Multi-modal Memorial Bridge?

In the spring of 2013 the National Park Service initiated the public process to rehabilitate the Arlington Memorial Bridge.  The partial closure and rehabilitation of the bridge represents a huge opportunity to rethink how the bridge operates in the context of the city’s transportation network.  Unfortunately, instead of seizing this opportunity, the Park Service defined the scope of the project extremely narrowly— focusing on arcane questions about upgrades to the “bascule spans” (the parts of the bridge that make it work as a drawbridge).

Does anyone actually care about what structure engineering methods NPS uses to rehabilitate bascule spans? Probably not. What we do care about is the fact that millions of visitors and commuters cross Arlington Memorial Bridge annually by foot, bike, and car. As bicycle and pedestrian travel rapidly increases region-wide, it’s time to rethink how all transportation modes on the bridge are accommodated.

The bridge is 90 feet wide with six car travel lanes and two 15-foot sidewalks. The speed limit for vehicles on the bridge is 30 miles per hour, with drivers often dangerously exceeding the legal limit. During busy tourist seasons, the sidewalks are full of visitors walking between the National Mall and Arlington National Cemetery. Sidewalk congestion is complicated by bicyclists and pedestrians sharing limited space.  

The opportunity:

During construction, the bridge will be partially closed. Two years ago, after an initial study on regional traffic patterns, traffic engineers determined that a closure of one of the three lanes in each direction would only minimally impact traffic on other bridges that cross the Potomac River.  This has been borne out by experience: since late last fall, the Memorial bridge has been operating with a total of four travel lanes, without any resulting traffic armageddon.

The third vehicle lane in both directions should be permanently repurposed as a single protected travel lane for bicycle traffic. This would provide dedicated space for pedestrians on the sidewalk, and a safe, unobstructed passage across the bridge for bicyclists.  

The bridge rehabilitation is a chance for NPS to be forward-thinking about design. The National Mall is planning to build a visitor center at the Vietnam War Memorial, which will likely increase travel between the Vietnam War Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery, as it is a short walk or ride between the two, and serviced on both sides of the bridge by Capital Bikeshare stations. There are also plans to redesign the Lincoln Circle (aka: the bike/ped no-man’s land between the Lincoln Memorial and the Memorial bridge on the D.C. side).

The viewshed in both directions along the bridge is highly valued and should be honored. Through this process, the Park Service could and should be considering designs for dedicated space for bicyclists that fits the aesthetic of the bridge, like low decorative planters or concrete curbs.

WABA and supporters raised these issues nearly three years ago.

Unfortunately, the Park Service has not listened, and continues to move forward with an Environmental Assessment structured to protect the status quo. There is another comment period closing on Monday, May 16th. Take a moment to submit comments telling NPS you want this project to address not just the bridge’s structure, but how the bridge functions in city life, by creating dedicated protected bike lanes and safe connections for walking and biking to and from the bridge.

Submit comments on the project site website using this link.

The MBT One Step Closer to Completion

Last night, the Met Branch Trail got one step closer to completion.

Before beginning construction on the 0.6 mile portion of the Met Branch Trail in Silver Spring, Maryland – the section across from the Montgomery College Campus on Fenton Street and King Street and along the CSXT Railroad to Ripley Street- Montgomery County was required to hold a public hearing, so area residents gathered on a misty Wednesday evening to learn more about the trail design and submit their feedback. When this segment is finished, the 1.1 mile Maryland portion of the Met Branch will be complete.

One highlight of the design is the 14-foot wide bridge that will allow trail users to cross Georgia Avenue far above the busy corridor. This above-grade crossing is an absolute necessity from a safety perspective, and Montgomery County sets the right precedent by ensuring that the bridge is an non-negotiable absolute.

One trail supporter analyzed the design as “95% Awesome.” The five percent in question? The access around the B&O Train Station. Because of concerns from the station’s owner, Maryland Preservation Inc. (MPI), the trail deviates from a direct route along the rail corridor and zig-zags on the edge of the property instead.

This zig-zag alignment seems manageable, and we thank the county for patience in working with MPI, and providing them multiple alignment options in an effort to move the project forward. From the trail user’s perspective, it’s not perfect, and certainly a straighter shot would be preferred, but the proposed alignment represents a compromise for which the county deserves a “thank you.”

We were reminded by a few supporters that this trail will transform how we interact with our surroundings. Jeff Kohn recalled a bike ride he took with his young son to Bethesda, and he reports not being able to identify a safe way to get there. “I wouldn’t try that again, I didn’t feel safe,” he said. “But once the trail is done, I’ll ride it frequently.”

Many in the room could relate to Michelle Terry’s experience of fear for her own well-being on Fenton Street, having to share the road with fast traffic and large trucks. Her front tire was clipped by a car, and while she wasn’t physically hurt, it scared her enough to keep her off her bike for a few days. And as a regular bike commuter, that means a lot. She’s awaiting the trail because it means a safer commute. “Building the trail isn’t just about recreation. It’s about public safety,” she said.

The construction bid will go out soon for Phase I, and construction is estimated to begin June 2016, with an estimated completion date of August 2016. Phase II will begin November 2017, the section west of Selim Road, which includes the bridge over Georgia Ave., will begin in November 2018 and phase completion is estimated for November 2019.

The record remains open until May 24 at 7 p.m. If you’d like to submit your comments to the record, email Gaila Lescinskiene at gaila.lescinskiene@montgomerycountymd.gov.

What’s Next for the Contributory Negligence Bill?

Yesterday, the Judiciary Committee voted 3-0 to move the Motor Vehicle Collision Recovery Act out of committee and recommended it for consideration by the full D.C. Council.

The version of the bill that came to markup had two minor but substantive changes from the one that was introduced last January. First, it now includes a definition of “non-motorized user” to mean “an individual using a skateboard, non-motorized scooter, Segway, tricycle, and other similar non-powered transportation devices.” These vulnerable road users are now explicitly  covered by the bill, in addition to bicyclists and pedestrians.

Secondly, the bill expressly retains the last clear chance doctrine, something that is already available under the law in the District. Reserving it will likely result in greater protection for bicyclists, because in circumstances where the bicyclist is contributorily negligent, for example, where the bicyclist’s negligence exceeds 50% of the harm, the bicyclist still has the last clear chance doctrine at his or her disposal, which would allow the bicyclist to recover— even if the bicyclist was contributorily negligent— when the motorist had the last clear chance to avoid the collision. In our view, it cuts in favor of bicyclists. We support both changes to the bill.

What’s Next?

We’re not done yet! The bill will now be considered by the full DC Council when it meets as the Committee of the Whole sometime before summer recess. It needs seven votes to pass the Council, and the Mayor’s signature to become law. The bill’s sponsors are Councilmembers Cheh, Grosso, Evans, Bonds, and Allen; Councilmember Alexander is a co-sponsor.

We are closer than we’ve ever been to fixing this obvious problem in the law—something we’ve been told couldn’t be done. Our opponents didn’t think could be done, and they’re still working to keep the legislation from becoming law.  Between now and the final vote, we’ll need to do everything we can to make sure we have sufficient support on the full Council. Keep your eyes out for action alerts about opportunities for further public comment and testimony as they arise. We’ll need everyone’s involvement to get this across the finish line.

Dooring Bill is Now Law in Virginia!

dooring

The Virginia General Assembly closed its 2016 legislative session on March 12th with some welcome news for bicyclists across the state and the Washington region. Thanks to the efforts of hundreds of Virginia residents, advocates, and legislators, SB 117, the “dooring” bill, passed both the Virginia House and Senate. On April 1, Governor Terry McAuliffe signed the bill into law.

SB 117 requires drivers to wait for a reasonable opportunity to open vehicle doors on the side adjacent to moving traffic. A violation constitutes a traffic infraction punishable by a fine of not more than $50. Getting “doored” is an all too common cause of crashes between bikes and cars, often resulting in severe injury to the bicyclist.

After many years of advocacy and many iterations of this bill, Virginia finally joins the District of Columbia, Maryland and 39 other states in placing responsibility with the driver to avoid dooring another road user. While codifying a new traffic infraction may not seem significant at first glance, it means a great deal to a bicyclist dealing with the aftermath of a dooring crash. Until now, a driver could blindly throw open their door into the path of a bicyclist, cause a crash, and drive away without citation or any legal responsibility. The law now correctly puts fault where it is due, and should help some bicyclists recover damages, even despite Virginia’s outdated contributory negligence standard.

Without question, this is a massive win! A special thank you goes to our partners at the Virginia Bicycling Federation for their tireless advocacy efforts on this legislative initiative.

Preventing Dooring

This law is very good news for anyone who gets doored in Virginia, but every road user has a role to play in preventing dooring crashes. Here are a few tips.

Drivers & Passengers

  • Before opening your door, check behind you. Use your mirror and turn your body to look before opening a car door, especially when inside the car.
  • Open car doors slowly.
  • Adopt this habit; Release the latch of the driver side door with your right hand. This practice forces you to look behind you before opening the door.
  • Remind passengers to check it’s clear to open their car door before they exit.

Bicyclists

  • Avoid riding in the “door zone.”  Car doors can extend 4-5 feet from a car and open quickly. Leave 3-5 feet between you and parked cars. On narrow streets, many bike lanes are placed in the “door zone,” so hug the left side of the lane.
  • Stay alert: Keep your eyes up, scan for activity ahead of you, and be on the lookout for drivers and passengers inside cars.
  • Be predictable and visible: Ride in a straight line and ride where drivers expect bicyclists to be. Use a front light when riding at night.
  • Learn and practice crash avoidance maneuvers: Take a City Cycling Class with WABA.

Other Legislation

Another bill, SB 669 was continued in the House Transportation Committee to 2017. SB 669 would have removed a disincentive for cities and towns to replace traffic lanes with bike lanes. Currently, highway maintenance funding is calculated based on the number of lane miles the city or town maintains. Under this bill, municipalities would not have their maintenance funding reduced if motor vehicle lane miles are converted to bicycle-only lanes. This would have helped municipalities wishing to engage in traffic calming, road diets, and other street safety projects.

This bill made significant headway, passing in the Senate, but never made it out of the House Transportation Committee. continued to 2017. This means that this bill will be back on the calendar for the 2017 legislative session.

The Contributory Negligence Bill is Moving!


Big news! We have heard from Councilmember McDuffie and Judiciary Committee staff that they plan to bring the Motor Vehicle Collision Recovery Act of 2015 (B21-0004) to markup, this Thursday.

The doctrine of contributory negligence is a legal dinosaur. This unfair legal standard is used to deny a bicyclist or pedestrian access to compensation for medical bills and property damage suffered when a negligent driver inflicts injuries on a less-negligent road user.  This doctrine unfairly compounds legal vulnerability upon physical injury and limits bicyclists access to justice. When a bicyclist or pedestrian is involved in crash with a driver, he or she should be able to focus on recovering from injuries without worrying that medical and property damage claims will be denied due to an outdated legal doctrine.

Contact your Councilmember 

The District of Columbia is a national outlier, as it is one of only five states that still use contributory negligence to allocate fault. The vast majority of states have updated their negligence standard to a fairer system.

WABA has been advocating for reform of this antiquated law since early 2014. The bill before the Judiciary Committee would change the law so that if a bicyclist or pedestrian is less than 50% at fault for the crash, he or she would not be automatically barred from recovery. Passing this law will give people a chance at having their expensive medical bills and damaged property covered.

The current version of the bill represents a good compromise between many powerful stakeholders and we hope it will pass out of committee without any changes that would jeopardize the widespread support it enjoyed when it was first introduced last January.

Click here to tell your Councilmember that you support passage of this bill without amendment, to give bicyclists a fair chance at justice after a crash.

Are We There Yet?

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How close are we to the completion of the Metropolitan Branch Trail (MBT)?

When completed, the MBT will be a 8-mile multi use trail from Union Station in the District to Silver Spring, MD. The finished segment we have today is the result of over 25 years of  steadfast effort from committed residents, advocates, and planners through a lengthy public process. But we aren’t there quite yet.

As many trail users know, the segments from Brookland to Silver Spring are not yet complete. Read on for an update on what remains to be done, and what it will take to get the MBT across the finish line.

Trail Development: DC

There are two segments that the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) is currently engaged in. The first is from Bates Road to Fort Totten Metro Station. The  30 percent engineering designs for that segment are completed. DDOT should be issuing a final design and building contract soon, with construction anticipated to begin in 2017.

The second segment is from Fort Totten (specifically Riggs Road) to Takoma Park, MD. This will bring the MBT to the DC-Maryland border. DDOT is still working on the 30 percent design for this segment, but anticipates that that design process will be completed in June of 2016.

On the completed sections of the trail, users have been vocal about the need for lighting improvements. DDOT is working to address those concerns.  To date, new lights have been installed and wired from the Franklin St. entrance almost to T St. We’ll keep you updated as the plan progresses.

Trail Development: Maryland

From the Maryland line to the Silver Spring Transit Center, the designs look good, with one exception: the B&O train station just off of Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring. Montgomery Preservation Inc (MPI), the nonprofit that controls this site, has spent years resisting proposed solutions, rejecting compromise design alternatives, and declining the County’s attempts to compensate them for the space the trail requires.

MPI’s insistence on replacing a proposed bridge over Georgia Ave—a solution that will keep bike riders and pedestrians far away from that corridor’s heavy traffic—with an at-grade crossing shows that the safety of trail users is low on their list of priorities. It has become increasingly clear that MPI is not interested in being a good neighbor and is not interested in public safety.

The Montgomery County Council’s Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy and Environment (T&E) Committee has the ability to put an end to MPI’s antics. Reassuringly, during a budget work session last month, members of the committee expressed frustration with MPI’s obstruction. The Committee understands the importance of the completion of the trail—not just for Silver Spring, but for the regional connections that the trail will provide, and for the many residents that will benefit from the closing of the gaps in the MBT.

A formal review of the design, timeline and budget for the trail is on the agenda for the Montgomery County Planning Board meeting on May 19. The Planning Board will weigh in on the overall project and provide their recommendations.  

Trail Ranger Program

The season has officially kicked off for the Trail Ranger team! Trail Rangers are a consistent and helpful presence on four of DC’s paved trails, including the MBT. Their charge is to assist trail users with directions and minor bike maintenance issues, improve trail conditions, and work with city agencies to keep the trails properly maintained. The Trail Ranger program is funded through a grant from the Urban Forestry Administration of DDOT.

Keep an eye out for them in green shirts, pulling trailers stocked with tools. (Usually they’re also grinning ear to ear.) The Trail Rangers have tons of knowledge about the Met Branch Trail and other DC trails, and are happy to answer questions, distribute maps or suggest route alternatives. They help make the city’s trail network welcoming and enjoyable; be sure to say hi when you see them on the trail.

You can also join the Trail Rangers on the second Friday of every month for coffee in the morning at the pocket park at 4th and S St. NE.

Want to know more about what’s happening on the Metropolitan Branch Trail? Sign up to receive updates from WABA about the Met Branch Trail.

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.