Not Even Zebras Can Stop Cars From U-Turning Through D.C. Bike Lane

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District officials want to prevent cars from making illegal U-turns through the Pennsylvania Avenue bike lane. But critics say the spacing of zebras -- so-called plastic barriers -- isn't doing the trick.

Three feet long and five inches high with black and white stripes, the heavy-duty zebra humps are bolted into the asphalt on Pennsylvania Avenue between 12th and 13th Streets NW in the District’s latest move to stop illegal U-turns over the median bike lanes. The zebras — made by the Spanish firm Zicla — are making their first U.S. appearance in Washington, but some bicyclists say the District Department of Transportation’s pilot program is already a failure.

The zebras were put in place at the end of October in the buffer zone between the car lanes and two-way cycle track running down the middle of historic Pennsylvania Ave. The plastic humps are supposed to deter motorists from abruptly making mid-block U-turns that have caused numerous crashes along one of the busiest bike commuting corridors in D.C.

“I was out here the day they put them in and within three minutes… I saw someone go straight through them,” said cyclist Jeff Wetzel.

Bike riders have taken to social media to complain about the zebras’ ineffectiveness, posting photos of cars, cabs, and SUVs easily riding right over them.

“I don’t use Penn anymore. Too dangerous. Go out of my way to ride the Mall instead,” cyclist Rob Pitingolo said on Twitter, one of many critical responses from bicycle advocates and riders to an inquiry by WAMU 88.5.

“I’ve noticed tire tread marks on some zebras,” tweeted Dave S.

DDOT sees good ‘initial results’
The manufacturer recommends the zebras be spaced about eight feet apart. On Pennsylvania Avenue, DDOT spaced them 15 feet apart, wide enough to maneuver a car between them. The reason: aesthetics. DDOT believed the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and other federal stakeholders would view the zebras as more aesthetically pleasing with wider spacing.

“Aesthetics were a big part of this project from the very beginning. We have to be very sensitive to the appearance of Pennsylvania Avenue here," said Jim Sebastian, a DDOT bike planner. “If it turns out that safety is compromised we can go back and look at maybe putting them closer together, but so far we've seen U-turns drop. And we are probably going to see how that goes before we make any changes.”

On a weekday last June, DDOT witnessed 14 illegal U-turns between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. in the 1200 block of Pennsylvania Ave., Sebastian said. Last Tuesday — after the zebra installation — a DDOT team during the same four-hour window on the same block saw no U-turns.

“These initial results are promising,” Sebastian said.

Too many U-turns
It is unclear how long DDOT’s pilot program will last, but Sebastian said the agency plans on expanding the zebras along Pennsylvania Avenue NW where illegal U-turns have become a very dangerous problem. In 2012, of fourteen car-bike crashes on the avenue in downtown D.C., nine involved illegal U-turns.

On Monday, bike commuter Alexandra Waters became the latest victim on the avenue between 7th and 9th Streets.

"A car turned right in front of my bike,” said the Capitol Hill intern who moved to Washington two months ago. “I was thrown into her car. I caught myself with one foot. She ran over my foot, pulled over to the shoulder on the other side of the road, and yelled out of her car, 'Oh my God! I didn't see you!'"

Waters was not badly injured. The police did not ticket the driver, leaving Waters wondering if drivers fear the consequences of whipping across the bike lanes in the center of Pennsylvania Ave.

“Clearly they are not seeing us when we are in the lane," she said.

When told the zebras in the 1200 block were spaced about twice as wide as the manufacturer recommended, Waters, an artist, said beauty should not trump safety.

“I don't know how they are going to try to have an effective test period if they are not installed properly. They are already painted black and white. They aren't entirely visible on the street,” she said.

Layer of deterrence
The zebras are not designed to stop vehicles cold. In fact, they are built to allow emergency vehicles to cross them. Their soft edges are easy on both bicycle and car tires. The zebras are supposed to act as a deterrent to augment ticket enforcement by the Metropolitan Police Department.

Since Jan. 1 police have issued more than 700 tickets to illegal U-turners on Pennsylvania Ave. between 3rd and 15th Streets NW, according to an MPD spokeswoman.

"No amount of zebras — five-inch high zebras — is going to stop a car, a taxi, an SUV that wants to drive over these things. It's a first step in the process of eliminating U-turns along with enforcement, education and with maybe more barriers spaced closer together,” said Sebastian. “We wanted to start with a conservative approach on the spacing before we spent a lot more time and money and effort on adding additional barriers.”

To cyclists like Wetzel, DDOT can start making changes now. “I think if they were closer together it would be harder to drive just straight through them.”