Modified Barnes Dance crossing gets a spin in the District

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Fairly regularly, older Washingtonians will ask me why the District doesn't bring back a style of pedestrian crossing they remember from many decades ago. It's called a Barnes Dance, for Henry Barnes, the traffic engineer who championed the technique, which others know as the pedestrian scramble.

At a certain point in the traffic cycle, all the lights turn red for drivers and the pedestrians can cross the intersection in any direction. It looks a bit like a big dance, and it offers some advantages in pedestrian safety. But it died out in the District as the streets became more congested and drivers and walkers became less patient.

The District Department of Transportation plans to revive the technique -- sort of -- at one of the city's busiest intersections, near the Verizon Center. Adam Tuss reported the plan on WTOP (1050 AM), and I asked DDOT spokesman John Lisle about it.

Lisle described what the District plans to launch Wednesday as an "Enhanced Barnes Dance." Pedestrians still will get green lights to walk directly across the roads at 7th and H streets NW, as they do now. But they also will get a cycle of almost half a minute in which they can cross the intersection diagonally. Pavement markings and diagonal "Walk" signals are being installed. Signs will explain what's going on and brochures will be handed out.

In addition to the extra red-light time, drivers will notice that they cannot make a turn at this intersection. DDOT's traffic control officers will be at the intersection for at least two weeks to make sure everyone plays by the new rules.

Because so many people ask me about this type of crossing, I've discussed it several times with George Branyan, the District's pedestrian program coordinator and an advocate for safe and sensible walking. He always said there were intersections where it would be worth a try, but it had to be done carefully.

A traditional Barnes Dance can back up traffic in all directions. Also, walkers don't like to wait through the extra time it takes to get a green light in all directions. If they think they can make it, they'll try to cross when they've still got a red light. Aside from being dangerous, this slows traffic and increases congestion.

The modified style the District is planning could solve some of those problems. The intersection at 7th and H is a logical place to experiment because there are about as many pedestrians as vehicles using it.

If the crossing method improves safety and traffic flow, great. Maybe it could serve as a model for other intersections. Branyan once told me that M Street and New Jersey Avenue SE might be a candidate, because many people already cross the intersection diagonally to travel between the Navy Yard Metro station and U.S. Department of Transportation offices.

If the change creates too much congestion or pedestrians can't control themselves despite the extra green cycle, the city can always go back to the standard crossings.

DDOT has been experimenting with different ways to increase safety at intersections, and I think this Barnes Dance modification is worth a try, too. What do you say?

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