Sunday, August 15, 2010

Put your Bike in My Box

There's been lots of talk about the new "bike box" and dedicated bicycle signals that were installed at the intersection of 16th & U St. NW/New Hampshire Ave this past week. You can read about it from DCist. What I find interesting about their thoughts about it is this odd tid-bit:

The intersection of New Hampshire Avenue and 16th and U Streets NW, one of the city's busiest, has always been one of the more difficult traffic situations for Washingtonian cyclists to traverse.

Really? That intersection? I've always thought it was pretty straightforward. The problem is not its "difficulty" in navigating it; the problem is one of inconvenience. New Hampshire Ave. NW is a one-way at that location. Why? I have no idea. It has never made sense to me. The avenue is wide enough to *more* than accommodate two-way traffic, and it's only for a few blocks. I'm guessing an over zealous neighborhood association is responsible for it. Anyway, it means that traffic travels only in a northbound direction at the intersection on New Hampshire Ave. However, both 16th St. and U St. are two way streets. The problem of traveling southbound is easily solved by simply staying on 16th St. Yes, you might have to go out of your way a few blocks depending on where you were heading to. But it's just a few blocks. Inconvenience vs. difficulty. See? Anyway, cyclists often would just go the wrong way on New Hampshire in order to cut over to Dupont Circle quicker. No biggie. As I said it's a pretty wide avenue and not that heavily traveled by vehicles. But this is why a contraflow lane has been installed on that section of New Hampshire. Apparently "salmoning" cyclists have posed such a threat that they now require a lane to themselves. Sweet. (Again, why they didn't just make the avenue two-way, I have no idea. DC's slogan: Why make something SIMPLER, when you can spend lots of money to make it MORE CONFUSING!)

Here's my thoughts on the contraflow lanes we have in DC; as far as I know, we have two: one on 15th St. NW and now one on New Hampshire Ave. NW. Both of these streets are one way. Both are extremely wide. Both have surrounding streets with perfectly fine bike lanes that flow in the correct direction. I do not get why we need the contraflow lanes. I am very wary of any cycling infrastructure that increases unpredictability and encourages cyclists to do the opposite of what they are supposed to do otherwise. Drivers and cyclists that are unfamiliar with contraflow lanes are startled to find cyclists going the "wrong way" on a street. Drivers are not expecting cyclists to be coming at them from the 'wrong' direction when they turn onto 15th St. NW. Every time I've ridden the contraflow lane on 15th St., theres a bike salmon attempting to play chicken with me in the lane despite the ample open lanes heading in the opposite direction (the one they are traveling in) I just assume that they are going with their natural instinct to use the roadway in the usual customary manner; i.e. WITH the direction of traffic, not against it, and in the designated bike lane. In their eyes, they probably assume I'm the idiot because I'm going southbound on a northbound one-way street.  Many cyclists really don't understand the contraflow lane. I know I didn't at first. Still, I have used it on occasion and I hope that as more of these lanes are installed, people will become more familiar with the concept.

Along with the new contraflow lane at New Hampshire Avenue is the installation of DC's first "cycling signal" system. These are separate signal lights with cute little bike icons in them that have sensors embedded in the road (under the so-called "bike box"). When a cyclists comes to a stop on one of these sensors, it will trigger the light. You can watch a video about it from DDOT:

See? That's not confusing AT ALL. Just simply place your bike on the chevrons before the stop bar, and then wait for the light, and then make sure you are in the bike box and wait for the OTHER light...oh eff it.  Given cyclist's tendency to ignore traffic regulations whenever it doesn't suit them, I am quite sure this is a wasted effort. What really worries me is that they painted double yellow lines on New Hampshire. I think this is supposed to reiterate that vehicular traffic flows one way, and that cyclists flow the other. However all this is going to do is confuse drivers who may not realize that New Hampshire is a one way street and will attempt to squeeze into the tiny bike lane thinking its meant for them. Don't believe that some motorists are THAT dumb? Take a look at the new traffic pattern at 14th St. NW/Park Rd. NW/Kenyon St. NW. In case you haven't been in that area recently, if you are traveling westbound on Park Rd NW and assume that you can simply cross 14th St. NW and continue on your merry way on Park Rd. like you always did before you WOULD BE WRONG. Because now, thanks to the ingenious city planners, you can ONLY turn right (going north on 14th). No big deal though, because you can just take a left at the next cross street, right? NO. NO YOU CANNOT. Because the next cross street is one-way going EASTBOUND, back the way you came. YOU CANNOT GET THERE FROM HERE. I think it is all part of some horrible conspiracy by Jim Graham to trap people in Columbia Heights FOREVER, driving around in circles until they are forced to find refuge in Target. I was sitting in the little circle park by the intersection, enjoying some FroYo, and counted no less than 8 drivers in the space of an hour attempt to cross over the double yellow, jump the little island median, and attempt to make a left or simply go straight at the intersection, causing the DDOT crossing guards to go into an apoplectic rage. I guarantee that most of those drivers weren't doing it to beat the system, but rather because they were either used to the old way, or simply couldn't fathom not being able to continue on the same street they were already on. It didn't help that there is no signage whatsoever to alert drivers on Park Rd. that they are about to enter the 9th circle of driving hell, and that they MUST turn right, no matter how stupid it is. There is a temporary "no left" sign, but that's it. It's idiotic, and I don't even drive it!

(Still, did you notice that the DDOT guy appears to be riding one of the new Capital Bikeshare bikes?)

Last weekend I had the opportunity to try the new system out. Unfortunately, it seems that this system is really only useful for people who want to travel on New Hampshire. If you are traveling on U or 16th, you're still pretty much screwed. I rarely ever use that portion of New Hampshire. My route required me to go south on 16th, and make a left on U St. NW. My natural instinct was to get in the left lane and wait for traffic to clear to make my left turn. However, in order to take advantage of the bike signals, I had to stay in the right lane, cross 16th St over to the New Hampshire portion, then turn around to get into the bike box so I could activate the bike light in order to cross 16th St and then onto U St. NW. Also, I couldn't find the dang sensor. This was still as "difficult" (i.e. inconvenient) as ever. Then again, it's just as difficult for motorists as well. The intersection sucks (MAKE NEW HAMPSHIRE A TWO WAY!)

Haha, reading this over I realize it sounds like I'm whining about the new bike-friendly infrastructure that's being installed in the city. I'm not. I am really thrilled about it. It's just that I get the feeling that much of it is put in for the sake of having it, rather than for any useful reason. Still, its great that cyclists are finally getting a fair shake when it comes to infrastructure planning.


Today I joined Capital Bikeshare. Capital Bikeshare is like Zipcar for bicycles. If you join now, you get to be a founding member. I joined because I like to be the first (i.e. BEST) at anything, rather than for any actual use I will get out of it. I have my own stable of bikes, and if I happen to be out and about and suddenly have a "need" for a bicycle, it's probably because my bicycle got me out and about in the first place, so I'll just use that. But you never know. There have been times when I've been downtown and would have liked to have the use of a bicycle when I didn't have one with me. It's rare, but it happens. Now I don't have to worry about it.

What I am worried about is actually using the program. You practically have to sign over your first-born child in case of accident, damage or theft. If you possess the bike more than 24 hours, it will be considered a theft and you'll be charged for the cost of the bicycle, which is a whopping $1,000. My own bikes aren't even worth that much, and there have been times when I've been too inebriated to bike and left it locked up overnight in front of some random bar[1] causing me to wake up the next morning in a hungover panic because my bike isn't in my apartment where it SHOULD be and OH MY GOD WHAT DID I DO LAST NIGHT??? If one of my own bikes get stolen, I'll be pissed, but I won't go broke over it. I'm quite ready to accept that should my precious two-wheeler ever be taken from me, I will be okay. The Capital Bikeshare program doesn't seem to have that same philosophy. Still, its a good cause and I'm happy to support it.

Speaking of stolen bikes, it amazes me how many people profess to love their bicycles, yet don't bother to take basic steps to avoid getting them stolen in the first place and to assist in the recovery of their bicycle. Here are some helpful tips:

  • Learn to accept the fact that your bike might get stolen. It sucks, but it happens. It's just an object. Life goes on.
  • Invest in a good lock or two. I recommend Kryptonite locks. If you have quick releases, consider carrying an extra small lock to lock your wheel to the frame if your main lock isn't big enough. Remember though, there is no such thing as a theft-proof lock. 
  • Make sure you lock your bicycle to something secure, preferably an embedded bike rack. If it can be dismantled, lifted, cut, moved or unscrewed, it's not secure! Things that are not good to lock a bike to: street signs, chain link fences, un-embedded "bike racks", trees, poles in which the bike can simply be lifted over. Also, always lock it through the FRAME, not the wheel, seat post or any other part of your bicycle that can be removed. 
  • ALWAYS lock your bike when you leave it unattended, even if its "just for a second".
  • Whenever possible, store your bicycle inside. This is not always practical, of course. If you do keep it outside, try to keep it as close to where you can keep an eye on it (i.e. your porch, rather than the fence by the street)
  • If you store it in a garage or storage room, make sure you still lock it to a secure object. Many bicycles are stolen out of garages and storage areas because thieves know that people don't bother to lock them up, they are rarely monitored, and they are hidden out of view of the public while they do their dirty thieving.
  • In DC, any building that provides car parking is also required to provide bicycle parking. Check with parking garage attendants to find out their policy and where the bike racks are.
  • Take a photo of your bicycle. Write the SERIAL NUMBER, MAKE, MODEL & SIZE on that photograph. Store it in a secure place. This is to assist in recovering your bike if it is ever stolen. You would be surprised at how many people don't do this very simple task. Your chances of ever getting your bike back are virtually ZERO if you cannot provide a serial number on it. Should the police be lucky enough to find it, they will have no way to return it to you if they can't match it up to your report.
  • Although it is no longer mandatory to register your bicycle with MPD, consider registering it with the National Bike Registry. You can even do this after it's stolen. NBR is one of the tools that law enforcement, including MPD, uses when recovering abandoned/stolen bicycles. You even get a handy wallet card with your bike's info on it in case the worst ever happens.
It should go without saying, but please don't buy bikes off the street. Chances are 99.9% good that the bike is stolen. If the price is too good to be true, then it probably is stolen. And yes, you are responsible if you are in possession of a stolen bicycle. Receiving stolen property is a misdemeanor in this town. If the seller can't provide a plausible story as to how they came to "own" the bike, leave it alone.

Well, I think that's enough ranting/preaching for now. This weekend is supposed to be beautiful weather-wise, so I'm hoping to get some good long rides in. By the way, did you know that DC in August is HOT, and that rain is WET? I didn't either until the flood of bloggers who felt the need to state the obvious over and over. Yes, it was hot last week. Yes, that was a pretty nasty storm(s). It's summer, people. ITS HOT AND RAINY. DEAL.)

I just got my camera mount for my Electra, and I've been practicing using it to take videos and pictures. It's pretty handy. I'm clumsy, so anything that reduces my need to fumble with a gadget is a good thing.

I shot a video of part of my commute [2] the other day just to see how well the camera mount worked. It's boring and bumpy, but I'm still gonna post it anyway. HA! Enjoy this lovely, shaky and badly edited movie, set to music that I randomly chose.

Until next time, be kind and ride safe!

1. Speaking of, a bicycle has been left locked to the bike rack in front of Duffy's Irish Pub (2106 Vermont St. NW) for over a week now. It's a beautiful bike. It looks to be a vintage Schwinn, with a Honolulu bicycle tag in the rear. If any of you know of someone who may have gotten a bit drunked up and forgot where they left their bike, it might be theirs! My guess is they went to the 930 club and couldn't figure out where they locked up their bike. If it's not claimed in the next couple of days, the owner of Duffy's is going to have it declared abandoned and it will end up in my living room be recovered by MPD and taken to the station for safekeeping, which basically means it will never get back to its owner. I have photos and will post them up soon.

2. TWICE this week, I managed to capture two crime scenes completely randomly on my commute. One was the homicide (shooting) in Adams Morgan, and the other was a 'suspicious' death on 15th St. NW. WEIRD. Nothing interesting happened in the 4.5 seconds it took me to ride by each them though, so I didn't bother to keep the videos.


  1. You are so right about 14 and Park! I live just a couple blocks east of there and it's a nightmare every time I pass through. Not only does Monroe flow back east, but Kenyon flows northwest straight back into that disastrous intersection (which makes little to no sense if you're trying to go south), and Irving flows east. The only way to go south on 14th is to take 13th or 11th down to Columbia. bleh

    Here's hoping we get a contraflow lane for those 30 yards of Park!

  2. That would be great! The sidewalk in the 1400 block of Park is so narrow, that it makes it a street that really *needs* a contraflow lane for cyclists.

    I really don't want city planners were thinking when they redesigned that intersection.

    Then again, there other ridiculous areas as well. Look at the 1600-1800 blocks of Euclid. It's one way east, then one west, then two-way, then one way again. Argh!

  3. I think the reason New Hampshire has always been one-way at 16th and U was to keep that intersection from becoming massively complex (on both sides New Hampshire only allows car traffic to flow out of the interesection, not into it).

    I commute by bike through that intersection almost every day, and until recently I dealt with the one-way thing by jagging over on V Street, or T Street, to 16th. This really was no problem at all, and I usually got through the light at the same time as the bikers who had ridden wrong way through New Hampshire did.

    Today I tried the new lane -- not only does it seem to invite all kinds of confusion for drivers and bikers alike, but it took me an extra light cycle over my old pattern to get through! The fact that they had a "bike ambassador" and a DC traffic official (who reprimanded me for not staying perfectly in the box) posted there this morning is testament to how confusing this new setup is. So I'm not a fan at all.

  4. Yeah, that's a good point about not wanting that intersection to be flooded with more cars. I also usually avoided the intersection, but that's because trying to ride down 16th St. during rush hour is akin to suicide :)

    I have a feeling that this whole set-up is really just a test situation, which is fine--I just wish they would just say that rather than trying to convince everyone that it was a necessary improvement.

    (I tried the bike signal system again the other night, and no matter where I tried to put my bike down on the chevrons, I still couldn't get it to change, even after waiting through 3 changes of the vehicular signal).

  5. This video is actually really fascinating. It's fun to see someone else ride a bike. You get to be a passenger in a car and see others' driving close up but never others' riding. And now I totally want a bike camera to film the dickwads that try to run me over. I'll have to practice my potty mouth beforehand, though. Don't want evidence...