A showcase example for Federal promotion of special bicycle facilities in the USA has been laid down on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC, with bike lanes extending between the Capitol and the White House. It’s quite a show, but it didn’t turn out exactly as planned.
Well, on with the show. On June 7, 2010 — as described in a press release and videos — League of American Bicyclists President Andy Clarke, Representative James Oberstar (D-MN), NBA basketball star Caron Butler and the Crown Prince of Denmark were out on Pennsylvania Avenue expressing their enthusiasm for the bike lanes, riding bicycles supplied by Specialized, a major American bicycle supplier. Why the Crown Prince? American bicycle facilities advocates hold Denmark up as an example. Why industry involvement? Because the industry sees special facilities for urban cycling as the key element in propelling the next wave of bicycle sales. Why politicians? Because public funding would have to pay for the facilities. Why Caron Butler? I don’t know!
Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes, May 11, 2010
But, in its press release, the League of American Bicyclists borrowed a basketball expression, describing the Pennsylvania Avenue project as a “slam dunk.”
This wasn’t the first praise for the project. A month earlier, on May 12, the photo at the right appeared in a message sent to an e-mail list of the Alliance for Bicycling and Walking (a consortium of state and local advocacy groups) among other lists. The iconic bicyclist is riding off into the sunrise, toward the Capitol. In the background, tourist buses queue for their first run of the day. Accompanying text, by League of American Bicyclists board member Tim Young, reads:
I was just in Washington and rode the new Pennsylvania Ave Bike Lanes, so fun the paint was still drying. Awesome to ride from the White House on one end to Congress on the other, and have such huge dedicated space for bikes. You have to ride it!
Center lane was an unexpected design for me, but it works if you follow the signals and signs. Its casual riding, so much room and buffer, and the road is not that busy for its size, I understand about 30,000 ADT. You can see from this photo the massive bus use, so the curb lane is full of conflicts. The center rides fine. The only unhappy campers were taxi drivers wanting to make U turns mid block.
Photo: Mike Tongour, Bikes Belong lobbyist, rides towards Capital Hill.
(Bikes Belong is a bicycle industry lobbying organization which, among other efforts, lends substantial financial support to the League.)
Young may, however, have spoken too soon about the ample width of the bike lanes. They had been installed over the weekend of May 1 and 2; promptly on Monday, May 3, the Mid-Atlantic division of the American Automobile Association issued a press release suggesting that they would worsen traffic congestion. (That press release is no longer available on the AAA Web site, but I have made it available.) It has in turn been widely criticized by bicycling advocates, for example here and the criticism has been echoed in some media outlets, for example, here and here. The Washington Area Bicyclist Association, the local bicyclists’ advocacy group, asked its members to support the lanes, here.
Bicycling advocates pointed out that Pennsylvania Avenue was already relatively lightly traveled, as the blocks nearest the White House had been permanently closed to motor traffic following the 1995 bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. An AAA poll, cited in the press release, indicated that only 20% of members would feel compelled to become bicycle commuters if traffic congestion worsened. The bicycling advocates turned this finding on its head: 20% is a higher bicycling mode share than in any US city. Copenhagen’s bicycle mode share is hardly any larger, though its bicycle-to-work/school mode share is around 37%.
On May 20, the Washington Post reported that changes in the lanes were in the works. A quote:
Gabe Klein, director of the Department of Transportation, called to clarify that the delay in the opening of the bike lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue might not result in the lanes growing tighter.
Klein disclaimed bowing to any pressure and said the lanes needed to be “redesigned” to enhance the safety of bicyclists.
The article also described a Bike to Work Day rally to be held the next morning in support of the lanes and to be addressed by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Portland, Oregon).
Two weeks later, on June 7, Clarke, Oberstar, the Crown Prince and NBA basketball star Caron Butler were out in the bike lanes for their media event. Clarke returned to his office to describe the project as a “slam dunk.” In the light of the proposed changes, this event can be construed as support of the project in the face of a threat.
Slam dunk indeed. It turned out that bicyclists were slammed, and dunked.
On the next day, June 8, the Post published an article describing the planned modifications. Travel lanes that had been converted to bike lanes were to be restored, and the bike lanes moved to the median (growing tighter, in spite of what Mr. Klein had said). The article reports that the AAA applauded this change, while the Washington Area Bicyclist Association expressed concerns about conflicts between bicyclists and pedestrians.
The changes were made. On June 22, the lanes officially opened. On July 3, independent journalist Matt Johnson rode the lanes and took photos. He wrote an article and posted his photos on Flickr. He gave anyone permission to use them, with attribution. I thank him.
The title of the article, “Pennsylvania Avenue Bike Lanes Still have a Few Flaws“, suggests that the lanes had been improved. The contents of the article and the photos show quite the opposite. The space for bicyclists had been significantly reduced, and bicyclists were thrown into conflict with pedestrians at intersections.
Here’s a photo of the bike lanes, looking west across 9th Street NW, taken in mid-May. The layout is already rather strange, with turning bicyclists — including right-turning bicyclists — directed to merge left. The right-turning bicyclists have to re-cross the stream of through-traveling bicyclists to get to the crosswalk which they are supposed to use.
Bike lanes at 9th St. NW, mid-May, 2010
Below is another photo which Johnson took at the same location on July 3. (You may click on either photo for a larger view.)
Bike lanes at 9th St. NW, July 3, 2010
The space between the two lanes of opposite-direction bicycle traffic is gone — the available width is indeed tight if the lanes are to carry any substantial volume of bicycle traffic. But the intersections are weirdest of all. Through-traveling bicyclists now ride up and over the median refuge where pedestrians wait. The bike lanes are now immediately adjacent to the black, handlebar-snagging bollards that protect the traffic-signal poles. Turning bicyclists have it stranger yet: they are aimed straight at the traffic signal at the center of the median.
The one change that anyone could contend is a safety feature is the row of flex posts between each bike lane and the adjacent travel lane, intended to keep motorists from encroaching into the bike lane. Safety feature? Well, maybe. A flex post is harmless to a car, but it can easily take down a bicyclist.
A search of the League’s e-mail blasts and blog turned up blog posts responding to the AAA press release and reporting on the opening celebration for the reconfigured bike lanes on June 22, as well as the “slam dunk” post and a couple of others featuring the Crown Prince, but no mention of the redesign. Comments on the redesign turn up several times in a record of a live online chat with Washington Area bicyclist Association Executive director Shane Farthing. (Search on “Pennsylvania” inside the post to find them.)
Enough for now. This article is intended as a brief history. I’ve addressed technical issues only to the extent necessary to move the history along. I’ll be addressing them in detail in another post.