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D.C. Makes Progress On Bike Lanes, But Tweaks Still Needed

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Bicycle backups? With the popularity of bike lanes like the 15th Street cycle track, cycling congestion occurs during rush hours.
WAMU/Martin Di Caro
Bicycle backups? With the popularity of bike lanes like the 15th Street cycle track, cycling congestion occurs during rush hours.

Bike lanes in Washington, D.C. vary from the simple—narrow lanes marked by thin, white lines squeezed between vehicular travel lanes and parked cars—to the advanced—protected cycle tracks lying between parked cars on one side and the sidewalk on the other.

On this Bike to Work Day, when more than 14,000 people are expected to pedal to their jobs, cycling advocates say Washington has made significant progress in promoting bicycling, but infrastructure improvements are needed if the District is to join the world's elite bicycle cities.

"The goal is to integrate bicycling as a mode into the overall transportation network," said Shane Farthing, the executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association.

Bike lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, L Street downtown, and 15th Street NW are examples of the District's progress, advocates say, although even those facilities still require enhancements.

A bumpy ride on 15th Street

A two-way cycle track protected by parked cars and the sidewalk, 15th Street is one of the most popular bike lanes in the District. 

On a typical work day, lines of cyclists form during morning rush hour waiting for the traffic signal—a pedestrian walk signal—to cross intersections. But in the years since it opened the bike lane has degraded, now marked by small potholes and bumps. The lanes were painted without resurfacing what had been the parking lane on 15th Street.

"I've heard from people who've had near accidents because they were avoiding pot holes. I heard from a father-to-be who wants to take his infant to daycare by bike but he's afraid all the bumpiness would be bad for the baby," said Kishan Putta, a Dupont Circle ANC Commissioner who has lobbied the District Department of Transportation to resurface the 15th Street bike lane.

That's exactly what DDOT plans to do.

"We plan to resurface 15th Street this year, actually. It was always intended for us to come back and resurface it, but it's taken us a few years," said Sam Zimbabwe, an associate director for policy, planning, and sustainability at DDOT.

Bicycle commuters are looking forward to a smoother ride.

"I take the bike lane pretty much every day from U Street all the way down past the White House. The areas between S and K Streets are in serious need of repaving. In particular, the south-bound lane is a mess with muddled pothole-like roads so I have to bike in the north-bound lane," said Ward 1 resident Katie Rotramel.

U-Turns still plague the Pennsylvania Avenue cycle track

The world got to see one of Washington's most popular cycle tracks on Inauguration Day, when President Obama made his way down the center of Pennsylvania Avenue NW and over the two-way cycle track, located in the roadway's median. 

On days when there are no presidential parades, the procession is more mundane: motorists idling at traffic lights, bicycles whirring by—and illegal U-Turns.

Dozens of bicyclists—through social media posts and in-person interviews—say the Metropolitan Police Department has failed to enforce a new rule banning U-turns over the center cycle track, which have been blamed for a number of car-bike crashes. They say cab drivers eager to snatch up fares are the most frequent offenders.

In late January the MPD invited reporters to watch officers issue drivers final warnings against U-turns on Penn. Ave. From that point on, violators would receive a $100 fine. But some cyclists say that enforcement has been spotty at best.

"There are still U-turns. There are great potential for hazards," said bike commuter Martin Moulton in an interview outside the Wilson Building. "We need more education and more enforcement."

"I use the Pennsylvania Ave. bike lanes nearly every day. I regularly see U-turns. On average, about one per trip between the Capitol and the White House. I've never witnessed enforcement," said another cyclist who asked not to be identified.

"I've never been hit by a U-turning car, but have had close calls. When I bike on Pennsylvania Ave, I constantly look over my right shoulder to see if there are any cars (especially cabs) alongside me that might be about to U-turn," said cyclist Zach Rausnitz.

According to the Metropolitan Police Department, since the enforcement announcement in January, police have written 53 tickets and issued approximately 64 warnings for illegal U-turns over the Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes.

Advocates say plastic bollards installed down the middle of the avenue would immediately stop the U-turns, but the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts opposes the use of plastic posts.

L Street cycle track protected, somewhat

"L Street is one of the most difficult places where we've ever done a bike lane," said Zimbabwe, the DDOT planner.

Running eastbound from Georgetown to downtown, the L Street cycle track (about one and a half miles) exemplifies the difficult balance DDOT engineers must strike when carving up existing road space between cars and bicycles.

"We removed a lane that was parking at off-peak and travel during rush hours and put in a bike lane. At the corners we had to do special things because of the volume of left hand turns off of L Street, so we have what's called a mixing zone. And it does take some getting used to for everybody," Zimbabwe said.

Near intersections, the L Street cycle track narrows at it squeezes between vehicular travel lanes and left turn lanes. Zimbabwe says only one accident involving bicyclists has occurred in the six months since the cycle track opened, but advocates see room for improvement.

"There are some improvements that can be made to make the protection better. We're going to see some of those things implemented in the M Street cycle track going in the other direction that should be coming in later this year," said Farthing, the head of WABA, in an interview at the intersection of L and 15th NW. "But I think there are some retrofits they could make here [on L Street]. There is a car illegally parked in the middle of it right now, so if there were a curb there that couldn't happen."

The next step?

The lack of curbs and bicycle traffic lights are what separates D.C.'s bike lanes from those in other cities like New York, where 8th and 9th Avenues showcase bike lanes protected from car traffic by heavy infrastructure.

In Washington installing curbs is more difficult than it looks, Zimbabwe said.

"Funding is not as much as an issue as dealing with some of the trade-offs on any given street, especially in downtown where we've done a lot of the easy bike lanes where there was unused space," he said. "When we talk about protection - separation and buffers from cars - and more permanent improvements, it's more a question of planning and consensus building than resources."

Consensus building may be interpreted as keeping cars and bicyclists happy when roads are retrofitted.  Bike advocates are trying to steer the debate away from one side wins, one side loses every time a new bike lane is installed. Permanent bike infrastructure should make driving in the district easier, too.

"When you put in curbs and integrate them into the way roads are built, it has a sense of permanence and provides an extra level of safety that shows cyclist safety is taken seriously," Farthing said.

DDOT is considering installing curbs on some existing bike lanes  as a test to see of they'd make more sense on a wider basis.

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