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It’s just after 9 a.m. on a recent Thursday, and dozens of the 75,000 vehicles expected to travel on New York Avenue past Bladensburg Road NE that day are speeding into the District. Officials from the D.C. Department of Transportation, members of the Metropolitan Police Department, and advocates for pedestrians and cyclists are huddled near the drive-thru of a Checker’s, taking advantage of a small patch of grass in the sea of roads and parking lots. It’s the fourth stop on a tour of some of D.C.’s “most dangerous intersections,” organized by Councilmember Mary Cheh’s office.
Getting to the tour’s meeting place begins with mad dash across New York Avenue’s eight lanes; a person unable to make the journey in the 21 seconds the walk signal affords might be left on the small strip of concrete in the middle. Traffic from Route 50 and the Baltimore–Washington Parkway zooms by; cyclists pass on the deteriorating sidewalk. A U.S. Postal Service delivery truck legally forbidden from making a left off Bladensburg, as if on cue, comes through a light and turns into a gas station, nearly clipping another driver, to get to New York Avenue.
In 2014, the intersection was second on a ranked list of high-crash locations determined by DDOT’s Crash Composite Index, which calculates a score based on crash frequency (total number of crashes), crash rate (average number of crashes per year divided by volume of traffic), and crash severity (number of injuries and fatalities). (It was just behind 14th and U streets NW and ahead of First Street and Union Station Plaza as well as Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road NE, three other tour stops.) But even with a high ranking on a list determined by CCI, the intersection didn’t crack the top ten on lists of areas that saw pedestrian- or cyclist-involved crashes that year. That dubious honor went to 14th and Columbia Road NW for bicyclists (14 on the CCI list) and New York Avenue and North Capitol Street (21).
The pedestrian- and cyclist-specific lists only use crash frequency data, which alone doesn’t always provide an accurate way of measuring an area’s danger, because it doesn’t take into account exposure (how many vehicles are actually passing through each day?) and contributing factors.
“The number of crashes is important, but… you have to look in a bit more detail about the types of crashes there are,” says Sam Zimbabwe, associate director for DDOT’s Policy, Planning & Sustainability Administration. “You have to get into more detail to find out what the problem is and to see what the solution might be.”
Intersections on New York Avenue, for example, make the list annually because of the high volume of vehicles it serves. It gets trickier to measure the so-called exposure rate for pedestrians and cyclists, because “we don’t have great, reliable information on how many people are biking,” he says.
DDOT pulls police crash reports into its Traffic Accident Reporting and Analysis System, which the agency’s pedestrian and bike team and its safety team uses for analysis. Zimbabwe says the data has improved, but the way it’s “reported doesn’t necessarily help us identify the root cause” of crashes.
“From a police report perspective, the fundamental question that they’re usually trying to answer is, who caused it and was a law broken?” he says. “We’re interested in those types of things, but we have this question about exactly what happened so that we can reconstruct and figure out if there’s an engineering improvement that can be made.”
Some of that happens through data or digging deeper into a police report, while other times direct observation is necessary. Some intersections advocate for themselves—in tragic ways. Maryland Avenue and 7th Street NE was retrofitted with plastic bollards and through-traffic was redirected last year after a taxicab driver severely injured a librarian crossing the four-lane street. A high-intensity activated crosswalk, or HAWK, signal was installed at Florida Avenue and 11th Street NE in 2013 after a drunk driver killed a 71-year-old woman leaving a church event.
“If there’s a hot spot, we don’t have to wait for a year to respond to that problem,” Zimbabwe says. DDOT looks for “low-cost or quick improvements that can be made, if there’s some problem with doing a long-term [project] or if something needs to be done very fast.”
“Sometimes those low-cost things don’t feel like to the general public—they’re not the ultimate solution that we would seek, but they’re something we think can be a counter-measure, something that works while we’re setting up a larger project,” he says. Zimbabwe points to the “Stop for Pedestrians” signs regularly placed in crosswalks: “They get knocked down a lot. I think people get frustrated. ‘Oh those got knocked down, they have to come put them back up, they get knocked down.’”
“They cost us some money, they’re not the cheapest things in the world,” he adds. “But they’re not pedestrians getting hit. So if the cost of alerting people to the fact that they may need to stop for a pedestrian is going back and setting them up every once in awhile and buying some new ones when they get destroyed, that’s a cost we’re willing to take… I don’t think anybody would say that sign is going to protect you if a car doesn’t stop for you. It’s not a refuge island, it’s not something that’s a barrier. It’s something that tries to alert drivers. It’s not a long-term, it’s an interim.”
Long-term solutions, true to their name, take time, and the perceived lack of progress can be frustrating. That’s part of the reason Cheh’s office organized the intersection tours. The Ward 3 councilmember says while each intersection has its own localized issues, many are plagued by poor timing for crosswalks and lack infrastructure like protected bike lanes to improve cyclist safety. “If not the slowest person on the planet, you have to take into account people who may not be able to sprint across the street,” Cheh says. “The idea is: We’re going to make this list [for] DDOT and pester [them] on ‘what have you done about this?’ and ‘what have you done about that?’”
Advocates also realize they have to be vocal with the agency to make their priorities DDOT’s too. Of the tours, Eileen McCarthy, Ward 3 representative and secretary of the DC Pedestrian Advisory Council, says “it was actually very helpful for me to do it with DDOT and Council staff, and to point out to them what it’s like to be a pedestrian to cross here.”
McCarthy says she understands the concern over how long improvements can take, “and I share it to some extent.” She adds, “I think it’s important that we all follow up and not hound them but there should be regular inquiries from PAC and anybody else concerned about what they’re going to do.”
Greg Billing, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, attended a few of the tours as well. “It was a productive conversation,” he says. “It was very strategic to look at the diversity of intersections and landscapes surrounding the community, and really try to understand why they’re on the list of most dangerous… perennially.”
WABA is still pushing for better and more transparent data collection, as well as an increase in short-term fixes and a more expansive look at alternative solutions. There’s no reason, Billing says, that D.C. can’t install a bike lane, extend a sidewalk, or remove a lane of traffic after a feasibility study is completed and public input is given while long-term improvements are in the works.
“DDOT needs to figure out how do they get out there [in] six months and fix some of these issues while long-term planning and engineering happens,” Billing says, adding that he’s hopeful this is something that will come out of Vision Zero.
“We have a little bit of concern doing something quickly when [it] can’t be done well,” counters Zimbabwe.
Right now, the conversation around pedestrian and cyclist safety is wrapped in a larger one about D.C.’s Vision Zero strategy to end traffic fatalities by 2024. (An action plan is expected sometime this month.) In addition to holding outreach events, DDOT is currently crowdsourcing information about safety concerns on a Vision Zero–branded map.
“Part of what we’re trying to get at with the Vision Zero safety map is: Where do you feel unsafe, and where might people be avoiding because they don’t feel safe, especially from a pedestrian perspective,” he says. “We might not be seeing crashes, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe to bike or walk.”
Part of the struggle is getting people from all parts of the city—especially neighborhoods without sidewalks and bike lanes—to participate. (Six of the 24 intersections on the list ranked by CCI are east of the Anacostia River; two of the intersections that saw the highest number of pedestrian-involved crashes are EOTR, too.) “We’ve got a large representation of people from certain parts of the city, and a little bit lower representation of people from other parts of the city,” he says. “We do see high crash rates at some of those places where people may not be filling out the Vision Zero safety map, but we know there are some issues.”
The map is also helping DDOT get ahead of safety problems before they have to act in a “reactive way” to crash reports, Zimbabwe says. Undeniably, it’s identifying problem areas in the District—a lot of them. (As of this week, more than 4,000 items had been submitted.) Which raises the question: How will DDOT prioritize the concerns?
“I really don’t know if we know yet,” says Zimbabwe. “I don’t know how yet we’re going to take this and involve it with what we’re already doing. One thing I know will help us: When we identify an area that should be addressed, this will give us a way to start a conversation with the general public that should resonate.”
Photos by Darrow Montgomery
*** Hit Plan
No single quadrant contains all of D.C.’s “most dangerous” intersections for pedestrians and cyclists. It’s a sad distinction that belongs to the city’s three largest quadrants. According to a DDOT ranking, the intersections with the highest number of pedestrian-involved crashes in 2014 were New York Avenue and North Capitol Street; Fourth Street and Rhode Island Avenue NE; and (tied) Rhode Island Avenue and Reed Street NE, 24th and M streets NW, and 17th and I streets NW. For cyclists: 14th Street and Columbia Road NW; (tied) 14th and U streets NW and 14th Street and Park Road NW; and (tied) 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, 18th Street and Kalorama Road NW, and 18th Street and Adams Mill Road NW.
“Safety is the top priority in all we do at DDOT,” says spokesman Keith St. Clair, who provided the below rundown of planned improvements for some of the most crash-prone intersections in D.C.
14th Street and Columbia Road NW
“We have bike lane plans that would fill the bike lane gap that exists on 14th Street between Florida Avenue and Columbia Road. The plans need some adjustment before they are finalized.”
Georgia Avenue and W Street NW
“There are plans for a dedicated bus lane on Georgia Avenue between Florida Avenue and Barry Place. The plans include a small pocket bike lane at W Street. This is under construction and should be complete within a year.”
Rhode Island Avenue and Fourth Street NE
“Improvements planned for this intersection include a High Visibility Crosswalk; wider sidewalks; upgrading traffic control signals and streetlights; new ADA ramps and push button walk signal for ADA compliance; and new pavement markings. However, DC Water is about to start major construction in this area. That will push the DDOT improvements back a few years.”
Minnesota Avenue and Clay Place NE
“Construction has recently begun on the Minnesota Avenue Great Streets Initiative, and improvements at this intersection will include the installation of new pedestrian signs (Stop Here for Pedestrian); a High Visibility Crosswalk; new ADA ramps at all corners; and new pavement markings.”
New York Avenue and North Capitol Street
“DDOT did a basic concept plan in the Mid-City East Livability Study last year. The intersection is complex, and the concept plan proposed simplifying it, but there needs to be more detailed analysis and design. DDOT is currently working on awarding a contract to a consulting team for the design of several intersections, including this one.”