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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?

By Robert Thomson  |  May 7, 2010; 3:10 PM ET
Categories:  Safety  | Tags: DDOT, Dr. Gridlock  
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This is the worst idea ever and it will be gone within three weeks. Book it. Someone will be struck trying to cross in the 28th and 1/2 second and won't make it.

Furthermore, the blocks leading to the intersection are going to jam up and it's going to be as horrifically bad as the International Horse Show week.

Please, D.D.O.T. Heed me now. DON'T DO IT!!!!!

Posted by: bs2004 | May 7, 2010 5:17 PM | Report abuse

I recall that a busy intersection in the downtown area - 12th (or was it 11th?) and F streets NW, if I remember correctly - was so designated not all that long ago. The multi-way crossing seemed to make good traffic sense at the time - it provided additional pedestrian options and didn't seem to unduly disrupt vehicle traffic. IMHO, the idea is definitely worth taking another look at.

Posted by: nan_lynn | May 7, 2010 6:16 PM | Report abuse

I actually encountered a Barnes Dance in Auckland, New Zealand. I thought at the time - and still do - that it was a great idea. It was in a busy shopping area, with tons of pedestrian traffic, and it made it a lot easier for the pedestrians to get where they were going. I didn't get to experience it from the perspective of a driver stuck at one of the lights, so I don't know how frustrating that might be, but at least from the pedestrian perspective this could really work.

Posted by: gewaldron | May 7, 2010 10:13 PM | Report abuse

I'm old enough to remember when you could cross the street diagonally, however, I remember it being called "caddy corner" not a Barnes dance.

Posted by: Carole5520 | May 8, 2010 12:41 AM | Report abuse

Remember to halt for all crooked politicians in DC crosswalks.

Posted by: foxxmacpryor | May 8, 2010 6:48 AM | Report abuse

They should try this at Wisconsin and M as well! Seems like a logical place for it there.

Posted by: jeffcoud2 | May 8, 2010 7:32 AM | Report abuse

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