Friday, October 29, 2010

Out of the box

photos © Bill Crandall

I love the idea of DC's first and only bike traffic lights at 16th and U Streets. The whole north and southbound configuration of contraflow lanes, the stopping point sensors, the signals themselves, the bike boxes - all very forward thinking and welcome.

It's also a disappointment, so far.

Of course I say this because I care, not to snark. The experience of using this setup, as I've done in all earnestness on a few occasions, can be confounding, unsettling, unpredictable, and devoid of that reassuring feeling I'm sure it could and should provide bikers. Occasionally the stars align and it works ok, but kind of by the skin of your teeth.

It's very important that it be improved. Failure or underachievement could be pointed to as a reason not to try it elsewhere in the District.

The contraflow lanes on New Hampshire Avenue coming from both directions are the best part. No real issues there. It's actually getting across the street by following the rules that is the problem.

Northbound, the sign explaining things to cyclists is pretty wordy and only slightly more accessible and sexy than an Ikea how-to manual.

If you position yourself dutifully at the stopping point, the bike traffic light itself is hard to see, across the street and somewhat obstructed. The timing is incredibly short, you need to be poised and ready. Once I missed it, then it didn't go green at all for three light cycles, even though I was right over the center of the sensors.

When it does change, and you don't miss a beat, you will often be greeted with this as you approach the bike box.

Ok, so I made it across (which required some shouting to make sure the bus driver saw me, he kept creeping up), now to try southbound. Signage is much cleaner, though a few bikers waited in vain well off to the side of the sensors, before eventually bailing out and going their own way.

First try across, hello Mr. Driver, whoopsie.

Second time all worked ok. So a reasonably happy ending.
Though it's sad how few cyclists seem to use all this as instructed. Who can blame them? When I did this experiment, I often felt like the sucker, getting nowhere. Unfortunately it seems simply easier, safer, and faster to improvise and use the normal signals and crosswalks.

DDOT, any 2.0 upgrades planned soon? I made my observations on a weekend, anyone know how things fare during normal rush hour?


update - response from Jim Sebastian, DDOT's Bicycle Program Manager:

Yes, we are aware of some of the shortcomings of the 16th and U intersection. We may make some short term changes, but there are 2 things going on this:

1) This is part of an approved experiment and we don't want to change too much before we do the evaluation.
2) The street, including this intersection will be reconstructed soon. We hope to incorporate what we've learned into that.

The data collection is ongoing, and the results should be available in the spring.

- Jim

James R. Sebastian
Supervisory Transportation Planner
Bicycle, Pedestrian, and Transportation Demand Management Programs
Policy and Planning and Sustainability Administration
District Department of Transportation

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