Greater Greater Washington

Maybe this can stop U-turns on Pennsylvania Avenue

Past efforts to stop dangerous and illegal U-turns across the Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes have not had much success, but DC officials are ready to try a new approach with a product, known as a "Park-It," that usually serves as a wheel stop in parking spaces. Will this do the trick?


Rendering of Park-Its on Pennsylvania Avenue. Image from DDOT.

Last fall, crews from the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) installed a product called a Zebra, from the Spanish company Zicla, along one block of Pennsylvania Avenue as a test. They studied the number of illegal U-turns before and after the Zebras went in.

While this study was not particularly scientific, there were fewer U-turns within the test block. However, U-turns in the surrounding blocks increased. This suggests drivers just waited to make their illegal turns after passing the barriers, but it did prove that these types of barriers are relatively effective in cutting down on U-turns.

Park-Its will make more of a barrier than the Zebras

Park-Its are 6 feet long and slightly lower than the Zebras. According to a letter from DDOT to the US Commission on Fine Arts (CFA), one Park-It will go in each of the spaces between stripes along the buffer area on both sides of the bike lanes, with a maximum of 8 feet in between. On the sections where there is no crosshatched, painted buffer, such as between 13th and 14th Streets, the Park-Its will go even closer together.

The Park-It will use the same black and white color palette which CFA asked for with the Zebras. These Park-Its are already also in place along the edge of the new 1st Street NE cycletrack.


The First Street cycletrack. Photo from WABA.

This will be a drastic improvement from the Zebras, which were spaced much farther apart than the manufacturer recommends. This happened partly because the contractor striped the buffers differently from what was in the original plans, and the bike planners were unknowingly using inaccurate plans to design the Zebra test.


Zebras installed on one side of Pennsylvania Avenue. Photo by the author.

Unlike with the Zebras, this is not a pilot program. Park-Its will go along the entire length of Pennsylvania Avenue from 15th Street to Constitution Avenue. They will not go on the last half block to 3rd Street, because there is parking in the center lane.

Why DDOT is dropping the Zebras

DDOT officials chose not to expand the Zebras for a couple of reasons. First, people reported that drivers found it easy to drive over the Zebras. Second, the test raised concerns about the long-term maintenance and durability of the Zebras. The winter was not kind to the Zebras, with multiple scarred and broken Zebras scattered across the block from impacts with vehicles and snowplows.

A Park-It costs only about half as much as a Zebra, so replacement and maintenance will be more cost-effective. There are also multiple suppliers. The recycled rubber used in Park-Its has some "give" and should resist impacts better than the hard plastic material of the Zebra. Lastly, in order for the Zebras to be effective, there would need to be many more of them.

DDOT crews will install the Park-Its this summer. Afterward, the bike planners will monitor the area to count illegal U-turns and keep an eye on the Park-Its' durability.


Photo by League of American Bicyclists on Flickr.

New traffic signals will come one day

The DDOT letter to the CFA also says they will install bicycle signals on the current traffic lights. Right now, signs point to green arrows on the signals, and tell cyclists to go when those arrows are green. Bicycle-specific signal heads would make it possible to independently let bicycles and vehicles go through an intersection.

DDOT may allow drivers to turn left at more intersections where they currently can't, and/or let cyclists ride through the intersection at a time when drivers cannot. This could reduce drivers' desire to make illegal U-turns in the middle of the block.

DDOT officials have given no timeframe for the signal changes. However, they wanted to give CFA a complete overview of all planned changes at one time.

CFA's agenda for this Thursday lists this project on the "consent calendar," meaning that CFA staff don't think it even needs to be discussed at the hearing and the board can potentially approve it along with other consent items without any debate.

Will this increase safety along Pennsylvania Avenue corridor? Hopefully. If this doesn't work, perhaps nothing will. Since Pennsylvania Avenue hosts an inaugural parade every four years, it's not possible to build anything more permanent in the street. But this barrier is the strongest step DDOT has taken thus far to curb U-turns, and cyclists are sure to welcome it.

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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Look, I support bike lanes and despise drivers who ignore bike riders, but I am beginning to think that the middle of Pa Ave. is just the wrong place for bike lanes. DDOT keeps having to invent more "solutions" for something that may be an inherently bad location. If DDOT adds these devices, then it will have to pry them out in 2 years for the inaugural parade (unlike the light poles which are designed to pop out) and then install new devices later. What other streets have bike lanes in the middle of the road, at least where there is no wide,, grassy median?

by Alf on May 13, 2014 10:28 am • linkreport

Look, I support bike lanes and despise drivers who ignore bike riders, but I am beginning to think that the middle of Pa Ave. is just the wrong place for bike lanes.

Well, is there solid evidence that a curb location is actually better?

The funny thing about Pennsylvania Ave is that there's not a ton of left turning traffic (and when there is, it's signaled). There is, however, a great deal of right-turning traffic - and bus use, etc.

If my memory serves, the reason for the center-running location wasn't just because space was available, but also because that area presented the fewest conflicts.

by Alex B. on May 13, 2014 10:33 am • linkreport

Glad to see this. Though if these don't work, do we go for metal spikes, broken glass or lasers?

by Llamarama on May 13, 2014 10:36 am • linkreport

Alf, have you ever seen a right side lane? They dont work. People park in them all the time

by JJJJ on May 13, 2014 10:38 am • linkreport

so much effort spent on putting up unobtrusive barriers, when simple enforcement would send the message within a few days

by Mike on May 13, 2014 10:40 am • linkreport

Maybe its because of where I grew up and learned to drive and things were just different in that state, but why would anyone think its fine to just randomly whip a U-turn where it's not an intersection? That just baffles me.

by Another Nick on May 13, 2014 10:41 am • linkreport

so much effort spent on putting up unobtrusive barriers, when simple enforcement would send the message within a few days

I'm guessing you're referring to an enforcement blitz, which have never really proven themselves to be effective in changing behavior in the long-term (you wouldn't need enforcement blitzes every year if they actually worked).

And as for constant enforcement, I don't think the MPD really has any interest in putting an officer at every intersection along Pennsylvania Avenue to catch the occasional scofflaw taxi.

It was just really dumb in the first place to design a road where a driver can easily make a U-Turn, and then prohibit U-Turns there. The only way to keep drivers from doing U-Turns is to redesign the road.

by Scoot on May 13, 2014 11:01 am • linkreport

I am one for usually saying very high levels of non compliance indicate a design problem, not an enforcement one. Well, this is a design solution.

Even without the bike lanes, it's a really bad thing for people to be making U-turns on a major road.

by Crickey7 on May 13, 2014 11:03 am • linkreport

"Maybe its because of where I grew up and learned to drive and things were just different in that state, but why would anyone think its fine to just randomly whip a U-turn where it's not an intersection? That just baffles me. " Another Nick

Where I learned to drive, it was just the opposite: No U-turns at intersections unless there was a left arrow (we had very few medians). I think a large issue underlying the bike-driver and driver-driver conflict we see in this city is that we are a melding of drivers from so many different places all with ever-so-slight variations in driving laws and cultures. And let's face it, the bar for getting a driver's license is so low, no one is taught how to be a particularly good or courteous motorist. Nor are they taught to be good cyclists or pedestrians. So everyone acts like an a**h*** with an "everyone sucks but me" attitude. (Except MD drivers- they actually are the worst) With cars it is just that they can cause the most damage.

by NotDavidalpert on May 13, 2014 11:26 am • linkreport

On a separate note, when is DDOT going to punch the 1st st ne bike lane up to Mass Ave/Columbus Circle... it is the most dangerous block in the city for cyclists because delivery trucks at union station illegally park against traffic flow (as do ticket officers)

by NotDavidalpert on May 13, 2014 11:29 am • linkreport

This is great. Hooray.

Out of curiosity, is the parking in the middle of the road by 3d Street legal for everyone? Is it permitted? Or is it illegal but tolerated by the powers that be bc the Marshall's park there? I saw some touristy-looking folks trying to figure out if they could park there. I've never had a problem with the cars there.

by Tod on May 13, 2014 11:32 am • linkreport

Pretty sure the parking on PA Ave near 3rd is limited to permits issued by the Sergeant at Arms (SAA) of the Capitol... whose policies seem to be unofficially that the spots (such as those near the reflecting pool) are fair game outside of working hours.

by JR on May 13, 2014 11:34 am • linkreport

First, people reported that drivers found it easy to drive over the Zebras

and

Park-Its are ... slightly lower than the Zebras

uh...am I missing something?

by wd on May 13, 2014 11:51 am • linkreport

Another Nick: It may just be where you learned to drive, because it is perfectly legal in many jurisdictions to make a U-turn in the middle of a block (limited by certain conditions).

by Reston on May 13, 2014 11:56 am • linkreport

No, I'm not talking about a ticket blitz, I'm talking about a change at MPD that officers actually do something when they see a violation. Right now, you can make a U turn in the middle of PA avenue in front of a cop and the cop will do nothing. Everybody knows that, and behaves in the logical way given the DC government's demonstrated level of concern for this issue. I don't think it would take additional police on PA ave (they seem to have plenty) to pull over a few people every day and give them tickets for U turns, until the message goes out that it's no longer ok and people make simple changes to their habits. Note that the people doing this are largely doing so repeatedly (cabbies, livery drivers, etc) and will get the word quickly, not out of towners who will be surprised to find out the rules.

by Mike on May 13, 2014 12:38 pm • linkreport

I'm just not convinced more enforcement will work. The threat of patrols and automated cameras doesn't seem to stop people from speeding; and the known activity of tenacious parking officers has not stopped people from parking illegally. It's just not a very good system, from an incentive based standpoint.

I'm sure many of you have read today's NYTimes story about Sweden's Vision Zero road policy and whether such a plan could work on the streets of NYC. A quote that stuck out at me, from Claes Tingvall (director of traffic safety for the Swedish transport authority) is that you must "Design around the human as we are" and not look to more enforcement so solve the problem.

by Scoot on May 13, 2014 12:46 pm • linkreport

"...Since Pennsylvania Avenue hosts an inaugural parade every four years, it's not possible to build anything more permanent in the street."

I don't believe that this is true. Traffic is not so heavy that you couldn't take out a lane in either direction. Then you could build a median - raised flowerbeds with a two-way cycletrack down the middle. The inaugural parade could go right down the middle, as could snow plows. This would also solve the problem of mid-block jaywalking and give pedestrians back the refuge they used to have before the cycletracks took much of it away.

And it would also look a heck of a lot prettier for "American's Main Street". It's kind of offensive (though not surprising) that "America's Main Street" has more pavement dedicated to cars than your average highway.

Beyond that, though, this makes me happy. It sounds like they're FINALLY admitting that something real needs to be done, and admitting that you can't take away all the legal turns and expect drivers not to start ignoring them.

by Jon on May 13, 2014 12:58 pm • linkreport

I don't believe that this is true. Traffic is not so heavy that you couldn't take out a lane in either direction. Then you could build a median - raised flowerbeds with a two-way cycletrack down the middle.

How does any of this not conflict with NCPC and CFA's requirement that Pennsylvania Ave be a flat street from curb to curb?

Agree that taking out a lane isn't an issue - in fact that's how the cycletrack was initially put in.

How could the inaugural parade go down the middle of the street if there is a raised median in the middle of the street?

by MLD on May 13, 2014 1:03 pm • linkreport

The parade would go right on top of the cycletrack. I'm envisioning two raised flowerbeds running the length of PA Ave, parallel to the lanes, with a cycletrack in the middle, either raised with the medians or at street level, whichever works better for drainage.

I can't speak to NCPC and CFA requirements except to say that they sound completely divorced from reality.

by Jon on May 13, 2014 1:10 pm • linkreport

ehh, I think in most states a u-turn is only legal when it's made from the left-most travel lane into the left-most travel lane in the opposite direction. Additionally, even if some drivers don't consider the cycletrack another lane of traffic (though they should), a u-turn across two double yellow/white lines is definitely verboten. Extra additionally, many states forbid u-turns on multi-laned roads in business districts.

Finally--and most importantly--while ignorance of the law is never a defense, most of the cars that I see pulling u-turns on Pennsylvania Avenue are cabbie and Virginians. At the very least, there's no way that cab drivers don't know that they aren't allowed to make u-turns on Penn!

At any rate, as I'm sure someone named "PA Ave" or "L Street" will no doubt point out before the end of the day: 42% of cyclists on PA Ave run red lights. That's proof positive that cars are the real victims here.

by Steven H on May 13, 2014 1:11 pm • linkreport

We have crosswalk cameras, box blocking cameras, speed cameras ... why not u-turn cameras?

by Craig on May 13, 2014 1:23 pm • linkreport

On a separate note, when is DDOT going to punch the 1st st ne bike lane up to Mass Ave/Columbus Circle

Later this year. That is "phase II".

by David C on May 13, 2014 2:03 pm • linkreport

How about using these on the L ST bike lane?

by Falls Church on May 13, 2014 2:09 pm • linkreport

Thank you! I've almost been killed at least 4 times there. It's still safer than braving north cap though

by NotDavidalpert on May 13, 2014 2:12 pm • linkreport

"Where I learned to drive, it was just the opposite: No U-turns at intersections unless there was a left arrow (we had very few medians). I think a large issue underlying the bike-driver and driver-driver conflict we see in this city is that we are a melding of drivers from so many different places all with ever-so-slight variations in driving laws and cultures. And let's face it, the bar for getting a driver's license is so low, no one is taught how to be a particularly good or courteous motorist. Nor are they taught to be good cyclists or pedestrians. So everyone acts like an a**h*** with an "everyone sucks but me" attitude. (Except MD drivers- they actually are the worst) With cars it is just that they can cause the most damage."

I've never understood the line of reasoning that because DC has drivers from everywhere it's perfectly understandable that drivers here suck. Every major city has plenty of transients; I've never seen the same frequency of reckless driving either in my home town of NYC or other major cities that I do in DC, particularly mid-block U-turns, which I'm pretty sure are blatantly legal. In a grid city such as DC or NYC, the proper way to U-turn is to make a right, right, right, left.

by Phil on May 13, 2014 4:47 pm • linkreport

^ Blatantly illegal*

by Phil on May 13, 2014 4:48 pm • linkreport

I don't know about that. Not sure markings are going to help when dealing with terrible drivers. Half of these collisions are people turning onto a *train* track: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CV2rdGX4JYc

by Mark on May 13, 2014 10:33 pm • linkreport

@Phil: re: NYC driving: http://www.streetsblog.org/category/special-features/carnage/

by Mike on May 14, 2014 7:34 am • linkreport

I think the biggest problem spot on Pennsylvania for illegal U-turns is between 9th and 10th - drivers heading northwest can't turn left to join 9th Street under the Mall and towards I-395, so they pass through and turn around mid-bike lane as soon as they can. On the contrary to people saying that it's the mix of drivers that make this a problem, I'd almost say it's really only the local (and desperate) commuters that do. Anything to get out of a few minutes of gridlock, I suppose.

On the plus side, when I'm sitting on the corner counting those U-Turns (intern work, tried and true) next week, it's only supposed to be 70 degrees outside.

by Tyler on May 14, 2014 12:08 pm • linkreport

@wd: the park-its are lower than the zebras, but much longer. Anecdotally speaking, most cars u-turning through the zebras did it by not driving onto them, but driving around them or straddling them.

by Jacques on May 15, 2014 9:27 am • linkreport

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