City planners will install the District’s second traffic signal that allows pedestrian crossings in every direction, including diagonally, next month in Columbia Heights — a move that prioritizes pedestrians over cars in a dense, multimodal neighborhood.
The traffic signal known as a “Barnes dance” or “pedestrian scramble” is making a resurgence in urban areas across the country as people ditch cars in favor of walking and cycling.
The Columbia Heights “Barnes dance” signal — named for the late traffic engineer, Henry Barnes, who was a proponent of these pedestrian signals in many U.S. cities — will be installed at the intersection of 14th and Irving streets NW near the Metro station.
Planners at the District’s Department of Transportation say the intersection is used by about 3,500 pedestrians and 1,500 vehicles during the busiest hour of the afternoon rush on a typical day. George Branyan, a pedestrian coordinator at the city’s transportation agency, said the city hopes to avoid encounters between vehicles and pedestrians, particularly where cars turn onto 14th Street from one-way, eastbound Irving Street, which has seen collisions in the past.
Branyan said this type of traffic signal is optimal at intersections where pedestrians outnumber vehicles. The nation’s capital currently has one other such signal, at Seventh and H streets NW in Chinatown.
“What it means is that pedestrians get their own time within a traffic signal operation to go wherever they want in an intersection,” Branyan said.
These pedestrian-friendly traffic signals became popular in the United States in the 1940s, but fell out of favor as cars became more popular and federal disability laws became more stringent. A sidewalk must have a ramp at every direction where a pedestrian can cross, including the diagonal angle. And an intersection with a “Barnes Dance” signal can’t be so long diagonally that it would be difficult for someone with disabilities to cross within the allotted time.
One of the last of these signals in the District was removed at 14th and G streets NW in the 1980s, said Katherine Youngbluth, a strategic planner at DDOT. The Chinatown signal was installed in 2010.
Now, she said, they are proliferating in cities around the world, including Tokyo and San Francisco.
The new Columbia Heights “Barnes Dance” is part of the city's moveDC plan — a long-term, multimodal city transportation plan launched in 2014.
Branyan and Youngbluth said the city has considered installing a “Barnes Dance” signal at additional locations, although officials haven't found other intersections that meet the criteria. For instance, at Wisconsin Avenue and M Street NW in Georgetown, they determined that the sidewalks are too small to contain crowds that build while waiting for the traffic signal. A “Barnes Dance” signal typically means a longer wait time between walk signals, so more pedestrians crowd the sidewalk.
They also said they considered the signal at the bustling intersection of 14th and U streets NW, but found that the diagonal crosswalk could be too long a distance for people with certain disabilities to cross in time.
In Columbia Heights, the new signal will give pedestrians about 30 seconds to cross 14th and Irving streets in any direction while all cars are stopped. Youngbluth said the intersection will have a different rhythm than pedestrians and vehicles are accustomed to.
“We will have traffic control officers out there at the beginning to try and make sure that everyone understands,” she said.