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Bicycling


Who's blocking L Street today, and what can we do?

Who's blocking the L Street bike lane today? A delivery driver, most likely. That's the conclusion I've reached after 4 months of chronicling obstructions in the city's newest bike lane.


Photos by the author.

I started the blog, "Who's Blocking the L St. Bike Lane Today?" on a whim after the lane (technically a cycle track) opened. Since then, readers have submitted a steady stream of pictures showing vehicles blocking the lane, on top of the pictures I've taken myself.

While I do use the lane frequently (and thus have a personal stake in it being unobstructed), I don't view this as an exercise in vigilantism. My goal is to highlight larger trends, not to shame or mock individual drivers.

While swerving around a parked car into moving traffic on a bike can be dangerous, I realize there are many greater evils in the world and on the road, and am weary of perpetuating the perception of, broadly, the hysterically entitled cyclist by fixating on what is a ultimately a minor inconvenience in most instances. That said, the L Street bike lane is supposed to facilitate bicycling, not parking, and blocking the lane is, at least nominally, illegal. When the lane is blocked, it doesn't serve its purpose.

Who IS blocking the L Street bike lane today?

Overall, very few people actually "park" in the L St. bike lane. The majority of vehicles blocking the lane are delivery trucks supplying the many offices and stores that line the stretch. Looking just at the 156 photos on the site to date, 60% have been of delivery vehicles, while 30% are personal vehicles, and 10% belong to police.

Based on my observations, the median length of time for vehicles blocking the lane is 1-3 minutes. That's long enough to run in to a building, drop something off, and return. However, it's not uncommon for a delivery driver to treat the lane as a loading dock for loading and unloading large shipments, a process which generally takes 10-20 minutes.

Obviously, this is not a comprehensive sample. Because I took many of the pictures, they tend to over-represent weekday, daytime activity, and concentrate on the 1700 block of L. Still, they should provide some insight into the patterns of usage that have developed so far along the lane, as well as a starting point for potential solutions.

What can we do?

Deliveries, and delivery vehicles, are an increasing necessity in today's economy, and accommodating their activity will be an ongoing challenge as cities continue to densify and pursue more multi-modal streetscapes. This is especially true in central business districts like the Golden Triangle, where businesses and office workers (myself included) rely on quick and affordable deliveries engendered by the online economy.

While it may be tempting to vilify the individual delivery drivers, many of whom work long hours under tight deadlines, as you veer around them on your bike, doing so ignores the larger enforcement, policy and design pressures that shape the situation on L Street.

Enforcement: Willfully running a solid red light is universally taboo in America, and a pressure that is strong enough to dissuade drivers from doing it. Today the societal taboo is clearly not as strong against blocking bike lanes, but targeted enforcement can help change perceptions.

In all of my observation I have only seen one ticket issued to someone blocking a bike lane. Indeed, police cars are often guilty of the offense themselves, and not while on official business. Most of the photos I've taken myself of police cars blocking the bike lanes have occurred while the driver was visiting Robeks, a fruit smoothie store on the block.

Just as the MPD has engaged in enforcement campaigns targeted at drivers who fail to yield and pedestrian inattention, we need an enforcement campaign aimed at bike lane blocking on L Street.

Even though the actual penalties may not serve as a deterrent (many delivery companies simply write them off as a cost of doing business), an enforcement campaign can start to change attitudes about the practice and encourage delivery drivers to use dedicated loading zones or the service alleys that connect many larger buildings on L Street.

Design: The blocking problem is not nearly so great on the 15th Street cycle track. This may partly result from there being fewer blocks where the lane runs past commercial streets. Also on 15th, parking serves as a buffer between the 15th Street lane and the active roadway. Not only does that offer an alternative for delivery drivers and others, it creates a physical barrier of parked vehicles, impeding easy access in a way that the plastic pylons cannot.

Before the L Street Lane was installed, Mike Goodno, Bicycle Program Specialist at the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) said that a similar arrangement would not be possible on L, as it would limit the street to one through lane outside rush hour.

One option could be to relocate the current parking from the south side to the north side, between the bike lane and the active roadway. Currently, parking and loading is permitted in the southernmost lane outside of rush hour; during rush our, the lane becomes a third through lane, though obstructions in this lane often remain throughout rush hour, leaving two effective through lanes in most cases.

Goodno says that is a possibility, and in fact DDOT is planning to have (full-time) parking next to the forthcoming lane on many blocks of M Street. However, Goodno noted, there could not be parking next to the left turn lanes, or for some distance before the start of the "mixing zones," where drivers merge into the bike lane to turn left. That would substantially reduce the amount of parking on L Street.

Alternatively, DDOT has floated the idea of installing a curb along the L St. lane to prevent vehicle incursions, though so far there has been no activity. Likewise, Goodno said they are considering adding more posts, which today appear every 20 feet.

Policy: Most blocks of L Street now combine some dedicated loading zones and short-term metered parking along the south side of the street. In my observation, the loading zones are nearly always occupied with delivery vehicles, suggesting that drivers are willing to use them provided they can find a space. Likewise, the metered parking on the street is consistently occupied as well, typically by passenger vehicles.

The difference, of course, is that those drivers have the option of parking off-street in one of the numerous commercial garages in the area, while delivery vehicles cannot. Though it would almost certainly draw criticism from some quarters, the city could convert existing metered parking along L Street to loading-only lanes, giving delivery drivers more legal options to park. If and when performance parking comes to the Golden Triangle, it could also ensure that spaces are more likely open for delivery drivers.

My experience watching the L Street bike lane has not revealed an existential struggle amongst warring factions for turf on one of downtowns busiest arteries. Rather, I've seen drivers, bikers, delivery guys, cops, and pedestrians (who, lest we forget, are often one in the same) working to coexist in a new multi-modal reality that they all generally accept, even if they're all still getting used to it.
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Roads


Instead of tickets, turn lights red for speeders

Opponents of speed cameras often insist that they don't want drivers to speedwhat they object to is the revenue-raising function of the cameras and their invasion of privacy. There may be a way to give these critics what they say they want, at least on some roads, while curbing excess speed more effectively.


Photo from FHWA.

How about wiring radars to turn the next traffic light red whenever a speeder passes? Instead of getting a ticket in the mail, a speeder would just get a red light. With the right settings, this would slow down all speedersincluding those who speed by less than 12 mph.

Traffic safety experts I spoke with could not point me to any experience with such a system, so it will take trial and error to work out the bugs and optimize the design.

Speeders' behavior is more likely to change if they understand why they got the red light, but if drivers get that message too soon, they might speed up more to beat the light instead.

If a light turns green and then a speeder fairly quickly shows up, turning it red again, there might be pedestrians in the parallel crosswalk. They'll need time to finish crossing, which would mean a 4-way red period. However, these will have to be minimal so that drivers are not overly tempted to run red lights.

And how would this work on multi-lane roads when one speeder might stop traffic for many other law-abiding drivers? Signals always give some unnecessary red intervalsthey can't perfectly match changing traffic volumes through the daybut the red lights shouldn't excessively interfere with vehicle movement. The first experiments should probably be on narrow roads with relatively light auto traffic.

There shouldn't be legal obstacles. Radar-actuated traffic signals are approved by the Federal Highway Administration, and state laws that limit the placement of speed cameras do not apply to them. Some cities (including DC on parts of 16th Street) already limit speed with traffic signals by synchronizing closely-spaced lights so that drivers who exceed the limit hit a red.

How and where might this strategy work best? And will objections to automated speed limit enforcement diminish when the radar system no longer raises revenue from drivers?

Roads


Gray will maintain most lower traffic camera fines

In the budget released today, Mayor Gray has allocated money to keep many traffic camera fines, which DC recently lowered, from automatically rising again. He will also propose raising fines a tiny bit for moderate speeding and considerably for major speeding.


Photo by Gerard :-[ on Flickr.

Last year, Councilmembers Tommy Wells, Mary Cheh, and Marion Barry introduced a bill to lower fines for speeding up to 20 mph over the limit, for blocking the box, turning right on red without stopping, and other violations. This responded to public sentiment that fines were too high and that camera tickets were an unfair cash cow for the District.

The original bill reduced fines to $50 for speeding up to 20 mph but left high fines ($200-250) for more speeding, on the logic that such egregious speeding is really reckless and clearly intentional. Phil Mendelson, however, pushed to modify the bill to use a linear scale instead of one with a sudden jump.

To lower the fines cost money, and the Council didn't find enough money to lower all speed fines. Instead, the fine for speeding 11-15 mph over the limit only dropped from $100 to $92. It would have made more sense to use the limited funds to drop the lower-speed fines first instead of the higher-speed ones, but that's not what happened.

They also only allocated money in the current fiscal year. Unless this budget said otherwise, the fines would have automatically jumped back up on October 1. Mayor Gray indeed allocated money to keep many of the lower fines, including ones for infractions besides speeding.

However, the administration proposes to set the fine for 11-15 mph and 16-20 mph over both at $100, said budget director Eric Goulet, and also raise the fine for speeding over 20 mph to $250 $200 and over 25 mph to $300. This is actually the same fine schedule Gray previously proposed when the Council was debating lowering fines.

Fines for running red lights did not go down in the last bill. That's in part because AAA's John Townsend actually argued in the task force for maintaining higher red light fines, though he's since started spewing press releases complaining about them, despite his earlier stance.

Here is a table of the old fines, what Cheh and Wells proposed, what passed in the final bill both as the authorized level and the actual level that got funding, and what Gray is proposing for 2014.

Offense2012Cheh/
Wells
Auth.
2013
Funded
2013
Gray
2014
Speeding 1-10 mph (not enforced)$75$50$50$50$50
Speeding 11-15 mph$125$50$75$92$100
Speeding 16-20 mph$150$50$100$100$100
Speeding 21-25 mph$200$200$150$150$200
Speeding 26-30 mph$250$250$250$250$300
Running red light$150$150$150$150$150
Blocking the box$100$50$50$50$50
Not stopping at stop sign$100$50$50$50$50
Not yielding to pedestrian in crosswalk$250$50$75$75$75
Not stopping before right on red$100$50$50$50$50
Right on red when prohibited$100$50$50$50$50

The Budget Support Act is not yet available, so all of the information here is based on my conversation with Goulet, and I am checking to confirm their proposal for the never-enforced 1-10 mph violation and whether not yielding to a pedestrian is $50 or $75. I will update the post when that is available. Update: After talking to Goulet, I have updated the table and added a row for speeding 26-30 mph, whose fine will be rising from $250 to $300 as well.

I originally pushed for even lower fines from cameras, on the logic that the fine should just be high enough to deter speeding or other behaviors, and that it could buy peace. Unfortunately, we really don't have good evidence about what deters speeding. Also, AAA has stepped up the pace of camera complaints and attack press releases, so it's become clear that there's no partner for peace over there.

Therefore, Gray's proposal is a reasonable position. It keeps some of the formerly most egregious fines down and should deter some of the most reckless behavior.

It's not waging any kind of "war on drivers," but if AAA is going to claim there is one even after DC leaders make a good faith effort to address the group's concerns, DC may as well prioritize making neighborhoods safe for residents by adding cameras and maintaining fines.

Pedestrians


Is ped enforcement campaign "blaming the victim"?

District agencies are running a much-needed, but brief, sting operation today to enforce the laws against making U-turns across the Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes. Meanwhile, a number of readers have written in with worries that a pedestrian enforcement campaign is targeting the wrong people for the wrong behavior.

Reader @Akido37 tweeted this photograph, of a bus shelter ad the District Department of Transportation and Metropolitan Police Department have posted near Farragut Square warning pedestrians about a stepped-up enforcement campaign. He wrote, "Talk about blaming the victim."

Certainly, pedestrians can do a lot to make themselves more safe, or take more risks. Walking while texting or reading emails removes one line of defense against a driver hitting a pedestrian.

On the other hand, pedestrians can suffer even when they do nothing wrong, but a driver's attention lapses for moment. Some readers feel MPD is not doing enough about far more unsafe driver actions. Reader David Joseph wrote:

I walk this intersection twice a day and without fail drivers make illegal turns, pull into the crosswalk, or otherwise endanger pedestrians. I recently asked an MPD officer who was giving warnings to pedestrians why they werent talking to drivers who are the real danger. His answer was simply that they were given orders to talk to pedestrians and issue tickets for jay walking, and he was following those orders.
Ben Ross said in an email:
I work at that intersection, and the pedestrian signals there forbid pedestrians to make crossings that are absolutely safe. You are told not to cross the turn lane on westbound 17th between the traffic island and the Red Line entrance even when traffic in the lane you are crossing has a red light. You can only cross when the main part of K Street has a red light, which comes 32 seconds later. Obviously, no one waits to cross the turn lane when the cars are stopped in front of them.
In a similar vein, during a past enforcement campaign police stopped people crossing the one-lane side roadway of Connecticut Avenue at Q Street, where the main road passes under in an underpass. While not lawful, there are plenty of times when there are no cars approaching, or even a bus at the bus stop blocking the road entirely. It doesn't advance safety to ticket people for crossing at these times.

Everyone should follow laws. The ideal solution to these problems would be to redesign the intersection to better accommodate pedestrians' own needs and not forbid doing things that aren't really dangerous. However, we're not realistically going to change most of these intersections anytime soon.

With driver speeding, especially with the latest speed camera bill, we've made a decision to tolerate a certain amount of unlawful speeding (10 mph over the limit), and recently cut down on penalties for those who speed more. Mayor Gray also raised speed limits in a few places where many drivers, perhaps rightly at least in some cases, argued they were too low.

The District needs to focus on the most unsafe behavior. Sometimes, that's pedestrian behavior, but more often it's not. Do you think this campaign is blaming the victim? Or does it attack a real safety problem, and some people just don't want to follow the law?

Public Safety


Can we get more proportionality in criminal justice?

I was heartbroken to read that Aaron Swartz, a 26-year-old Internet freedom activist, author of RSS, and Reddit cofounder, killed himself on Friday. I'd met Aaron a few times; on April 6, 2009, he emailed me to ask about books he should read on city policy issues.


Photo by okfn on Flickr.

Aaron clearly suffered from depression, but his family, law professor Lawrence Lessig, and many others are also criticizing prosecutors in the Boston US Attorney's office who hounded Aaron with multiple felony charges after he downloaded large numbers of academic articles at MIT, but never distributed them.

Aaron, and many others, find a major injustice in the the way academic journals pay authors nothing for articles but then charge large amounts of money for online access to the journals. That doesn't justify lawbreaking, but his also wasn't a transgression that merits multiple felony counts and jail time.

In a post entitled "Prosecutor as bully," Lessig wrote:

If what the government alleged was true ... then what [Aaron] did was wrong. ... But all this shows is that if the government proved its case, some punishment was appropriate. So what was that appropriate punishment? ... Our government continued to push as if it had caught the 9/11 terrorists red-handed. ...

From the beginning, the government worked as hard as it could to characterize what Aaron did in the most extreme and absurd way. ... I get wrong. But I also get proportionality. And if you don't get both, you don't deserve to have the power of the United States government behind you.

For remember, we live in a world where the architects of the financial crisis regularly dine at the White Houseand where even those brought to "justice" never even have to admit any wrongdoing, let alone be labeled "felons."

Our local criminal justice system also has plenty of examples of proportionality failures.

Drivers who behave recklessly and kill pedestrians and cyclists usually face little punishment unless they are drunk or flee. When a driver was caught on tape assaulting a cyclist, authorities didn't press charges. After police worked hard to investigate a driver who was allegedly on his cell phone when he hit and killed a senior crossing the street, prosecutors brought charges, but a grand jury refused to indict.

Meanwhile, our punishments for some transgressions often go far beyond what's appropriate or what is necessary to stop crime, like suspending students for taking their prescription medication without proper paperwork or a 6-year-old for making a gun shape with a hand.

Even for violent crimes, which we absolutely must vehemently combat, prison terms often far exceed what's necessary or effective. In his most recent column, David Brooks wrote:

If you want to deter crime, it seems that you'd want to lengthen prison sentences so that criminals would face steeper costs for breaking the law. In fact, a mountain of research shows that increases in prison terms have done nothing to deter crime. Criminals, like the rest of us, aren't much influenced by things they might have to experience far in the future.
Instead, it's more effective to fight lawbreaking by adding actual enforcement, so that more perpetrators get caught and punished. In the lingo of the field, you want to increase certainty rather than severity.

Based on this logic, our local government just passed a bill to relieve punitive burdens on drivers who speed. It made sense not to charge punitively high fees on speeders, since the primary objective must be safety rather than revenue. (Unfortunately, Phil Mendelson, who never participated in the task force that pored over research and debated options, then rewrote or deleted most of the key provisions in the bill that would increase certainty, and added new sections that will reduce safety in other ways.)

Now we've applied the certainty-over-severity analysis, or at least the less-severity half, to an area of crime that has a politically powerful constituencydriversbehind it. Will the council now do the same for other areas of our criminal justice?

Unlike speeding, injustices in the way we prosecute drug laws or the "school to prison pipeline" disproportionately affect poorer and minority communities that have less political clout. The families who suffer from over-incarceration are less likely to be the ones having lunch with a councilmember than the business leader who might complain about some speeding tickets.

Will Wells try to fix laws that over-punish some people to little end, and under-punish others who today don't face any consequences for serious transgressions? Will the rest of the council agree to such measures?

It's not possible to devise a perfectly fair criminal justice system. Some people will get away with serious malfeasance while others suffer excessively. What we can do, both nationally by recalibrating our response to journal article downloading versus financial fraud, or locally in our response to speeding versus shooting transgendered people, is push for more proportionality where possible. There's a lot of work to do.

Parking


Who's blocking the L Street bike lane today?

Ever since the L Street bike lane opened (and while DDOT was building it), for-hire sedans, delivery trucks, and other vehicles have consistently parked in the lane, despite signs, bollards, and new loading zones across the street or around the corner to serve buildings' loading needs.


Photos from "Who's Blocking the L St. Bike Lane Today?" on Tumblr.

Jay Corbalis created a Tumblr, Who's Blocking the L St. Bike Lane Today? to collect photographs of these scofflaws. This is a great way to raise consciousness of how often it's happening.

If you ride down the lane and encounter a blocker, take a picture of your own! You can submit them directly to be included on the site.

Bicycling


DMV believes U-turns on Penn are legal

WABA is reporting that the Department of Motor Vehicles isn't upholding tickets for U-turns across Pennsylvania Avenue.


Photo by Mr. T in DC on Flickr.
When an MPD officer writes a ticket, the person ticketed has the opportunity to challenge that ticket through adjudication. This process is handled by the DMV, not the police. And on this issue, the DMV adjudicator has interpreted the laws in a way that does not prohibit mid-block U-turns across the cycletrack. Thus, MPD is reluctant to ticket motorists when the agency adjudicating the tickets has deemed such a ticket invalid.
Rob Pitingolo asked on Twitter, "If [DDOT] designs a street and decides certain turns are unsafe, why does [the DMV] get to decide whether said unsafe turns are punishable? The whole thing calls into question whether any traffic sign in DC is actually legally binding or just a suggestion."

In the camera debate, MPD has been saying that they enforce the speed limits that are posted. Anyone want to look through the DC code to figure out if posted signs like "no U turn" actually have the force of law?

Perhaps Mary Cheh could introduce some emergency legislation to fix this problem, but Rob's point is a good onewe shouldn't have to rely on legislation to clarify every element. Unless the law really has a big hole that makes it impossible to enforce, a "no U turn" sign should be enough to make U turns illegal.

WABA's Shane Farthing added,

We do not know DMV's detailed legal reasoning, but it is possible that the same interpretation that would find U-turns across Pennsylvania Avenue to be legal might also find left turns by motorists who skip the "mixing zones" and cut across the cycletrack through the intersection on L to be legal. (That is speculation, but it sufficiently concerning speculation that we need to move quickly to find a solution so that MPD can enforce the rules of the cycletracks in a way that is consistent with their design.)
So far, we know that many drivers are not obeying the rules in the cycletrack, though DDOT's Mike Goodno has been urging people to be patient as DDOT finishes up paint, signs. and bollards. The Express' Vicky Hallett interviewed some truck drivers who are, so far, just refusing to pull a little farther to an actual loading zone, and Nicholas Donohue sent over some pictures of trucks parked in the cycletrack.


Photo by Nicholas Donohue.

Cycle tracks, separated bike lanes, or whatever you call them can work wonders for bicycling, but only if drivers respect them and District officials can properly enforce rules against unsafe driving and parking.

Roads


Gray slightly tweaks camera fines to stave off larger change

This morning, DC Mayor Vince Gray proposed some changes to the District's speed camera fines. It seems to be an attempt to stave off more significant changes in a bill from Tommy Wells and Mary Cheh, which is having a hearing on Monday.


Photo by Wayan Vota on Flickr.

Gray's plan would lower fines for speeding up to 10 mph from $75 to $50, though MPD is generally not writing tickets for speeding at this level (though the law lets them if they choose). Speeding from 11-20 mph over the limit would decrease from $125 to $100.

Meanwhile, Gray would raise the fine for speeding over 20 mph from $250 to $300. He also announced something DDOT previously said at the task force, which is that they are reviewing speed limits and may raise some.

The Wells-Cheh bill, by contrast, would lower fines for 0-10 and 11-20 to $50, as well as fines for other infractions like blocking the box or not fully stopping at a stop sign.

Gray said he will use some of the money to hire 100 new police officers. That's fine, though if the police officers don't focus on traffic, then it ultimately is just using camera revenue for things other than road safety.

We need to do more for traffic safety. DC is adding a few cameras which will make a big impact, but there's a lot of dangerous driving out there. A few cameras with high fines will stem a little bit of it and raise a bunch of money. I want to see us stem a lot more of it, and the only realistic way to do that is to expand the cameras significantly.

A major element of the Wells-Cheh bill is a provision that some camera revenue goes into a fund the Metropolitan Police Department can use to buy more cameras. Regardless of the level of fines, it's critical to set up a system whereby the stock of cameras can automatically grow over time.

It's also critical to ensure that the political blowback from speed cameras doesn't stop the District government from adding more. Now, it's not clear what exactly is necessary to achieve this. If Gray had 3-4 more years on his mayoralty, there might be little need to change the fines. Gray shows no interest in curtailing the plan whatsoever, regardless of fines, and in fact is resistant to lowering fines.

The DC Council might have disapproved some contracts for new cameras, but it couldn't. The next year's budget counts on a lot of revenue from cameras, which means that if councilmembers had wanted to delete the cameras, they would have had to fill a big budget hole.

What about in the future? If Gray doesn't run for reelection, as most speculate he won't, then the next mayor might have a different view. Maybe the next mayor will be so hostile to cameras that it won't matter how high or low the fines are. Or maybe he or she will keep cameras going no matter what.

From a safety point of view, fines don't need to be high as long as it's having a deterrent effect. At the press conference, Police Chief Cathy Lanier said she doesn't believe $50 fines are enough to deter, but council staff could find no studies that showed any conclusive correlation between fine size and driving behavior.

That suggest that high fines don't really improve safety. On the other hand, it also means that lowering fines probably won't do anything for safety eitherunless lowering fines changes the political dynamic and allows more cameras.

It's not clear it will. AAA's John Townsend participated in the task force, and said in the meetings that AAA would support cameras as long as they're not for revenue. But then, last week AAA still came out with a provcative study of how many dollars certain cameras brought in, and got a raft of sympathetic stories in the press.

From a purely abstract point of view, lowering fines is the right thing to do. Punishments should be high enough to deter lawbreaking, but don't need to be higher just to punish. A lot of people believe, despite academic evidence to the contrary, that cranking up punishments fights crime or unsafe driving; past a certain point, it doesn't.

From a political point of view, on the other hand, it's worth doing this right thing if it achieves a greater goal. Expanding cameras, and making streets safer, should be that goal. If the bill sets aside a fund for MPD to buy more cameras, that could significantly streamline the process.

If lowering fines blunts political blowback, that's worth a lot. However, if speeders still complain, and AAA's Townsend will continue to say anything to get attention in the press regardless of lower fines, then lower fines would just give dangerous lawbreakers a windfall for little benefit.

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