On the eve of Bike to Work Day, the protected bike lane on L Street NW went from being the spine of a low-stress bike network to a dangerous mixing zone with automobiles and heavy trucks.
Carr Properties, the company redeveloping the old Washington Post building, made the switch from demolition phase of their traffic control plan to the construction phase.
What you see now on the 1500 block of L St is what we will have for more than two years, unless we manage to break through DDOTs conviction that this constitutes a safe accommodation for bicyclists equal to a protected bike lane.
On March 18th, WABA sent a formal letter to DDOT to point out that the traffic control plan for the Carr Properties permit as issued was not compliant with the Bicycle Safety Amendment Act of 2013 or accompanying safe accommodation regulations. We proposed three compliant traffic control plan (TCP) alternatives that would have maintained the protected bike lane. DDOT met with us to explain in detail the reasons they did not think any of our suggestions were feasible. They issued an official written response with this letter.
At the root of agency’s argument is something called Level of Service, which is a measurement of how freely cars move on roads and through intersections. DDOT has made clear that the agency prioritized Level of Service metrics when deciding to skip over the safest options for accommodating bicyclists and pedestrians. DDOT’s letter states: “traffic analysis performed during the TCP review process indicated that taking another lane of travel would have resulted in failing levels of service at the intersections of both 16th and L street and 17th and L street NW.” (Emphasis added). Using a Level of Service analysis in this context is contrary to both the letter and the spirit of the safe accommodations law and regulations.
It’s also worth noting that “failing levels of service” is not as catastrophic as it might sound. An F grade at an intersection means that… it takes a little longer to drive through the intersection.
So what exactly is a Level of Service Analysis?
Level of Service (“LOS”) is a performance metric for streets and roads that uses a scale of A-F to describe the amount of congestion a roadway or intersection experiences. It was originally used to rate interstate freeways during the highway boom of the 1950s and 60s. At a certain point, traffic engineers began applying this standard to the rest of our street network. The problem with this is that most streets do not exist solely to move traffic through an area (like a highway), but rather, to serve homes, businesses, schools, churches, parks, and the people who live alongside them. Yet, in the pursuit of high LOS rankings, traffic engineers widen streets, remove parking, limit crosswalks, and deploy other strategies that make streets less safe for bicyclists and pedestrians, and less inviting in general.
Eliminating traffic congestion is not legally mandated; it is a self-imposed requirement that has become entrenched in the traffic engineering canon. A laser-focus on LOS street design for the hours of peak use encourages the overbuilding of streets for the remaining 22 hours of the day. In this case, LOS analysis has been used to justify non-compliance with the requirement to provide accommodations that replicate the safety level of the existing bicycle route.
What did DDOT get wrong here?
Under the Safe Accommodation regulations, DDOT is required to provide a protected bike lane adjacent to the motor vehicle lane as long as one motor vehicle lane can be maintained in the same direction of travel. The regulations are clear that safety accommodations for bicyclists should be afforded according to a prioritized scheme:
The method for providing the safe accommodation for bicyclists shall be prioritized as follows:
(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; provided the adjacent motor vehicle travel lanes shall be maintained at no less than ten feet (10 ft.) wide;
(3) Closing the adjacent motor vehicle travel lane to provide space for a bicycle lane; provided that a minimum of one (1) motor vehicle travel lane shall remain in the same direction of travel;
(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.
There is no provision in the regulations for considering Level of Service. The safest practicable option must be selected from the list in the order provided. Currently, two lanes of traffic are open on L Street, which means that option three would be the correct selection for a safe accommodation for bicyclists on L street under the regulations.
Complete Streets and Vision Zero
DDOT adopted an internal Complete Streets policy in 2010. In all likelihood, DC Council will codify a Complete Streets policy before summer recess if/when they pass the Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety Act Amendment of 2016 (B21-335). (More on this in an upcoming post). The concept of a Complete Streets policy is that all modes should be safely accommodated in the design of our regional streets and transit network.
In order to actually change the status quo and create streets for people, the Complete Streets policy elevates the safety of pedestrians, bicyclists, users of mass transit, people with disabilities, and the elderly over the convenience of motorists and freight providers.
The Complete Streets policy recognizes that certain streets have “modal priorities.” This was one of the justifications for not installing bike lanes on K street, which was determined to have a transit modal priority. L St and M St were selected for protected bike lanes in part because they are alternative parallel routes to K street. With the installation of world-class protected bike lanes on L and M Streets, and considering their significance in the transportation network for crossing the city by bike, it seems clear that on these streets, bicycle traffic should be considered the modal priority.
Moreover and most importantly, DC is a city pledged to Vision Zero—the initiative to eliminate traffic deaths and serious injury on our roadways by 2024. DDOT is the agency charged with leadership over this initiative. Prioritizing Level of Service for vehicles over the safety of bicyclists and pedestrians—even on streets to which bicyclists have already been diverted— on what constitutes an essential section of the protected bicycle network— flies in the face of the goals of Vision Zero, Complete Streets, and the Move DC plan.
What about safe accommodations at other construction sites throughout the District?
When a contractor or developer applies for a permit to occupy public space during construction activities, they are required to submit a traffic control plan to DDOT for approval. Construction projects impacting our streets, bike lanes and sidewalks will generally fall into three categories:
1. The permit complies with the requirements of safe accommodations law and regulations, and the contractor is properly following the permit.
Remedy: Patience. This won’t last forever.
2. DDOT has approved a legally compliant traffic control permit, but the contractor is not in compliance with the requirements of the permit as-issued.
Remedy: Contact the Public Space Regulation Administration at DDOT (202-442-4670) and report a suspected permit violation. Take photos if you can, and be prepared to provide a street address or intersection, as well as what makes the accommodation (or lack thereof) dangerous. The public space team will send staff to inspect the construction area and may issue a stop work order until the contractor complies with the traffic control plan.
If you have time to do a little research, many approved traffic control plans are now available online at tops.ddot.dc.gov (the system can be cumbersome, so for quick requests the phone is probably your best option). There is a “Search Permits and Applications” link at the bottom right hand corner of the landing page. From the jump page select “Occupancy” and then submit search criteria (tracking or permit number if known is the best way—permit numbers are printed on the Emergency No Parking signs). While not all approved Traffic Control Permits are viewable, the ones related to construction staging zones are. These are the ones most likely to include changes to sidewalks and bike lanes.
3. Contractors have been issued a legally deficient permit by DDOT.
Remedy: This is trickier, but the end result must be that DDOT amends the permit to comply with the law. WABA will be working with DDOT officials to create a guidance manual to give permitting and engineering staff at DDOT the tools they need to properly evaluate traffic control plans in permit applications for compliance with the safe accommodations requirements for bicycles.
As we all know, DC is a rapidly growing city and there are construction projects everywhere. This is all the more reason it is essential that DDOT get these permits—and their enforcement— right.