On Nov. 16, 2012, I had occasion to try the cycletrack on 15th St. NW in Washington, DC. The track is in two parts. The southern part, about 3 blocks long, runs on the west side of 15th between Pennsylvania Ave./E St. and New York Ave., alongside the US Treasury Department. At New York a cyclist can turn west on the former part of Pennsylvania Ave. that passes directly in front of the White House, where the street has been converted to a non-motorized plaza for security reasons. Cyclists can ride there in order to reach streets to the west, including 17th and the continuation of Pennsylvania toward the northwest.
Does this cycletrack improve cyclist safety?
Clearly, no. By its very nature, it cannot.
The cycletrack on 15th St. between L and M streets (Fig. 1), is separated from the travel lanes by plastic reflectorized bollards and a striped buffer about 2-3 feet wide. This is a two-way track, with each lane approximately 4 feet wide (I’m estimating this, as I didn’t have a tape measure with me.). Four feet is one foot narrower than AASHTO’s guideline for bike lanes alongside a curb, which the southbound cycletrack lane effectively is.
In addition to there not being any other physical barrier between the cycletrack and the travel lanes, there is the additional danger of pedestrians crossing the track not only to reach the east side of 15th (which they can do legally by using the traffic signals at each intersection) but also to board and alight from public buses, which run frequently on 15th due to its central downtown location and convenience to several Federal government buildings that employ hundreds of people each.
I observed people standing in the cycletrack waiting for buses, not just when boarding or disembarking. And on a previous trip to DC I noted a police car parked in the cycletrack, completely blocking it. If there is any positive feature of this cycletrack, it’s that there are no street or driveway intersections on the west side of 15th St.
This track seems to get heavy use, because it connects directly to the highly-touted (but of dubious safety) Pennsylvania Ave. bike lane, which runs down the middle of that avenue between 15th and the Capitol.
The northern part of the cycletrack begins at K St. and continues north to about Florida Ave., a distance of about 12 blocks. (It may go farther, but that’s as far north as I went.) From Massachusetts Ave. north, 15th is one-way northbound; elsewhere it is two-way. Google Earth shows that this portion of 15th formerly had a contra-flow bike lane southbound and shared lane markings in lieu of a bike lane northbound. Evidently, one traffic lane was removed and all bike “accommodation” was placed on the west side of the street. The city apparently believed that 15th St. had excess capacity, so one travel lane was removed. Whether or not this is true, I cannot say, as I don’t normally use this part of 15th when in DC.
The northern portion of the cycletrack has two lanes 4 feet wide (estimated), again not meeting AASHTO guidelines for the southbound lane, which is against the west curb of the street. The track is separated from the travel lanes by the same type of bollard used on the southern portion, and also by a line of parallel parking. The bollards are in a striped buffer between the track and the parking lane. The buffer appears almost wide enough to prevent dooring collisions, for on the one-way portion, the left (driver’s) side doors open into the buffer.
At each street and driveway intersection, there is a yellow diamond warning sign telling motorists to stop for bikes in the cycletrack and for pedestrians on the adjacent sidewalk. However, a motorist’s view of bikes is hindered by the presence of parked cars (Fig. 2). This increases the risk of turning and crossing collisions at every street and driveway intersection. We know that about 80% of all car-bike collisions occur at intersections, so the cycletrack does not mitigate against this hazard. In fact, it increases the hazard because bicycles are traveling in both directions on the west side of the street, whereas in the absence of a cycletrack or bike lane, cyclists would be traveling in only one direction—the same direction as motor vehicles.
At signalized intersections, cyclists are informed by signs to obey the pedestrian signals (Fig. 3), which are placed below and slightly to the left of the vehicle signals on the mounting poles—DC uses mostly pole-mounted signals on the corners, not overhead signals. This makes the ped signal less prominent, hence, less visible.
At each intersection, the ped signal changes to “walk” 2-3 seconds before the regular signal turns green, thus giving bikes and peds a slight head start into the intersection before traffic is allowed to move. At most (perhaps all—I did not notice) intersections, left turns are controlled by a separate signal that is red while the ped signal says “walk” or flashes “don’t walk.” The ped signals count down the number of seconds remaining before a steady “don’t walk” signal is lit; this gives cyclists a clue as to whether or not they can safely beat the light before left turns get a green arrow.
Another feature of the cycletrack is a “flare-out” for northbound bikes for the last 25-50 feet before each street crossing (Fig. 4). I presume this is to allow a better sightline for motorists coming out of cross streets or driveways. But there is no flare-out for southbound cyclists, and their lane is closer to the edge of the street, and therefore closer to motorists entering from the side, than the northbound lane. One or two parking spaces are removed to allow for the flare-out, which slightly improves motorists’ sightlines for same-direction cyclists. However, there are no flare-outs at driveway intersections.
Since this was mid-November and the trees were shedding their leaves, I found one place where leaves almost completely covered the cycletrack (Fig. 2). I do not know if the city sweeps the track on a regular basis to remove leaves and other debris, or whether street sweepers are narrow enough to fit onto the cycletrack. I do not recall seeing any signs indicating when street sweeping occurs. If cyclists were riding in the travel lanes, leaves and debris would be largely absent because the air turbulence created by traffic would sweep these things aside, into the parking lane or to the curb —- in other words, full-time natural (and no-cost) street cleaning. This also raises the question of whether snow is removed from the cycletrack on the same schedule as from the rest of the street.
As in many cities, most of the cyclists I saw in my travels were unskilled in safe cycling techniques and ignored traffic laws. Even with this limited observation, it was clear to me that the cycletrack does not promote safer cyclist behavior. In fact, being bi-directional on a one-way street subtly implies that wrong-way cycling is OK, and in this case even encouraged. This area of Washington has a complete grid network, so one doesn’t have to go more than one block in either direction to find a street that allows traffic in the opposite direction.
So, does this cycletrack improve cyclist safety? Clearly, no. By its very nature, it cannot, for several reasons:
1) It permits and even encourages wrong-way cycling.
2) Its location behind the row of parallel parking keeps cyclists out of motorists’ sight until immediately before intersections, thus preventing the kind of mutual cognition and negotiation that reduce turning and crossing conflicts.
3) Cyclists get less “green time” at signalized intersections because they are expected to obey the pedestrian signal, not the vehicle signal. Green time is also reduced for left-turning motorists because the left-turn signal is red while the ped signal is green (or white). The shorter green time makes cycling trips longer, and this undoubtedly encourages red-light running by cyclists.
4) The risk of turning and crossing collisions is, at best, not reduced and more likely is increased, because motorists entering or crossing 15th St. from driveways or stop sign-controlled streets will encounter bike traffic in both directions instead of only one. Because cycletracks and contra-flow bike lanes are used in only a few locations in Washington, it’s likely that motorists are not fully accustomed to looking both ways for approaching cyclists. Cyclists are also less visible to motorists crossing 15th St. from east to west because the cycletrack is hidden from their view by parking.
I did not have time to ride the cycletrack southbound and for safety reasons I have no desire to do so. The next time I have my bike in Washington and I need to travel north out of downtown, I’ll use a street other than 15th, where I can expect traffic to operate in a conventional, more predictable, manner.