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Illegal U-turns across Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes growing safety concern

Illegal U-turns are causing problems for bikers on Pennsylvania Avenue. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)

WASHINGTON — The month of May is filled with bike-related events: Bike to School Day, Bike to Work Day and it’s National Bike Month. But some area cyclists complain that instead of feeling encouraged to ride one stretch of bike lanes in the District of Columbia, they’re nervous. The issue: illegal U-turns on Pennsylvania Avenue.

The signs indicating that U-turns are illegal are posted up and down Pennsylvania Avenue. But advocates for cyclists and many bike commuters report illegal U-turns — where cars cut across two clearly marked bike lanes — are a constant problem. Greg Billing, Advocacy Director for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, says cyclists are reporting an increase in Illegal U-turns on the stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House to Capitol Hill.

Billing says he recently went out to get a sense of the frequency of the U-turns. He selected one block and observed what happened during a typical rush hour. Billing says in the 1400 block of Pennsylvania Avenue, there were 13 illegal U-turns across the bike lanes within a single hour.

Just as National Bike month kicked off, Billing says, “We’re hearing from cyclists who now go out of their way not to use Pennsylvania Avenue.”

“These U-turns happen very quickly, often from a driver coming from behind you so you don’t see it happening.”

In April alone Billing says there were three car-bike collisions involving drivers who were making U-turns.

Billing says the DC Department of Transportation has been piloting the use of low, removable barriers — think curb-height barriers like the kind in parking lots — aimed at preventing U-turns. Billing says infrastructure that would help prevent the illegal turns would be helpful, but expresses some impatience.

“This is a long saga: it’s been four years since these lanes were installed and we’re still having problems.”

Darren Buck, a Bicycle Program Specialist at DDOT, says the second part of the pilot program is in the process of being wrapped up. The study is comparing the performance of two sets of barriers.

On one stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue, DDOT installed “zebras,” small, humpbacked barriers designed to discourage drivers from cutting across the bike lanes.

On another block, DDOT installed “wheelstops” — like the barriers in surface parking lots to prevent drivers from moving forward in a parking space.

Buck says DDOT officials are comparing the performance of both obstacles to decide which might be installed along the length of Pennsylvania Avenue. The barriers are removable so they can be taken off the roadway for special events and clearing snow. Buck says the results could be made public in two to three weeks.

WTOP’s Kate Ryan contributed to this report.

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