Managing George Washington Parkway’s competing interests

Robert Thomson
Columnist August 20, 2011

Some of the most difficult traffic issues in the D.C. region involve conflicts of interests that occur along our parkways: conflicts among drivers, bikers, walkers and trees. These routes weren’t built to be major arteries for auto commuters, but they have evolved into that role as the demand overwhelmed the supply of alternatives.

How would you keep everyone moving and everyone safe at the places where all these different interests meet? Last week’s column focused on one of those spots, the crosswalk for Mount Vernon Trail users on the northbound George Washington Memorial Parkway just south of the Arlington Memorial Bridge. It drew these responses.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region. View Archive

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

With regard to those parkway crossings [Dr. Gridlock, Aug. 14], it is important to realize that motorized traffic is not an uncontrollable force of nature. Drivers can be forced to slow down by, for example, narrowing the lanes or adding rumble strips.

At that particular intersection a HAWK signal could be added, along with flashing lights and “prepare to stop” signs further down the parkway. If those improvements slow down traffic before the Memorial Bridge/George Washington Parkway lane split, then so much the better. Driving in that area is tricky enough without it being inundated with cars blasting through at a dangerous 50 mph.

Our leaders keep telling us that our economy depends on moving people, not cars, that we need to end our “addiction to oil” and that we need our citizens to get out of their cars and lead more active, healthier lives.

If these are truly our priorities and not just empty words, then we need to tame traffic and give priority to runners, walkers and bicyclists. This dangerous intersection would be a good place to start.

— Jonathan Krall, Alexandria

If there’s a safe way to slow down the traffic in that 40 mph zone without creating a new hazard, I hope the National Park Service will do it. A HAWK signal brings traffic to a stop whenever people who want to cross hit a button. Any device requiring frequent traffic stops on such a busy commuter route should raise concerns among all people who travel in the area.

The next letter urges drivers to be more responsible and prepare for stops.

Keep ‘park’ in parkway

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

While I can understand people’s need to express their gripes about commuting woes, it’s just beyond the pale to start criticizing the existence of a decades-old crosswalk in a national park and drivers who actually stop at them.

Even more intolerable is the total lack of outrage, and even acceptance, at the general disregard for both speed limits and basic due care by drivers traveling through the park. The crosswalk is there precisely to mitigate the threatening behavior of drivers in the first place, so it’s hardly appropriate for drivers to complain about having to stop.

It’s just fallacious to call stopping unsafe since that ignores all the responsibilities a driver has long before reaching the point where stopping is required. Being unable to stop pretty much means one is out of control, which is the central issue, not that there’s a crosswalk.

I remember from my driver education class long ago that drivers must monitor what is behind them in addition to what is ahead. If a driver is tailgating, then the recourse is to keep the speed down and if necessary gradually slow to a speed determined by that driver’s following distance. And drivers should be slowing anyway as they approach a crosswalk.

The proper solution here is to lower speed limits and increase the use of single lanes to keep speeds down and decrease the aggressive motivation to pass. As a side effect, this would probably improve traffic flow. It has now become evident that multiple lanes often entice drivers to pass unnecessarily and result in back and forth merging that compromises flow. National Park Service, please, do the right thing and protect the park, and not the opportunity of people to race through it.

— James Wagner, Bethesda

I also wish that all travelers — parkway drivers and trail users — would obey traffic laws. Many of them do. But on several visits to the Memorial Circle area, I saw failures on all sides. Some drivers speed and tailgate. Some trail users jaywalk, or they ignore stop signs and posted warnings advising them to dismount from bikes before crossing.

We need an engineered improvement to this hazardous situation, but it must take account of how all travelers really behave.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or
e-mail drgridlock@washpost.com .

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