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New NE traffic pattern puzzles drivers -- and GPS devices

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 16, 2010; B01

At one of the least-loved intersections in the District, you must go right if you'd like to turn left, you have to go right and left if you want to go straight and there are two ways to turn left that weren't allowed before Monday.

"If you treat it as a circle instead of an intersection, you'll get it," said John Lisle, spokesman for the District Department of Transportation.

"Getting it" was a bit of a challenge for some this week as the new traffic pattern went into effect at New York and Florida avenues NE. And it might be months before the Global Positioning System devices relied on by drivers getting their first taste of the nightmarish boulevard catch up with the new traffic scheme. Traffic control officers on the scene helped, but the intersection is one of the more despicable outcomes from 18th-century urban designer Pierre L'Enfant's notion to overlay angled roads on the checkerboard street grid common to most cities.

Thus, New York and Florida is a cacophony of odd angles that marries five streets, requires more lights than a Christmas tree and routinely backs traffic up almost to the dark side of the moon.

Confusing as the new pattern might sound, it's designed to help, and Lisle believes it will once some additional signs are added to help people understand what it's all about. He wants drivers to envision a circle, but another way of looking at it is to drive around Wendy's, the burger joint that is at the epicenter of the new pattern.

In addition to providing daily frustration to commuters, New York Avenue is a scenic gateway to the city for tourists, providing a panoply of rail yards, cut-rate motels, gas stations, empty lots and abandoned warehouses.

It's also the scene of a string of bridge and street projects that have created a daunting gantlet of lane shifts, construction barrels and Jersey walls.

Tourists drawn to Washington by the promise of marble and granite majesty often look bewildered and a bit frightened as the roll along New York Avenue. For now, the device that has become the motoring tourist's best friend -- the GPS device -- will share their bewilderment.

When the machine says go straight on Florida Avenue, the signs will say that that requires going right on First Street, left on O Street and right back onto Florida. The GPS device -- or directions from Mapquest or Google -- may invite drivers to turn left onto southbound First Street, but the signs will say that to accomplish that from westbound New York Avenue requires a right onto Florida and a left onto First -- the around-Wendy's maneuver.

But these modern miracles have ways of catching up when traffic patterns are changed for convenience or by new construction -- the Wilson Bridge, the Springfield interchange or the Intercounty Connector.

Most of the GPS, mapping services and Internet sites get their information from just two companies, Tele-Atlas and NavTeq. Google maps still uses Tele-Atlas for international mapping, but recently took over updating its own maps in the United States.

Those companies synthesize information from a variety of different real-time sources to update the information they supply. They get information from government agencies, local traffic monitoring companies and their own vehicles, which head out onto the streets equipped with GPS devices and driven by trained traffic surveyors.

Tele-Atlas, which is owned by GPS manufacturer Tom-Tom, also asks owners of its devices to opt in to a program that allows their units to provide direct feedback.

"A majority of our drivers are opting in," said Erin Delaney of Tele-Atlas. "We get the data, and if it shows a particular change in a traffic pattern we investigate what has happened."

The New York and Florida Avenue changes probably would surface from the data collection.

NavTeq and Tele-Atlas provide their corporate customers comprehensive quarterly updates of the new information. That data is incorporated in mapping software or offered for retail purchase to owners of GPS devices.

Once those drivers get the updated information, their GPS unit will glide them through the Springfield "mixing bowl" or navigate them around Wendy's at New York and Florida.

"There are, however, a lot of consumers who purchase a device and never buy the updates," said Jessica Myers of Garmin, which offers updates online.

Those people will find the streets around Washington increasingly confusing.

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