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Drivers, Bicyclists Say New Bike Lanes Lead To Mixed Signals

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A bicyclist in the new cycle track, at L St. and 16th St. NW.
Jacob Fenston
A bicyclist in the new cycle track, at L St. and 16th St. NW.

Washington D.C. has been ranked among the top cities for bicycling in the United States, but there have been some bumps along the way as new cycling infrastructure goes in across the District. The latest major bike project, along L St. NW downtown, has sparked confusion among drivers, while an older separated bike lane has been the site of numerous accidents. City officials and cycling advocates are working on fixes aimed at getting all road users on the same page.

The separated bike lane on Pennsylvania Avenue, between the White House the Capitol was the site of at least 11 accidents in 2010 and 2011 where a car making a U-turn through the center bike lane struck a cyclist.

It happened to Colin Hughes on Nov. 14. He was riding his bike to work, the same commute he had done every day for more than year. He didn't even see the taxi approaching behind him.

"Somebody tried to hail the taxi from the opposite side of the street, so he accelerated and did a very sharp U-turn to get the fare, without looking in the bike lane," says Hughes.

The cab driver struck Hughes, sending him and his bike into oncoming traffic. He was shaken but unhurt.

"A center bike lane is not a really common feature in a roadway, so when people want to do a U-turn, they actually just look at the oncoming traffic in the opposite lane, they don't think that there's a cyclist on the inside."

Part of the problem was confusion over the legality of U-turns on Pennsylvania Avenue. But on Wednesday, Mayor Vincent Gray announced new emergency regulation.

"We think the current situation leaves bicyclists too vulnerable to injury or even possibly being killed," Gray told reporters. "Therefore, I've directed the pertinent District of Columbia agencies to immediately address this issue."

D.C. law is now explicit: making a U-turn across a bike lane is illegal.

But bike lane design issues don't end with U-turns: Each of the District's three separated bike lanes has a different, and possibly confusing, design. Mike Goodno, the District Department of Transportation's bicycle program specialist, says these evolving designs reflect a learning process, as bikes are squeezed back into a streetscape long dominated by cars.

The city's newest separated bike lane, or cycle track, is huge — 8 feet wide — and separated from the rush of cars by a row of plastic bollards. It's a bike expressway. Except some drivers are using it as an expressway too, sneaking onto the bicycle side of the bollards and speeding past traffic.

Not every driver has got the hang of the unique design just yet, and not everyone likes it.

"It makes it too confusing," says driver Tamara Wilkinson, waiting to make a left turn through the cycle track. This is the first time she's been on L Street since the new lane went in. "Do you turn from that lane, or do you come over here to turn? I don't like it."

The Washington Area Bicyclist Association is working to ease that confusion. Megan McCarty, WABA's bike ambassador has been spending a lot of time on L Street lately, passing out flyers with diagrams showing how the lanes are supposed to work. This lane uses a "mixing zone" for cars making left turns across the lane. It's a specially marked area where cars and bikes cross paths, and is unlike any traffic pattern in the District.

Despite the occasional confusion, bicyclists zipping by love the new cycle track.

"You know, it's like a cheat code," says bike commuter Brian McEntee. "You can get through the congested traffic in a dedicated bike lane."

McEntee's commute is about eight miles each way, and he rides the full 11 blocks of the new cycle track every day.

"I think by and large it's been really productive for the relationship between cyclists and drivers," he says. "It gives drivers sort of a place to expect cyclists, rather than sort of weaving in and out of traffic."

The separated bike lanes also make cycling through the city less daunting, attracting more riders. According to the District Department of Transportation, bike traffic on streets with cycle tracks has tripled or quadrupled, to as many as 400 bikes per hour. And planners hope that as more cyclists hit the roads, more drivers will get used to driving around them.


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Photos: Biker-Driver Communication

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