15th St. cycletrack, Washington, DC

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.

15th St 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.

Bill Hoffman
Lancaster, PA

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9 Responses to 15th St. cycletrack, Washington, DC

  1. “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.”

    You could also choose to ignore the bike track and use the general traffic lane instead. Unlike Maryland (where I live), Washington DC has no mandatory use law for bike facilities. Of course, it’s probably easier to simply avoid 15th Street, since bike tracks tend to increase motorist road rage when those motorists ignorant of the law (i.e. the vast majority of them) encounter cyclists in the general traffic lane.

    The few times when I’ve had to take my bike downtown, I’ve used 16th Street, as it goes all the way from Silver Spring to the White House, and if you’re going south, there are very few intersections, as it runs right next to Rock Creek Park.

  2. Bill Hoffman says:

    Ian, thanks for your comment. I’m also familiar with 16th, and have used it myself in both directions. In non-rush hours, I’d prefer it over 15th, 13th, or Georgia, the other options that are more-or-less parallel to 15th (though 15th is not continuous out to the Maryland line, and Georgia diverges away from 16th as you go south, as it becomes 7th at about Florida Ave.). I will say that 16th could be unpleasant during the primary direction rush hour (AM southbound, PM northbound) because the only way it can be ridden is by taking the right lane.

    All that said, I still would not use 15th due to the cycletrack.

    Glad to know that DC does not have a mandatory bike lane or side path law (I presume this covers cycletracks as well). I’ll remember that the next time I ride on a bike lane or cycletrack street there, and ignore the bike facility and use the safer facility, the roadway.

  3. I’ve never tried 16th during rush hour, but I agree that 16th can probably be unpleasant at certain times because the only way it can be safely used is by taking the right lane. But I think we have to train motorists to get used to the fact that, on a multi-lane road without a bike lane, the right lane IS the bike lane.

    Also, I think it’s sad that such a nice road for cycling (apart from its hills it is actually a nice road with a lovely surface and plenty of room) becomes so unpleasant when motorists are crowding onto it.

    A big part of the traffic problem in DC is that the Metro is so incredibly slow. It takes the average Metro commuter a full hour to get the 8 miles from Silver Spring to downtown DC, while a car does the same journey in 30-40 minutes. For the time-pressed commuter, the Metro is a sick joke. Those who want to make the journey as quickly as possible end up in a car on 16th Street, which is the fastest street between the city and Silver Spring, and they are in no mood for any slow-downs.

  4. Tricia Kovacs says:

    I rode the Pennsylvania & 15th St cycletracks while I was in DC for last year’s LAB bike summit. Rather than repeat my thoughts, here is a link to the forum topic on the Columbus bicycle forum:
    That post also has links to Kerri Caffrey & John Allen’s videos of the cycletracks, so you can experience them vicariously.

  5. Tricia Kovacs says:

    I recently posted on Chainguard that I think bicycle signals are nonsense. Others responded on why they are needed for cycletracks and other segregated bikeways. I understand that, but in my opinion, we should just have pedestrian and vehicular traffic signals. AASHTO & MUTCD are supposed to define standard guidelines across the country. So, someone goes to visit DC, decides to rent a bike from the Bike Share, doesn’t know squat about bicycle laws, and then has to deal with a transportation network where sometimes you use bicycle signals, sometimes you use pedestrian signals and the rest of the time you use the plain old traffic signals. To me, that’s nonsense.

  6. Angelo Dolce says:

    I haven’t been to Washington in a few years (i.e. haven’t seen the new lanes), but I’m especially curious about the bicycle signals. In particular, I was in New York 3-4 years ago when they had painted bike lanes mid town (near 7th or 8th Ave, 50th to about 54th Street).

    In practice, the bicycle signals did not slow motorists because when motorists had red lights to allow bicyclists to proceed, the red light was ignored by motorists, taxis, and police cars – ALL ran the red lights required to resolve the conflicts that the bike lane created by restricting bicyclists to the left lane. The new conflicts and lights delayed bicyclists and turned right turns into two step maneuvers, but I wondered if the lights were optional for motorists so they would not have to wait for bicyclists trying to proceed on the green bike signal.

    I found the signals in New York unusual and unnecessary; a Washington system where bicyclists are expected to follow pedestrian, bicycle, or standard signals depending on the intersection sounds too unusual to be reliable

    Was it clear in Washington if there were ever times when motorists were required or even expected to yield to bicyclists?

  7. Tricia Kovacs says:

    I rode the center cycletrack on Pennsylvania and the left side cycletrack on 15th. The figure 3 above is uber confusing. It has a bicycle signal but also a sign stating Bicycle Use Ped Signal. As I said in my posts on the YayBikes! forum, I thought I was supposed to follow the traffic signal until I noticed the Bicycle Use Ped Signal sign. I think some of the 15th cycletrack intersections had bicycle signals installed but not all. That was last March and they may be all updated now.

    There is a new traffic signal phase in the new MUTCD that is a flashing yellow left turn arrow. The steady yellow arrows mean that the arrow is going to turn red. The flashing yellow left arrows mean it’s OK to turn left cautiously. I’ve started seeing these in other states but not Ohio yet. I hope that the bicycle signal will have the same meaning as the traffic signal (steady means it’s changing to red, flashing means yield before turning). I don’t see a sign in figure 3 for motorists to yield to cyclists or pedestrians on the green light, but I hope that all motorists are aware there is a law for that.

    The central cycletrack on Pennsylvania was different. There was a red left arrow on the traffic signal when the bicycle signal was green. Left turning vehicular traffic was permitted before straight bicycle traffic. I don’t recall when the pedestrian signal was WALK on the parallel crosswalk (in relation to the bicycle and traffic signals).

    Confused yet? I sure was.

    If you think things are bad for cyclists, you should read the way pedestrian traffic laws are changing. The Uniform Traffic Code now states that pedestrians must yield to vehicles in the intersection at the start of the WALK, green or flashing yellow arrows. I think that’s a bigger crime than the cyclist segregation. I’m trying to fight the NCUTCD on that one, but not having success.

  8. Tricia Kovacs says:

    OK, I’m looking at figure 3 above again. Does anyone know if the left yellow arrow is for vehicle drivers? It looks like it’s saying that it’s OK for vehicles in the traffic lane to proceed straight but use caution on left turn. But a yellow solid arrow is supposed to only be used before a red arrow. A flashing arrow is supposed to be used to indicate cautious turns are allowed. But the yellow arrow is on top of the bicycle signals, so maybe it applies to cyclists. But why isn’t it in the shape of a bicycle? Now I’m even more confused by that signal.

  9. There are videos showing actual conditions on the 15th Street Cycletrack in an album on vimeo.

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