D.C.’s Haphazard Utility Cuts Pose Real Threats to Cyclists

WABA occasionally features guest posts about biking in the region from members and supporters. Interested in posting on our blog? Email waba@waba.org.

Watch out! That’s my advice for riding on D.C. streets. About a month ago, I crossed one of the many unfilled utility cuts that plague our streets. This one was on 17th near M Street NW. My tire got hooked in the cut, and I lost my balance, fell into traffic, broke my helmet, and sliced a big cut in my arm. Fortunately, no car hit me and several pedestrians came to my aid and blocked oncoming cars.

I was lucky. All I lost was a little blood, a helmet, and my misplaced sense of biker invincibility. But it opened my eyes to the conditions of our streets.

D.C.’s streets are a mess. They are filled with cuts and unfilled holes, and there’s no order to guide bikers or cars and trucks as they wind their way around endless construction projects. I brought my accident to the attention of the District Department of Transportation. After a handful of emails, DDOT has said that its contractor is going to fix the cut that dropped me. It is supposed to happen in early September. I am thankful for that, but in the course of the email exchange with DDOT I learned the department did not know for sure which utility left the road slice unfilled.

Utility Cuts

To me, that is the problem. Utility cuts are all over the city and join a host of potholes, metal plates, and remnants of incomplete construction. Apparently, there is little coordination of these projects, and it appears there is no oversight. The contractors seem to do what they like. Since my accident, I’ve started more closely watching the bikers and the streets. I have seen a bunch of accidents and near-misses. I watched a bicyclist hit a car when dodging construction on 3rd and H Streets NE where workers were removing newly installed but never-used trolley rails. I saw another biker get her tire caught in an unfilled cut on 4th and K Streets NW (see above photo).

Utility Cuts

The K Street cut is identical to the one that brought me down, although it is more than a mile from where I fell. Just a half block from the K Street cut is a sharrow symbol, nicely painted into the asphalt, seemly encouraging us to ride (see above photo). The District can’t have it both ways: It can’t push for more foot and bike traffic but continue its history of unregulated, out-of-control construction.

I believe that bikers want a safe city where biking can continue to grow and ease the flow of vehicles that flood the streets. I know some leaders in this city want the same walkable and bikeable city, but to get us there, the District government has to bring its urban planners and construction inspectors on board. That is not the case today.

Let the District know about problem areas! Call 311 or express your concerns at http://311.dc.gov/ and cc me at jjohnsondc@earthlink.net.

This guest post is written by Jeff Johnson, who lives on Capitol Hill and commutes to the heart of downtown daily, rain or shine. He believes biking will eventually transform the District system of transportation and would like to see it happen soon.