Un-Protected Bikeways: Why is DC Still Undercutting Safety?

For every new trail, bike lane, and policy that makes the region a better place to bike, there are committed advocates working in their communities, with government officials, and WABA staff to improve our streets for people who bike. Here is an update from Joe Allen, a DC and Montgomery County advocate.

The protected bikeways throughout much of downtown DC have contributed to great increases in people bicycling.  These new bicycle facilities have a physical barrier as well as horizontal separation from moving vehicle traffic.  Protected bikeways offer improvements in safety, predictability, and comfort for the average person.  Unfortunately, the record for DC in maintaining protection of these bikeways during building or roadway construction is horrible despite a law requiring them to do so.  What happens when construction or other reasons impact these bikeways will impact their long term success.

People riding in these new facilities expect a continuity in the level of comfort and skill required to reach their destination safely.  Therefore, a major challenge for developing such lanes downtown is finding a solution for construction projects that require the sidewalk and curb lane closures.  Often years of thought and engineering go into the protected bikeway design to minimize conflicts and maintain separation.  This hard work should not be erased when roadwork happens.  Given the type of riders attracted to these lanes, who prefer not to mix with traffic, even a periodic one-block disruption could discourage future use.  The DC Council agreed in 2013 and passed a law requiring the Office of Permits to work with the DC Bikeways Coordinator in approving traffic plans for construction zones that provide safe accommodation for bicyclists and pedestrians. The law mandated that plans provide an equivalent bicycle facility wherever possible and a stepwise approach that maintains safety when space is tight.

Read about the Bicycle Safety Amendment Act of 2013

What has been the record of Office of Permits since this law was passed and regulations were issued?  One only has to look at comments about the protected bikeways to see the law is regularly ignored, or even worse, implemented in ways that actually increase risk to people riding bicycles.  The stepwise approach that is supposed to prioritize safety over maintaining parking lanes and travel lane widths often does the opposite.  In some cases, accommodation is provided for people on bicycle but not people walking with the obvious result, people walking in the bikeway.  More often though, sidewalk detours are provided, but people on bicycle must quickly merge into mixed traffic. Nowhere has this more true than the M St. NW protected bikeway.  There are currently three construction projects on the protected bikeway, each which violate the spirit if not the letter of the law and regulations.  The traffic plans for these construction projects were approved by the Office of Permits. However, the approvals are in violation of the law and conflict with very clear direction by DDOT on how these projects should preserve and not eliminate the protection for people on bicycles.

M St. NW and 20th St. NW

M and 20th St. NW. Note the turning vehicle.

The worst implementation yet occurred during the past few weeks on the M St. protected bikeway at 20th St. NW.  The signage emphasizes the very violation of the law: “Bikeway Closed”.  A pedestrian passage is maintained on the same side of the street as the bikeway despite an available sidewalk on the opposite side of the street and the parking lane on the opposite side of the street is left intact.  The result is people on bicycles must merge at the last minute in the middle of an intersection.  The traffic plan goes further and closes the right hand turn lane to cars for no apparent reason, eliminating the predictable mixing zone developed to reduce conflicts and avoid right hand turning cars crossing in the path of bicycles.  The return to the protected bikeway is at the entrance to a parking garage which regularly blocks the protected bikeway in the morning as the valet parks cars.  The plan fails at a number of levels.  There is no predictable, safe path maintained and the safety of people on bicycle is actually significantly harmed by merging cars and bikes at the worst possible place.  The plan encourages cars to cross the path of bicycles and vice versa.  During two brief morning spent observing the result, I caught on camera at least three near miss conflicts of cars turning into bicycles as well as regular failure to leave safe passing distance for bicycles that finally made it into the auto travel lane.  To add insult to injury, two additional closures and detours occur within the next four blocks, including conflicting detour and closure signs posted at M St. NW and New Hampshire St. NW.  The signs at this intersection give conflicting directions regarding use of a correctly posted protected detour and an illegal closure two blocks away (including use of “Share the Road” sign rather than “May Take Full Lane”)..

M St. Protected Bikeway and New Hampshire St. NW - two Blocks from 20th St. NW closure

M and New Hampshire St. NW – two Blocks from 20th St. NW closure

I have captured these violations of bikeway closures on 15th and L St. during the past year on several occasions and the response from DC government officials has always been polite.  They acknowledge such traffic plans should not be permitted and state that the permit office will learn over time but are overwhelmed with the volume of construction requests.  DDOT recently issued further guidance for bicycle lane closures and acceptable traffic management plans. Yet, it is unacceptable that a law has been passed, regulations have been issued, and requirements to coordinate with the DC Bikeways Coordinator outlined, and bikeway closures which should be a last option are regularly instituted as the first option.

Bicycling as a means to get from point A to B has become a new norm thanks in part to the building a protected bike network.  However, the new norm also requires recognizing the responsibility to maintain protected bikeways according to the law.  DC would rarely close a commuter arterial to cars on a daily basis for weeks on end or force cars onto the sidewalk or into narrow alleys not designed for auto traffic.  DC can and should do better, and it should not require a lawsuit for the government to uphold its own laws.

Joe Allen is a WABA member and chair of WABA’s Action Committee for Montgomery County.