Dear Dr. Gridlock:
My wife and I frequently use the George Washington Memorial Parkway between Alexandria and Spout Run. I saw my second near [accident] recently at about 7:20 a.m. at the crosswalk in the northbound lanes just north of the left exit for the Memorial Bridge and south of the Memorial Bridge itself. Motorists had to brake hard for a jogger.
This crosswalk is on a connector trail to the Mount Vernon Trail that runs alongside the parkway. It seems inherently dangerous to have a crosswalk for cyclists, walkers and joggers on a limited-access highway with a posted speed of 40 mph and real-world speed of 50-plus.
Since there are no stop signs or traffic signals on the northbound parkway, motorists do not expect to see a crosswalk, let alone bikers and joggers in their path, and I’m guessing most motorists and cyclists don’t know who actually has the right of way.
We often see joggers and cyclists enter the crosswalk with timing that forces oncoming traffic to brake hard.
Rerouting the trail is one possibility. A tunnel crossing under the parkway is another. New York City has resolved this on the bike path along the Hudson River through mid- and lower Manhattan by installing traffic signals for cyclists and pedestrians. That solution would require a stoplight for motorists on the parkway. If traffic flow trumps cyclists here, perhaps flashing warning lights and signage on the parkway would increase driver awareness.
— Frank V. Sharp, Alexandria
This crossing is notorious. Drivers and trail users debate how they should respond to each other. They cite traffic law and then debate how it should be interpreted. The one thing travelers tend to agree on is that the crossing must be changed.
The George Washington Parkway is a major commuter route. The Mount Vernon Trail is a major recreational path and bike commuter route. The crosswalk is as out of place on the parkway as it would be on any major highway.
Here’s the setup: There’s a white-striped crosswalk over two parkway lanes. On either side of the crosswalk, approaching drivers see a warning sign, the stick figure of a pedestrian. Approaching trail users see stop signs.
It probably would work fine, if humans weren’t involved. Drivers will exceed the speed limit if they possibly can.
Also, they’ve just negotiated a traffic split, staying right to remain on the parkway. Trees hang over the right lane as motorists travel what I estimate at 900 feet along the slightly curving roadway to the crosswalk. They don’t see a warning sign till they get there.
Some drivers come to a quick and complete stop when they spot people waiting to cross. This courteous behavior is dangerous. In theory, the following drivers should be alert, traveling at the speed limit, following at a safe distance and prepared for a sudden stop.
I wouldn’t bet my life on it. Neither would any sensible trail user. On the rare occasions when they do see a car stop as they wait at the side, they’ll pause to see what the drivers approaching in the second lane do. That leaves the driver halted in the first lane waiting patiently for someone to crash into him.
Chris Eatough, program manager at BikeArlington, who sometimes uses the trail crosswalk, had good advice for all travelers: “I wait for a gap that is definitely big enough to allow me to cross comfortably. If a car slows and waves me across, I am still very aware that another car may still continue at speed in the other lane, and I make sure that is not the case before crossing. I am very willing to wait and although it can seem like a long time, it’s never been longer than a one-minute wait for me.
“I recommend drivers be aware that there are crossings here and drive at the posted speed limit, but not stop for waiting cyclists and pedestrians in this location since it can cause confusion and even a crash.”
Gregory Billing, the outreach coordinator for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, is among many who have expressed interest in a relatively new type of crosswalk warning called a HAWK signal (High-intensity Activated crossWalK). It’s a way of making the crossing more visible, but any signal that would bring parkway-speed traffic to a stop is risky.
Eatough, Billing and many others look forward to a solution that separates the trail crossing from the parkway.
National Park Service officials are studying both short-term and long-term measures “with the highest emphasis on safety for all — pedestrians, bikers, joggers, as well as motorists,” said park service spokesman William Line.
Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or