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All-way crossing opens in D.C.

About 10 a.m., the paper covers came off the black-and-white signs and the new diagonal crossing lights started flashing at Seventh and H streets in downtown Washington, near Verizon Center. People began crossing every which way.

It's a liberating feeling, this new Barnes Dance, but it's going to take everybody some getting used to. First of all, making a diagonal crossing at one of the District's busiest intersections is weird. A District intersection hasn't been set up for that in several decades. All the lights are red for drivers for almost half a minute, but it doesn't seem that long when you're making the diagonal crossing. Don't dawdle.

But drivers also need to know that all turns are now banned at this intersection. I can understand their confusion. Even the traffic control officers were struggling to get the hang of it in the first few minutes. "No right on red either?" one called out to a District Department of Transportation official.

No, no right on red, no right on green, no left on anything. The District put up variable message boards on the approaches and signs at the intersection, plus the traffic control officers are going to be around for at least a few days while people get adjusted. But there's a lot to look at in this busy intersection by the Chinatown arch, and the new signs may not be the first things that drivers notice.

Drivers also have to deal with a new concept: This is basically being done to make things easier and safer for pedestrians, who are the dominant users of this particular intersection. They could take a bit of solace on one point: George Branyan, the District's pedestrian program coordinator, who was on the scene this morning, noted that the new strategy might get drivers through the intersection faster. Without vehicles turning and without having to wait for pedestrians in the crosswalks, the through traffic might flow better.

There's one particular sign, or set of signs, that I found confusing: Heading south on Seventh Street, drivers saw a "NO TURNS" sign above another sign with a left-turn arrow that had a red stripe through it. A driver looking at both might think that only left turns are banned, and as I've said, that's not the case. The traffic control officers, people I admire because they are much braver than I am, need to be very active in these first few days till drivers get used to the new rules.

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By Robert Thomson  |  May 12, 2010; 11:40 AM ET
Categories:  Safety  | Tags: DDOT, Dr. Gridlock, Pedestrian crossing  
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There's a sign used in other countries to indicate "No Turns" that consist of a vertical arrow (denoting "straight-ahead") in a green circle. The sign denotes that it is OK to go straight ahead and thus, by implication, it is not OK to go any other way. I don't know whether that sign would work in the US because it's not one we've ever had (setting aside the question of whether the MUTCD allows it, since it can be amended) and I suspect people would not understand what it means. Seems to me there need to be two types of signs there--both "NO TURNS" as well as something denoting straight-ahead only (perhaps a vertical arrow with the word "ONLY" underneath it).

How many drivers tried to make turns there this morning when this started?

Also, Dr. Gridlock, if your schedule permits, I think it might be interesting if you were to observe that intersection during the afternoon rush hour when commuters are heading for the Metro entrance on the southeast corner of that intersection. Might be interesting to see how it all goes then.

Posted by: 1995hoo | May 12, 2010 11:55 AM | Report abuse

I've seen intersections like this in Montreal. It seems to work out very well for everyone. traffic seemed to move faster because drivers turning right didn't back up traffic because of pedistrians. but i like the lights were red for drivers for close to 40 seconds.

Posted by: NoVAHockey | May 12, 2010 12:05 PM | Report abuse

From Dr. Gridlock: Yeah, 1995hoo, I do want to see it either at lunchtime or during the afternoon rush. Morning rush was done by the time DDOT launched this morning -- that made sense, since even the traffic control officers needed to get used to it.

Also, I like your idea about the straight-ahead sign. (Though I also am not sure if its in the MUTCD.) I think DDOT could also change the green lights to green arrows. As with most other traffic changes, I think people who use the intersection regularly will get used to it after a couple of weeks.

This morning, despite the presence of the traffic officers, plenty of drivers tried to make left and right turns. It's a tough spot for the officers. Once the driver starts to make the turn, the officer has to spot the behavior, get the driver's attention and steer the driver back to the straight path. (The drivers aren't necessarily using signal lights to indicate their intentions before beginning these turns.)

Posted by: rtthomson1 | May 12, 2010 12:14 PM | Report abuse

Are any of the TCOs enforcing the bus/bike only lane northbound on 7th while they're there? In my experience, drivers treat this as a regular lane of traffic.

Posted by: nevermindtheend | May 12, 2010 12:19 PM | Report abuse

From Dr. Gridlock: I got a call from a reader who says there's an all-way stop for pedestrians at Seminary Road and Library Lane in Alexandria, though I guess it's not quite a Barnes Dance. She also said that she used to work at Woodies in downtown DC and remembers a Barnes Dance pedestrian scramble nearby. "We liked it, especially at lunch," she said.

Posted by: rtthomson1 | May 12, 2010 12:21 PM | Report abuse

The "straight ahead only" sign as described above is not in the MUTCD, and I doubt it will be in the forseeable future. I think (emphesis on the word think) from a human factors point of view, the Federal Highway Administration prefers to tell drivers directly what they cannot do, rather than use a two step reasoning whereby you tell them what they can do and then imply that you can't do anything else.

That being said, they can always use the white regulatory lane use signs (like the ones you see telling which lane turns left, straight, and right at a traffic light), and green arrows in the traffic signals as Dr. G. suggests to emphesize that both lanes are "straight through only". However I still believe that the no left turn and no right turn signs (the ones with the red circle/slash) should always be used in such cases, perhaps with "No Turns" plaques underneath. I'm pretty sure that in the absense of the No Left/Right Turns signs, there is a possibility that tickets could be dismissed for un-clear signage.

I have seen the "straight through only" signs with the green circle in Canada, and a circular blue sign with arrows showing all the permissable movements is SOP in most of Europe.

Posted by: thetan | May 12, 2010 12:50 PM | Report abuse

I'm pretty sure I've seen "straight-only" signs in Virginia of the sort that are the standard white square with a black vertical arrow and the word "ONLY," so it would seem that DC could probably use those (I assume they're MUTCD-compliant). I'll try to find one using Google Street View and link it here.

Posted by: 1995hoo | May 12, 2010 12:59 PM | Report abuse

Follow-up: Here is a sign of the sort I've seen over the years in Virginia. Hopefully the link will work. It's a Google Street View image of a traffic light at Fairfax Circle.,-77.274914&spn=0,0.027874&z=16&layer=c&cbll=38.864604,-77.274873&panoid=KC1LgYQgz0vgT1V-PmekkQ&cbp=12,20.32,,0,-12.77

Posted by: 1995hoo | May 12, 2010 1:07 PM | Report abuse




Posted by: bs2004 | May 12, 2010 2:32 PM | Report abuse

From Dr. Gridlock: Thanks to both thetan and 1995hoo for their comments and research on the signage. I think that whatever DDOT does to mark the intersection, it needs to be really, really simple for drivers to pickup. I’d rather have them watching for pedestrians than for signs.

Of course, if this plan works as intended, the drivers won’t encounter pedestrians. But I’ve yet to see a transportation plan work exactly as intended. I know that DDOT will be looking to see whether traffic on H and 7th gets backed up, and whether drivers really do obey the no-turn rule when they reach the intersection. Also, DDOT will be watching to see whether pedestrians follow the rules. A main reason this isn’t a classic Barnes Dance is that pedestrians tend to get impatient if they have to wait through a lengthy cycle for drivers till they get the full pedestrian cycle. So DDOT made an accommodation to ease the pressure: Keeping the phases that allow the straight-across walk only while adding in the new half-minute phase that allows people to cross in every direction.

Posted by: Robert Thomson | May 12, 2010 3:24 PM | Report abuse

Yes, 1995hoo, that sign is what I'm referring to. If you place it on the side, it legally defines the lane (or lanes) as through only, and hopefully drivers would understand they cannot turn right. But for the sake of keeping it simple, as Dr. Gridlock mentions is very important, I say just use the No Left Turn/No Right Turn signs. They are standard, and people should hopefully understand what they mean.

Though many times people do not obey turn restrictions if they do not understand why they are placed there. A no turn sign onto a one-way street is obvious to most people. A no turn onto a two-way street with a "lagging left turn trap" is there for safety reasons, but most people say "its a 2-way street, why can't I turn onto it?", and then almost get clobbered as they see their light turn red but the other direction still has a green (just before the other direction gets a green arrow). I should know, there is one such intersection right outside my bedroom window, and is a big cause of horn honking when people get stuck behind someone making the illegal turn.

My point being that if drivers see no reason why they can't make a right turn at 7th and H NW, they will do it anyway regardless of the sign. This is why I hope they have traffic officers actively enforcing the new rule NYC in, the officers don't wait for you to make a turn and write a ticket...they will physically stand in front of your car and prevent you from turning! Interesting aside, they also do that for HOV violations at the Queens Midtown and Brooklyn Battery can violate the restrictions and you won't get a ticket, but when you get to the tunnel entrance you get turned around, which is a much bigger deterrant in my eyes.

Posted by: thetan | May 12, 2010 3:43 PM | Report abuse

All good points, thetan, and I agree especially with your final paragraph. Consider, for example, the corner of 15th and Constitution. If you go south on 15th, there are ample very clear signs saying that the right lane is right-turn only and the left two lanes are straight-ahead only. (Pavement marking say this, too, but there's usually so much traffic that those are invisible.) In spite of the clear signage, many people persist in turning right out of the centre lane, probably because the high pedestrian volume means a very long queue in the right-turn lane. The corner of Madison Drive and 14th Street is similar in that the left lane is marked left-only and the centre lane is not marked at all, so for years people who feel they're too important to wait their turn have made lefts out of the centre lane.

WTOP's Adam Tuss has a report up about the Barnes Dance implementation and he says that people were confused by it. I don't see what the problem is: If you're not comfortable crossing diagonally, or if you don't know it's allowed, then just don't do it! There's nothing prohibiting someone from crossing in the traditional manner (e.g., to go from Fado's to the Metro you cross H to Fuddruckers, then cross 7th to the Metro).

Posted by: 1995hoo | May 12, 2010 3:56 PM | Report abuse

Agreed, hoo, nothing is stopping people from crossing from one corner to the other, turning left and repeating if they do not wish to cross diagonally. Though I cringed when I heard transportation officials calling the setup "confusing". Its simple once you understand what is going on.

I'll be going down to take a look later this evening. Like Dr. G, these things fascinate me too.

Posted by: thetan | May 12, 2010 5:10 PM | Report abuse

"I'll be going down to take a look later this evening. Like Dr. G, these things fascinate me too."

Me too, but I just don't have time today (and it's started raining anyway, so I'd rather go some other time). I suppose it's obvious that I'm a Capitals season-ticket holder, so I'll be interested in seeing how it works with the pre- and post-game crowds next season. I usually walk down 8th Street en route to and from games due to the considerably wider sidewalks on there, but this new arrangement is enough reason for me to go a different way at least a few times.

Posted by: 1995hoo | May 12, 2010 5:45 PM | Report abuse

Well, I was pretty determined to check this out today, and I braved truely awful traffic from Tysons all the way into the downtown grid to get there.

They do have no left turn and no right turn signs (circle and slash), No turns signs (text), and green straight ahead traffic lights in all the signalheads.

On the way east, I breezed right through because no one in front of me was turning (but got stuck behind a left-turner + right-turner at 6th). On the way west, I saw not 1, but 2 cars turn right. A pedestrian pointed out the "No Turns" signs to one of the drivers, who shall we say was not very amused.

No signs of any sort indicating "new traffic pattern", etc. They really need them. I'm convinced drivers just tune out signs when they drive through an area frequently, so no one noticed the change. But even more prominent signs might not work. I saw plenty of flashing message boards and signs warning that "Constitution Ave, 2 way at all times, starting.......", and yet I remember reading that the first Monday morning rush hour with no one-way on Constitution, there was almost a fist fight when a westbound car met an eastbound car that was rightfully using the street. Clearly that westbound driver had tuned out quite a few signs...

Posted by: thetan | May 12, 2010 10:43 PM | Report abuse

thetan, the same sort of thing with the signs happens on the reversible streets in DC (Canal Road being the most notable) on some holidays, especially Columbus Day and Veterans Day where it's a federal holiday but nobody outside the federal government has off. There are constant near-misses because people go on autopilot.

I remember when H and I Streets were first converted to one-way when Clinton closed Pennsylvania Avenue. I was almost in a head-on crash when some guy turned the wrong way onto H Street. He quickly cut a U-turn, but it still scared the heck out of me (at least I wasn't driving my own car).

People simply do not pay attention, yet the local highway departments seem to think they do. You and I have noted how at the Wilson Bridge project VDOT has seemed to be very reluctant to post the "NEW TRAFFIC PATTERN" message, and I still don't know why they don't like to do it. To me, that's a good attention-grabber and it would cause me to keep a closer eye out for other signs.

Posted by: 1995hoo | May 13, 2010 1:15 AM | Report abuse

Kemp Mill in Wheaton (Montgomery County) has one of these at the intersection of Arcola and Lamberton. 12 seconds for a diagonal crossing and it works quite well.

While it is correct that Henry Barnes worked in Baltimore and Denver, his fame/notoriety came in NYC, where he showed the natives the newest new-fangled traffic engineering innovation, the left turn lane! He was quite a character, and appeared on The Johnny Carson Show. He was introduced as, and his auto-biography was called, "The Man with the Red and Green Eyes." His personality was a throwback to a 1930's curmudgeon. He was the most innovative traffic engineer of the mid-20th century.

Posted by: fromkempmill | May 13, 2010 1:07 PM | Report abuse

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