(Sort of) Protecting Homeland Bicyclists from the Threat of Bollards

(This posting provided by Jonathan Krall, Chair, Alexandria Bicycle & Pedestrian Advisory Committee)

On Friday, June 29 bicycle advocates and transportation officials met below the Wilson Bridge on the South end of Old Town to discuss mitigation strategies for the the risks associated with a series of bollards on the Mt Vernon Trail at the Wilson Bridge. This meeting happened because of concerns raised by cycling advocates such as blogger John “Rootchopper” Pickett and through the efforts of Eric Wagner (Alexandria Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee) and Carrie Sanders (Alexandria City Transportation and Environmental Services). The meeting included representatives from VDOT (John Lynch, John Bolecek), Woodrow Wilson Bridge General Engineering Consultants (Bill Barkely), Transportation Safety Administration (Steve Sprague), Alexandria T&ES (Lucas Cruse), Alexandria BPAC (Jonathan Krall, Jerry King, Eric Wagner) and WABA (Shane Farthing).

Cyclists and pedestrians have encountered the bollards in question near each of the two points where the presently-configured Mt Vernon Trail passes under the Wilson Bridge. The bollards, rigid metal posts designed to stop unauthorized vehicles from gaining access to the underside of the bridge, represent a post-9/11 recommendation of the TSA. There are numerous such bollards and other barriers within the Wilson Bridge/Jones Point Park project. According to one representative of the TSA, an unauthorized vehicle can be “a motorcycle pulling a trailer” or anything larger.

These very solid obstacles are a proven hazard to cyclists in the area, having caused two very serious bicycle crashes within the past two months. According to counts performed by Alexandria BPAC, an estimated 750,000 people pass though this area under the Wilson bridge each year, about 2/3 of them on bicycles. Because of the location of one set of three bollards at the bottom of a hill (the ramp connecting to Washington Street south of the bridge), the present configuration is particularly dangerous for northbound cyclists, who are likely to approach these unmarked bollards at speed. Worse yet, if a northbound cyclist passes to the left of the leftmost of the three bollards at this point, she will quickly encounter a high curb that cuts into the trail 5 feet past the bollard. The present, incomplete configuration is a 911-call waiting to happen.

In each of the two spots the attendees discussed at the meeting there is a trio of bollards: one on the (not yet painted) centerline and one each to the right and left of the trail. Planned trail elements include white edge and yellow centerline striping to narrow the trail at the bollards, “path narrows” and “bollards ahead” signage, and yellow (or white) paint and reflective markings on the bollards themselves. The yellow center stripe will split 20 feet ahead of the center bollard to visually separate the two trail-lanes from the center bollard.

The meeting participants agreed on additional measures to protect citizens of the Homeland. First, the dangerous opening to left of the leftmost bollard south of the bridge (as viewed by northbound travelers) will be marked with painted hash-marks outside of the white stripe and will be blocked by, for example, one or more soft plastic bollards. All cyclists at the meeting agreed that, despite signage, the bollards will prove a surprise to cyclists, especially in crowded conditions. In an effort to create a more forgiving design, there will be additional soft plastic bollards within the yellow split-centerline in advance of the solid bollard. This increases awareness for trail users for the dangerous configuration ahead and will reduce the likelihood of dangerous situations or crashes since cyclists who misread the trail configuration will encounter a soft bollard rather than a hard one. At this late stage in the process, it seemed almost impossible to make actionable recommendations for implementation of alternative proposals that would have completely eliminated the need for bollards on the trail. One proposal suggested to remove the center bollards entirely (deemed to make the trail too attractive to terrorists). Another would be to move the bollards south of the bridge to the top of the hill and otherwise block vehicles from entering the trail from the nearby parking lot (too elaborate at such a late stage). On a positive note, VDOT will look at the possibility to make changes to the 4-inch curb and “rock mulch” awaiting any trail user in the case of a fall, all but guaranteeing bloody injuries. General trail design guidelines suggest that there should not be a high, right-angled curb on a trail and in addition, at least two feet of “safe space” (not sharp rocks). Finally, we agreed to monitor the results and take further steps if needed to protect cyclists from bollards along the Mt Vernon Tail within the project area.

One direct safety improvement is VDOT’s assurance to install a variable message sign at the bridge, directing southbound trail users to use the appropriate path (the two destinations will be “Mount Vernon” and “Wilson Bridge Path”) while the construction at the top of the ramp blocking access to the southbound trail towards Mount Vernon is ongoing.

This is a VDOT project. While VDOT deserves recognition for keeping this very busy trail open throughout most of this multi-year project, they do not have the expertise to recognize some hazards to bicyclists and pedestrians. Getting this expertise “in the loop” on transportation projects is an ongoing challenge for planners and builders. Hazards associated with this project and with these bollards have been extensively documented on Rootchopper blog (here’s an example http://rootchopper.blogspot.com/2012/06/mandatory-8-count.html). Anyone who wishes to become proficient at detour design for multi-use paths would do well to study Mr. Pickett’s many examples and critiques.

Wilson Bridge Jones Point Plans