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Too many turns at dance

(DDOT video)

The main criticism I've heard from travelers about the District's experiment with a Barnes Dance style pedestrian scramble in Chinatown is that drivers are making too many turns. So I spent an hour today loitering on the corner of Seventh and H streets NW counting turners.

This is a modified Barnes Dance. In the full version, there would be one light cycle for pedestrians to cross any way they want to and then cycles for motorized vehicles to proceed. In the D.C. version, pedestrians get a short cycle in which they can cross any way they want to, but they also get the standard phases in which they can cross either Seventh or H streets directly.

The District Department of Transportation picked this intersection for an experiment because at some times of day it has more people crossing on foot than crossing in vehicles. The intersection is right by the Chinatown arch and is very busy at midday and when there are events at the nearby Verizon Center.

For this crossing to work best, vehicles can't turn -- either right or left. That would gum up the flow of pedestrians and traffic. (One of the key issues with Barnes Dance-style intersections is that they can back up traffic in a congested area, such as downtown Washington.)

Pedestrians seem to have adapted well to the different style of crossing, but drivers ... not so much.

I staked it out from 11:10 a.m. to 12:10 p.m. Tuesday. By my count, 18 cars made turns. Most were right turns. Many were done without signaling.

You say we need enforcement? There were D.C. police officers on three of the four corners, and they were doing a fine job. Each stood a few feet out from the curb and redirected misguided drivers before they could turn. I saw them block turners a dozen times. Again, they were mostly right turns.

And by block, I mean, "No, no, no!" or "Hey, hey!" with an outstretched arm pointing the driver straight ahead. Or the wordier, "Gotta go straight! Straight!" Whatever version the officers used, it eventually got the driver's attention, though it wasn't always easy.

That's the thing: Any driver going through a congested downtown intersection has a lot to think about, and they're not always the right things. Many drivers have the instinct to look for a No Left sign, but it's rare to ban right turns on green. I think that's why I saw more of that action. Drivers didn't expect a ban on rights.

I liked this style of enforcement. The officers didn't catch every turner, as my count shows, but they made their point and they didn't jam up traffic by pulling cars over to write tickets. In fact, the traffic flowed very well during the hour I was there, and the pedestrians were well-behaved. (So were the cyclists.)

But how often do we want three city police officers working one downtown intersection? Won't we eventually have to rely on the drivers' experience and on the signage?

Aside from spotting an officer waving his arms, a driver has four chances to identify the intersection's rules. On green, the traffic signal shows a straight ahead arrow. There are signs with black turn arrows and a red slash through them, one for right and one for left. And there's a black and white NO TURNS sign.

Can you think of anything else that would get drivers' attention? And given the sensory overload at that busy, gaudy intersection, how many more signs could we have?

Watch a northbound car on 7th Street turn left onto H Street.

By Robert Thomson  | July 13, 2010; 2:25 PM ET
Categories:  District, Driving, Traffic Safety  | Tags:  Barnes Dance, DDOT, Dr. Gridlock  
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Eliminate the prohibition on right turns on green altogether. Allow a dedicated pedestrian cross cycle that allows for crossing in any direction. H Street is a vital E/W route that many drivers need to be able to access. It's hard enough to make a left turn in this area, and now they've prohibited right turns onto a major road, it just doesn't work. I'm all for pedestrian safety, but when it comes at the need now for drivers to have to make a left turn somewhere down the line, it just doesn't make sense. The Barnes Dance was designed to give pedestrians freedom and safety to cross without severely affecting traffic. This version does a fine job for pedestrians, but forgot to consider the vehicles when prohibiting all turns regardless of the color of light.

Posted by: Russtinator | July 13, 2010 2:47 PM | Report abuse

Drivers, be careful what you wish for, because you might get it. Remember that at this Barnes Dance intersection, peds can cross during the Barnes Dance *AND* the green phase. So if the cars can turn on the green phase, that means they are going to be stopped, waiting for a gap, and potentially blocking those behind them.

No one is saying you can't use H or 7th Streets...just get to it from another route (like 6th or 9th).

Posted by: thetan | July 13, 2010 2:53 PM | Report abuse

Is 410 in Maryland still blocked by that downed tree? Is this affected the evening commute?

Posted by: UMDTerpsGirl | July 13, 2010 4:59 PM | Report abuse

The signage in DC generally is too small and fades into the background where a driver who's trying to look out for other cars, pedestrians, and bicycles is almost guaranteed not to see them. We need to put traffic signals overhead, not on the side, and put all signs on the crossbar right next to the signals. California and Florida both have great traffic signage systems.

As for this intersection, the drivers who are shooed away from their turns by police will likely think that the prohibition is temporary, due to an accident or construction, etc.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | July 13, 2010 5:40 PM | Report abuse

I agree with you, Washington Dame, however you will not be seeing overhead signals anytime soon in DC, due to Congressional ban on overhead wires, which apparently supercedes the federal requirements that all other jurisdictions are forced to follow. This is why there are no overhead lane arrows on Connecticut Ave like there are on Colesville Road.

In DC, too much attention is placed on aesthetics. The reason you can't see the signs is because there is a general idea that we should not install signs except on the signal poles. So that limits the number and type of signs that can be posted. I disagree with the philosophy.

Posted by: thetan | July 13, 2010 6:37 PM | Report abuse

I walk through this intersection on my way to and from work. Many of the cars I see turning are government vehicles (Fed or DC), and many of them are law enforcement of some variety. Love that.

Posted by: redgrifn | July 20, 2010 5:17 PM | Report abuse

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