By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 18, 2007
At home Wednesday night, watching the 11 o'clock news, George Branyan learned that two women had been struck and killed by a Metrobus in downtown Washington. The report said the tragedy had occurred at rush hour that evening as the women were crossing Pennsylvania Avenue at Seventh Street NW.
Right away, Branyan said, a sequence of events flashed in his mind.
"When I heard where the crash was and that the bus had hit the pedestrians in the crosswalk," he said, "my first thought was: The bus was moving north on Seventh and likely making that soft left-turn movement to the west-northwest, from Seventh onto Penn."
Precisely. The turn there isn't a sharp 90 degrees but is a wider, easier angle, and Branyan knew that drivers generally don't slow down as much as they should. "About 40 percent of pedestrian crashes at Seventh and Penn happen that way," he said.
As coordinator of pedestrian programs for the D.C. Department of Transportation, Branyan is assigned to make the city safer for people on foot. He is familiar with that perilous intersection near the Federal Trade Commission building, where the women worked, and other dangerous pedestrian crossings in the District.
But identifying trouble spots is just part of the job -- making them more hospitable to walkers is another matter and no easy task, transportation experts said. They said Wednesday's fatalities and other recent pedestrian deaths in the District illustrate the difficulty of managing busy urban streets and balancing the safety of thousands of pedestrians against another imperative: the need to keep traffic flowing.
"There isn't a simple solution, and there isn't one solution that's going to work at every location," said Colleen Mitchell, a transportation planner for Toole Design Group, a consulting firm hired by the District to pinpoint the city's 10 most hazardous stretches of road (not just intersections) for pedestrians and to propose solutions for each danger zone.
Branyan said the Hyattsville company began working on the $250,000 project in November and is expected to complete it by fall. The study is part of the District's new pedestrian master plan, an effort to make the nation's capital a more walker-friendly city.
"Intersections are very complex, and in urban areas, we're dealing with high volumes of traffic and people," Mitchell said. "A lot of thought has to go into the engineering to ensure that people on the ground and in vehicles are sharing the space safely."
Branyan said that in devising countermeasures to use at crosswalks along the most dangerous pedestrian traffic corridors, the consultants will "look at using all the things in the traffic planner's toolbox."
The possibilities include illuminated crosswalks, which would allow pedestrians, with the push of a button, to activate warning lights embedded along the width of the road.
In some places, officials might narrow intersections by adding curb extensions to the sidewalks at each end of a crosswalk to encourage drivers to slow down.
"And there's a technique called 'road dieting,' " Branyan said. "A lot of roads were over-designed in terms of their width and the number of lanes. Now, if all that does is create speeding problems and a longer distance for pedestrians to get across, then we'll be looking at narrowing some of those streets to reduce the speeds."
Deciding which hazardous areas will get which fixes will be the focus of careful study, officials said, because the wrong change in the wrong place could cause harm.
The Toole firm is analyzing pedestrian accident reports from 2000 through 2006 to identify the most dangerous stretches of road for walkers, and the city has compiled a roster of its 20 worst intersections, based on the number of people struck by vehicles from 1998 to 2004. Pennsylvania and Seventh ranks second on the city's list, with 16 accidents, behind Benning Road and Minnesota Avenue NE, with 19.
As part of developing the master plan, Branyan said, officials inspected the hazardous intersections in recent months, all of them on major traffic routes.
"We've made some signage changes, some changes to the pedestrian markings," he said. "We've made adjustments to some of the cycling [times] of the signals." But overall, he said, "everything that we found was already in good shape. Everything there was up to national standards."
At Pennsylvania and Seventh, Branyan said, the timing sequences of the pedestrian and traffic signals were upgraded, and higher-intensity bulbs were installed.
"We're still going to look to do some things there, play with the signal timing and try to relieve some of the pressure on pedestrians with this left-turn issue," he said.
But he said there is a ripple effect to consider. "Anything major that you do, something else will happen as a result" that could affect traffic for miles around.
Witnesses said the two Trade Commission employees, Sally Dean McGhee, 54, and Martha Stringer Schoenborn, 59, who were neighbors in Alexandria, were obeying the walk signal as they crossed Pennsylvania from the south. The bus driver, Victor Z. Kolako, 53, of Southeast Washington, was charged with negligent homicide.
The signal there gives walkers just 30 seconds to cross the nine lanes of Pennsylvania before vehicles on the avenue are allowed to proceed. On Seventh Street, for vehicles entering the intersection from the south, there is no red arrow to prevent them from turning left onto Pennsylvania while pedestrians are in the crosswalk.
Suppose walkers are given more time to cross. "I know it sounds easy, but there's a downside," Branyan said. The red lights would be longer on Pennsylvania, causing traffic to back up. Then, when the lights turn green, "you'd need more time to clear the intersection" of vehicles. As a result, "we'd have to tinker with the next intersection, and the next, and all the intersections along the corridor. Which is why it gets tricky."
Also, by extending the walking time, then extending the green lights for vehicles, the next group of pedestrians would have to wait longer than the usual 100 seconds to be cleared to walk. And Branyan said that studies dating to the advent of traffic signals have found that the longer pedestrians are forced to wait, the more likely they are to jaywalk.
As for a red arrow for traffic, Branyan said, pedestrians would have to stop when the arrow is green, increasing their waiting time and the likelihood of jaywalking. And, he said, a red arrow would impede traffic flow on Seventh, forcing complicated adjustments at preceding intersections.
On residential streets -- at Sargent Road and Emerson Street NE, for example, where a 6-year-old boy, J'lin Tyler, was struck and killed by a Jeep Cherokee on Feb. 9 -- planners also have to consider the unintended consequences of changes, Branyan said.
Neighbors bothered by traffic on side streets frequently demand more stop signs. But Branyan said many don't realize that stop signs at every intersection along a residential road tend to make motorists so impatient that they often speed up between the signs, creating a greater hazard.
After the boy was hit at Sargent and Emerson, a four-way stop, officials installed a raised stop bar, similar to a speed hump, to remind drivers of the stop signs.
"We've created a system where communities, working through their advisory neighborhood commissioners, can contact us and request traffic-calming studies on these residential streets," Branyan said. And where needed, he said, traffic-calming devices, mainly speed humps, will be put in.
In the end, though, planners can do only so much.
"It's up to the drivers," Branyan said. "We just have to get them to obey the law."