Washington, DC: Separating the Pennsylvania Avenue Green Lane with “Zebras”

June 7, 2013

David Cranor

Though the Pennsylvania Avenue green lane has been a success, it has had a major problem with U-turning cars illegally crossing the lanes. To remedy this, the District Department of Transportation(DDOT) wants to add a new protective device called “the zebra.”

The section of Pennsylvania Avenue that runs from the White House to the Capitol has long been at the heart of Washington, DC and was historically the city’s main street. It’s also a street with a long history of cycling. In fact, the 1974 Pennsylvania Avenue Plan contained a provision for the avenue to have bicycle and bus lanes on the outside. More recently, the 2005 Bicycle Master Plan targeted the avenue for bike lanes. But over the next five years, and partly in response to a challenge from Rep. Earl Blumenauer at the National Bike Summit, DDOT decided to go with a separated bike facility instead. However, in March of 2010 plans to use safe-hit flex poles and a bike lane painted green were shot down by the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts (CFA), which has an advisory role on changes to historic Pennsylvania Avenue. DDOT modified the design, removing the paint and limiting the use of poles, and installed bike lanes in the place of the avenue’s existing inner-most lanes. However, before those lanes could open and in the face of political opposition to what amounted to a road diet, DDOT reversed course, removed the new bike lanes and instead installed them in the existing median

While a 2012 evaluation of the bike lanes showed that bicycle traffic on the avenue had doubled and safety was improved with no loss of service for motor vehicles, there was one oft-repeated concern: the design encouraged vehicles to turn across the bike lanes resulting in bike-car collisions. In fact, according to the study, 11 of the 16 crashes recorded in the lanes involved U-turning vehicles. This behavior has been possible because of the limited separation provided. The poles that were installed are only near the intersection and are regularly removed in the winter to facilitate snow removal (or the Inaugural Parade). Furthermore, the police were originally unable to stop such behavior because the Department of Motor Vehicles did not believe they were illegal. Eventually the policy was clarified through emergency rulemaking and ticketing did ensue. Nonetheless, aggressive education and frequent enforcement has done little to deter the illegal maneuvers. 

DDOT now wants to try to install a physical barrier. The device they want to install is called a zebra [See image for a mock-up of the street with zebras installed]. Made from 100% recycled PVC, they were designed specifically as separators for cycle tracks. They would create a low barrier, like a curb, that could separate car and bike traffic. DDOT will need to get permission from the National Park Service (NPS) and the CFA before moving forward, but at a recent forum hosted by NPS, the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), US General Services Administration, and the District of Columbia it was stated that:

The District controls the street, not the sidewalks, of Pennsylvania Avenue and may make certain bicycle safety or other roadway improvements; however, it is required to consult with NPS and other entities to insure that historical elements are maintained.

Which may mean that DC can proceed with its plan to install the zebra barriers regardless of a ruling by these other entities as long as they consult with them. Regardless, the easiest path forward would be for the CFA to agree that a barrier is needed and that this device is unobtrusive enough to protect the historical and cultural elements of the avenue. If approval is granted, DDOT hopes “to have a solution on the street in the next few months, perhaps first on a test block, and then on the entire bike lane.”

See all Protected Bike Lanes blog entries

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