Tag Archives: DC

Sloppy cycling meets sloppy journalism

Washington, DC TV station WJLA, channel 7, has run a story about new bicycle laws passed by the DC City Council and signed by the mayor. The new section reads as follows:

A new section 9d (D.C. Official Code § 50-2201 .04d) is added to read as follows:

“Sec. 9d. Bicyclists’ use of leading pedestrian in tervals.
“(a) A bicyclist may cross at an inter section while following the pedestrian traffic control signal for the bicyclist’s direction of travel unless otherwise directed by traffic signs or traffic
control devices.
“(b) A bicyclist may cross an intersection where a leading pedestrian interval is used.”

Questions have been raised by cyclists in an online group I belong to, for example, “So how are the bicyclists supposed to reach the intersection when no bikeways are present? By lane splitting? Filtering forward on the right? Using the sidewalk? Or are bike lanes and boxes supposed to be provided at all intersections? This will be a boon to red light runners and further the bad mixing of bicyclists and peds as “one category”, or as some like to say, further the pedestrianization of bicycling.”

But I’d like to discuss the video itself. It came with an embed code, and here it is.

After 15 seconds of an ad for an Infiniti SUV, you’ll get to see the news story about bicycling.

Much of the narration in the video is posted on a Web page under the headline

D.C. cycling made safer with new rules of the road

That headline is rather interesting not only because of the questions which have been raised, but also because the law isn’t even in effect yet. In a year or two we might have data as to whether cycling has become safer. It would be much more difficult to determine whether that resulted from the new law. A recent study did show that cycling is becoming less safe the crash rate is increasing in Washington, DC — as might be expected when large numbers of new and inexperienced cyclists enter the traffic mix.

The text identifies interviewees — though only by their last names. One is named Clarke. More about that later. Also there are bike-cam shots in which you can see the cyclist’s plaid sleeves. This leads to an interesting discovery. My rundown of the video:

0:00 The words “outrage” and “alarm” are used. Inset on the screen reads “Bike vs. Car.” The TV station is pandering to motorists’ sense of entitlement and identifying inanimate machines as doing battle with each other, as a surrogate for operators of those machines placing them in conflict with each other. The concept of cooperative use of the public streets gets short shrift in this video.

0:49 Bicyclist in the plaid shirt threads the needle between a stopped SUV and a bus, placing him immediately directly in front of the bus. Nice thing the bus wasn’t about to start up. Headache for the bus driver in any case.

0:52 another cyclist waddles out from behind a stopped vehicle in front of another vehicle which is just starting to move.

1:02 the man on the street being interviewed is wearing the same plaid shirt as the one in the on-bike video making dumb moves. In the online text his name is given as “cyclist Billing” and he uses the royal “we.” “We” is WABA: Greg Billing writes blog posts for WABA and has written one about this new law.

1:05 Billing is shown turning left and heading for a door-zone bike lane to filter forward. Shot is cut off abruptly before he reaches the lane.

1:12 Cyclist identified in the text as Senff justifies advanced green on ped signal so “you don’t feel so, I don’t know…pushed.” How that applies when starting ahead of the motor traffic, I don’t know.

1:25 Through-the-windshield shot as car enters a combined bike lane/left turn lane, which figures later in the video too.

1:35 Truth is spoken by a man identified as Bradford: not all bicyclists operate properly.

1:40 Narration is about a bicyclist operating responsibly, but the bicyclist shown in one of many low-angle mood shots has a shopping bag dangling next to the front wheel.

1:45 The narrator complains of a bicyclist overtaking a motorist who is signaling a turn. The bicyclist, seen through a car windshield, is legally in a combined bike lane/left turn lane to the left of a through lane from which a motorist ahead is preparing to turn left illegally. Flex posts would keep a knowledgeable bicyclist from merging out of the bike lane. The driver preparing to turn left couldn’t make sense of the intersection design, and the bicyclist was blissfully unaware of the risk. The layout here is the same as at 1:25 in the video — it might even be the same intersection — and similar to the one at Market and Octavia Streets in San Francisco where fatal crashes have occurred.

1:50 The unidentified Clarke is revealed to be an African-American woman, not Andy Clarke, President of the League of American Bicyclists.

1:54 Billing provides a bike-cam shot, riding at speed in a left-turn lane going too fast to turn left, but the shot is cut just before he reaches the intersection.

2:15 A cyclist is in the door zone and uncomfortably close to a pedestrian.

2:20 — The law has to be voted on by Congress. It isn’t yet in effect.

All in all, there’s plenty enough cluelessness to go around, with this video, but I do agree with Mr. Bradford!

Ian Cooper comments on the C&O Towpath

Cyclist Ian Cooper offers a report on the C&O canal towpath, which I have mentioned in a previous post. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas deserves a lot of credit for preserving the canal as a park, but as Ian reports, it does not make the grade as a bicycle facility.

Ian Cooper with Trail-a-Bike rig on the C&O towpath trail

Ian Cooper with Trail-a-Bike rig on the C&O towpath trail

Aside from the issues of safety and of priorities which Ian raises, do the parts of the path which are “paved” with pebbles the size of golf balls meet the National Park Service’s criteria to prohibit cyclists from parallel roads, introduced into the current transportation bill in Congress?

An article in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review newspaper seconds some of Ian’s comments, while indicating that improvements are in the works. The effectiveness of the improvements is certainly open to question: more gravel will not eliminate dropoffs or necessarily provide a good or durable riding surface. The article includes the photo below.

Rough conditions on the C&O towpath trail

Rough conditions on the C&O towpath trail, Paul Christensen photo for the Tribune-Review

An online article by a bicycle tourist also reports some difficult conditions on the trail.

Ian says about that article:

The first image on the left of the page shows a little of how muddy it can get, though it can be worse than this when the path gets very narrow and bumpy. This is a different area of the trail (farther north than my ride), and again this is very wide and non-grassy in comparison with some of the trail south of Harper’s Ferry and Point of Rocks, MD. The author tells how safety is a real issue on the trail due to the bad condition of the surface.

In both the above images, the wide trail allows you to choose a path through the mud. This isn’t always the case in the part my daughter and I cycled. Sometimes you just have to stop and walk. Sometimes you get no warning, hit a pothole or a mud patch and have to rely on skill to maintain control.

Here are Ian’s comments on his own ride:

I know the C&O well. Here on the Maryland side it’s not paved, and I think anyone doing more than 10 mph on it would be taking a grave risk. I cycled with my daughter from DC to Harper’s Ferry June 2nd – 3rd, 2011 with my daughter on a Trail-a-Bike behind me. I will never use it again, as the National Park Service has stated that it must remain unpaved, as it is to retain its historical attributes as a canal towpath. The only reason I didn’t give up on using it during that trip is that I have a lot of experience cycling in winter conditions, so I had confidence that I could counter-steer and retain balance during times when the bike lost traction in the mud. Also, we were heading north, so we were cycling on the canal side of the trail, where the drop-off was only 10ft. I dread to think what might happen if a less confident or less skilled cyclist lost control going southward and fell into the river.

We averaged 5mph. On regular roads, I would have done the trip in less than half the time (in part because the road goes pretty much straight there, while the ‘so-called’ multi-use trail takes a dog-leg approach alongside the river). Also, this trail is overgrown with weeds, is ‘paved’ with loose pebbles the size of golf balls, and is 4 ft wide in places with mud patches and 10+ft drops on each side. In my view it is the worst bike trail I’ve ever seen and is literally a death trap for cyclists (which is presumably why bike trail advocates avoid referring to it as a bike trail). Sadly, most so-called bike infrastructure is poorly designed, poorly implemented and lacking in funding for maintenance. I have yet to see a bike trail or bike path that is well designed, well implemented and well maintained. Until I do see such a thing, I am 100% against such follies.

The photo below was taken around 12 noon on June 3 somewhere near White’s Ferry and is the only image I have showing the actual trail. It shows what should be considered a ‘good’ part of the trail in this area – this part is wide, relatively flat and has only a gentle slope away to the canal on one side. As you can see, even though there’s perhaps 8ft of trail, most of it is grassed over and there’s only two thin tracks of usable surface. Sometimes the trail gets so treacherous that the wet and slippery grass in the middle becomes the safest place to ride.

A better section of the C&O towpath trail

A better section of the C&O towpath trail

The C&O has few road crossings, it’s true. But if you use it in May or June, before the flood season is completely over (and presumably before any yearly maintenance is carried out before the summer season), you see it at its worst, when it is difficult just to maintain control of the bike. At some points, especially the stretch between Seneca and Point of Rocks, MD, it is quite literally frightening. In many places the trail is very narrow, it has a steep ten foot drop on one side to the old canal, and a steep twenty foot or more drop on the other side to the river (sometimes both at the same time). In May and June, the trail is so overgrown that stinging nettle bushes often thrust out into the trail. The trail is filled with pebbles and rocks, and overgrown grass and stinging nettles sometimes make all but a section between 6 and 12 inches wide unusable. This thin section can be muddy, it can change from dry to wet very quickly, it can be deeply rutted from use by previous cyclists, and other parts can be washed out so badly that cyclists can experience sudden potholes. It is extremely treacherous.

In my view, this stretch of the C&O Canal towpath should be closed as a multi-use path as its lack of adequate maintenance means that it is only a matter of time before a cyclist or a runner gets killed on it.

The Six-Way in Rush Hour

Here’s another video showing conditions at the six-way intersection of 16th Street, U Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW in Washington, DC, where special bicycle facilities have been installed.

Also please see my earlier post about this intersection, with another embedded video.

The Six-Way, Washington, DC, a Second Look

The video embedded below documents a bicycle ride by the author and two companions in Washington, DC where special bicycle signals and road markings have been installed to establish continuity of New Hampshire Avenue at its intersection with U Street and 16th Street.

The video tells the story of an unusual pass through the intersection — the signal actuator somehow didn’t give us the green on the first go-round. It did on other passes.

Aside from that one quirk, the video shows the usual signal timing (though it might be different at another time of day). The most significant finding is the short time to get into the “bike box” which is located ahead of motorists’ advanced stop line. There wouldn’t be be enough time for any large number of bicyclists who had been waiting for the signal.

Several additional issues remain to be shown in other videos. Here is a preview of what they will show:

  • The bike boxes are very small, also a problem with large numbers of bicyclists.
  • Motorist encroachment into the bike boxes is endemic.
  • Some motorists misunderstand the installation to the degree that they become angry at bicyclists who use it as intended. We were buzzed on one pass by someone driving a big black SUV.
  • Probably 90 percent of cyclists passing through this intersection on New Hampshire Avenue do not use the facility as intended. Rather, most use the crosswalks — commonly going around clockwise. With the option to go either clockwise or counterclockwise, bicyclists can start across on either pedestrian phase, rather than having to wait through as much as an entire signal cycle for the special bicycle phase.

Before I actually rode through this installation, I thought that it was a particularly good one. I have a blog post expressing that opinion. That post also gives a detailed description of the installation and its history.

The installation doesn’t violate any principles of traffic theory. In particular, when used as intended, it doesn’t place bicyclists and motorists out of sight of each other and on a collision course. But as Yogi Berra, or maybe Albert Einstein, memorably said, “[I]n theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not.” This installation makes the intended movements unattractive due to the short timing and tight space. The installation also makes bicyclists wait much longer to take the intended routes than to take others — which don’t even necessarily require illegal movements. As such, this installation unfortunately is not, in my opinion, successful.

I approve of this?

UPDATE: This post gives background information on the intersection. I have now ridden through it, and my opinion of it has changed. I have another post about it, and a video. Please check them out.


The image below shows a special installation of traffic signals and markings at the intersection of 16th street, U Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW in Washington, DC. To enlarge the image so you can read the text descriptions, click on it. You also may have a look at a Google map satellite view. Then please return to this page for my comments.

16th Street, U Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW, Washington, DC

16th Street, U Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW, Washington, DC

Pierre L’Enfant and Andrew Ellicott — and let’s also not forget African-American surveyor Benjamin Banneker — laid out Washington’s streets from scratch –  in the pre-automotive 1790s. Washington’s diagonal avenues give it an openness and unique sense of place — but the resulting uneven-length blocks and multi-way intersections make for some serious headaches now. Some traffic movements are odd, traffic signals can not be synchronized efficiently…

Before the new installation, no signals in this intersection faced new Hampshire Avenue. Bicyclists would sometimes use New Hampshire Avenue for through travel, though its conflicting one-way segments made that illegal and there was no conflict-free crossing interval.

The illustration above is from a page posted by the government of the District of Columbia describing a new installation of contraflow bicycle lanes, bicycle waiting boxes and special traffic signals. At first glance, these may raise the hair on the back of the necks of people who are suspicious of special bicycle facilities treatments.

Look again. The bike boxes look odd only because they connect with diagonal New Hampshire Avenue. They are cross-street bike boxes — which bicyclists enter from the left. Bicyclists from New Hampshire Avenue enter on a separate signal phase from the motor traffic on 16th Street, rather than to creep up on the right side of motor vehicles, as with more-usual bike-box installations. Motorists do not have to crane their necks or stare into a right-side mirror looking for these bicyclists.

The cross-street bike boxes are even more conflict-free than usual. Because only bicycle traffic runs contraflow, bicyclists do not have to negotiate with any right-turning traffic when entering the intersection.

To summarize: this installation, importantly, does not violate the fundamental traffic-engineering principle of destination positioning at intersections, as so many special bicycle facilities installations do.

Or, looking at the same conclusion from a different point of view, the installation does not require or encourage bicyclists to do anything dangerous or stupid, and it offers reasonable travel efficiency considering the situation it addresses.

I am not going to say that this installation is perfect. I can see the following issues.

  • Bicyclists’ having to wait through two traffic-signal phases is inconvenient and might lead to scofflaw behavior. A “scramble phase” could allow crossing in one step and might even apply to bicyclists arriving from other directions. It would reduce the time allocated to for all the other phases, but it might be practical, and preferable, at times of low traffic. Signals and markings which only apply at some times could, however, be confusing.
  • The installation addresses only bicycle traffic entering the intersection from New Hampshire Avenue. Traffic control remains as it was for 16th street and U street. Considering the many ways in which bicycle travel could be made slower and/or more hazardous in the name of making it better, this may be a case of “best leave well enough alone,”  but on the other hand, real improvements might be possible.
  • The bike boxes on 16th street could be interpreted as encouraging bicyclists on that street to overtake motorists on the right, then swerve in front of them, as is the more conventional with bike boxes.
  • Just outside the lower left of the picture on New Hampshire Avenue, there is wrong-way parallel parking next to the bike lane. Motorists exiting wrong-way parking spaces are in head-on conflict with bicyclists, but cannot see them if another vehicle is parked ahead. (See illustrated description of wrong-way parallel parking elsewhere, if the explanation here is unclear.) At the top right, on the other hand, note that the bike lane is farther from the curb: this segment of New Hampshire Avenue has back-in right-angle parking, avoiding the sight-line problem.
  • And, while we’re at it, I have another issue with the street grid, though it’s common to many other cities and not readily subject to correction. Streets that go east and west guarantee that twice per year,  for several days, the Sun will rise and set directly along the streets, glaring into drivers’ eyes.  If the street grid ran northeast to southwest and northwest to southeast, this would never happen. All you Pierre L’Enfants of today designing new cities, please take notice, here’s your chance to acquire a reputation as Pierre L’Enfant Terrible!

This installation is the subject of experimentation sanctioned by the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, with observation, data recording and analysis to see how it works in practice. The experimentation may turn up more issues, or reveal that some are of little importance.

Now, dear readers, you also may also have points to add to the discussion. Let the comments fly.

See also: GreaterGreaterWashington blog entry about this installation; Washington, DC Department of Transportation page about it; Google maps satellite view.