Greater Greater Washington

Don't start dancing yet, Georgetown: Barnes Dance not always the answer

DDOT is installing a Barnes Dance at 7th and H Streets, NW, an intersection with particularly high pedestrian volume. Georgetown Metropolitan suggested one at Wisconsin and M. Should DC spread these far and wide?

Photo by Helen Duffett.

Not so fast. A Barnes Dance, also known as a pedestrian scramble, can improve pedestrian safety. But, as with most changes, there are tradeoffs. With all the turns at Wisconsin and M, the kind of Barnes Dance at 7th and H wouldn't work, and the traditional kind might not be improve conditions for pedestrians.

The traditional Barnes Dance was popularized (and got its name) in the 1950s and 1960s. It involves three phases for the traffic signal. In one, pedestrians cross in all directions, including diagonally. The other two let traffic go in one of the two directions, but prohibit pedestrians from crossing parallel to the traffic.

By giving pedestrians free run of the intersection for 1/3 of the time but keeping them entirely out the other 2/3 of the time, the traditional Barnes Dance increases pedestrian safety, at least in theory, by separating pedestrians and traffic. However, it also inconveniences pedestrians by making them wait.

That sounds like some other 1950s-60s era ideas for "safety," like separating all pedestrians in skybridges that force them to walk out of their way to cross streets. Pedestrians tend to ignore overpasses, and likely would also ignore the "don't walk" signs. As Streetswiki points out, that eliminates the safety gain.

The Streetswiki article also notes that by stopping pedestrians from crossing when vehicles want to make turns, the Barnes Dance could move traffic more quickly. Therefore, like skybridges, a traditional Barnes Dance could end up adding driver convenience, not pedestrian convenience, while wearing the guise of a pedestrian improvement.

But DDOT isn't doing a traditional Barnes Dance. Instead, they're doing something that is definitely a boon to pedestrians. Pedestrians can now cross diagonally or orthogonally during the all-walk phase, but also cross orthogonally parallel to traffic.

On its own, that would hurt motor vehicle flow a great deal, so DDOT eliminated turns. That way, there aren't the pedestrian-vehicle conflicts that could hurt safety and also slow down drivers trying to go straight. Of course, this depends on driver compliance.

This is a good example of a policy that puts pedestrians first. However, it comes at some cost to traffic flow, if only to turns. At Wisconsin and M, there are lots of turns. In fact, DDOT is planning to add another turn from eastbound M onto northbound Wisconsin. And a lot of buses, including Circulators, turn from M to Wisconsin.

If a Georgetown Barnes Dance prohibits pedestrians from crossing during the phases where cars and buses are moving, it'll hurt pedestrians more than help, and many will just violate the laws anyway. If it allows pedestrians to go and also allows turns, it might gum up traffic more than we can accept.

The more important improvement in Georgetown is to put in priority bus lanes approaching the intersection, so that buses don't get stuck with long waits to turn. With the volume of buses there, they are moving far more people most of the time than all the other cars combined. The intersection should prioritize the more numerous and more space-efficient pedestrians and bus riders.

A Barnes Dance at 7th and H makes a lot of sense, since it has enormous pedestrian volumes due to the Metro station entrance and there are plenty of parallel streets for turning and through vehicles. But this applies to very few places in the city, perhaps a few other intersections right at downtown Metro stations. We should make all intersections safer for pedestrians. In most cases, that probably doesn't mean a Barnes Dance.

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David Alpert is the founder and editor-in-chief of Greater Greater Washington. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and daughter in Dupont Circle. 


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Indeed, traffic counts are surely significantly higher at that intersection in Georgetown, with fewer good options, unlike 7th and H in Chinatown, where there is some more flexibility for travel.

It's a strong reflection here of the primacy of pedestrians in this case, and the fact that this intersection is most needed to move pedestrians, not autos. Looking forward to seeing how it works out, though I think the no turns will take some getting used to for people.

by Steve on May 12, 2010 4:05 pm • linkreport

I'm still a fan of the traditional Barnes Dance, but I definitely see your point about pedestrians being frustrated and just crossing during a vehicle-only phase.

At the same time though, I can't help but see this as hypocritical. When people talk about drivers being frustrated with laws, the usually GGW response is along the lines of "the laws are there, why can't you follow them?" But now when you think pedestrians might not obey they law, you say, "oh, we should listen to the pedestrians and do what they want."

by Tim on May 12, 2010 4:21 pm • linkreport

How long are the green lights in each direction at Wisconsin and M? 30 seconds? 45 seconds? If we used a traditional Barnes Dance where cars and pedestrians took turns could we also reduce the length of the green lights for autos by 1/3? Presumably without having to contend with pedestrians on right and left turns the greens would not need to be as long. If we do that there will be less time between pedestrian barnes dances and people will presumably be less tempted to cross on red. just an idea...

by Paul on May 12, 2010 4:26 pm • linkreport


I think this post is saying that while the Barnes Dance might favor pedestrians at the Chinatown intersection, favoring pedestrians in a similar fashion at the Wisconsin and M intersection will actually be detrimental. I think pedestrians would prefer to have the Wisconsin and M intersection resemble Chinatown's intersection but David is arguing that in the interest of buses and keeping the already crowded traffic moving, the intersection should not try to duplicate Chinatown's approach. Not really sure where you're getting your argument from...

by Teo on May 12, 2010 4:27 pm • linkreport

David, you make some good points. But as it is, pedestrians are prevented from crossing for a good portion of the time that parallel car traffic is allowed. That's because the lights have green right arrows. They're on for the first ten seconds or so of each green cycle, and when they're on you can't cross. This creates a lot of confusion with pedestrians because according to their internal clocks, so to speak, it's "their" turn to pass. When the crosswalk light finally does come on, it's not particularly long (maybe 15 seconds or so, although I'm not sure).

The consultants hired by DDOT had this to say about the proposal:

analysis shows an average pedestrian delay of 90 second existing. All ped phase improves that delay to 30-40 seconds.

They also initially recommended making the left lane of M St. eastbound to be left turn only, but dropped that recommendation. (They also dropped their recommendation to widen the sidewalk by two feet, and great but extremely expensive idea).

Their final recommendation for the Barnes Dance is as follows:

Short-term: Change in lane configuration and signal timing. Lane configuration in EB direction to allow left turns on M St to Wisconsin Ave. Lane configuration to be left-thru, thru, thru-right. Signal timing to modify for split phase in EB/WB direction and all-pedestrian phase.

Here's a link to the report

by TM on May 12, 2010 4:27 pm • linkreport

Oh, and I should also mention that the transportation study calls for bus lanes on westbound M St. and southbound Wisconsin during peak hours. I haven't heard any word on whether DDOT is seriously considering taking them up on that recommendation. (Besides, DDOT has yet to come up with an actually working model for bus lanes).

Of course better yet, we could just shut down M St. to non-bus traffic on weekends.

by TM on May 12, 2010 4:33 pm • linkreport

I don't really understand why both the Barnes Dance and prohibition on turns is needed. Assuming that the turn prohibition is respected/enforced, you already remove the vehicle-pedestrian conflicts. All the Barnes Dance provides in this case is the opportunity for diagonal crossing. Is that necessary here?

by Adam F on May 12, 2010 4:34 pm • linkreport

Buses are a problem on on M going west turning right on Wisconsin. They do get caught up there. Going into town on M there is always hangup making a left on Wisconsin but there are no city buses that turn there.

But the real problem is far, far too many bus stops on M by the old Nathan's. That is where buses create they own problems.

I suspect that intersection has a higher count than chinatown, especially on weekends.

by charlie on May 12, 2010 4:42 pm • linkreport

The key here is that there are many other through roads nearby from Chinatown, like 6th St. or Mass Ave but there are no comparable parallel streets to M and Wisconsin in Georgetown.

I see K and Connecticut NW, L and Connecticut NW, and M and Connecticut NW as good candidates for Barnes Dances. All three have large pedestrian populations due to the Metro nearby nightlife and offices, similar to 7 and H NW. All three have reasonable parallel streets, too. 13 and G in in front of Macy's and Metro Center would be a decent candidate, too. Just as David said, one more downtown, and another in the West End/Conn Ave.

by Cavan on May 12, 2010 4:57 pm • linkreport

As I recall (and as TM alludes to), some of the crossing times at that intersection aren't particularly long. I remember the time between the NE and SE corners to be somewhat short. So a Barnes Dance here could give more opportunity for pedestrians to cross. Even setting aside cars, it's a major turn for both the 30s and the Circulator, so making it no turns (like in Chinatown) seems unfeasible (although as I said in the last thread the no turns/Barnes Dance combo kind of baffles me). I think as long as the cycles are kept somewhat short, a Barnes Dance could improve safety and mobility here (maybe even for pedestrians, but certainly for cars and buses)

by Steven Yates on May 12, 2010 5:41 pm • linkreport

All intersections (in all places) used to have these types of crossings. I remember the main crossroads in my hometown having especially long crossing times ... something like 2 - 3 minutes (it was a wide Main Street). And it seemed to work back then, but then again the pace of life was much slower then too, we weren't all rushing to get somewhere ... The first time I experienced the type of crossing we nowadays consider 'regular' was when I moved here. It was a little strange at first to know that a car could go through the intersection at the same time you (a pedestrian) was crossing it. And I do remember out of state driver blowing their horns at peds in the crossings ... 'cause they too obviously didn't know that a ped could cross in your path when you had a green light.

by Lance on May 12, 2010 6:23 pm • linkreport

@Lance: "All intersections (in all places) used to have these types of crossings."

Even right here in downtown DC, within my memory at least. Of course that was in the olden days: pre-right turn on red, pre-Metro. Good to see it coming back (now if we could only revive the streetcars). Oddly enough I happened to walk through 7th & H this afternoon without noticing the pattern for the simple reason that I was only crossing one of the streets.

by intermodal commuter on May 12, 2010 8:08 pm • linkreport

There is no reason why the DC implementation couldnt allow traditional right turns. Sure, only 2 to 4 cars might be able to make the turn, but so what?

by J on May 12, 2010 10:23 pm • linkreport

"Orthogonal" means "at right angles". ( You cannot cross orthagonally parallel to traffic (or anything else); the terms are mutually exclusive. From this paragraph:
"But DDOT isn't doing a traditional Barnes Dance. Instead, they're doing something that is definitely a boon to pedestrians. Pedestrians can now cross diagonally or orthogonally during the all-walk phase, but also cross orthogonally parallel to traffic."

by Pete on May 13, 2010 8:22 am • linkreport

M St and WI Ave in Georgetown need a complete extreme make over. We need to get separate bus & cab and perhaps bike lanes. Georgetown is an excellent opportunity to show that transit can move faster than regular traffic in highly congested areas. Once people see that buses do not get stuck in traffic, they will start using the.

Problem is of course that the ANC will oppose this, as they oppose any change.

by Jasper on May 13, 2010 9:07 am • linkreport

Reducing traffic lanes in G'Town will actually speed up traffic?

Well, if it sounds good on paper, then it must be true.

I generally avoid the M St-Wisconsin intersection at all times other than early mornings. It's a mess of pedestrians, cars, buses, taxis and bicycles. What they really need there is a constant traffic control officer. But since the sad death of "Officer Joe", I don't think there's been a regular officer there.

We also need an automatic death sentence for drivers turning left illegally at that intersection, drivers turning right without the turn arrow, drivers blocking the box, bus drivers not understanding the concept of a red light, and pedestrians jaywalking all over the place.

by Fritz on May 13, 2010 9:18 am • linkreport

Barnes, as I recall, was Detroit's transportation director. In DC, there was a Barnes dance at 13th and F Streets, NW from the 60s to the early 70s. The old DC Highway Dept took it out, They said because there were times nothing moved. I was pretty convinced it was their pro auto attitude at work.

I'm glad to see this experiment, and I also agree that Wisconsin and M needs a general reworking.

by Carl Bergman on May 13, 2010 9:18 am • linkreport

I think I remember the Wisconsin and M Street intersection having a 'Barnes Dance'back in late '70s. That was also before it had turn lanes. I can't remember if it had walk signals yet or not. (Yeah, believe it or not, pedestrians used to use the 'red light' on the traffic light to know if it was their turn to cross or not. )

by Lance on May 13, 2010 10:07 am • linkreport

DDOT has made great strides for bicyclists and pedestrians in the past few years, but as a bus advocate, can we get real, dedicated bus lanes on city streets? We carry more people in the District on buses than many modern streetcar and light rail systems, but the District has not made it a priority to move them faster across the city.

by Tomika on May 13, 2010 10:59 am • linkreport

Yeah, as to the possibility of a all-way ped crossing at Wisconsin and M - I think those corners already get pretty crowded with peds as it is. Having to wait an extra 30 seconds or whatever would add to the mass and increase the odds that someone steps off (or gets jostled off) the curb and hit by a car.

Not to the mention the fools that will get caught in the middle of the intersection on a Saturday night because they're drunk or too busy playing with their electronic device and further hold up traffic.

by Josh S on May 13, 2010 11:39 am • linkreport

In my rush hour experience, car traffic always seems worse going EB or WB, which leads me to think the traffic conditions at Key Bridge or closer to Pennsylvania are the problems, not the intersection at Wisconsin and M, although that's usually where the backup begins when I ride through there.

As a side note, does anyone know if there are laws on the books about the westbound curbside lane between 29th and 34th? For buses, for bikes, for parking, for everyone?

by Shawn on May 13, 2010 12:18 pm • linkreport

We should allow bikes to ride on M Street, and all the other streets and bridges in the area. that will go a long way towards calming this intersection and the entire area, make it a nicer place to be, increase throughput, etc.

by Peter Smith on May 13, 2010 1:52 pm • linkreport

@Peter, I didn't know bikes were not allowed on M Street ... ? I've ridden it ... albeit on a Sunday, but I have ridden it.

But now that you bring it up ... I can't imagine M Street being a good place to ride a bike during rush hour. Cyclists tend to want to squeeze between stopped cars, and this is a good place to do it. Of course there are lots of parallel back streets that are easier (and more intersting) for biking on.

by Lance on May 13, 2010 5:24 pm • linkreport

*and this is not a good place to do it.

by Lance on May 13, 2010 5:25 pm • linkreport

@Lance -- bikes are probably legally allowed on M Street, and a bunch of other streets, but the presence of cars means that effectively, bikes have been outlawed there. that's why you see so few people biking there -- they're not welcome.

it's kind of like being an eligible black voter in the South during the Reconstruction Era -- you show up to the polls and there's a bunch of white thugs there -- part of some KKK-like paramilitary group. they don't even have to say anything to you -- you just know -- if you try to tread on 'their' turf by voting, you'll be very very sorry. you don't feel welcome, because you're not welcome. a few brave souls might try to vote, and even succeed, but most won't even try. just as most people won't even try to bike on M Street.

but if you provide actual protection (armed guards for voters, bike lanes for bikes), then everyone gets to participate equally.

drivers are essentially a paramilitary terrorist organization whose purpose it is to maintain control of the streets. only in the past couple of years in America have they finally starting showing signs of weakness. often, it is necessary for the government to step in and carve out space for bikes -- in the biking world, separate is equal.

Happy Bike to Work Day! (from the left coast)

by Peter Smith on May 13, 2010 6:18 pm • linkreport

Was the Barnes dance removed from 13th & F because it never met expectations or because the pedestrians thinned out... 1968 and such?

by Turnip on May 13, 2010 8:15 pm • linkreport

Peter, You're analogy with eligible black voters fails on many fronts.

In brief, you don't need to use M Street to get where you're going if you're going by bike. You don't even need to be using a bike to be going where you are going. While I don't begrudge others using a bike to do their daily stuff, personnaly I think bikes are better suited to recreational uses. I use a car for other things since their's no comparison in other transportation modes to its flexibility and efficiency, but if for whatever reason I couldn't use a car, there is alway mass transit and well ... one's feet. In short, there's absolutely no reason thousands of people's daily transportation needs need to be disrupted just because you want to use a bike and you want to use it on M Street. Unlike the eligible black voters that you're trying to gain sympathy off of, you have choices. And your choices don't need to be made at the expense of hardworking people just going about their business using the most flexible and cheapest transportation alternative available. Yes, riding a bike is fun. Go ride it on the canal or in the streets behind M Street. Or go ahead an ride it on M Street. IF you actually followed the same rules everyone else did, there really wouldn't be a problem. You too would be waiting in line behind a line of cars ... edging along at 2 mph. And I don't see how that would be 'threatening'.

A better analogy would be a thief complaining that they felt threatened at a gun show ... You just follow the rules (like everyone else) and you'll not feel threatened in the least

by Lance on May 14, 2010 2:36 pm • linkreport

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