New way to walk in D.C.
Fairly regularly, older Washingtonians will ask me why the District doesn't bring back a style of pedestrian crossing they remember from many decades ago. It's called a Barnes Dance, for Henry Barnes, the traffic engineer who championed the technique, which others know as the pedestrian scramble.
At a certain point in the traffic cycle, all the lights turn red for drivers and the pedestrians can cross the intersection any way they want to. It looks a bit like a big dance, and it offers some advantages in pedestrian safety. But it died out in D.C. as the streets got more congested and the everyone -- drivers and walkers alike -- got less patient.
Next week, the District Department of Transportation plans to revive the technique -- sort of -- at one of the city's most crowded intersections, near the Verizon Center. Adam Tuss reported the plan on WTOP, and I asked DDOT spokesman John Lisle about it.
Lisle described what the District plans to launch Wednesday as an "Enhanced Barnes Dance." Pedestrians still will get green lights to walk directly across the streets at H and 7th, as they do now. But they also will get a cycle of almost half a minute in which they can cross the intersection diagonally. Guideways are being placed on the pavement and diagonal "Walk" signs are being installed. Signs will explain what's going on and brochures will be handed out.
In addition to the extra red light time for drivers, they will notice that they cannot make a turn at this intersection. DDOT's traffic control officers will be out at the intersection for at least two weeks to make sure everyone plays by the new rules.
Because so many people ask me about this type of crossing, I've talked about it several times with George Branyan, the District's pedestrian program coordinator and an advocate for safe and sensible walking. He always said there were certain intersections where it would be worth a try, but it had to be done carefully.
A traditional Barnes Dance can back up traffic in all directions. Also, walkers don't like to wait through the extra time it takes to get a green light in all directions. If they think they can make it, they'll try to cross when they've still got a red light. Aside from being dangerous, this forces traffic to slow and increases the congestion.
This modified style the District is planning could solve some of those problems. The intersection at 7th and H streets is a logical place to try it out, because there are about as many pedestrians as vehicles using it.
If it improves safety and traffic flow, great. Maybe it could serve as a model for other intersections. Branyan once pointed out to me that the intersection at M Street and New Jersey Avenue SE might be a candidate, because many people cut diagonally anyway trying to get between the Navy Yard Metro station and the U.S. Department of Transportation offices.
If it doesn't work -- if it creates too much congestion, or pedestrians can't control themselves despite the extra green cycle for them -- then the city can always go back to the traditional crossings.
DDOT has been experimenting with some different ways to increase safety at intersections, and I think this one is worth a try, too. What do you say?
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