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Posts about Pedestrians

Bicycling


DC's harmful traffic law needs to go, one way or another

If a driver hits you while you're walking or biking in DC, the law makes it almost impossible to collect from the driver's insurance. A bill to fix that is suddenly in jeopardy just hours before a scheduled vote. Please ask the DC Council to move it forward.

As of now, DC's "contributory negligence" law says that if a person on foot or bike who is involved in a crash is even one percent at fault for what happened, they can't collect any damages. The Motor Vehicle Collision Recovery Amendment Act of 2015, which is scheduled for a vote today, would let people collect damages as long as they were less than 50% at fault.

Today, Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie plans to introduce an amendment that would change exactly how much a person could collect, using a "comparative negligence" standard that basically means that a person's claim to damages would be proportional to their fault in the crash. It looks as though Councilmember Mary Cheh would oppose the bill if it includes McDuffie's amendment.

Efforts to end contributory negligence, which really does have harmful effects, have been going on for years. There are credible arguments for both McDuffie's and Cheh's positions on how to word the new law, but we need to pass one or the other.

With or without the amendment, the proposed bill will improve the rights of pedestrians, cyclists and other non-motorized road users on DC's streets. That is very much needed, especially as the number of people who use our streets for something other than driving continues to swell.

Update: Councilmember McDuffie moved for the Council to vote on the bill on July 12, and his motion passed.

This morning, 75 people sent 450 letters to Councilmembers urging them to do away with contributory negligence, one way or another. Thank you for your efforts, and look for more from Greater Greater Washington on how pass the bill as the vote nears.

Bicycling


DC is on the verge of ditching a harmful traffic law

Right now, DC has a law that keeps drivers from being held responsible for damages when they harm vulnerable road users. After years of organizing and effort, the DC Council is about to vote on a proposal to change this. You have a chance to speak up.


Photo by mjmonty on Flickr.

Traffic collisions happen every day. Sorting out who is responsible for the damages afterwards is a complex job that often involves the police, insurance adjusters, lawyers, and even judges and/or juries. In our region, however, a strict legal standard called "contributory negligence" has made things harsh, but simple: If you are even 1% at fault in a collision, you cannot collect any damages.

If that sounds weird to you, you're not alone. The District, Maryland, and Virginia are among the last holdouts in the US to use this standard. Forty-seven other states have switched to a more common-sense standard called "comparative fault," where damages are assigned in proportion to blame.

I shared my own personal story in a a recent post about how I came to learn about this obscure legal topic—the hard way, courtesy of a minivan driver, while I was riding my bike. While I am grateful I survived and recovered, I know I'm not alone, and others aren't as lucky as me with the court system. That's why myself and others have been advocating since 2014 for the District to adopt the "comparative fault" standard for pedestrians and cyclists who are hit by drivers.

Road users who don't have insurance adjusters or legal representation to advocate on their behalf are victimized a second time after a collision when their claims for damages are denied because insurers are confident most victims will not have the evidence to prove they are untainted by even 1% of fault.

Various DC Council members have explored legislation to make this change, but have faced stiff opposition from AAA and the insurance industry, who can afford multiple full-time lobbyists. However, patient and persistent advocacy from leaders on the council and community groups like WABA and All Walks DC have brought us to the brink of victory.

On Monday, the DC Council's Committee of the Whole scheduled the Motor Vehicle Collision Recovery Amendment Act of 2015 for a full Council vote on Tuesday, June 28, 2016.

On top of making it so a person on a bike or on foot who was contributorily negligent in a crash with a motor vehicle would still be able to collect damages if they were less than 50% at fault, the bill makes it clear that it covers people using non-motorized vehicles outside of just bikes (or people on foot), and retains what's called the "last clear chance" doctrine, which says that even if the person who was hit was contributorily negligent, the person who hit them can still be responsible if they had a clear chance to avoid the collision.

If you care about this issue, now is the most important time to let your councilmember know that you support fairness for pedestrian and bicycle crash victims. You can rest assured that they are hearing from the insurance industry, so let them hear from you too.

Bicycling


Just blocks from the White House... new bike and bus lanes?

A new protected bikeway could go in along Pennsylvania Avenue west of the White House, along with a contraflow bus lane on nearby H Street. DDOT is launching a study to review these possibilities, and is seeking public input.


DDOT is studying how to make this area more pedestrian, bike, and bus-friendly. Image from Google Maps.

The area that the Downtown West Transportation Planning Study is looking at, outlined in the image above, is basically the area immediately north of the White House. It includes Pennsylvania Avenue NW between 17th Street and Washington Circle, and H Street NW between New York and Pennsylvania Avenues.

When the 12-month study is over, DDOT will compile a few options for making travel by bike, walk, and travel by bus in the area safe, more efficient, and more inviting.

Pennsylvania Avenue Reconfiguration

Not unlike its counterpart between the White House and the US Capitol, Pennsylvania Avenue west of the White House is primed to be reimagined and repurposed.

In the wake of the September 11th attacks May 1995, vehicle traffic was permanently banned along the 1600 block immediately in front of the White House (between 15th and 17th streets). Since the closure, Pennsylvania Avenue west of the White House has been less of a major vehicle artery because drivers heading downtown have more efficient alternate routes (such as K Street, H Street, and Constitution Avenue).

The DDOT study will evaluate alternative ways of setting up the western segment of Pennsylvania. Each build alternative will address changes to the existing right-of-way, in which approximately 80 of the 130 feet available is currently dedicated to vehicular traffic.

New options will focus on protected bike lanes, and an enhanced streetscape to make the corridor more inviting for foot traffic. In addition, stormwater retention infrastructure will be put in place as part of plans for a full rebuild.

As the western segment of Pennsylvania Avenue falls within the Golden Triangle BID, the BID has taken an active interest in enhancing the corridor. The BID recently partnered with KGP Design Studio to develop conceptual designs for enhancements to the streetscape.

The conceptual designs are independent of DDOT, but the BID hopes DDOT will take them into consideration.


Pennsylvania Avenue how it is now, contrasted with a conceptual design provided by the Golden Triangle BID/KDG Design Studio.

In addition to fundamental transportation enhancements, the BID sees potential to make the western side of Pennsylvania Avenue a world-class destination. It connects directly to the White House, is home to many international organizations (IMF, the World Bank) and is home to a top-tier university (George Washington). Yet the current space is barren, uninviting, and underutilized.

The conceptual designs provided by the BID/KGP include fewer traffic lanes and more dedicated and protected bike lanes. The designs also present a focus on building fully integrated and connected green spaces, which would make the area more welcoming to foot traffic while also serving to better manage stormwater runoff.

Ultimately, the Golden Triangle BID envisions an enlivened boulevard that can capture and celebrate the global scope of western Pennsylvania Avenue's iconic geographical positioning.

A new bus lane on H Street

In 2013, WMATA conducted a study to evaluate options for improving bus throughput on the heavily-trafficked corridor along H and I streets west of New York Avenue. There are approximately 3,000 daily bus trips along this corridor, carrying 62,300 riders. Frequent and efficient service is extremely important.

WMATA recommended a dedicated contraflow bus lane traveling west on H street, and DDOT will consider that option as it conducts this study.


Image from WMATA.

What's next?

DDOT is hosting a public meeting Wednesday, June 15th to share draft goals and objectives, and solicit public feedback. It's from 6-8 pm, with the presentation starting at 6:30, in Room A-5 at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library, 901 G Street NW.

For further details, refer to the Downtown West Transportation Planning Study website.

Transit


New bike lanes and dedicated bus lanes could connect Columbia Heights and Brookland

People want more ways to get around by foot and on bike in the corridor that runs from from Columbia Heights to Brookland, and they want them to be safer. After receiving that message, DDOT drafted potential plans for making it happen.


The study area. All image from DDOT.

DDOT's Crosstown Multimodal Transportation Study focuses on an area defined by Kenyon and Harvard Streets between 16th and Park Place; Irving Street and Michigan Avenue around the Washington Hospital Center; and Michigan Avenue from the hospital center to South Dakota Avenue. Cars in the area zip along Irving and Michigan, but for people on bikes and foot, there isn't a safe or easy way to get around (a fact compounded by the congestion once drivers get to either side of the hospital).

Also, the area's transit isn't great. Both the H2 and H4 bus routes connect the Columbia Heights Metro Station, the Washington Hospital Center, and the Brookland Metro Station along the Irving/Columbia Road-Michigan Avenue corridor. However, Medstar also provides shuttle service on the same route between the hospitals and the Columbia Heights Metro every 10 minutes during rush hour and 30 minutes during other times. This service largely duplicates WMATA's service and adds additional traffic to already congested streets.

After the first public workshop about the study, nearly 700 people commented on how to address all of these issues. Back in April, DDOT unveiled three concept plans for the corridor. Here's a summary:

A new street grid

Each of DDOT's proposals suggests removing the Michigan Avenue overpass and creating a street grid west of the hospitals. Doing so would go a long way in making the area safer for people on foot and bike, as it'd get rid of unnecessary high-speed ramps and car lanes; it'd also mean chances to add new green space. How many surface streets are in that grid depends largely on where bus and bike lanes need to be.


One of the options for a new street grid.

More options for bike riders

Those who gave DDOT input were clear that they'd like to see more bike connections, and that those connections be made made up of space that's only for bikes. The proposals include a few options for doing that, from protected bikeways that run in both directions to off-street lanes next to pedestrian walkways.

Around the hospitals and toward Columbia Heights, the stronger proposals would create bike lanes in one of the existing travel or parking lanes. With one exception in one proposal, bikes and buses would not share the same lanes, and west of the hospitals, bike lanes and bus lanes would not be on the same streets.


One option is to add a bike lane along Michigan Avenue.

Dedicated bus lanes

The plans aim to improve bus service (shorter trips, specifically) by creating dedicated lanes for buses. While the extent of dedicated lanes varies among the concepts, they all suggest dedicated lanes on either Irving Street, Columbia Road, and/or Harvard Street west of the hospitals. This would be accomplished by using one lane currently used during rush hour and parking during off peak hours.


The dark blue lines are dedicated transit lanes.

No more cloverleaf

None of DDOT's three options would do away with the North Capitol Street overpass. All of them, however, would replace the freeway-style, cloverleaf-shaped ramps that run between North Capitol and Irving with more direct connections. Doing so would make it much easier to keep car speeds down and control traffic flow.


The cloverleaf is on its way out.

DDOT has scheduled its third Crosstown Study workshop for June 9th at Trinity Washington University. You can give input on the potential plans there.

In addition to the third workshop, DDOT will have two Public Engagement Events on Saturday, June 11: one in Brookland, at the Monroe Street Farmers Market (716 Monroe Street NE), and one on the west side of the Columbia Heights Metro station (3030 14th Street NW).

Pedestrians


Brookland is getting a new bridge at Monroe Street

By the end of 2018, a new bridge will replace the one that currently carries Monroe Street over the train tracks in Brookland. The project will include new sidewalks, landscaping, lighting, and traffic signals, all of which should make the area better for walking.


The proposed Monroe Street Bridge

The Monroe Street Bridge was first built in 1931, and the last time it got a repair and partial reconstruction was in 1974; today, the bridge is definitely showing its age. The bridge deck, it turns out, is cracked and depressed, and there is extensive damage and corrosion to the concrete. The District Department of Transportation started preaparing to rehabilitate the bridge back in 2014, and at a May 12th public meeting, a DDOT representative noted that the condition is such that the bridge superstructure will need to be fully replaced.

Construction will happen in two phases, with the northbound side closed and repaired first, followed by the southbound side. Though the bridge will never be completely closed, DDOT is evaluating a lengthy bicycle detour.

When the project is complete, the mostly concrete bridge will be replaced by a new three-span steel superstructure supported by the rehabilitated piers and abutments.

The walk across the bridge will be a lot more pleasant

The new bridge will benefit pedestrians the most. Sidewalks on Monroe between 7th and 9th, and even across 9th where recent construction has caused some damage, will be repaired. The exposed aggregate sidewalk, a type of sidewalk with exposed stone on the surface, will be replaced with full slabs of concrete.


Image from Google Maps.

The sidewalk on the east side of 8th Street between Monroe and Lawrence, which has also been damaged by construction and which has a sizable gap, will also be repaired and completed. Pepco power lines will go below the bridge, meaning the sidewalk won't have power line poles in the middle, and there will be better lighting for people walking.


Image from Google Maps.

Alongside the property on the southwest corner of Monroe and 7th, green buffers between the sidewalk and the street that are currently filled with gravel will get some landscaping.

Finally, the chain link fence that protects the railroad tracks below, will be replaced with an aesthetically more appealing—and harder to climb—plastic barrier.

Though the project area includes a section of the Metropolitan Branch Trail where a trail underpass was once proposed, changes to the trail will be minimal.

For people using the the MBT, the main improvement will be the addition of a timed traffic signal where the trail crosses Monroe at 8th Street. As abutments (the pieces that hold up the ends of the bridge) will not be extensively rebuilt, whatever opportunity that might have existed to run the trail beneath Monroe Street, as originally planned, seems gone.

Pedestrians


To make streets walkable, empower pedestrians to cross anywhere

To make streets walkable, we need to re-think the basic principles of how people on foot and people in cars share the roadway. This is the fourth and final post in a multi-part opinion series.

To make streets truly walkable, we need to totally rethink how we run them. Crossing on foot should be legal anywhere and anyplace. Traffic lights should be red-yellow-green, with no walk signals.


Photo by Ian Sane on Flickr.

As the previous posts in this series have shown, these simpler streets would be far safer. They could operate with only limited changes in the rules of the road. Drivers would follow traffic signals as they do today—pedestrians would have the right of way when they cross on green, but yield to drivers when the light is against them.

The rule for crosswalks with no signal would not change at all; those on foot would still have the right of way at all times. Elsewhere, foot crossings would be allowed at any location, but pedestrians would have to yield. (This is the current rule in Maryland and DC on blocks that don't have traffic lights at both ends.)

How the rules went wrong

The evolution of roadways over the last century has progressively restricted movement on foot. Traffic engineers have had two goals: to speed automobile travel by getting pedestrians out of the way, and to prevent crashes by separating vehicles from pedestrians.

This approach has long since become obsolete. It's not just that roads designed for fast driving aren't good for city living. Even on its own terms, traditional traffic engineering fails. It doesn't make streets safe. And it's too complex and expensive to be fully implemented.

The poor suffer most from this failure. Declining suburbs, designed for travel by automobile alone, now house many who cannot afford a car. With sidewalks scarce and crosswalks rarely marked, travel on foot in full compliance with the law is a practical impossibility. This opens the way to police harassment of minority pedestrians—a practice whose most famous victim was Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri.

Pedestrians need clear guidance, not complex commands

Effective management of the roadway requires a different philosophy. Users of all types should be empowered to cooperate in sharing scarce street space. Rules must be simplified and decision-making decentralized.

Pedestrians, empowered to cross whenever no cars are in the way, get to share the road more fairly. Walking is no longer delayed by rules set up to move cars. And legalizing mid-block foot crossings, which are unavoidable in many low-income suburbs, eliminates a pretext for police misconduct.

Simpler signals—no walk signs, so that the same traffic lights guide drivers and pedestrians alike—make roads safer. Drivers see what pedestrians see, so everyone knows who goes first. Simplicity also reduces distraction and provides redundant information to those who, inevitably, take their eyes off the signals. When movement begins, on wheel or on foot, anyone not paying attention gets a cue that the light has changed.

With this approach, rules of the road must still govern movement on the streets. Pedestrians have the right of way when crossing with a green light, or at a crosswalk with no signal. Everywhere else, vehicles have the right of way, with pedestrians allowed to cross if no traffic is in the way.

These right-of-way rules are only slightly altered from those in effect now, but they have a different spirit. Rather than telling people what to do, the rules create a framework where individual decisions add up to a collective gain. It's like economics, where markets usually work better than central command. Yet the system can exist only because laws set out basic rules and prevent harmful behavior like monopoly and fraud.

There are, to be sure, traffic problems that pedestrian empowerment cannot remedy. Where heavy foot and vehicle traffic meet, for example—situations like South Capitol Street after a Nationals game, or Times Square and the World Trade Center in New York—full separation of road users is the only way to keep traffic moving. Humans would have to direct traffic, as indeed they often do now in such places.

But a new approach to governing our streets cannot be judged against perfection; it must be compared to today's hazardous mess. The benefits of flexibility and simplicity will far outweigh the dangers created by loss of control.

This non-traffic engineer can only sketch out the needed changes. Details need to be added. Crossing freeways on foot, for example, surely must remain illegal.

New rules by themselves will hardly create safe walking streets. Roadways must be redesigned, and public attitudes must change. But without fundamentally rethinking how we control movement, the streets will never be safe and easy to walk on.

Pedestrians


Timing signals to work for pedestrians is impossible

To make streets walkable, we need to re-think the basic principles of how people on foot and people in cars share the roadway. This is the third post in a multi-part opinion series.


At Arlington's "intersection of doom," the traffic signals are so complicated they're nearly impossible to follow. Photo by author.

Walk signals are not only unsafe and inconvenient, they're also incapable of making pedestrian travel efficient. Engineers simply don't have the time or resources to correctly configure every traffic light for pedestrians.

Traffic lights and signs are not police officers standing in the intersection. When engineers use them to direct traffic as if they were, they impose on themselves a task they cannot carry out. In real-world practice, it is simply not possible to program the lights and place the signs in a way that moves people efficiently. The engineers are short of information, time, and money.

Highway departments don't even have the resources to fully optimize traffic controls for drivers. They traditionally simplify their work by planning for the busiest time of day. But traffic, especially foot traffic, flows all day. Outside rush hour, both drivers and pedestrians find themselves standing and watching empty streets, waiting for slow lights timed to minimize rush-hour backups.

It is possible, as New York and a few other cities have shown, for complex signals to make walking easier. Pedestrians get a few seconds to enter a crosswalk before cars can turn. Or turns are banned while people are crossing.

But if you try to orchestrate movement on foot in this way at every streetcorner, the traffic engineers' job becomes entirely unmanageable. They cannot possibly find the time to adjust every walk signal for the proper balance between walking and driving.

And even when walk signals are properly adjusted, the engineer still knows less than the person walking on the street. Anyone standing on the corner can see whether cars are coming. The pedestrian knows best when it will be safer to cross immediately than to wait for the green light and dodge turning vehicles.

In any case, highway agencies rarely give foot travel much attention outside big-city downtowns. At best, they make a half-hearted effort to meet federal minimums. By-the-book engineering creates hazards in the form of disappearing sidewalks, badly timed lights, and inscrutable signage.

Walk signals are expensive

Not only are walk signals costly in staff time and information, they are a financial burden. Highway agencies say that the cost of installing a full-featured traffic signal is a quarter to half a million dollars, and sometimes more.

There are thought to be more than 300,000 signalized intersections in the United States. (No one really knows the exact number.) Retrofitting all of them with walk signals to current standards would run up a bill in the ballpark of $100 billion.

Incremental fixes just create new problems

The rules for crossing streets grow ever more complex, and they have come to resemble the Gordian knot that the ancient Greeks were unable to untie. Straightening one piece out only creates new tangles.

Rosslyn's "Intersection of Doom," where drivers turn right across a bike path, shows this dynamic at work. After much public agitation, the walk signal on the bike path was set to begin before the green light. But drivers still came through the busy crosswalk when turning right on red. So a flashing don't walk signal went in. Now drivers need eyes on three sides of their heads to comply with the signals.

Signals for the blind have undergone a similar evolution. When walking is controlled by a traffic light, those who can't see use traffic noise to tell whether it's green. But if there's a walk signal, they don't know whether it's lit. So crosswalks with walk signals need pushbutton-operated beepers for handicapped access. More expense, more confusion, and more obstruction of the sidewalk.

The complexity has gotten so bad that FHWA can't even keep its rulebook straight. It required beepers for the blind in 2009, but did not authorize a sign that says what the button is for. Rule-bound engineers are now blanketing streets with signs that comply with the rulebook but misinform their readers.

These miscues are not happenstance. According to the branch of mathematics known as control theory, they are the inevitable consequence of too much complexity. Beyond a certain point, increasing the number of signals sent by an automatic controller creates more error than it prevents.

Alexander the Great is said to have cut through the Gordian knot with his sword. We need similar boldness to make our streets walkable. My next post suggests how that might be possible.

Roads


A streetcar to Georgetown could add a loop ramp under K Street and a pedestrian walkway

DC is planning dedicates lanes for the streetcar almost entirely from Union Station to Georgetown. One tricky spot: from Washington Circle over Rock Creek and I-66 to Georgetown. Here's how it could work.


Image from the Georgetown BID.

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) project team will present its latest options on Tuesday night, and we got a look ahead of the meeting.

The study is considering two options to build a streetcar from Union Station to Georgetown, one in mixed traffic and one (better) one with dedicated lanes, and no overhead wires except at stations and below underpasses.

New dedicated lane alternative from DDOT. Click for a larger version.

Along K Street downtown, a 2-lane transitway in the center of the road has been planned since 2010. Heading west, the streetcar would then go through the underpass below Washington Circle (leaving just one lane in each direction for cars). That's where it gets tough.

The turn to 27th Street

If you drive west on K now, you encounter a long left turn lane for cars turning onto 27th Street NW, a little street with almost no buildings but which leads right to a ramp to I-66 and to Virginia Avenue. That left turn lane would mix horribly with a dedicated streetcar lane.

DDOT planners have an idea. The bridge where K crosses two I-66 ramps has an extra span to the west, and there's a lot of open land which is technically highway right of way in between the various ramps.


The loop ramp would use the left side of this bridge. Image from Google Maps.

They therefore want to study adding a new loop ramp from K Street, turning right instead of left, looping around, and rejoining 27th Street where it connects to the current off-ramp from 66.


Image from DDOT.

This would allow the streetcar to have the middle of K Street to itself. It would also smooth traffic at that complicated intersection, where there has to be a whole phase for turns onto 27th.

According to the presentation, DDOT is looking at widening the bridge in that area, partly to add lanes and also to create a sidewalk on the north side of K, where there is none today.

Washington Circle

The streetcar will be down in a trench from about 21st Street to 25th. So how can people get from the streetcar line to places in between, like George Washington University?

The study team is looking at putting a station in the median between 24th and 25th Streets, where the center part of the road is still largely below ground. At 25th is a regular at-grade intersection where people could cross from the middle of K to go north or south, but the team wants to better connect it to 24th and Washington Circle as well.

Therefore, they are looking at building a pedestrian ramp from the below-ground streetcar level up to street level at 24th.


Image from DDOT.

Both of these pieces would cost money—exactly how much, project manager Jamie Henson said, they will study in the next phase of this process.

That will likely make the alternative with dedicated lanes more expensive than the one without, but if the price tag is reasonable, it's worth it. Encourage DDOT to move ahead with as much dedicated lane as possible below.

Read more from today's streetcar mega-feature:

Weigh in

Tell DDOT what you want for the Union Station to Georgetown streetcar study. (I suggest asking them to put as much dedicated lane into the study as possible.)

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Pedestrians


Walk signals are bad for walking

To make streets walkable, we need to re-think the basic principles of how people on foot and people in cars share the roadway. This is the third post second in a multi-part opinion series.

Conventional wisdom says that walk signals make crossing the street safer for people. But they actually make walking slower and more dangerous.


Photo by Adrian Black on Flickr.

Many pedestrians think the walk-don't walk light helps by letting them know when it's safe to cross the street. But its actual effect is to curtail the right to make that crossing.

When there's no walk signal, a green-yellow-red traffic signal sends drivers and pedestrians traveling in the same direction into an intersection during the same green light interval. What the walk signal does is to give traffic engineers the means to send them ahead at different times. In practice, those on foot invariably get less time than drivers—often only the recommended minimum of seven seconds.

Walk signals push pedestrians off the street in more subtle ways, too. Federal Highway Administration rules require new walk signals (except on very narrow streets) to have timers that show how many seconds are left before you must be off the roadway.

But the timer is useless for deciding when to cross. Under the rules, the countdown doesn't begin until the don't-walk sign begins to flash—at which point it is illegal to enter the roadway, even if there is enough time to get to the other side. What the timer does is to chase slow walkers back to where they started, supplanting long-established laws that let pedestrians keep going if they're part way across when the light changes.

One thing pedestrians do like about walk signals is their visibility. But they aren't needed for this purpose. Red-green lights on streetcorners would be just as visible.

Walk signals are a safety hazard

Not only do the signals make walking slower and less convenient, they make it less safe.

Since—as discussed in the first post of this seriespedestrians are the best judges of their own safety, restricting the right to cross the street is intrinsically dangerous. On top of that, restricting people's ability to enter the roadway on foot trains drivers not to look out for people walking.

A particular peril is the 7-second crossing interval, which comes just when the drivers' light turns red. The only time pedestrians are allowed to step into the street is when the cars that waited at the red light (to travel in the direction perpendicular to where the pedestrian wants to walk) begin to turn across their path.

Timers, too, create hazards. They change the behavior of drivers as well as those on foot. Whether the drivers speed up to beat the light or simply get distracted is not clear, but the effect is real. A recent study in Toronto found that countdown timers cause more collisions than they prevent.

Top-down control is the wrong approach

Dutch traffic engineers have found in some villages that removing all traffic signs and markings actually brings accident rates down. It is rarely feasible to go that far on busy American streets, but the underlying principle—that negotiating the use of shared space makes roads safer—still applies.

The philosophy of the walk signal is just the opposite. A central controller sends instructions separately to drivers and pedestrians. One road user doesn't know what the other is supposed to do—drivers, in particular, are not responsible for looking at walk signals and often can't see them—so everyone must rely on the controller.

Without shared information, the crosswalk becomes a legal no-man's-land. Motorists preparing to make turns don't know whether a person they see on the sidewalk will have the right of way to cross in front of them. When crashes occur, it's hard to prove the driver is at fault.

If drivers and pedestrians are unable to coordinate, the system operates properly only if each gets correct instructions and follows them reliably. But the reality of the highway is far different. Signals are mistimed, beg buttons (the buttons you sometimes have to push to get a walk signal) don't work, snow blocks sidewalks, and of course both motorists and pedestrians regularly ignore the law.

The basic flaw of the walk signal is its underlying concept of protecting pedestrians by separating them from vehicles. This leads inevitably to ever-greater restrictions on movement by foot. And it fails to make walking safe.

Pedestrians


Dragons and zodiac symbols will decorate Chinatown's streets

Six years ago, the intersection of 7th and H Streets NW, in Chinatown, became a Barnes Dance—an intersection where the traffic lights in all directions turn red at the same time so people can cross the street at any angle they want. It continues to make walking in Chinatown a bit easier, and it's about to get an unusually decorative paint job.


New designs coming to the Barnes Dance in Chinatown. Image from Charles Bergen Studios.

The name "Barnes Dance" comes from Henry Barnes, a traffic engineer who popularized the concept in the USA in the 1940s. Also called Pedestrian Scrambles, Barnes Dances can be found all over the world. There were a number of them in DC until the late 1980s, when they were replaced with normal intersections. In 2010, the Barnes Dance returned to DC, at 7th and H.

Last year, the city decided to commission an artist to paint the diagonal lines that connect the four corners of intersection to be more distinct and unique. The city picked a design by Charles Bergen Studios that features dragons and lamps that allude to the neighborhood's history of hosting parades for Chinese New Year, along with the 12 animals used as symbols for the Chinese Zodiac. They'll go in on the crosswalk in the next few weeks.

All this got me thinking: Does work that will make the diagonal crossings more visible mean that the Barnes Dance hasn't been working like it should? Is our Barnes Dance unique? Who uses DC's Barnes Dance, and might we get another in the future?

According to District Department of Transportation Pedestrian Program Coordinator George Branyan, 7th and H itself sees a lot of pedestrians. Its busiest time is in the afternoon, when the 4000 or so pedestrians who cross each hour outnumber cars two to one.

According to Branyan, a key difference between DC's Barnes Dance and others around the world is that crossing the street on foot with a green light isn't prohibited. Restricting crossing like that, which he said is common, would overcrowd the sidewalks and lead to delays for pedestrians in Chinatown.

DDOT's pedestrian count data doesn't actually suss out who is crossing diagonally versus who is crossing purely north-south or east-west. Branyan said that his own observations made him think about 10-20% of people do cross diagonally when available.

Chinatown is it for now

When I asked Branyan whether DDOT has any plans for future Barnes Dance intersections, he said his agency has looked at a few other possible locations, but that there aren't any specific plans. He said the reason was that for a Barnes Dance to work properly, conditions have to be "just right," like an intersection that doesn't have all that many cars that want to make turns and enough people on foot who want to go in different directions, for example. Otherwise, you run the risk of delaying things for everyone.


DC Barnes Dance intersection. Screenshot from Google Maps by author.

It looks like the Barnes Dance in Chinatown is working like it's supposed to, but that's it for now. If you have any good candidates for where the Washington area's next Barnes Dance should, list them in the comments!

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