D.C. turns plan for Pa. Avenue bike lanes outside in

By Robert Thomson
Sunday, June 13, 2010; C02

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Bike lanes are the latest favorite subject in this city where the quest for the politically correct seems constant. And they doubtless can do a lot of good.

But has anyone looked at how much other traffic is slowed down on Pennsylvania Avenue when two lanes are reserved for bikers? I had a very slow cab ride to the Capitol at midday last week, and saw exactly one bicyclist using the lanes.

-- Adam Clymer,

The District

Gabe Klein, transportation director for the District, seems to be following the guidance attributed to Daniel Burnham, designer of Union Station: "Make no little plans."

When Klein and his team decided to expand downtown street access for bicyclists, a goal that always generates conflict with motorists, he didn't start with the far right lane of some alphabetized side street. He went to the middle of the most famous ceremonial avenue in the nation.

There, on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, the original plan called for converting the left lanes in each direction into bicycle lanes.

Perhaps Klein was thinking of Capt. John Parker's advice to his men on Lexington Green: "If they mean to have a war, let it begin here."

Clymer's letter, which arrived in late May, reflected the concerns of people in motor vehicles, as well as their confusion: There are so many of us and so few cyclists. Why take away two whole lanes?

Klein, like Capt. Parker, revised his plans. The new version, likely to be operational later this month, restores the car lanes and puts the bike lanes in the median.

But Klein told me last week that he didn't do it because of driver complaints.

When he got a chance to look at the paint put down on Pennsylvania in preparation for the new bike lanes, he said, "I started to question how safe it would be for cyclists once we removed the orange cones."

When the temporary barriers were removed for a test, cars retook the bike lanes, he said. An idea that appeared great on paper looked somewhat risky on pavement. Cyclists, knowing they were in lanes set up for bikes only, might not be as wary about the presence of cars. Motorists might simply be confused and cross over.

"We applaud the city for revisiting the issue and for putting safety and practicality first," AAA Mid-Atlantic's John B. Townsend II said in an e-mail. He said AAA's concerns focused on whether the design would increase the number and severity of car-cycle crashes and whether the design would impede mobility for all.

Drivers and cyclists need to share expectations as well as space on such a busy route, and this new plan takes us in that direction. But it does raise this issue: By attempting to reduce confusion between drivers and cyclists, will the District's new plan create confusion between cyclists and pedestrians in the median?

That's on the mind of Shane Farthing, the new executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. "WABA appreciates the District's efforts to incorporate bicycle lanes on this portion of Pennsylvania Avenue," he wrote in an e-mail, "but we are concerned that the reconfiguration may create a dangerous competition for space between cyclists and pedestrians in certain places -- most notably at the brick pedestrian refuges."

Klein thinks the realities of Pennsylvania Avenue will limit such conflicts. First of all, he said, there aren't hordes of pedestrians waiting in the middle. People tend to make it all the way across on the first try. Second, he said, sight lines on Pennsylvania are very good. A cyclist can see pedestrians a long way off, slow down and avoid them.

This is my main concern about the new version, and I hope DDOT will be monitoring the potential pedestrian conflicts closely. I think Klein's concern about the car-bike conflict and the decision to revise the plan is quite reasonable.

I was especially glad to hear him say the Pennsylvania Avenue experience will inform, rather than delay, the overall effort to put more bike lanes in downtown Washington.

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