N.Y.-Fla. avenues' intersection becomes an even bigger head-scratcher

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 16, 2010; 2:31 PM

There are the boneheads, the brazen, the frustrated and the confused. What they all have in common is the ability to violate traffic laws at perhaps the region's most complex intersection.

It might not be accurate even to call the area where New York and Florida avenues come together an "intersection," since by strict definition an intersection is where "A and B" meet.

At the much-cursed place in Northeast Washington where (a) New York and (b) Florida come together, there also is (c) First Street and (d) O Street, plus the strong influences of (e) P Street and (f) Eckington Place.

If you count them all up, it's about 21 lanes of traffic tangling, and not one of the streets is at a 90-degree angle to another. Were New York and Florida not two of the capital's major arteries, the cacophony of weird angles might be just another quaint reminder of that French rascal Pierre Charles L'Enfant, who began designing the city before the dawn of the 19th century.

Traffic was light then, but it generally moved faster than it does during 21st century rush hour.

When the District announced that it was going to create an innovative new traffic pattern at the confluence of the various streets, many a frustrated commuter prayed that meant the daily backups would be alleviated.

Nice thought, but not the main reason for the overhaul.

"Safety was the primary reason for it," said John Lisle of the District Department of Transportation. "It's a complicated intersection. It was an issue of safety for the drivers and pedestrians."

Lisle said traffic engineers are still tweaking traffic-light timing to improve flow and resolve a problem or two.

"Overall, we feel the intersection is working well," he said.

It's too early to tell how much safer it may be, but commuters haven't noticed much improvement, and the changes have created a new set of problems.

Whether safety or congestion relief is its genesis, the new traffic pattern is both unique and revolutionary. It turns a bunch of angled streets into a sort of traffic circle, though there isn't a curve to be found anywhere.

It all revolves around a Wendy's, which is perfectly situated because it gives all of the traffic control officers somewhere to hang out between shifts. It usually takes four of them to keep the chaos under control.

"I don't get the sense that people are getting it at all," one of them, Ronnie Laster, said as he directed traffic there Wednesday. "If I take a lunch break, in just 10 minutes you'll see the difference."

Laster and his colleagues wear yellow reflective vests and gloves with stop-sign-shaped reflectors in their palms. They carry whistles that are used so much the area chirps like an off-key convention of songbirds.

When the new pattern debuted a few months ago, it seemed that the traffic control officers would remain until people adjusted to the new pattern.

"We are still planning some signal-timing adjustments," Lisle said. "Then the project manager expects to remove the traffic control officers, although they could be called on at times to help with the flow of traffic if needed, as they do in other parts of the city."

Playing to type

Three hours of observation on Wednesday revealed that people passing through the intersection divided into four basic groups, more or less reflective of driver types on congested roads everywhere.

The boneheads simply weren't paying attention - daydreaming, singing along to the radio or talking on cellphones. They caused trouble when a sudden awareness that they were in the wrong lane caused them to try to shift into a lane already full of cars, backing up traffic as they waited for an opening.

Boneheads are a particular problem on First Street above New York, where two lanes head south on First and three lanes funnel traffic to eastbound New York and southeast-bound Florida.

"When someone decides to go south on First and needs to change lanes, it's a problem," Laster said. "It seems minor but it becomes a major backup."

DeSea Johnson, who is homeless and panhandles from First Street drivers stuck in those backups, is a keen observer of the traffic pattern.

"Every day, they don't know where they're going," Johnson said. "They start honking their horns and just don't know what they're doing."

The brazen decide that the no-left-turn signs don't apply to them. They stop traffic while making an illegal left from New York onto Florida.

Frustrated drivers are guilty of several sins, the worst of which is blocking parts of the intersection when the light changes. And every time the light turns red on westbound New York in front of Wendy's, people who exuberate over having finally crossed Florida try to beat the light.

They don't. A traffic control officer steps out to stop them from blocking the box. A red-light camera at that intersection - the District has more than 50 elsewhere - probably would be the busiest in the city.

Braving the unfamiliar

Finally, there are the confused. Mike Murphy, another homeless man who panhandles at the intersection, has spent more time around New York and Florida than the traffic engineers who redesigned it.

"I don't think they did anything to alleviate the problem," Murphy said. "They made it more confusing.

"See those two cars stopped right there?" he said, pointing to a pair of vehicles trapped next to a New York Avenue island at First Street. "They don't know that they were supposed to stop back there."

Confusion seemed particularly apparent among older people, not because of their age but because they were familiar with the old patterns. A traffic control officer had to explain to a white-haired woman who had come south on Eckington Place that, no, you can't turn left onto Florida anymore. Instead, she had to circumnavigate Wendy's - catching a bit of First Street, New York Avenue and O Street - to get where she was headed on Florida Avenue.

"I think this city is weird," said Greg Rankin of Fairfax, standing in the Wendy's parking lot as he studied the intersection. Although he'd never been through it before Wednesday, he was familiar with L'Enfant's quirky design.

"He must have been getting us back for something," Rankin said.

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