No safe accommodations on L Street for more than two years.

Side walk closed L St

Two projects that WABA worked for years to bring to fruition, the L St Protected Bike Lane and passage of the Safe Accommodations law and accompanying regulations, have been undermined by a permit issued by DDOT for the old Washington Post building site construction.

Several weeks ago, WABA sent a formal letter to DDOT outlining our concerns over the traffic control permit issued to Carr Properties for the project, noting that DDOT, under its own regulations, is required to provide accommodations to bicyclists and pedestrians that are equal to the level of protection that is being disrupted by the construction. The permit issued for this project completely eliminates the protected bike lane and the sidewalk on the north side of the street, while leaving two vehicle lanes open. For more than two years, the publicly accessible portions of L Street will consist of a 13 foot motor vehicle lane (with “sharrows”—the stenciled paint indicating the lane is to be shared with bicyclists), an 11 foot motor vehicle lane (no longer used for automobile parking), and the southern sidewalk.

Here’s why it matters.

As we explain in our letter, the L Street protected bike lane is a key part of the city’s transportation infrastructure. Because of the physical separation from traffic, a protected bike lane attracts people who would not necessarily be willing to ride on a street with no infrastructure.  Following completion of the protected bike lane in 2013, bike ridership on L Street exploded, increasing 65 percent within the protected bike lane’s first year of installation. The 1500 block section of the L St protected bike lane is a particularly important piece of the network because it intersects with the 15th Street north-south protected bike lane, which is itself connected to the westbound M Street protected bike lane. Without a safe L Street protected bike lane, the utility of the M Street protected bike lane is also diminished.

The City Council anticipated the problems that would ensue if the city’s bike lanes were made unsafe because of construction like this project. After repeated bike lane and sidewalk closures, the Council unanimously passed the Bicycle Safety Amendment Act in 2013. The Act provides, among other things, that “The Mayor shall require permittees blocking a sidewalk, bicycle lane, or other pedestrian or bicycle path to provide a safe accommodation for pedestrians and bicyclists.” DDOT testified in favor of the legislation. The following year, DDOT proposed and finalized regulations implementing the Act.

DDOT’s regulations define a safe accommodation for bicyclists in three ways.

First, the regulations define the term “safe accommodation” as a “safe and convenient route for pedestrians and bicyclists that ensures an accommodation through or around a work zone that is equal to the accommodation that was provided to pedestrians and bicyclists before the blockage of the sidewalk, bicycle lane, or other public bicycle path.” (Emphasis added). Second, the regulations state that the routing for a safe accommodation for bicyclists “shall replicate the safety level of the existing bicycle route.” Finally, the regulations state that a safe accommodation to bicyclists must be provided by prioritizing methods, in this order from highest priority to lowest priority:

  1. Closing a parking lane and keeping the adjacent bicycle lane open;
  2. Shifting the bicycle lane to a location on the same roadway to by-pass the work zone, and if necessary, shifting and narrowing the adjacent motor vehicle traffic lanes; 
  3. Closing the adjacent motor vehicle travel lane to provide space for a bicycle lane; provided that a minimum of one motor vehicle travel lane shall remain;
  4. Merging the bicycle lane and the adjacent motor vehicle travel lane into a shared travel lane adjacent to the work zone, installing sharrow lane markings in the shared travel lane and installing work zone signage directing bicyclists to merge into the shared travel lane; provided the shared travel lane shall be maintained at no less than thirteen feet (13 ft.) wide; and
  5. As a last resort, detouring bicyclists onto an adjacent roadway, in which case the detour route shall replicate, as closely as practicable, the level of safety found on the bicycle route being blocked.

Collectively, DDOT’s regulations provide a clear and comprehensive scheme that must be followed when DDOT considers a permit application for a developer to close a bike lane: the developer’s plan must provide an accommodation that is “equal to” the closed lane, the accommodation must “replicate the safety level of” the closed lane, and DDOT must select the highest priority option for a safe accommodation that is possible under the terms of the regulations.

DDOT approved a traffic control plan for the construction phase of Carr Properties’ project that violates the Act and DDOT’s regulations.

First, a 13 foot motor vehicle lane with no dedicated space for bicyclists is in no sense “equal to” the protected bike lane that existed before the demolition.  Second, the 13 foot motor vehicle lane will not “replicate the safety level of” the protected bike lane. Third, DDOT did not follow the regulations’ mandatory priority scheme when it selected a method of safe accommodation. Before it may adopt the fourth method on the regulations’ priority list, DDOT must adopt the third method on the list unless it would be impossible to do so under the terms of the regulations.

The statute and regulations do not include an exception for expediting a developer’s construction. They do not include an exception for accommodating structural issues that a developer might encounter on its own land, like the Pepco vaults underneath the Carr Properties project site. Finally, they do not include an exception for streets thought to be too important to motor vehicle travel for drivers to be inconvenienced. To the contrary, the statute specifically states that it applies to “all permittees.” DDOT and the developer must find a way to comply with the law, not stretch the law to accommodate the developer’s challenges and expose the public to risk in the process. The law has little force if it can be set aside in the circumstances where it is needed most, like this project.

WABA proposed alternatives to the traffic control plan in the permit, any of which would comply with the law and protect vulnerable roadway users.

Option 1: Installation of Temporary Sidewalk and Temporary Protected Bike Lane with Closure of One Car Lane

First, a temporary sidewalk and a temporary protected bike lane could be installed, and a lane of motor vehicle travel removed. Bicyclists and pedestrians would have safe accommodations that would be “equal to” and that would “replicate the safety of” their accommodations before the construction. All modes of transportation would be accommodated and physically separated, as they are now. Drivers could still drive down the street and, in an improvement from the current plan for the construction phase, would not have the prospect of hitting a merging bicyclist. Any excess motor vehicle traffic would naturally move to any of the nearby eastbound streets: K Street, H Street, Pennsylvania and New York Avenues, or N Street. And the developer could still use double truck loading lanes within the project site, if DDOT still wished to accommodate that request.

Option 2: Reclamation of Public Space to Provide a Sidewalk and a Protected Bike Lane With No Further Closures of Car Lanes

Second, the developer’s permit could be conditioned on the developer finding a small amount of space within the currently envisioned boundaries of the project site to accommodate pedestrians and bicyclists. DDOT could narrow the proposed 13 foot motor vehicle lane to 10 feet, build a temporary 7 foot wide or buffered bike lane, and use any incremental space that could be found within the project site beyond those 4 feet to build a temporary sidewalk. This option would preserve two lanes of automobile traffic, a protected bike lane, and a sidewalk. All modes of transportation would be accommodated and physically separated.

Option 3:  Reclamation of Public Space to Provide a Protected Bike Lane With No Further Closures of Car Lanes

Third, DDOT could require the developer to find only 4 feet within the project site to accommodate bicyclists but not pedestrians. The result would be similar to Option 2 above, but without a sidewalk. Option 3 is not our preferred approach because arguably it does not provide a safe accommodation to pedestrians under DDOT’s regulations.

WABA met with DDOT officials last week to discuss our concerns and our proposed solutions.

DDOT officials maintain that they are in compliance with the law and regulations requiring safe accommodations for bicyclists and pedestrians. They assured us that they fought for every foot of space they have on the road, and within that space, there is simply not enough room to create safe accommodations for pedestrians and bicyclists.  They believe reducing L Street to one lane of vehicle traffic would create dangerous conditions throughout the downtown area by increasing traffic volumes on parallel streets, as well as increasing traffic turns onto parallel streets. DDOT officials did not provide a satisfactory explanation for why they are imposing an analysis that prioritizes traffic flow over multi-modal safety in a situation where the law does not require, and in fact seems to explicitly reject, that approach. DDOT officials also failed to explain why this developer was granted an expedited permit that allows the double truck parking that has gobbled up so much of the public space, especially when that permit seems to be the basis for this less than stellar safety outcome.

DDOT officials did acknowledge that it would have been better to involve the public earlier in the permitting process, and indicated an inclination to improve that process in the future. They also agreed that it is time to update the Pedestrian Safety and Work Zone Standards or Construction Management manuals to reflect the agency’s  own safe accommodation regulations and the Bicycle Safety Amendment Act.

Bottom Line

A bike lane network is only as robust as its weakest link, not the average of the stress on its constituent links. Ordinary people will not use a bike lane that disappears when it is needed most on a busy street.  The likely outcome of the traffic control pattern authorized by this permit is decreased ridership and increased motor vehicle trips, to say nothing of decreased safety for those who chose to continue riding.  Rather than force the developer to find more space within the site or adjust its timeline accordingly, DDOT approved a traffic control plan that ratifies the unnecessary encroachment of public space.  This is not what we expect to see from an agency and administration committed to Vision Zero.  We hope DDOT will improve its processes for making decisions on future permit applications that would involve bike lane and sidewalk closures. We stand ready, as always, to provide our advice and viewpoints on best practices that will safely accommodate all modes of transportation.