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Slow Down and Enjoy the Ride

If there's one street in Washington that's caused much consternation among commuters, it's Pennsylvania Avenue, between the Capitol and the White House. Back in 2010 the city experimented with a new transportation approach: putting the bike lanes in the middle of the street, rather than on the far right, as had been typical. The design is actually quite well-done. The problem is that the quality of the design relies on users following the rules; and far too often that doesn't happen.

This sign at 13th and Pennsylvania sums it all up. On the top, instructions for bicyclists to obey the traffic light; on the bottom, a sign explicitly banning U-turns.

I ride this stretch nearly every day, and almost always see drivers (especially taxi drivers) making U-turns. I also see bicyclists going through red lights. I've never witnessed enforcement for either violation.

The problem with illegal U-turns is that they're dangerous. Drivers have to cut through two bicycle lanes and find an opening in traffic on the other side. The situation got so dire last year that the mayor announced emergency rulemaking explicitly banning U-turns. But he didn't mandate any enforcement, so U-turns regularly occur to this day.

Red-light running is its own problem. I never do it, but plenty of people do. I understand the argument for allowing Idaho stops, but when the signage explicitly says "obey this signal" it would seem that Idaho stops are not justified. The real problem is that red-light running is fuel for the anti-bike crowd's fire. Like it or not, drivers use it to justify their own law-breaking and you can witness this attitude in any debate where a legitimate complaint is lodged against a dangerous driver.

Of course, if someone robbed convenience store, the owner of that store wouldn't be justified in going and robbing a bank. We don't think about violent crime in this way, and would probably say they both people deserve to get locked up. This thinking changes when the crime happens on the roads; and when there's no enforcement, crime runs rampant.

But let's back up for a second. Why is all of this happening anyway? One reason, I think, is because we think about transportation as a race. Everyone once in a while I hear about a Commuter Race where three people will try to get from point A to point B using a car, a bike, and public transportation. The winner is whichever person can get to the destination the fastest.

This is the reason, I believe, why so much of both violations happen on Pennsylvania Avenue. People just don't want to wait. They want to get to their destination fast. I don't quite understand this, though. Running all the red lights on my daily route to work would probably shave my ride from 25 minutes to 20 minutes. Is the 5 minute savings worth it? Would my day be significantly better if I arrived at my desk that much earlier? Not likely.

Even though this isn't the most popular opinion in  the bicycling community, I'd be perfectly content if police regularly enforced Pennsylvania Avenue, handing out tickets to both U-turning drivers and red-light running bicyclists. The status quo is clearly broken, and some people really just need to slow down and enjoy the ride. It's really quite nice, and the extra time spent stopped at lights is hardly going to ruin someone's day.


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