There was only one problem with the zebras the District Department of Transportation installed on Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest last October: they did not work.
The heavy duty plastic humps – three feet long and five inches high – were bolted down between 12th and 13th Streets on either side of the median cycle track to deter motorists from making illegal U-turns over the bike lanes. Since day one bicyclists complained the zebras failed to stop cars, cabs, and delivery vans bent on riding over the cycle track.
A spate of crashes that injured cyclists and countless near-misses prompted DDOT to initiate the zebra pilot program. But the agency spaced the zebras 15 feet apart instead of the manufacturer-recommended eight feet to appease the aesthetic-minded U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, leaving enough space for a motorist to maneuver between them.
“We think the zebras dissuaded some people from making U-turns on that one block. But then we also saw that some of those U-turns were going to blocks that didn’t have the zebras on them,” said Darren Buck, a DDOT bicycle program specialist.
The experiment is over
DDOT will replace the zebras – or what is left of them after having been run over and cracked so many times – with new barriers known as park-its, made of recycled rubber, six feet long and four inches high. The park-its will be spaced eight feet apart and run the distance of the Pennsylvania Ave. cycle track from Constitution Ave. to 15th St. Northwest.
“These barriers are going to be very effective at providing a visual deterrent but they are made of recycled rubber. They have a little bit of give so if a driver goes over them it won’t wreck any cars,” Buck said.
DDOT is planning to install the park-it barriers by the end of the summer along Pennsylvania Ave. as well as the L Street Northwest where delivery trucks routinely park inside the protected bike lane. DDOT began using park-its at the 1st St. Northeast cycle track from M St. to Union Station.
Cyclists want U-turns to stop
As this reporter interviewed bicycle commuter Dave Salovesh at the corner of 12th and Pennsylvania Monday afternoon, within a span of 20 seconds first a delivery van and then a cab driver made illegal U-turns over the zebras and through the cycle track. The cab managed to violate the crosswalk at the end of the block, too.
Salovesh, who once documented dozens of illegal U-turns and posted photos on social media, was disgusted.
“Didn’t really stop the van, drove right across them, didn’t even contact them. No deterrent, no barrier at all through the zebras,” he said. “U-turns are a terrible problem all the way up and down Pennsylvania Avenue.”
Jamal Argyle, who rides the Penn. Ave. cycle track often, said cab drivers who spot people hailing a ride on the other side of the avenue are among the worst offenders. Instead of making a legal turn somewhere, cabbies barrel across the bike lanes to nab the fare before someone else does.
“Sometimes I will get off my back and not start a fight but tell them aggressively to watch their side mirrors. You have them there for a reason, why not use them,” Argyle said.
The Metropolitan Police Department is responsible for enforcing the traffic laws on Penn. Ave.
“MPD remains committed to enforcement and education in the area. However, since officers cannot be present on every block, 24 hours a day, an engineering solution would help in reducing illegal U-turns,” said spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump in a statement.
When WAMU last reported on the zebras in November 2013, the MPD reported it had issued more than 700 tickets to illegal U-turners on Pennsylvania Ave. between 3rd and 15th Streets NW since January.