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Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes still have a few flaws

DDOT's efforts to make cycling safer and easier are excellent steps to making Washington a more sustainable place. But a few issues have emerged with the new Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes.

Photo by the author.

The bike lanes on Pennsylvania are trying out designs never implemented in the same way elsewhere. That means DDOT will inevitably learn and make adjustments as they gain experience with how the lanes work. Some of the design elements also arose from a need to compromise—an essential component of any public works project.

When initially striped, the bike lanes took up the former left lane in each direction. This added to the project's controversy, and resulted in the Mayor's decision to move the lanes to the median. But those changes created some new problems.

One issue is the visibility of the signals. Cyclists can't see the signals they are supposed to obey until they get very close to the intersection.

The signal isn't visible (left) until the cyclist gets close (right).

This happens because all of Pennsylvania Avenue's traffic signals are on removable posts in the center of the roadway. According to DDOT, each post can only hold 2 traffic signals and 2 crosswalk signals plus signs. Therefore, the signals and signs for each direction face toward the intersection.

A driver or cyclist looks across the intersection to the far side signals to know whether to stop or go. From most of the lanes, those signals are easily visible, but from the bike lanes in the median, the signals and signs for the opposite direction obscure the far side signal.

Another issue, which DDOT has downplayed, is the reduction in the space available for pedestrians in the median refuges. Formerly, pedestrians could stop halfway across the intersection, either because they didn't have time to finish crossing or because they wanted to take pictures of the Capitol.

Design cues still indicate that this is possible. The stone pads, while not raised, still suggest a pedestrian safe space, especially in conjunction with pedestrian signals located in the median.

But now, two-thirds of the former refuge is part of the bike lane. The remaining third is also supposed to be a place for turning bicycles to stage. Unfortunately, the little space which remains and the design cues combine to create an additional hazard for cyclists and pedestrians.

This was taken just before the Penn. Ave. light turned green.

But stationary pedestrians aren't the only hazard. Because of its grand vistas and relatively calm traffic, the median of the avenue is a popular place to stop to view monuments and for tour guides to give a little speech.

A Segway tour stops along the bike lanes.

Another drawback to the redesigned lanes is their width. They were narrowed in order to be fit into the median. But they're still proving popular with pedicabs, which tend to take up the entire width of the lane. Passing them requires moving into the left lane of auto traffic or using the opposing bike lane. Neither is an optimal solution.

Regardless of these issues, the lanes are still a wonderful addition to DC's transportation network. Some improvements are still necessary, but fixes can be worked out. A repositioning of the signs posted on the signal supports, for instance, could greatly improve visibility. I look forward to DDOT's solutions to these issues.

In the meantime, if you haven't had a chance to see the lanes yourself, the below slideshow should give you a good tour of the lanes.

Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master's in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Greenbelt. Heís a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. He is a contract employee of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. His views are his own and do not represent those of his employer. 


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The problems with the pedestrian refuge would not exist if bikes actually stopped at the lights, no?

I've seen in Europe very small traffic lights that are mounted a eye level. I think they are meant for drivers who can creep up a bit more to the light. They work well for bikes as well and would be a good addition.

Also, not to revisit the moving the bike lane issue, but why can't urban forestry/road furniture makes take shade into account? (similar vent -- why don't parking lots have shades?) This is a hot area and having some shade for pedestrians and bikers is a huge bonus.

by charlie on Jul 6, 2010 1:14 pm • linkreport

charlie: The refuge problem has nothing to do with cyclists not stopping. The issue is that pedestrians might cross halfway, then stop and wait while traffic on Penn gets the green light. The cyclists will get the green light at the same time, so they're supposed to go through the refuges, but they're full of pedestrians waiting.

by David Alpert on Jul 6, 2010 1:17 pm • linkreport

Eastbound signal timing is awful for bicycle pace. I get caught at every single intersection from 15th to 4th, and the phases for north-south traffic are very long. I just take E St instead when headed east.

by darren on Jul 6, 2010 1:30 pm • linkreport

Why not get in touch with a country that has as many bikes as it has citizens; The Kingdom of The Netherlands. They surely know how to handle this!


by Mariette VandenMunckhof-Vedder on Jul 6, 2010 1:42 pm • linkreport

My biggest complaint about the Penn Ave bike lanes is connectivity - specifically the lack thereof.

The lanes themselves are fine - but with little to no bike lanes leading up *to* or *from* them, it's hard to justify going a few blocks out of your way just to use Pennsylvania for its bike lanes.

Penn Ave should be just one of MANY... But it's simply one of the unconnected few.

by Josh C. on Jul 6, 2010 2:05 pm • linkreport

Matt, I think you're overstating the traffic signal visibility issue. In addition to the traffic signals in the median, there are signals on the right side of the road (outside the scope of your picture) that are easily seen from the cycling lane. And if there is any automobile traffic at all, that will tell you whether the light is green or not.

by Alan on Jul 6, 2010 2:20 pm • linkreport

The signals on the right side of the roadway do not always match the signals for the bike lanes. For example, when left turning traffic and through traffic has a green phase, the signal on the right side of the street shows a green ball, but the cycletrack signal shows a red ball.

Besides, cyclists need be able to look forward in order to see pedestrians, cyclists, and other obstacles. Having to look 45 degrees or more to the right is not optimal.

by Matt Johnson on Jul 6, 2010 2:27 pm • linkreport

Not sure why someone thought this was a good idea. Kudos to you Matt J for the great pictures representative of the hazards to these median lanes. Move them back to the lane where they were!

by Matt Glazewski on Jul 6, 2010 2:38 pm • linkreport

I too have noticed that the signal timing ain't so hot for these lanes. The other thing is that some of the bollards were ripped out at the end of the lanes, Penn and 14th (?), for the bbq a couple of weeks ago and were never re-installed. Still, these lanes are terrific, and all things considered, the remaining issues are small in comparison.

by aaa on Jul 6, 2010 2:53 pm • linkreport

Could this be done in a more silly way?

When I commuted by bike from Bethesda to the Hill, in the mornings, I just used to ride on the sidewalks as there are NO pedestrians on them before 9am and they are more than wide enough to accommodate a bike and the occasional pedestrian at that hour. This kept me out of cars' way and out of harm's way. In the afternoon I'd ride down Madison as it is one way. I just paralleled Penn and Constitution instead of riding on them. I know this isn't a solution for everyone, but it sure worked for me.

by Captain Hilts on Jul 6, 2010 3:03 pm • linkreport

Captain Hilts. Riding on the sidewalk along this section of Penn is illegal.

by David C on Jul 6, 2010 4:18 pm • linkreport

Yeah, if you ride along there you'll get stopped by the police, they'll say "papers please," and then you'll have to go jumping over barbed-wire fences on your bike just to get away!

(hopefully somebody gets it)

by MLD on Jul 6, 2010 4:25 pm • linkreport

Also of note is that DDOT has claimed on numerous occasions that these lanes stretch to 15th St, when instead they end abruptly (and dangerously) at 14th St.

by Adam Rubinfield on Jul 6, 2010 4:45 pm • linkreport

Yes, riding on sidewalks is illegal - everywhere. But hundreds - thousands - of DC police saw other riders and me doing it every morning and saw the practicality of it.

MLD, I get the joke!


by Captain Hilts on Jul 6, 2010 5:17 pm • linkreport

I gave these bike lanes the benefit of the doubt during their re-design, but finally got around to testing them out a little last Friday. I tried them both ways in the afternoon, then again near rush hour. They don't really work well at all -- I would much prefer "normal" bike lanes on the sides.

I agree with all the points above (especially the pedestrian issue -- it happened multiple times that groups of tourists were huddled on the islands while I theoretically had a green light to go plowing through them).

I noticed a couple other problems: the bike lanes being just wide enough for a car to pull halfway across Pennsylvania, get trapped there while the light turned red, and completely block the bike lanes. The connectivity somebody mentioned above -- how are you really meant to get into these lanes, and what are you supposed to do when you reach the end? The awkwardness and unsafe feeling of sitting in the middle of the street while cars (and buses) on your right have a green arrow to turn left *around* you.

But I think the main problem, and the reason I would never bike in these lanes regularly, is the difficulty of just *turning*. Say you want to turn left -- the signs say "turn like a pedestrian." Ok. So you wait for the "walk" sign and cross. Then what? Are you meant to ride the sidewalk? Wait there on the corner again for another light to change, to cross the street, then proceed on your way? The same problem comes up when try to get onto the lanes. There is too much switching modes, where a biker is supposed to act sometimes like a pedestrian and sometimes like a vehicle. It's confusing and not at all worth the effort.

Kudos for the experiment, though, DDOT.

by jeff gerhard on Jul 6, 2010 5:33 pm • linkreport

@jeff gerhard:
If you're turning left, you're supposed to ride through the intersection, and then stage for your 'pedestrian left' on the far ped refuge.

The near-side refuge is for right turns. I agree that it is not clearly signed.

by Matt Johnson on Jul 6, 2010 5:40 pm • linkreport

@ Matt, ah thanks, I didn't get that at all, I thought the whole process of turning seemed too absurd to be real.

by jeff gerhard on Jul 6, 2010 6:28 pm • linkreport

I tried out the lanes on Thursday before the heat wave. Overall the lanes are fun and I felt protected enough being in the median and I'm not a regular biker.
I agree with Josh C. about the connectivity with other bike lanes, especially at the western end. It felt very awkward and dangerous when the lanes suddenly ended before 15th Street and I found myself in a left turn lane when I wanted to turn right. After some traffic jockeying I managed to get over but it was difficult. I also noticed the signal visibility issue.
Overall I think it's a good experiment on our country's most famous street that I think could translate to wide boulevards in other cities- possibly Rockville Pike or US 1 in College Park. Though traffic might move too fast on those roads to make it viable.

by Bryan Patterson on Jul 6, 2010 6:49 pm • linkreport

Enough already with the damn Penn ave bike lanes. Can't GGW get over it? It really doesn't matter whether they are a little to the left or right. As a long time cyclist, it is great to have them. I have never seen pedestrians stuck in the middle of the road except on this blog. Stop whining and go ride your bike.

by DondoC on Jul 6, 2010 7:10 pm • linkreport

Out of curiosity, did anyone manage to count the many thousands of cyclists that used the bike lanes during the July 4th weekend?

by Fritz on Jul 6, 2010 8:57 pm • linkreport

Great write up Matt!

While I think Pa Ave is probably better with the existing lanes than without is it frustrating to actually know how much better they could have been. Having had the opportunity to try out the lanes before the reconfiguration I liked the original design much, much better.

@jeff gerhard:
The original design, the product of months of elaborate and careful design, had wide bike lanes, separation from traffic, and clearly delineated staging areas for tuns.

At the last moment in order to appease AAA DDOT threw everything away and gave us this current half-baked idea.

by JeffB on Jul 6, 2010 9:08 pm • linkreport


Technically the lanes are still considered an experiment. So there may still be a chance to remedy some of its awful last minute re-design. Towards that end keeping up the discussion about what is working or not working is useful.

P.S. I've probably have used the lanes about 20 - 30 times since they have officially opened. I can only think of ONE time where I didn't have to ask pedestrians to please step back from the bike lane. That one time was well after rush hour had ended on a Friday night before the 4th of July holiday weekend.

During that same period I only saw ONE time some number of cars backed up at the intersections (and thus using all the lanes including the one restored to them). The occasion? Police had blocked the intersections to allow a motorcade to pass.

by JeffB on Jul 6, 2010 9:18 pm • linkreport

GGW cyclists really just don't get it. EVERY single argument you make related to pedestrians is the EXACT same argument drivers make against cyclists (but that you haughtily ignore).

I mean, the flagrant hypocrisy of it all couldn't be more hilarious if it was purposely scripted.

And enough with this "less safe" hooha. The previous lanes were as wide as regular traffic lanes and occupied space that was not only previously a traffic lane, but that anyone, local or not would/could easily mistake as still a traffic lane.

No one, and I mean no one (save some half blind crack head taxi driver from Karachi) would ever think or consider the median as "fair game" for a regular car traffic lane. Having the bike lanes in the median and out of regular traffic is the safest possible thing for cyclists save for jersey barriers between the bike/traffic lanes the entire length of PA Avenue.

Drivers don't get the option of ignoring pedestrians and traffic signals. Why do cyclists believe they should?

Pedestrians get the ultimate ROW, nearly regardless of situation. Cyclists are required to give the same consideration. End of story.

by nookie on Jul 7, 2010 10:22 am • linkreport

Nookie, let's see if that's true. Below is every reference to pedestrians (not pedestrians refuges) with the word pedestrian replaced by cyclist and cyclist replaced by driver.

"This is a hot area and having some shade for cyclists and drivers is a huge bonus."

Wrong. I've never heard anyone talk of shade for drivers.

"The issue is that cyclsits might cross halfway, then stop and wait while traffic on Penn gets the green light. The drivers will get the green light at the same time, so they're supposed to go through the refuges, but they're full of cyclists waiting."

Wrong. There is no such thing as a cyclist refuge, so drivers never say this.

"Besides, drivers need be able to look forward in order to see pedestrians, cyclists, and other obstacles."

Correct. But this is hardly inflammatory. I wish drivers spoke like this more often.

"it happened multiple times that groups of bike tourists were huddled on the islands while I theoretically had a green light to go plowing through them"

Wrong. Again N/A.

"I just used to drive on the bike lanes as there are NO cyclists on them before 9am and they are more than wide enough to accommodate a car and the occasional cyclist at that hour."

Wrong. Drivers do drive in the bike lane, but no one thinks their wide enough for both users.

"I have never seen cyclists stuck in the middle of the road except on this blog."

Wrong. This blog has never discussed cyclists stuck in the middle of the road.

"I can only think of ONE time where I didn't have to ask cyclists to please step back from the traffic lane."

Wrong. This never happens.

So, nookie, once again it is time for you to put up or shut up. Where exactly did cyclists talk about pedestrians in a hypocritical way. Cyclists are complaining that DDOT took space from peds to give it to cyclists in a way that creates conflict. Where have drivers ever shown concern for such things?

by David C on Jul 7, 2010 10:38 am • linkreport

I just don't get the problem with pedestrians waiting in the median. Pedestrians ALWAYS have the right of way, even when they're crossing against the light, outside the crosswalk, and with their noses stuck in their blackberries. You have to stop for them. Period. Yes, you might have to stop when you have a green light. Well, tough. Learn to co-exist with others, especially those others who are walking and are probably, along Penn Ave in the summer, tourists. Do you really want one of their impressions of Washington to be some idiot on a bicycle who tried to plow them down or shouted at them?

by Fantine on Jul 7, 2010 1:18 pm • linkreport


I get it. You and I can round and round on this for months and you and I will still have our respective opinions. Its clear by your posting history that cyclists should have more than equal access to all public ROW and bikes can do no wrong.

I on the other hand thing ROW should be allocated by use.

Directly quoting you above...

"Cyclists are complaining that DDOT took space from peds to give it to cyclists in a way that creates conflict. Where have drivers ever shown concern for such things?"

Now with the appropriate word replacement...

"Drivers are complaining that DDOT took space from cars to give it to cyclists in a way that creates conflict. Where have cyclists ever shown concern for such things?"

See how easy that was?

Just because cyclists got bike lanes down PA Avenue doesn't remove cyclists from their responsibility to give way to pedestrians and to follow all applicable traffic laws/signals.

Lastly...and this is crux of it and I am shocked to have to teach cyclists this but public streets are one constant conflict. Between cars, pedestrians and yes, bikes. The cyclists responsibility, just like everyone elses, is to ALWAYS give ROW to the pedestrian. End of story.

by nookie on Jul 7, 2010 1:46 pm • linkreport

@nookie and fantine, yes, the modes always seem to be in conflict, and yes, the more vulnerable road user should be given right of way. Bicyclists should give all due care to these (and all) pedestrians.

But this conflict isn't the usual, where two modes are trying to use the same facility for the same purpose. This conflict arises because of bad design, where two modes are given contradictory direction. Bicyclists are told to proceed through the exact same finite space where pedestrians are told they are to safely stand.

Imagine that an intersection had a preferred left turn phase (the "left green arrow"), and a simultaneous "walk" signal for pedestrians. Sure, you would hope that cars would not hit the pedestrians, but 'hope' isn't a sound design practice.

by the way, DDOT's Facebook page indicated that they might be putting down some markers on the median islands telling pedestrians where to stand, and warning of bike traffic.

by darren on Jul 7, 2010 2:11 pm • linkreport

In the case of Penn Ave, one of Washington's most popular tourist site, and a very wide avenue, I think that the conflict has to resolved in favor of the pedestrians. The elderly and handicapped are going to need a safe place to stand when they can't cross the street on one green cycle. Tourists who are gawking (and they have every right to gawk on Penn Ave) also need a safe place on the median. IMO, cyclists will have to yield to their needs. (To me, this isn't any difference than when I have to sit at a green light in my car to wait for an elderly person to finish crossing a street.) Cyclists should consider whether having to yield to pedestrians in the median is a small price to pay for these lanes, because I can see pressure on DDOT to get rid of the bike lanes if any pedestrians get hit in the median.

by Fantine on Jul 7, 2010 3:20 pm • linkreport

I agree completely. The pedestrian refuges need to be there. That's why DDOT never should have put bike lanes going through them. They were initially where the left lane of cars is.

But this isn't a matter of yielding the ROW to pedestrians with a walk sign.

How would you feel if DDOT asked pedestrians to stand in the left lane of traffic. When the left lane of traffic had a green light? Cars are still prohibited from hitting pedestrians, but what are they supposed to do?

For cyclists, if pedestrians don't move, they'd have to wait a minute or so while they had a green light, then wait a minute or so, while the cross traffic had a green light, and then they might still have to wait through a full cycle if more pedestrians show up who can't cross. Theoretically, it would be possible to have to wait for an hour or more before a refuge became clear of pedestrians.

This is an untenable situation.

Bikers are not criticizing pedestrians for using the medians, they're criticizing DDOT for making bikers go through the refuges.

by Matt Johnson on Jul 7, 2010 3:39 pm • linkreport

That's exactly right MattJ, the problem is bikes being routed through the pedestrians. The lanes are weird.

by Captain Hilts on Jul 7, 2010 3:44 pm • linkreport

I'm definitely in favor of the old design, mostly for the safety of everyone on Penn Ave. Pedestrians don't expect to have to share the medians with ANYONE, and would probably be really freaked out if a car drove through there, so why should bikes have to drive through medians. I've also encountered the visibility issue, particularly since the right hand lane is often taken up by buses that block the view of any other signals on Penn ave. Agreed also on the eastbound light timing. I have a friend over at ddot that told me all the light timing at intersections is MANUAL, and that only two guys know how to do it, so there's not too much hope that the signal timing will be remedied any time soon. I'd also like to see better flow in/out of the lanes. Eastbound I enter at 15th and ride through, but Westbound, it usually takes from 3rd to 6th to merge successfully across the traffic lanes to the bike lane. Much could be improved.

by Shawn on Jul 7, 2010 5:05 pm • linkreport

I'm delighted with the new lanes on Pennsylvania Ave. However, all the fuss does give me a chuckle. From 1969 to 1972, I worked in the Wilson Building and rode from home on the Hill and back every day down the middle of the avenue. It was the safest place to ride and I never had a problem!

by Carl Bergman on Jul 7, 2010 5:14 pm • linkreport


You got that backwards. With appropriate word replacement:

"Drivers are complaining that DDOT took space from cyclists to give it to drivers in a way that creates conflict."

That'll be the day.

by Matthias on Jul 8, 2010 3:23 pm • linkreport

Driving on the sidewalk is definitely NOT any sort of rational solution. You might as well be walking if you have to ride on the sidewalk. If I had to commute to work by bike, riding on a sidewalk, it would probably take twice as long.

I was hit by a taxi cab while biking in the new bike lanes on June 10, 2010. The lanes look nice, but there are drawbacks to using them. For one thing, the traffic signals haven't been set to account for the bike lanes, so if you want to make a right turn, you have to stop in the middle of the bike lane (There is no room to stop out of the way of the bike lane) and then wait for a pedestrian crosswalk signal, or exit the bike lane a block or so before the light which you wish to turn right at. The design is pretty awful and it probably would have been better if the bike lanes were added to both edges of the street, with parked cars separating the bike lanes from moving traffic. This wouldn't be perfect, but would be safer and would eliminate some of the problems with the current lane configuration.

by Miknugget on Jul 8, 2010 4:39 pm • linkreport

Sorry to hear about your collision. I hope you're okay and back on your bike.

Just to be clear, the traffic signals have been set for the cycletrack at this time. The lanes are now officially open.

And if you look at the 4th picture in the post (the one with the pedestrians standing in the quasi-refuge, with the Old Post Office in the background), you can see a section of the bikeway marked as "turns [bike symbol]". That is where you are supposed to wait if you are making a right turn.

If you're turning left, you should proceed through the intersection, and wait in the refuge on the far side. This would have worked better if the through bike lanes did not pass through the refuge. That's because there would be more room to stage for your turn.

by Matt Johnson on Jul 8, 2010 4:45 pm • linkreport

MikNugget, I'm sorry to hear about your collision. That's awful. The current system which has you, essentially, riding alongside traffic, but turning alongside pedestrians just doesn't work. Here's hoping they figure this out.

I only used the sidewalks - which in that area are VERY wide with very few pedestrians - in the morning. Otherwise I would be on Madison Ave.

by Captain Hilts on Jul 8, 2010 7:43 pm • linkreport

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