Seven future improvements for the 15th Street bike lane
DDOT's first protected contraflow bike lane is a significant achievement for DDOT and its bicycle program. Reviews from the press are mostly positive, if cautious, and planners across the nation are taking notice.
In the Post, DDOT's Bicycle Program Manager Jim Sebastian mentioned that other streets, including L and M Streets NW, are candidates for similar protected lanes. As DDOT learns from this lane and starts planning for the next, they should consider some potential next steps:
Reduce mode conflict. The strongest concern most seem to have about this new-for-Washington facility is conflict between turning motor vehicles and cyclists using the contraflow lane. Here are a few suggestions for reducing the potential for conflict.
- Signal timing: Cyclists in the contraflow lane are directed to obey pedestrian signals. DDOT spokesman John Lisle said that the agency will soon set the pedestrian signals to begin before the traffic light turns green. This change, called a Leading Pedestrian Interval, or LPI, allows pedestrians and cyclists to establish their rightful place in the roadway before cars are able to turn and eliminates the current free-for-all that occurs when pedestrians, cyclists and turning automobiles are instructed by signals to vie for the same patch of roadway at once.
Ironically, the only location on 15th Street that currently has LPI is the intersection with U Street. Cyclists in the contraflow lane can't use that signal, since the lane does not yet extend north of U. Hopefully DDOT will also take the opportunity presented by retiming signals for LPI to alter the current sequence of southbound lights, which forces cyclists to stop and go every few blocks. Giving cyclists a green wave will reduce the incentive for them to run red lights.
- Green paint: Although the contraflow lane is marked by multiple bicycle symbols as it crosses alleys and cross streets, striping the line bright green, as has been done in the Pacific Northwest, New York, and other locations, will make the lane that much more visible to turning drivers.
- Rhode Island and Massachusetts Avenue intersections: Cyclists are most vulnerable at these locations at the southern end of the bike lane, where there is high-volume and high-speed cross traffic. Under the current configuration, it is not crystal clear to cyclists that they should wait for the traffic signal at Rhode Island Avenue well north of the crosswalk so that they avoid the entrance to the Holiday Inn at the corner. Similarly, the lane abruptly ends before the crosswalk at Massachusetts Avenue, giving cyclists little indication of what to do at this intersection.
Maintain the bikeway's condition.
- Maintenance: The District of Columbia should not turn into Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde when it comes to bicycle facilities. If DDOT's planning and project implementation divisions are going to treat bicycles as transportation, its maintenance division (along with DPW) should treat bicycle facilities as transportation infrastructure, as well. If it snows, plow the bikeway. If leaves fill the lane, as they have recently, clear them. Only time will tell whether or not DC maintains this facility (they have swept the leaves a few times so far), but advocates should not be shy in insisting that it does.
- Enforcement: Unlike the designed-to-fail 7th and 9th Street bike/bus lanes, the 15th Street facility reduces the need for constant enforcement because its flex-post and parking protection eliminates by design much of the incentive for drivers to ignore the law. But people are already starting to use the visibility zones for loading or parking. The visibility zones should be better striped and violators should get tickets.
DC should also enforce unsafe bicycle operation, like racing through red lights or operating at night without lights. With proper infrastructure comes respect and responsibility. On southbound 15th Street, at least, cyclists are no longer the Rodney Dangerfield of traffic. Like bikeway maintenance, this is an issue that can only be addressed over time.
Complete the network.
- Extensions and connections: The lane is nice, but for it to be successful it must connect to the rest of the city's bicycle network. The next steps are to extend the facility north of U Street to connect with bike lanes on V and W Streets, and south of Massachusetts Avenue.
The southern extension is particularly important because 15th Street south of Massachusetts is currently one-way northbound during evening rush hours. This leaves cyclists using the contraflow lane in a tough spot when they approach Massachusetts during evening rush, since they cannot continue straight and turning left or right dumps them onto busy and dangerous Massachusetts Avenue. Extending the protected lane downtown to K or H Streets would not only provide safe passage across Massachusetts to downtown, it would connect the lane to potential bicycle facilities on K, L and M Streets.
- A northbound facility of equal quality: It's very common to see northbound cyclists using the southbound lane. While frustrating, it is understandable. Although northbound cyclists are instructed by signs and sharrows to use the full right-hand lane on 15th Street, many are intimidated by cars speeding around them and prefer to use a protected facility. Although wrong-way cycling in the contraflow lane (would that be contra-contra-flow?) may not be inherently dangerous behavior, the danger arises when some drivers may not expect to be looking out for northbound cyclists in addition to southbound cyclists as they cross the lane.
If wrong-way cycling persists in the contra-flow lane, DDOT should consider acknowledging this "desire path" and restripe the lane as a two-way cycle track, with appropriate signage for drivers. However, the change to a two-way lane should not precipitate the removal of the existing northbound sharrows. Bicycles are not required to use a bike lane and have a right to the roadway. Drivers tempted to intimidate a cyclist taking the lane on 15th Street should be reminded of that law if the cycle track becomes two-way.
DDOT has produced a PDF to educate 15th Street users on how the lane works, and Borderstan posted complete plans for the lane (PDF). This new facility is a great step forward for the District's bicycle facilities. With some experience and by making a few tweaks, DDOT can deploy these lanes across the city to great success.
- Latest Metro map drafts add Anacostia parks and other tweaks
- Bikeshare is a gateway to private biking, not competition
- Short-term Washingtonians deserve a voice, too
- DC Council makes major policy changes overnight
- Judge denies injunction against closing schools
- Public land deals have both benefits and pitfalls
- Parklets give every block a little park