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Posts about Pedestrian Safety

Bicycling


In DC's West End, construction projects are endangering cyclists and pedestrians

In DC's West End, portions of the bikeways on L and M Streets, along with the adjacent sidewalks, are closed because of construction projects. The detours are confusing, and the result is that people on both bikes and foot are sharing narrow, unsafe spaces.


Pedestrians are supposed to use the barricaded space that's usually a bike lane along the 2300 block of L street. There isn't any bike space right now. All photos by the author.

On M Street, two separate segments of the sidewalk and protected bikeway are closed. The reason for closing the first segment, located along the 2200 block, is construction for a new fire station and apartments. The second segment, located along the 2500 block, is closed for a project that's converting a former office building into luxury condominiums.

On L Street, the sidewalk and bike lane are closed along the 2300 block for construction for a new mixed-use development that will include a public library, retail, and luxury condominiums. Note that L Street's bike lane doesn't become a protected bikeway until one block later, east of New Hampshire Avenue.

In all three locations, physical barriers separate bike and foot traffic from car traffic.


Image from Google Maps.

The detours aren't very effective

As cyclists and pedestrians approach the M Street construction sites from the east, traffic signs warn that the bike lane will be shifting to the left and that the sidewalk is closing. There are instructions for pedestrians to cross to the south side of the street, where the sidewalk remains open. But with a barricaded path that seems safe right in front of them, a lot of people just proceed through it, similar to what's currently happening at 15th and L Streets NW.

Blind spots amplify this problem, with tall barriers and sharp adjustments to the barricaded path drastically limiting visibility. This is especially dangerous in the scenario where the paths of a pedestrian heading east and a cyclist heading west converge.


Tall barrier walls and sharp curves along the barricaded path on the 2300 block of M Street create dangerous blind spots for cyclists and pedestrians.

Along L Street, there are signs directing pedestrians to use the barricaded space, and there is no space clearly designated for cyclists. Many cyclists end up proceeding through the space since there is nowhere else to go and the visual cues are contradictory (hard-to-see signs and a painted bike lane remain visible).

As you can see in the pictures, the barricaded spaces at the construction sites are extremely narrow. There is not enough space provided to allow for cyclists and pedestrians to safely pass each other. The traffic barriers take up significant pedestrian and bicycle real estate, and the fences are anchored by large cinder blocks that invade the already small space.

There's another option: Close a lane of car traffic

The way construction is set up on the 2500 block of M Street is especially questionable. The stretch includes three lanes of vehicle traffic (in addition to parking on each side, as well as the protected bike lane), but all three vehicle lanes have remained open despite the construction.

Given that this portion of M Street feeds directly into the heart of Georgetown, it sees heavy bike and pedestrian traffic. It would not be unreasonable to close a lane of car traffic along this particularly wide segment of the street to ensure a safe amount of space for everyone.


Cyclists traveling west along the 2500 block of M Street are forced to share lanes with vehicle traffic, as pedestrians walk through the space designated for bikes. Directing pedestrians to cross the street clearly is not a viable solution.

The West End is one of the most walkable and bikeable neighborhoods in DC, but too often, walking and biking are the first to be compromised when it comes to making space for construction. Giving equal priority to all modes of transportation would help keep everyone safe.

Pedestrians


You don't have to push this button to cross the street

If you walk to a corner and see a button to activate the walk signal, you might need to push it. Or you might not. It might only be there to activate a chirping noise for people with vision impairments. Unfortunately, there's no way to tell.


Connecticut Avenue and N Street in DC. Photo by David Alpert.

Some intersections keep "don't walk" signals lit during both red and green phases of a traffic light unless someone pushes a "beg button"—technically an "actuated pedestrian push button"—before the light turns green.

The sign on the picture above clearly implies that that's what will happen when people wanting to cross the street push the button.

But the button actually has nothing to do with the walk signal. The walk signal comes on whether you press the button or not.

What the button does is turn on a loud chirping noise that speeds up when the walk signal begins. The misleading signs have appeared in large numbers in DC, Montgomery County, and elsewhere over the past year, on local roads and state highways.


Unless you can't see the sign, pushing this button won't help you cross Bethesda Avenue. Photo by the author.

Why is this?

Federal guidelines, known as the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), authorize only certain standard signs for pedestrians. Among them are several variants for buttons that control the walk signal, but no sign for buttons that merely activate the audible signal for people with visual impairments.


Image from the Federal Highway Administration.

In downtown Bethesda, chirper buttons have appeared in large numbers over the last half year, all accompanied by the standard sign. Frequent passers-by soon recognized that the sign conveyed a falsehood, and now, few people push the button.

From my observation, it has become more common for people to simply cross streets wherever and whenever they feel safe. The streets seem no less safe.

Highway agencies take great care to ensure that signs meant for drivers are accurate and unambiguous—and doing so helps keep all who use the roads safe. Pedestrians, as these pushbutton signs illustrate, get very different treatment.

By taking such a nonchalant attitude toward those on foot, traffic engineers implicitly recognize something their profession refuses to officially admit: Drivers in the wrong place endanger others, but pedestrians do not.

Pedestrians


When it comes to mid-block crosswalks, Indonesia doesn't mess around

Getting drivers to stop in the middle of a block to let pedestrians cross can be tricky. In the US we use something called a HAWK signal. In other countries they have different ideas. Check out this HAWK-like relative in Kediri, Indonesia.


The yellow script atop the sign reads "Stop! All vehicles stop. Pedestrians have precedence. Thank you." Images and video by the author.

I spotted this peculiar looking traffic signal on a recent family visit to the country. It spans a crosswalk that connects one of the city's main shopping malls with a parking lot and theater across the street. While it uses conventional traffic lights, it functions almost exactly as HAWK signals (High-Intensity Activated crossWalK beacon) here in the US do (but it's not exactly a HAWK, as those are specific to the US).

The Indonesian version's default phase is a flashing yellow light (in the US, HAWK signals that aren't in use usually remain dark) that warns drivers to approach with caution. When a pedestrian activates the signal's push button, the light immediately changes to red. After about 12 seconds of walk time, the light changes to green for drivers. This lasts for about 10 seconds before returning to flashing yellow.

The Indonesian HAWK signal also has some other features that are unique from those we see in the US. There is an LED signboard that flashes messages to drivers, and even more noticeably, there is a horn that blares when the light is red (you can hear it in the video above).


Images and video by the author.

While the horn is a bit outlandish, planners in the US could learn a thing or two from how Indonesia has designed its HAWK signals. First, pedestrian waits are kept at a minimum, with the light changing immediately after someone pushes the button. This contrasts with DC's HAWK lights, where pedestrians may wait upwards of one minute before getting right of way.


Translation: Attention! To cross, first wait for traffic light to flash, then press button.

The Indonesian version arguably has better signage, with large explanations of how to use the light for pedestrians. Though the LED board itself may be a bit distracting, the message, telling drivers to stop and emphasizing that pedestrians have the right of way, is a good one. Finally, the signal uses standard traffic lights and a simple yellow flashing phase. In the US, some have said the multiple flashing phases and unique shape of a HAWK light can be confusing.


Cleveland Park's HAWK signal. Photo by Eric Fischer on Flickr.

Indonesia's version certainly isn't perfect, and if the video and my observations are any indication, people frequently ignored the light. But it put a smile on my face to see the city installed something like this to try to make the roads safer.

I could do without the horn, though.

Bicycling


Memorial Bridge fixes could help more than just cars

Arlington Memorial Bridge needs serious repairs, or perhaps even a full replacement, in the next five years. As the National Park Service works to make that happen, there's also a chance to address some surrounding conditions that are hazardous for people on foot and on bike.


Photo by Bernt Rostad on Flickr.

NPS first sounded the alarm about the bridge last year after an inspection forced emergency repairs that partially closed the bridge, and started a ban on heavy vehicles, like buses, that's still in place today. Now, NPS says those repairs didn't do enough, and that it's inevitable that without $250 million in repairs, the bridge will be too dangerous for automobile travel by 2021.

Northern Virginia's Congressional delegation is on board with funding the effort to fix it, citing the fact that 68,000 people cross the bridge daily. Hopefully, they can convince their colleagues to join them.


Rust underneath the Memorial Bridge. Image from NPS.

The bridge is unsafe for more than just cars

Memorial Bridge bridge itself has wide sidewalks that usually allow enough room for most cyclists and pedestrians to share space. But the routes that connect to the bridge aren't safe for people on foot or bike.

In Virginia, the bridge connects to the George Washington Parkway and its accompanying trail, which is one of the region's most popular. Despite its popularity the trail has some particular challenges, namely that it intersects with the parkway—a limited access, high speed highway—in several places. Drivers are supposed to yield or stop for anyone trying to use the crosswalks, but there have been a number of crashes thanks to people rear-ending cars that were stopped to allow people to cross.


Image from Google Maps.

Issues on the DC side of the bridge stem from a confusing web of roads that force cyclists on their way to the Mall or downtown to either ride in very busy car traffic or on a narrow sidewalk.


One of the crosswalks where few drivers slow down. Image from Google Maps.

NPS has actually known about these issues longer than they have known about the bridge being in disrepair. But the agency has been resistant to do anything to fix them except in small ways where the first priority was not to slow down cars using the parkway.

Here are some ideas for fixing the bridge

NPS is straightening out some parts of the trail near Washington National Airport, where curves snake around a large tree and make it hard to see. The agency is also working to make it so cyclists don't have to travel through a busy parking lot near Teddy Roosevelt Island. But closer to the bridge itself, the trail could still get a lot safer.

One option is to create separate paths for cyclists and pedestrians on popular parts of the trail. NPS could also keep working to remove some of sharp curves and blind corners that are on the trail beyond what is being fixed at the airport. Finally, NPS needs to decide what to do about the crosswalks. If the GW Parkway is going to remain a high speed highway, then crosswalks more appropriate for a city street just won't work. Solutions might include rerouting the trail, slowing down speed limits, or even adding trail overpasses.

For the bridge itself, the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) put forth its own idea for removing two car lanes and creating protected bike lanes a while back:


Diagram of a redesigned memorial bridge. Image from WABA.

Cutting the number of car lanes on the bridge would work since congestion there is pretty low. Average speeds at rush hour are higher than the speed limit, and a new bridge wouldn't need six car lanes.

The crux of the Memorial Bridge issue is safety, and that of cyclists and pedestrians shouldn't go ignored. But a safe bridge and surrounding area for them would also mean a safer place for drivers, as deciding to follow the law and share the road would become far less dangerous. Both NPS and leaders in Congress should be concerned about all bridge users.

If a concern for safety is a big reason why NPS is sounding the alarm now then they should also be using this opportunity to fix the persistent hazards that cyclists and pedestrians have faced on the trails around the bridge.

Pedestrians


How urban foresters made Canal Road's new traffic signal way more useful

In December, a traffic signal went up on Canal Road near Fletcher's Boathouse, meaning there's now a safe way for pedestrians and cyclists to cross that very recently did not exist. But if it weren't for the work of DDOT's urban foresters, a key sidewalk leading up to the crossing would still be totally useless.


This sidewalk used to be covered in growth that made it nearly impossible to walk. Photo by the author.

Lots of the District's 8,600 fishing license holders visit Fletcher's to fish in the Potomac River or C&O Canal. It's a popular place to rent bikes, boats, and canoes, and there are great places nearby to have a picnic or walk along the Canal.

For years, pedestrians and cyclists had no safe, direct route from the Palisades and adjacent neighborhoods to Fletcher's Boathouse and the C&O Canal. For example, someone taking the D6 bus to MacArthur Road at U Street NW would have to walk the half mile down Reservoir Road, then bravely cross fast-moving traffic at an unsignalized intersection across Canal Road.


Canal Road and the Clara Barton Parkway form a barrier to pedestrian and cyclist access to the C&O Canal National Historic Park. The red dots represent existing crossing points, and green dots are existing parking lots. The more southern blue dot is where the new signal went in. Base image from Google Maps, with labels by Nick Keenan.

This changed this past December, when DDOT, in cooperation with the National Park Service, completed a crosswalk and traffic signal at Canal and Reservoir Road. The walk or bike ride across Canal Road became safe and feasible thanks to the crosswalk, a pedestrian or vehicle activated traffic signal, and marked areas for pedestrians to stand.


Pedestrian prepares to cross Canal Road NW using new traffic signal. Photo by the author.

A recently unusable sidewalk near the new signal is back in action!

Even with the work on the new signal underway, the sidewalk along Reservoir Road could have been featured as abandoned urban infrastructure. The actual connection to the neighborhood had in some places completely disappeared. Brush, grass, vines and invasive trees had completely overgrown the sidewalk, and nearly all of the quarter mile sidewalk from V Street down to Canal Road had uncontrolled vegetation growth.

Anyone walking or cycling would need to use the street in many places because the sidewalk was so obstructed.


Photo by DDOT.


Photo by DDOT.

This past August, as the intersection project progressed, I contacted DDOT's Urban Forestry Administration (UFA) and asked them if they could take a look at the sidewalk. UFA confirmed that the trees were in fact invasive and had not been intentionally planted. And from there, foresters from the agency set about restoring the sidewalk.

The first things to go were bushes and other vegetation along the sidewalk. Foresters also chopped down the numerous invasive trees that had grown between the sidewalk and retaining wall and, in some cases, in the wall itself. Stumps of up to 4" in diameter remained, but they were cut as low as possible. And, finally, foresters removed the leaves and soil that had accumulated over the years.


After cutting down trees and before removing shrubs and vines. Photo by DDOT.


After final clean-up. Photo by DDOT.

The traffic signal and other intersection improvements added a decades-in-the-making crossing to Canal Road for pedestrians and cyclists. It also makes things safer for the 58,000 drivers who turn down into Fletcher's Cove each year. But the less well known efforts of DDOT's urban foresters completed what pedestrians and cyclists really needed in order to make the connection useful.

Pedestrians


Traffic engineers still rely on a flawed 1970s study to reject crosswalks

When St. Louis decided not to maintain colorful new crosswalks that residents had painted, the city's pedestrian coordinator cited federal guidance. A 2011 FHWA memo warns that colorful designs could "create a false sense of security" for pedestrians and motorists.


Shoddy, 50-year-old research is an obstacle to grassroots street safety efforts like this fleur-de-lis crosswalk in St. Louis. Photo from Rally St. Louis.

That may sound like unremarkable bureaucrat-speak, but the phrase "false sense of security" is actually a cornerstone of American engineering guidance on pedestrian safety.

You'll find the words "false sense of security" in Washington state DOT's crosswalk guidelines too. The city of Stockton, California, makes the same claim. The list goes on.

What gives? Well, you can trace this phrase—and the basis of some engineers' reluctance to stripe crosswalks—to one very influential but seriously flawed study from the 1970s.

In 1972, a researcher named Bruce Herms conducted a study of crosswalk safety in San Diego. He found that intersections with marked crosswalks had higher injury rates than ones with unmarked crosswalks. He concluded that marked crosswalks should only be installed where they are "warranted" because they can give pedestrians a "false sense of security," encouraging risky behavior.

But there were problems with the study. For one, Herms didn't actually study why people made certain decisions at crosswalks—that "false sense of security" was just speculation on his part.

Since the Herms study, other studies have refuted his conclusions, including work produced by the FHWA. Nevertheless, the influence of his research from more than 40 years ago persists. As backward as it seems, engineers still refuse to install crosswalks on the grounds that it would harm pedestrian safety. Just a few years ago, for instance, the "false sense of security" argument was deployed to shoot down requests for midblock crossings in Los Angeles.

Bill Schultheiss, an engineer with the Toole Design Group and member of the bike and pedestrian committee of the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devises, is critical of the Herms study.

"When I first came into engineering, I heard a lot about this idea of pedestrians having a false sense of security when in marked crosswalks," he said. "And I just believed it."

But then Schultheiss ordered a print copy of the study to review it.

"I think it was biased," he said, like much of the older regulations. "I don't know, was it him or just the culture at the time."

"His conclusions were terrible."

For example, Herms found that of the pedestrians who were struck, most were hit in the middle or near the end of the crosswalk, not at the beginning. This is a pattern that suggests motorists are failing to yield to people who have already established themselves in the crosswalk, not that people are stepping off the curb inattentively.

"If you make it three quarters of the way across the street, you expect cars to stop," Schultheiss said. "That's the law."

Despite the absence of evidence to back it up, the idea that crosswalks encourage pedestrians to engage in risky behavior continues to enjoy credence in the engineering profession. Official memos like FHWA's 2011 guidance on crosswalk art repeat and endorse the idea, squashing grassroots street safety efforts.

Crossposted from Streetsblog USA.

Pedestrians


Pedestrian deaths tripled in Fairfax County. Bad road design didn't help.

Eleven people on foot died in crashes in Fairfax County in 2015. That continues a rising trend since 2012, when the number was just four. What's going on?

NBC4 reporter Adam Tuss talked to some people about what's going on. A leading hypothesis in the story is that more people are walking around. That seems likely, but one element is missing: how poorly Fairfax's roads are designed for walking.

A number of people in the story talk about newcomers. One driver says, "I definitely worry about people who aren't from here," who try to cross when they don't have the light or not at a crosswalk. The subtext sure sounded like, "... people aren't familiar with the way we haven't designed roads for pedestrians in Fairfax County."

Just look at this intersection where Tuss is standing, the corner of Gallows Road and Route 29. It's about 0.6 miles from the Dunn Loring Metro station. And it's huge.


Image from Tuss' report.

That Target is part of the Mosaic District, which was designed to be walkable and transit-oriented. The interior is beautiful, but to get there from Metro requires walking along a not-very-hospitable sidewalk on 6- to 8-lane wide Gallows, and then crossing this monstrosity, 9 lanes on both Gallows and 29.

VDOT widened both roads in 2011 in a project billed to "increase safety, reduce congestion and enhance bicycle and pedestrian access," but which prioritized car throughput over other considerations. (This recent article from Joe Cortright effectively summarizes the mindset that would let VDOT think this would "increase safety.")

At least there are sidewalks, though, and you can legally walk directly along the road. That's not always true elsewhere in the county, like at Tysons Corner. Some sides of many intersections there were never designed for people to cross on foot. Only a lot of people are, now that Metro goes there.


Tysons Corner. Photo by Ken Archer.

Lucy Caldwell of Fairfax Police told Tuss, "We have situations that have occurred near Metro [stations], where people sometimes don't want to take that extra few minutes, and they cross where they shouldn't be crossing." If someone has to walk a few minutes farther to cross a road, most of all near a Metro station, you haven't designed it right.

To its credit, Fairfax officials are trying to gradually fix these spots, but there's a long way to go.

Pedestrians


Officials are blaming people for walking in the street, but they aren't ensuring clear sidewalks

In the snowstorm's aftermath, local officials are telling people not to walk in the streets. But they're not offering any alternatives to those who don't drive.


Photo by Jason Vines on Flickr.

After the snowstorm, something magical happened. People began filling the streets, to play in the snow or to frequent the few businesses that managed to stay open. Across the east coast, people starting documenting their vibrant, yet unplowed, streets with the hashtag #snopenstreets.

Local leaders have been vocal: "Don't walk in the street"

But city and county officials spent much of the weekend admonishing people for walking in the street, and even threatening to fine people for it.

On Twitter, DC Councilmember Jack Evans told people whose only option was to walk to stay inside if there wasn't a clear sidewalk.


Screenshot from the author. Original tweet was deleted.

In an exchange with Greater Greater Washington contributor Gray Kimbrough, Montgomery County officials dismissed concerns about a dangerous situation for pedestrians on a busy street by saying people should just stay off the roads.

In a press conference yesterday, Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker asked people to move their vehicles out of the path of plows, but then went on to ask that neighbors avoid walking in the streets:

"There are people walking in the middle of streets," he said. "It is dangerous. Please, if you don't have to be outside, do not go outside."

In a Washington Post article, DC Police Chief Lanier said that police would cite drivers stuck in the road, but that people could also be fined for walking in the street. "We're going to have to start stepping up and being a little more aggressive about asking our public not to be out, walking in the streets," Lanier said.

At the same time, clear sidewalks aren't a priority

While there is a legitimate need to keep roads clear of vehicles and people so that emergency vehicles and snow plows can pass, those who aren't driving need a way to get around. That's supposed to be clear sidewalks, but efforts to make that happen have been dismal at best.

In DC, police the mayor decided not to fine residents for failing to shovel their sidewalks, even though a new law permits them to do so.

During the Twitter exchange Kimbrough had with Montgomery County, the Montgomery account said the county had not cleared its own sidewalks because the primary focus is on roads for now.

And in many suburban parts of the area, governments don't clear sidewalks on major roads at all, so the responsibility falls to good neighbors.

Drivers shouldn't trump pedestrians after a snow emergency

With restaurants and bars offering specials, sledding hills calling out to kids (and kids at heart), and, you know, people needing supplies after being stuck inside for 48 hours, residents are going to leave their homes no matter what, even with most transit options closed.

But sidewalks aren't cleared, and in many places won't be cleared for days (until the snow melts). So now, with sidewalks impassible, pedestrians are still walking in the street. But cars aren't moving at 6 mph, they're moving at 40 mph. We should make space for our most vulnerable road users first. Otherwise we expose them to unsafe situations.

While the line on Friday and Saturday was generally "stay off the roads," it has since evolved to "If you get stuck and block snowplows, we'll fine you." A message that's basically "it's fine to drive now, just stay out of the way of plows" and that does not stress the importance of slowing down and watching for people walking implies that drivers have more right to mobility than pedestrians in a snow emergency. So does telling people not to walk at all.

Just last night, a snow plow struck a man walking on Georgia Avenue in Montgomery Hills. And two years ago, days after a snowstorm, a driver struck and killed a man on the Sousa Bridge. The pedestrian path had not been cleared. In fact, it had been filled with the snow plowed off the vehicular lanes.

Is this what Vision Zero looks like for our region?

Pedestrians


"Bulb-outs" could make crossing the street safer at key trouble spots

People on foot could get a little more space at the corners of 14th and U NW, Benning Road and Minnesota Avenue NE, and M and Wisconsin in Georgetown. Those are a few of the concepts in a new analysis of how to make DC's most dangerous intersections safer.


Image from NACTO.

Transportation officials, local community and business members, bicycle and pedestrian advocates, and councilmember Mary Cheh toured five of the highest-crash intersections in August and September. A new report from DDOT recommends ways to make each safer.

The intersections were: Columbus Circle in front of Union Station, New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road NE, 14th and U NW, Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road NE, and Wisconsin and M in Georgetown. Between them, three people died and 12 had "disabling injuries" since 2012, a total DC is committed to reducing to zero.

The report is full of interesting statistics on crashes and small fixes for people walking, biking, and driving. One piece of note is are a few spots where the study team is proposing temporarily or permanently creating some more space for people on foot, such as "bulb-outs" at corners which add to the sidewalk space and shorten crossing distance.

At 14th and U, plans are already underway to rebuild that intersection as part of a 14th Street streetscape project expected to start this fall. That design includes bulb-outs at the corners:

On Benning Road, DDOT will look into adding a pedestrian refuge using flexible posts for the spot where people walking and biking get onto the bridge sidewalk to go over the railroad tracks (and later the river).

The always-thorny corner of M and Wisconsin has large numbers of people waiting on the narrow sidewalks to cross the street (and then short times to cross). The report suggests studying possible bulb-outs for three of the corners to add more space for people to wait.

For New York Avenue and Bladensburg and Columbus Circle, the report doesn't recommend any changes of the same scale, but notes that there are sidewalks and pedestrian islands on New York Avenue that are too narrow and which should be widened, as well as are some missing crosswalks on Columbus Circle.

What else do you notice in the report?

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