompetence in ordering enough Zebras (maybe there is a Zebra shortage), and not from a failure to read the owner's manual as to how to install. There are any number of ways DDOT can screw up a one-car funeral.

I would expect that DDOT's holiday party will be a short affair when they run out of beer early.

by fongfong on Oct 30, 2013 10:32 am • linkreport

My guess as to why they're 15' apart: they wanted them to look pretty and 15' puts them centered between the stripes of the cycletrack buffer.

I hope I'm wrong.

by AlongThePike on Oct 30, 2013 10:33 am • linkreport

They installed them too far apart. If drivers can squeeze through, they will. The first photo shows how.

by Joe Flood on Oct 30, 2013 10:36 am • linkreport

Putting the Zebras so far apart means that even with having them staggered, drivers will have a lot of space to maneuver and will easily be able to avoid both rows of Zebras. I don't think drivers will be impeded or discouraged from making u-turns at all. I'd rather they place the Zebras every 3-4 feet and orient them diagonally so that u-turners would be more likely to hit them and thus discouraged from trying to do so.

I'm trying not to be cynical, but this really seems like a half-hearted (I'd substitute a less kind word for "hearted") approach to testing the efficacy of Zebras on the PA Ave cycle track.

by bobco85 on Oct 30, 2013 10:47 am • linkreport

You point out the thought of staggering, such that when the two columns are overlaid, the spacing would be more on the order of 7.5 ft (half of the existing 15). The problem is that this still allows for vehicular incursion into the protected space. With this spacing most cars and trucks will barely notice the zebras. It's not enough to hope that the staggered spacing will prevent cars from making u-turns (and in turn getting stuck in the cycletrack) - the zebras need to be installed so that cars are prevented from entering the "protected" cycletrack.

The deployment of these barriers goes against good engineering practices and the manufacturers recommended spacing. The study has no way of providing reliable data that can be relied upon to make engineering and safety decisions. DDOT needs to get back out there and install these zebras at a reasonable and proper spacing, or they become suggestions, not physical barriers.

by dirteng on Oct 30, 2013 10:48 am • linkreport

Looks like another systematic failure towards bicyclists, "hey look were doing what you wanted," only slower, not to specifications, and half-hearted.

by Adam Lind on Oct 30, 2013 10:51 am • linkreport

Hopefully they will help, but these should be installed a bit closer together and angled so they present the most surface area to the direction a u-turning vehicle comes from!

by MLD on Oct 30, 2013 10:51 am • linkreport

There's a time and place for public comment and "testing." A critical safety component is not one of them.

We do not have public meetings when the paint on the roads is restriped. We do not send out surveys when roads are repaved. This is a product in use world-wide that is being installed as an important safety mechanism. Using peoples lives as data points in a phased test is not the proper approach.

by JJJJ on Oct 30, 2013 11:15 am • linkreport

Even if the zebras on the opposite side are installed at an offset, the current spacing will still allow cars into the "protected" lane. Worse yet, in order to finish their U-turns, drivers will be paying more attention to how to navigate the zebras than to the cyclists they are endangering.

by KG on Oct 30, 2013 11:19 am • linkreport

I'm not sure why making u-turns on Pennsylvania Ave. is illegal. On most streets in the US in this sort of situation, it is perfectly legal to make a u-turn, but only from the farthest left general purpose (GP) lane. AND only after yielding right of way to any bicyclists using the bike lanes PLUS any oncoming traffic on the other side of the street. Done correctly and safely like this, it would even contribute to traffic calming (in a small way). Are there "no u-turn" signs in place?

by DaveG on Oct 30, 2013 11:23 am • linkreport

I'm not sure why making u-turns on Pennsylvania Ave. is illegal. On most streets in the US in this sort of situation, it is perfectly legal to make a u-turn, but only from the farthest left general purpose (GP) lane.

The farthest left GP lane is usually the farthest left lane; but not in this case. Hence, the u-turns must cross the bike lanes, and thus they are both dangerous and illegal. As they should be.

by Alex B. on Oct 30, 2013 11:31 am • linkreport

But it is OK to make a left turn across a left-hand bike lane, if done safely and correctly. How is this any different?

by DaveG on Oct 30, 2013 11:33 am • linkreport

Because as we've seen, drivers can't seem to do it safely and correctly on PA Ave?

by MLD on Oct 30, 2013 11:38 am • linkreport

DaveG, are you suggesting that in most 8 lane roads in the US, making u-turns outside the intersection is generally legal?

Thats preposterous.

by JJJJ on Oct 30, 2013 11:39 am • linkreport

The good news is that if a cyclist is struck by a driver without insurance, there will still be a solvent defendant to sue.

by JimT on Oct 30, 2013 11:43 am • linkreport

"But it is OK to make a left turn across a left-hand bike lane, if done safely and correctly. How is this any different?"

What you described is also illegal. Cars are supposed to make turns FROM the left lane (in your example, the bike lane), not ACROSS it. Also, a U-turn on Pennsylvania Avenue requires negotiating parallel bicycle traffic, oncoming bicycle traffic, and an additional 3 lanes of motor vehicle traffic. That's why it is illegal and why there are two "no U-turns" signs at every intersection along its length.

by KG on Oct 30, 2013 11:44 am • linkreport

I think that even with spacing, the presence of the Zebras will have a significant chilling effect on U-turns. Right now, there's insufficient visual cues that U-turns are no allowed.

by Crickey7 on Oct 30, 2013 11:45 am • linkreport

@Adam Lind

+1

by Adam L on Oct 30, 2013 11:46 am • linkreport

DDOT's incompetence on these projects is unbelievable. Someone needs to hold Director Bellamy's feet to the fire and figure out what's going on. Not just for this - there is a long line of examples.

by dno on Oct 30, 2013 11:48 am • linkreport

Would be curious to get Secret Service's thoughts on this - in the event of a future emergency on Pennsylvania Ave

by Jack Jackson on Oct 30, 2013 11:52 am • linkreport

@JimT

If you're implying that DDOT can be sued, I think you are incorrect. I'm no lawyer, but I know that States (and many local governments) enjoy sovereign immunity from lawsuits. For example, from a WMATA lawsuit:

http://theprez98.blogspot.com/2012/04/wmata-sovereign-immunity-and-aeds.html

by dirteng on Oct 30, 2013 11:56 am • linkreport

With all the automated enforcement rolling out across DC to include crosswalk and stop sign violations, it seems automated enforcement would be a perfect fir Penn. Avenue. It might not stop all the violations but at least we'd be getting something out of it. Also, I saw these in action yesterday - it's pretty obvious that you're not supposed to drive over them. I find it so insane that on one of the most important streets in the USA, the rule of law for motorists is basically absent. I believe the speed limit is 25 - even though I could not find a single sign along the entire stretch. Speeding and U turns are rampant. Pretty unbecoming of such a landmark street. Nothing uglier than flagrant law-breaking.

by Craig on Oct 30, 2013 12:18 pm • linkreport

@dirteng: I'm assuming that DC is covered by the federal tort claims act.

by JimT on Oct 30, 2013 12:40 pm • linkreport

If it is possible to have a DDOT rep survey how many illegal u-turns are made each day, why is it not possible to have MPDC survey the same thing, and give tickets?

by ah on Oct 30, 2013 12:43 pm • linkreport

@ah Because the police don't care about cyclist or pedestrian safety, and don't really believe that traffic laws should be enforced. Silly!

by Greenbelt on Oct 30, 2013 12:54 pm • linkreport

Pennsylvania Avenue used to be an iconic street in this town, but now you can barely see the Capital with these monstrosities in the way. Why must we begrime the most beautiful piece of America?

by David C on Oct 30, 2013 12:59 pm • linkreport

There's a time and place for public comment and "testing." A critical safety component is not one of them.

This is hardly an established product. I don't see any problem with a testing phase. We probably do too little testing in general.

by David C on Oct 30, 2013 1:01 pm • linkreport

I'm not sure why making u-turns on Pennsylvania Ave. is illegal.

Because it's dangerous.

by David C on Oct 30, 2013 1:01 pm • linkreport

"Right now, there's insufficient visual cues that U-turns are no allowed."

You shouldn't need visual cues to tell you something you should know as a licensed driver. I don't need any visual cues to tell me not to just whip a U-turn on GW or Route 1 or whatever.

Of course, people around here have no idea how to merge or use a turn signal so maybe they do need to have their hand held about basic driving.

by Another Nick on Oct 30, 2013 1:03 pm • linkreport

Maybe they should just change the law to make U-turns across double-yellow lines illegal everywhere, educate motorists, and then actually ticket motorists who do it.

by Eric on Oct 30, 2013 1:21 pm • linkreport

And why do we have a double-white line instead of a double-yellow line between the eastbound and westbound lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue?

by JimT on Oct 30, 2013 1:29 pm • linkreport

As a cyclist, I find the lack of enforcement of the speed limit helpful. If I see a vehicle traveling at the speed limit, I know that vehicle is about to make an illegal turn through the bike lane, and can respond accordingly.

Also, I believe the DC law is that no speed limit sign means the limit is 25 mph.

by Jon on Oct 30, 2013 1:47 pm • linkreport

The other thing about U-Turns is that they're unecessary in DC anyway. Just go around the block. The city is on a grid.

by drumz on Oct 30, 2013 1:50 pm • linkreport

Right now, there's insufficient visual cues that U-turns are no allowed.

Let's see:

We started with double lines and signs.
Then bike lanes with double lines on either side.
Then bike lanes with double lines and some cross-hatching, along with signs.
Now we have zebras.

Is there any "visual cue" short of jersey barriers that people will figure out?

by ah on Oct 30, 2013 1:54 pm • linkreport

@KG OK I should clarify. In some states it's OK to use the bike lane to make a turn. In other states, you need to make the turn from the nearest GP lane, while of course yielding to any bicyclists or pedestrians present, as needed. Hopefully the lanes are marked accordingly (broken lines mean motor vehicles may cross the lines, and solid ones mean they cannot). Not sure what the law for that is in DC. So are you still sure the left turn I've described is not allowed?

by DaveG on Oct 30, 2013 2:02 pm • linkreport

Let me also add that I recognize that specific streets may have u-turns banned, such as PA Ave. (does anyone have a link showing that)? But I still need an answer to my main question :-)

by DaveG on Oct 30, 2013 2:05 pm • linkreport

@JimT - because the CFA didn't want yellow disrupting the iconic parade route view. It's in the DDOT standards for pavement markings.

by Dave on Oct 30, 2013 2:10 pm • linkreport

@DaveG Yes, I'm still sure that the left turn you described is illegal in the District of Columbia. Where cars are allowed to make legal turns on a street with a bike lane, the bike lane is dashed approaching the intersection. The argument being that it is safer for a driver to merge into bike traffic before turning than to suddenly angle the front of the car across a bike lane. Not that most drivers actually understand that, though.

I believe (though I'm not sure) that most jurisdictions in the NE are that way. In fact, Portland, OR is one of the few places I'm aware of that actually requires drivers to turn "across" a bike lane and stripes them unbroken to the stop bar. That practice has led to quite a furor out there.

by KG on Oct 30, 2013 2:11 pm • linkreport

In regards to left turns, each intersection is specifically signed not allowing left turns where applicable. The signs are mounted to the traffic signal at eye level of the driver. The lane markings also provide signage for flow-thru or left turn. Drivers just need to read and care.

by Ryan Sigworth on Oct 30, 2013 2:15 pm • linkreport

@Dave. Thanks for the background. I didn't realize DC departed from the federal MUTCD in that regard.

by JimT on Oct 30, 2013 2:27 pm • linkreport

Personally, I think the zebras are a hazard to bicyclists. I have no evidence to back this up, but feel that bike riders may drift into zebras and potentially lose control.

by kob on Oct 30, 2013 3:00 pm • linkreport

I rode through the area today about 2:30pm and saw someone setting up a video camera right where the zebras begin. I was in a bit of a hurry so I didn't stop and talk but it didn't appear to be anything official (didn't see any gov vehicles or safety vests).

by dcmike on Oct 30, 2013 4:44 pm • linkreport

Much like the M Street cycletrack "compromise" that preserved illegal on-street church parking, this is a compromise between cycling advocates who wanted "zebras" on the one hand, and various scofflaw drivers who want to be able to pull u-turns through the Penn Ave cycle tracks on the other.

The cyclists get their zebras; drivers can still make u-turns. Everybody wins!

by oboe on Oct 30, 2013 4:48 pm • linkreport

Part of the explanation could be that zebras have been endangered for years now.

But seriously, does anyone at DDOT actually believe that a small bump every 15' is going to deter a huge SUV from turning across the bike lane?

by TransitSnob on Oct 30, 2013 5:02 pm • linkreport

@kob - Sort of like how a driver might drift off the road? Or a pedestrian might walk into a pole? Just pay attention to what you are doing...

by DaveG on Oct 30, 2013 5:11 pm • linkreport

@DaveG

For the less aware and attentive, perhaps helpful signs, "Beware Zebra Zone," at certain intervals might be helpful.

by kob on Oct 30, 2013 5:40 pm • linkreport

@kob

Do you bike? As far as I can tell from my biking, other cyclists don't have a problem with running into objects along the road, especially ones that are outside the travel lane.

This is no different from having a curb, why the hell would anyone run into it? People aren't constantly falling over from "drifting" over towards the sidewalk and hitting the curb.

by MLD on Oct 30, 2013 5:42 pm • linkreport

@Adam Lind: I don't think any cyclists wanted these things; cyclists wanted a real barrier and no stupid excuses why the people legally allowed to do that (d.) don't have the balls to do so.

@DaveG: as a matter of fact, an enormous amount of money is spent making sure that when (not if) motorists fly off the road that they don't hurt themselves. E.g., breakaway signs, crushable barriers, angled pediments, etc. Only for pedestrians and cyclists do the highway departments just tell people to suck it up and be careful--for motorists, they bend over backward to make the built environment safe.

by Mike on Oct 31, 2013 7:52 am • linkreport

@Mike
as a matter of fact, an enormous amount of money is spent making sure that when (not if) motorists fly off the road that they don't hurt themselves. E.g., breakaway signs, crushable barriers, angled pediments, etc. Only for pedestrians and cyclists do the highway departments just tell people to suck it up and be careful--for motorists, they bend over backward to make the built environment safe.

Except how would you do that for bike infrastructure? Make the zebras unable to withstand a bike impact and they will be useless against cars that weigh 8-10x as much.

What is the alternative? Put nothing there because people might run into these things? Does that result in an overall safety enhancement? I don't think so - seems to me that having infrastructure that prevents cars from u-turning across the lane is a net safety benefit even if there is a slight increased chance that a bike might hit a bump and crash.

by MLD on Oct 31, 2013 8:22 am • linkreport

@Mike - Don't forget those perpendicular warning grooves they now put into the median of many two-lane highways, and on the shoulders of those and other, wider highways. Sometimes pedestrian/bicycle lanes are separated from motor traffic by barriers, particularly on bridges.

by DaveG on Oct 31, 2013 9:02 am • linkreport

Found it...DC's u-turn law:

"U-Turn - You can not make a U-turn on a curve or a hill where the vehicle cannot be seen at least 500 feet away by the driver of another vehicle proceeding in either direction. U-turns are prohibited in the District of Columbia at intersections controlled by traffic lights or police officer, or on a crosswalk adjacent to such an
intersection."

http://dmv.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/dmv/publication/attachments/dltest.pdf

I think the u-turn law in other states may vary.

by DaveG on Oct 31, 2013 9:10 am • linkreport

@MLD: a highly visible and continuous barrier would be safer, no?

by Mike on Oct 31, 2013 9:13 am • linkreport

The more barriers there are, the more expensive they are. Just imagine the cost of such barriers on every street in the country. Given that a vehicle could crash into a barrier yet still send parts flying past it, I don't think this is worth it. In certain instances, yes. By asking for such barriers everywhere, you're suggesting that you don't trust drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians to be safe, generally speaking, when most are.

by DaveG on Oct 31, 2013 11:11 am • linkreport

a highly visible and continuous barrier would be safer, no?

It would, but that isn't remotely on the table given the design reviews for PA Ave.

You go to war with the barriers you've got, not some unrealistic fantasy barriers that would be better!

@DaveG
The more barriers there are, the more expensive they are. Just imagine the cost of such barriers on every street in the country. Given that a vehicle could crash into a barrier yet still send parts flying past it, I don't think this is worth it. In certain instances, yes. By asking for such barriers everywhere, you're suggesting that you don't trust drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians to be safe, generally speaking, when most are.

Strawman - who said people are asking for this stuff on every street? We are asking for it on Pennsylvania Avenue. We can't have them there because it's too expensive to put them everywhere? That doesn't make sense.

by MLD on Oct 31, 2013 11:54 am • linkreport

Barriers would solve the whole U-turn problem, yes (except maybe at the intersections along PA Ave.), but would ruin the view (the issue for the Fine Arts Commission or whatever it is).

by DaveG on Oct 31, 2013 1:05 pm • linkreport

This is how Zebras are installed for Barcelona cycle tracks:
http://goo.gl/maps/Ee626

Why can't we just do this?

by TransitSnob on Oct 31, 2013 5:26 pm • linkreport

I wanted to thank everyone for commenting on my article and not letting the discussion fall into "cyclists never follow the law" comments.

After this article was published, sources at DDOT confirmed they botched the Zebra installation. When DDOT re-stripped the cycle track a few years ago, the contractor they hired did the work incorrectly and did not follow the approved plans. Each stripped box on both sides is 5 feet too long. DDOT didn't bother to inspect or notice the contractor's non-compliance with the approved plans. At the time, this had no real consequences.

When DDOT designed the construction plans to install Zebras, they used the design plans for the striping which did not match the actually stripping on the pavement. The approved DDOT construction plans call for a 10 foot separation (each zebra in the middle of each stripped box). However, because each stripped box is 5 feet too long and DDOT staff installing the Zebras didn't use a measuring tape, the actually separation on the pavement is 15 feet.

Zicla, the Zebra manufacturer, recommends a minimum separation of 8.2 feet. The combined mistakes from DDOT on the botched stripping work, using plans that didn't match the reality on the ground, and an inability to use a measuring tape during installation results in a separation distance that is almost double what the manufacturer recommends.

Yesterday, after being asked twice if DDOT was going to fix the problem and adjust the separation, they have ducked the question each time. Will they fix their mistakes or just make the cycling community live with it. It is still unknown.

Regardless, thank you for taking the time to read the article and provide your opinion. By speaking up for better cycling infrastructure, it helps cyclists, pedestrians, and drivers have a better and safer experience on DC's streets.

Ryan Sigworth AICP

by Ryan Sigworth on Nov 1, 2013 10:37 am • linkreport

@Ryan,

You're welcome. Next time someone here says bicylists don't follow the law, I'm going to point out all the scofflaw motorists and pedestrians out there B-)

by DaveG on Nov 1, 2013 12:08 pm • linkreport

Unless there's a better, more helpful sort of response...anyone?

by DaveG on Nov 1, 2013 2:38 pm • linkreport

Eh, feel free to point it out once and then ignore it. It's not as if we ever refused to pave a road because too many people were speeding along it. Just ask if we've ever tied the promise of infrastructure with a requirement for good behavior.

by Drumz on Nov 1, 2013 2:44 pm • linkreport

@MLD: CFA is just a boogeyman for DDOT not wanting to put up barriers.

by Mike on Nov 5, 2013 1:38 pm • linkreport

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