The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A cyclist’s death, a dangerous crossing and D.C.’s struggle to reduce road fatalities

A makeshift memorial at the intersection of M Street and New Hampshire Avenue, where Jeffrey Hammond Long was struck days earlier. He died later of his injuries.
A makeshift memorial at the intersection of M Street and New Hampshire Avenue, where Jeffrey Hammond Long was struck days earlier. He died later of his injuries. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Traffic along M Street NW came to a stop for a few moments during Thursday’s evening commute — and not because of the typical rush hour gridlock.

More than 100 bicyclists pedaled down the street’s bikeway to the center of the intersection with New Hampshire Avenue NW. There, during the peak of the rush, they dropped their bikes to the ground and stood still.

It was the spot where cyclist Jeffrey Hammond Long, 36, had been struck days earlier. He died a day later of his injuries.

The moment of silence in honor of Long paralyzed the entire block of one of Washington’s busiest commuter routes. It moved bystanders to tears. It directed their attention to a bike that had been painted white and chained to the traffic light pole in memoriam. There were six photos hanging from it showing Long’s wide smile and a sign that read “A cyclist was killed here 7-7-18.”

Long’s death struck a chord among the region’s cyclists; he was the second killed in the city in two weeks. And he was the latest traffic fatality in a city where increasingly more people are commuting by bike and on foot — and where traffic deaths are also on an upward trend. Long was the 20th victim so far this year.

“He was full of life. Someone who was funny, thoughtful, engaging,” friend Adam Hodge said while holding up his phone to live-stream Thursday’s memorial. “It is tragic and people should know how great of a guy he was.”

Traffic deaths continue to soar despite cities’ pledges to get them to ‘Zero’

The past several years have seen an increase in both cycling and pedestrian deaths in the United States, and trends suggest that fatalities will continue to increase in 2018. In the District, where Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has pledged to end traffic fatalities by 2024, the number of victims has instead gone up. Half of those killed this year were either walking or biking.

Cyclist Malik Habib, 19, of Northeast, was killed June 23. Police said Habib was riding in the streetcar lane along H Street NE when his tire apparently became caught in a rail and he fell into the path of a charter bus.

Long’s death spurred a wide range of emotions among advocates and commuters — particularly because he was struck while traveling in a bike lane. He was hit by a driver making a right turn. There have been renewed calls for better enforcement of traffic laws and for the city to design its streets to make them safer for all users.

“It is not ok when cyclists get killed using bike lanes. It is not ok to die because a truck driver makes a right turn in front of you. It is not ok that our city’s biking infrastructure isn’t safer,” tweeted Rachel Maisler, an avid rider and member of the city’s bicycle advisory council. Maisler organized Thursday’s silent ride.

D.C. police are investigating the collision, and no determination was made whether the driver or Long was at fault. But, advocates said even without the specifics of the crash, the incident raises questions about street design.

M Street, one of the main arteries for protected bike lanes through downtown, carries as many as 550 cyclists in the morning rush hour alone. The intersection of M Street and New Hampshire Avenue, a few blocks south of Dupont Circle, was known as a trouble spot well before Long was killed. Two years ago, a pedestrian was killed while crossing the ­intersection; the driver fled. Since 2015, there have been at least ­seven crashes at the intersection involving bicyclists, according to city records.

Parts of the M Street bikeway, which stretches 14 city blocks from 14th Street NW to 28th Street NW, is protected with flexible bollards. But cyclists complain there are hazards all along the path — including poorly parked vehicles that block visibility for turning traffic and delivery trucks that illegally park in the bike lane.

The intersection with New Hampshire Avenue NW is particularly tricky. Here, the one-way westbound street is structured with a bike lane, a parking lane, three travel lanes and another parking lane. New Hampshire Avenue cuts across the city street grid at a 45- degree diagonal angle and M Street shifts to the south after the intersection. The angle of the road makes a right turn from M Street onto New Hampshire Avenue particularly sharp. It also creates a long crosswalk. Vehicles parked in the parking lane parallel to the bikeway hamper visibility of drivers trying to turn right.

The intersection also lacks separate signals for bikes and cars, as are available in some parts of downtown. There are no restrictions for right turns on red or on green, such as in other crossings where a turn is only allowed when there is a green arrow. And, it is one of the few places on M Street that doesn't have what’s known as a mixing zone — a way to get cars making right turns to cross over the bike lane before they reach the intersection.

“They didn’t bother with any of that at this intersection, which is arguably the one that needs it the most because it’s got the craziest angle,” said Monica Hope Morin, a bike commuter who uses the M Street cycle track occasionally. “This death was preventable.”

City engineers flocked to the intersection a day after the fatal crash to evaluate conditions, according to Jeff Marootian, director of the District Department of Transportation. He said any improvements will be determined after the police department releases its report on the particulars of the crash.

Marootian, who joined Thursday’s bike ride, said the city had not looked at making improvements to that particular intersection. However, as part of its commitment to a “Vision Zero” to end traffic injuries and fatalities, the city is working to improve 20 high-crash locations. He cites other improvements the city has made, including the recent addition of a protected bike lane in Georgetown.

“We are doing everything that we possibly can to make the city as safe as possible for everybody who travels here,” Marootian said.

Cyclists say chilling report on hit-and-run crashes points up need to redesign streets for safety

But with traffic deaths up for two consecutive years, the city’s strategy to lower traffic fatalities has come into question. There were 30 traffic fatalities last year, up from 28 in 2016. By July 11, the city had recorded 20 fatalities, two more than the same time last year, police records show.

Critics blame unmet commitments by city officials, chiefly several proposed Vision Zero regulations that have stalled for years, which include reduced speed limits in some zones and higher fines for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians who violate traffic laws.

A plan to require trucks to have side underride guards — which prevent pedestrians or bicyclists from being pulled underneath a vehicle — has also stalled. The city has equipped its fleet dump trucks with the safeguard, an official said. But it remains unclear if and when other vehicles, especially those not registered in the city, would be required to meet the standard.

“People are tired of hearing that this is a commitment to only see more people get killed,” said Greg Billing, an advocate with the Washington Area Bicyclist Association.

“People are upset. People are angry. People are frustrated,” Billing said. “Anytime things get complicated or get controversial or get hard, we walk back and compromise safety over a number of other concerns.”

Theft and destruction of dockless bikes a growing problem

Of the 20 traffic fatalities in the District recorded through July 11, two have been bicyclists and eight were pedestrians. Five were motorcyclists, three were drivers, one was a passenger and one was riding an ATV, according to police.

Long, who lived in Northwest, died at a hospital a day after he was struck. Police said he was riding in the designated bike lane. He and the truck driver were traveling west on M Street when the truck driver turned right onto New Hampshire Avenue, hitting him. Long was trapped beneath the truck, police said.

Officials and advocates worry that as more Americans commute by bike, the number of traffic injuries and fatalities will continue to rise. An estimated 34 percent of people in the United States above age 3 rode a bicycle in the past year, with the popularity of bike-share programs and millennials waiting longer to get driver's licenses contributing to the uptick in bicycling, officials say. In 2016, federal statistics show that 840 bicyclists were killed in crashes, as were nearly 6,000 pedestrians.

“It could be any of us,” said Matthew Sampson, 26, who painted the white bike for Long’s memorial. “People should look at this bike and see a person.”

Ashley Halsey contributed to this report.