Housing Complex

Walk This Way: Expanding Pedestrian and Bike Safety to the Whole District Won’t Be Easy

(Darrow Montgomery)

On Monday morning, District Department of Transportation Director Gabe Klein sat at a dais at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments boardroom, next to the Dutch ambassador and other Netherlandish dignitaries. They were there to talk about how their country makes it easy to bicycle, before mobile workshops that would assess D.C.’s bike friendliness.

Although the Dutch could brag about their capacious bike parking facilities and dedicated cycle tracks, it wasn’t wholly an instructor-student dynamic. In many instances, the foreigners ended up praising D.C.’s bicycling infrastructure, from signage to new bike lanes to high usage of helmets. Klein tapped away at his Android phone for parts of the presentation–he’s familiar with the Dutch innovations, having brought a few of them to D.C. already–and looked up to smile at photos of children cycling to school. When his turn at the mic came, Klein delivered a stirring encomium to bold action for a bike-centric city.

“We can’t say we want to be more sustainable, but we also want to widen our roads and make it easier to drive, it just doesn’t work that way," he said. “I’ve wanted to be more aggressive over the last few years than we have been."

Even in the confined political environment of Washington–where many streetscape changes have to be vetted by multiple levels of city and federal government–Klein has hurled himself into elevating pedestrians and bikes over cars, with the idea of increasing both access and safety (a tricky thing, since more people on foot and two wheels means more targets for vehicles to hit). Aside from a few high-profile reversals–like the wide Pennsylvania Avenue NW bike lanes that later had to be slimmed down–he’s mostly gotten his way. DDOT is now retrofitting so many streets for bikes that the agency is trying to figure out how to contract out the work, rather than doing it all in-house. One need: More paint stripers, to keep up with all the traffic flow revisions the agency wants.

Some of these initiatives started before Klein replaced Emeka Moneme, an elaborately credentialed management professional who left for a higher-paying job at Metro. Most, though, accelerated during Klein’s 20-month tenure. The department had bike and pedestrian specialists, but Klein says they were “hampered by the rest of the organization not getting, or prioritizing, bike and ped work"; he gave them more authority and visibility. Klein set a goal of installing 80 miles of bike lanes; 49 have been done. For traffic calming, 782 speed humps have been installed in the last two years. In Chinatown, pedestrians can now cross diagonally at one intersection, in a throwback traffic management scheme known as a “Barnes dance."

Klein also became ubiquitous. He went to community meetings, appeared on radio shows, started a blog and a Twitter account, narrated YouTube videos, gave out his e-mail and phone number, and even showed up at this year’s antiquarian Tweed Ride. At every chance he gets, he uses that public profile to coax people out of their cars.

What’s stopping the DDOT director now? It’s true that Klein could be replaced in a Vince Gray administration, though his position is considered to be safer than those of some other cabinet members. Assuming he stays on, the biggest obstacle to the development of a walkable, bikeable city is, in many parts of the city, a dearth of places to walk and bike to.

There’s not much point in putting down a bike lane that runs for miles before getting to a grocery store, after all, or putting in stoplights when there aren’t enough pedestrians to use them. Places like Adams Morgan and Dupont Circle were only waiting to be connected by bike paths; drivers there are already used to dealing with foot traffic. But in the suburban expanses of Wards 4, 5, 7, and 8, where parking is plentiful and amenities scarce, Klein’s DDOT could find itself waiting for development to catch up.


Barnes dancing at 7th and H Street NW. (Darrow Montgomery)

The challenges to making D.C. foot-friendly are baked into the street design. The long, grand avenues that give the center city its vistas turn into speedways to the suburbs on the outskirts. When they intersect downtown, they create irregular traffic patterns that confuse drivers. Those oddities might be why D.C. has a higher pedestrian accident rate than comparable cities. In 2008, the latest year for which the Federal Highway Administration keeps data, 26.5 percent of people killed in traffic accidents here were pedestriansªthe highest rate in the country.

Pedestrian deaths have stayed fairly steady, though, while the number of people walking and biking to work has increased. Which is due at least in part to the efforts of George Branyan, DDOT’s pedestrian coordinator since 2005. Branyan, an avid cyclist, has been applying a box of tools to D.C. streets to shift the balance of power from cars to pedestrians.

Take signaling. Something as simple as letting pedestrians walk before the light turns green for cars can cut pedestrian accidents dramatically, since drivers see people in the crosswalk before turning right. DDOT has installed some 50 of these “leading pedestrian intervals." They’re also piloting what’s called a “hawk signal," for intersections that don’t have a full stoplight, at Georgia Avenue and Hemlock Street NW. A pedestrian pushes the button, and one bulb flashes yellow before another bulb starts flashing red, which means cars stop briefly and it’s safe to cross. For the least busy streets, there’s a simple flashing LED light that pedestrians can activate to notify cars at night.

How does DDOT know these types of things work, after a short pilot? It’s all about driver compliance rates. To test them, DDOT staffers will activate the signal, walk into the road, and record how many times cars stop. On a regular crosswalk with no signals, only about one in four cars will stop, on average. With the hawk signal, that number goes up to 97 percent.

Beyond signaling, there’s the physical shape of streets. One by one, DDOT is making its way through the city’s major arterials, taking away lanes when the traffic volume doesn’t justify them–both Sherman Avenue NW and Pennsylvania Avenue SE invited speeding, and will be slimmed down to prioritize bikes and pedestrians. Next, Branyan wants to take on Maryland Avenue NE on Capitol Hill.

That’s all engineering. Laws about traffic safety, though, need to be enforced, which the Metropolitan Police Department probably doesn’t have the resources to do. (Unless you’re in Ward 3, or other low-crime areas–there, Branyan says, you’re more likely to get a jaywalking ticket than anywhere else.) The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments-sponsored Street Smart campaign escalates enforcement for a few weeks twice a year, just to remind people of what the laws areªbut after the crackdown ends, it’s easy for drivers to forget.

To fill in the gaps, MPD already has 52 red light cameras that record infractions, and is looking at much more sophisticated technologies that can pick up bad behavior even away from traffic signals, take down license plates, and send you a ticket in the mail. With no police overtime, electronic surveillance can dramatically reduce dangerous behavior like rolling right turns at red lights, now subject to a $100 fine.

Fundamentally, psychology matters, says transportation planning consultant Jennifer Toole, whose Toole Design Group designed D.C.’s pedestrian master plan in 2009.  “We’ve learned a lot more about what compels a driver to be cognizant of a pedestrian," she says. “We know it takes more than just putting a crosswalk down."


One of DDOT’s recent initiatives have been “livability studies," so far targeted at three neighborhoods, where residents are participate in a community planning process to guide transportation infrastructure investment. Poring over maps, they circle problem intersections, point out where bus shelters should go, and flag streets that lack sidewalks. Although the most pedestrian fatalities occur in densely packed Ward 2, if more people ditch their cars in lower-density wards, they’ll need streetscape improvements to stay safe. (On upper Connecticut Avenue, citizens undertook a similar project themselves, presenting their desired improvements to city agencies; other neighborhoods need a little more nudging).

But the biggest obstacle to alternative transportation, says the Far Northeast study’s community liaison Samuel Jordan–including Deanwood, Benning, and Capitol View–is simply the lack of destinations.

“It’s almost as if the community were made more attractive to cyclists, there would be more people using bikes, but then, you still have the question of destinations," Jordan says. “Bicycle to where? You need destinations to make the bicycling worthwhile."

Driving cash into things like grocery stores and coffeeshops is beyond DDOT’s power. But the department has leverage when it works with the Office of Planning, which creates blueprints for neighborhood growth that can include commercial development as well as transportation improvements. DDOT can also connect far-flung, relatively uncrowded neighborhoodsªwhich some residents like pleasant and sereneªto downtown with transportation routes. The popular Circulator bus service, for example, will likely soon run a line across the Anacostia River. And the 11th Street Bridge will be the most accessible connection yet for car-free transportation.

To support DDOT’s efforts, the D.C. Council instituted a Pedestrian Advisory Council this spring, with each councilmember getting one appointment. It’s chaired by Neha Bhatt, deputy state policy director at the national advocacy group Smart Growth America and a former staffer to Ward 6 Councilmember and walkability champion Tommy Wells. Bhatt is also a Ward 7 resident, and says she doesn’t lack for transportation options: She rides her bike to work every day, and takes a Zipcar when she needs to drive. During the six years she’s lived east of the river, Bhatt says she’s started to notice more commuters crossing the Benning Road Bridge on bikes.

But it hasn’t been all easy. A few years ago, Bhatt got into a serious accident, and it took her a long time to get back in the saddle. This last summer, she was hit again by an SUV while riding on the sidewalk. Now, she bubbles with ideas and plans, from pushing ped-friendly legislation to leading walking tours.

And she’s in a hurry. Having a pedestrian master plan is great, Bhatt says–but it should move faster.

“Instead of taking 10 years, let’s get it done in two years," she says.

  • Sylvia B, ANC7C04

    Good article that really highlights the importance of economic development, land use & transportation policies cannot happen in a vacuum. Klein & Tregoning were on same page but DMPED's Santos wasn't always there (consider the Minn-Benn Donatelli development & no expectation to address the bridge & roadway). It's almost like there needs to be an approach like inclusionary zoning applied to development & transportation options.

  • j

    Great article. Insightful. Promising. DDOT has been remarkable. Truly.

  • EP Sato

    So where's the part of the article where we hear about DDOT's work to make bicyclists actually follow traffic signals (like stopping red lights and stop signs, which bikers seem to think are "optional"), registration of bikes to pay for the services bikers are demanding (like their own lanes) and DDOT's new regulations that would have bicyclists pay insurance like all the other vehicle operators of the city? Oh wait, there isn't one? Riiiiiiight.

    So, explain to me again why every city seems to kiss the butts of people who ride bikes? because they are "green"? Please. Hybrids are "green", yet their owners still have to pay for registration, insurance and get ticketed when they violate traffic laws.

  • jb

    Hybrids may be green but they are not in the same league as bicycles when it comes to environmentally friendly transportation.

  • Mark Noll

    EP Sato:
    Drivers don't pay for the full cost of building and maintaining roads. Plus, there are additional environmental and social costs that are not factored in to the current price of gas, registration, etc.

    Providing bicycle lanes allows for a more equitable transportation system that benefits those who cannot/choose not to drive and reduces the social and environmental costs cuased by autombiles. By encouraging more people to ride bicycles, bike lanes reduce congestion on roadways, reduce health care costs by encouraging physical activity, and make the air cleaner for us all.

    For an activity that provides lots of benefits to the community, DDOT provides incentives that encourage this behavior. This includes providing more bicycle lanes and financial incentives (like no taxes and registration fees).

    You're welcome.

  • Steve

    EP Sato, shall we begin licensing pedestrians next? They do take up space, I believe. I'd say you're missing the point about the impact that a car has vs a bike or vs a pedestrian. And we're all paying for the roads, no matter whether we buy gas or not. Local roads are not funded primarily by the gas tax, and even the federally funded roads aren't having anywhere close to 100% of their cost paid for by the gas tax. We're all buying the road space, my friend.

    As far as obeying the rules, I'm sure all the drivers behind me would love it if I started taking the full lane at 10 mph on 16th Street everywhere I go, which is completely legal. Or pulling between stopped cars at a light and pulling to the front of the queue. Also legal. Drivers don't actually want bikers to fully follow the letter of the law anymore than many bikers actually do.

  • sportmac

    EP Sato, sorry pal, but I have a car and pay registration and insurance and average less than 2500 miles a year in it. On my bike I average over 7000 miles a year.

    I also pay property tax and, well, pretty much every single tax DC has to offer.

    I want a discount on my registration and insurance and anything else that brilliant mind of yours can think of.

    As for stopping at lights and such, basically obeying the traffic rules. I agree. But I'm sure bikers will feel more guilty about it when cars start obeying the traffic rules.
    I mean, have you stood at a corner recently? Try it sometime. Try, just try, to count the cars that are speeding, running red lights, making right turn on red, rolling through stop signs, talking on their phones... give it a go.

    The difference it that they are in 1 to 3 ton missiles and they main can kill pretty darn easy by breaking those rules.

    Get a grip.

  • David Ricks

    "How does DDOT know these types of things work, after a short pilot? It’s all about driver compliance rates. To test them, DDOT staffers will activate the signal, walk into the road, and record how many times cars stop."
    These DDOT staffers must be the bravest pedestrians in the world.

  • Agree w/El Sato

    When will Cyclist and Pedestrians start obeying the laws? Nothing irks me more than when they drive 10mph or less in front of me and i have no lane to move around them and then at the redlight or stopsign they just barrel through. I think MORE enforcement to cyclist and pedestrians with headphones or texting need to be implemented.

    The way the system is set up now no matter what is it the drivers fault yet probably more often than not it's the carelessness of the cyclist and pedestrians that cause the accident.

  • ap

    'Agree w/El Sato', I think we all need to remember there are people driving these things, so yes, both will be guilty of making mistakes that endanger the other and we all need to exercise a saintly amount of patience. I travel DC from all points of view, so I know the irk you speak of when trapped in your lane, but I also know the vulnerability of encouraging a car to blow by a bike when you know you won't have enough room if the car passes.
    Please keep in mind, as your blood starts to boil at the next irksome thing done to you, how squishy cyclists are if they fall under your car's wheels.

  • Motorist

    Sato is on the right track!! Bicyclist answer to neither ped nor auto rules and laws. Yesterday on 15th Street NW where ddot has made it impossible for autos by making bike lanes and the stupid ass parking scheme I encountered cyclist who would not adhere to the cycle lane. I am constantly finding myself face to face with a cyclist approaching from the wrong direction on a one way street @ about 30mph and no lights or reflectors. Fuck all cyclist until they adhere to the law. They may be GREEN but until some controls are put on them and enforced the traffic deaths may rise.

  • metu

    Cars kill 3,300 people a day around the world. That's 1.2 million a year.
    Of the top 25 causes numbers 6 and 7 are running red lights and running stop signs.
    No. 1 is distracted driving, 2 is speeding.

    Distracted driving. They are the number one reason that 3,300 people die a day. People talking on phones and texting.

    The no. 12 reason is wrong-way driving. That's right, enough cars go down roads the wrong way and kill people to be no 12 on the list.

    There are over 6 million car accidents in the US every year. That's roughly 16,500 a day. They account for 55% of spinal injuries in the US. Roughly 40% of those accidents are rear-end accidents. Many of these people suffer permanent disability. That means they are crippled for life.

    You people who are out of sorts over bikers running red lights and who are annoyed that you're delayed a few minutes need to step back and look at what you're saying. Fuck all cyclists until they adhere to the law? What the hell. Fuck all cars until they stop killing and maiming people.

    Seriously, what is with you?

  • fear the hawk

    One of the hawk signals was installed at my corner, an area that saw a quick rise in population density through housing construction and the arrival of a grocery store. I like it, don't get me wrong, though I had asked for a regular stoplight.

    The problem is that it was rolled out with no driver education. So even if the front cars see the light and stop, cars behind them will try to swoop around them and my life flashes before my eyes. It's not a tool DC drivers are accustomed to, and I don't even know how seriously they should take it: does ignoring it carry any penalty, like ignoring the extended STOP sign on a school bus, or a red light? I'm not recommending education by penalty, i.e. setting up a ticket trap for the swoopers, but some/any kind of education, via TV news, small PSA's, I don't know what, would make this a more effective tool for pedestrian safety, rather than the almost-comical addition to pedestrian endangerment it is now (at least where I live).

  • Motorist

    >metu you must be a cyclist , you don't get the point. 3300 people a day around the world dumb-ass, we are discussing WASHINGTON, DC not the world!! With people like you thinking bicycles should answer to no one more people will be hurt and killed. Motorist do not have a vendetta against cyclist, in many cases cyclist take the same arrogant, rude posture you do. In a car you may not always see a bike that travels at a high rate of speed in ones blind spot and travels virtually silent.

  • Kevin

    I bicycle through the city, and to the fury of many of you, yes I break some of the rules. But you've got to consider that bikes are not equal to cars for three main reasons (all related); their speed, their weight, and their stopping potential.

    At 10-17mph on a 30lb bike, I can full-stop in at MAX two car lengths, letting me avoid any potential collision from any vehicles in sight.

    Consider too, that from a standstill, and with the full fury of my pedaling, my acceleration rate (and top speed) pales in comparison to cars. Do you want to wait behind me at a green light as I reach for my top speed of 15mph? Test studies (mine) say "no," as impatient drivers go into oncoming traffic lanes just to get around.

    Bicyclists are responsible for riding the correct direction and having correct lighting and safety gear. Should they also be beholden to traffic laws written without them (or road raging city drivers) in mind? My sense of self-preservation says no.

  • metu

    Motorist - you're is a singular wit. dumbass. snap. dude, if you were standing in front of me you'd wet yourself before that word ever passed your lips. so drop the keyboard cowboy act, nobody is buying it.

    since we're discussing washington dc, it's one of the top ranked cities for pedestrians getting hit and being killed. how's the fit for your argument? it's cars that are killing and maiming in washington dc.

    there, you feel all better now pumpkin?

  • Motorist

    I would love to be stand in front/over your sorry ass, Little Posy. I question your manhood and would love to prove you have none. I hope we meet at an accident, me running over your sweet ass.

  • Motorist

    > metu--I would love to be stand in front/over your sorry ass, Little Posy. I question your manhood and would love to prove you have none. I hope we meet at an accident, me running over your sweet ass.

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