Protected Bike Lanes: the Real and the Ideal

Should Streets Be Planned for What Should Happen --or What Actually Does?

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Sara Vernon started cycling in February 2020 wanting to avoid the crowding of Metro trains as the first hints of COVID-19 reached the District. Sometimes she encounters delivery trucks pulled into bike lanes. It’s harrowing to try to join the flow of cars to get around them, she said.

A service vehicle is parked on a sidewalk in Southwest. Courtesy: E. Daniels

“We have to rely on drivers paying attention to where cyclists are,” Vernon said, “and it’s a little bit intimidating to put your faith in someone who might be [distracted]. It’s just an uncomfortable and often unsafe place to be in.”

Cyclists like Vernon say safety needs to be built into the street. The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) says they are working to do just that. They have installed protected bike lanes (PBL) in Southeast on First Street as far south as I Street, and on New Jersey Avenue from H Street SE to Tingey Street SE. Now, there are plans to add lanes on I Street from Seventh Streets SE to Seventh Street SW.

Emileigh Clare, 34, lives in the Capitol Riverfront and commutes to work by bicycle. She has encountered delivery drivers in the cycling lane many times. Protected bike lanes don’t prevent every driver from parking in bike lanes, but they are an added deterrent, she feels.

“[Drivers] are going to do illegal things, so the most you can do is build the safety into the street and do your best there,” Clare said.

However, other residents and ANC 6D commissioners say recently installed lanes are creating problems for package deliveries. Standing vehicles in travel lanes obstruct lines of sight endangering pedestrians, neighbors say. DDOT, they argue, plans for ideal behavior, but does not take into consideration the real conditions on the streets that actually reduce the safety of motorists, cyclists and pedestrians.

One example, they say, is how DDOT has not accounted for the actual behavior of delivery drivers.

Delivering Packages
Looking out his window one Friday around noon, Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 6D Chair Edward Daniels (6D07) can see eight delivery vehicles parked in no-parking zones along New Jersey Avenue SE. Ideally, protected bike lanes make biking safer for cyclists, he said. But without curb access assigned to delivery vehicles, there is chaos, he said. Daniels has documented drivers parked in crosswalks, travel lanes —even the sidewalk. In that way, he said, bike lanes actually make it more hazardous for pedestrians, vehicle drivers and bikers.

UPS and FedEx did not respond to requests for comment. “USPS [United States Postal Service] is required to deliver to every single address in every American community – a unique statutory obligation,” a USPS spokesperson wrote. “This requires a fleet of vehicles to provide service in every community. We will continue to remind employees to be respectful as we work to minimize parking concerns.”

Delivery drivers illegally parked say loading docks are often difficult to access, and located far from the front desk where packages are received. Backing into the dock and trundling packages from the rear to the front of the building is unrealistic given schedule expectations, one driver said. “That would add about 20 minutes for every building,” another noted. “That just isn’t going to happen.” And loading docks are often in use by trucks making furniture deliveries or people moving in or out. A review of the January 2022 loading dock reservation schedule for one condo building on First St. SE in Capitol Riverfront shows the loading dock reserved 21 of those days. Delivery drivers do not arrive on a schedule, so scheduling makes parking in the loading dock an iffy proposition at best.

Lack of Enforcement
DDOT does account for actual general driver behavior the planning in infrastructure, a representative stated. However, the agency does expect drivers to follow the rules of the road. The Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) and the DC Department of Public Works (DPW) enforce traffic and parking rules. Both are empowered to issue parking tickets.

Drivers for delivery companies have told Daniels that their companies will just pay tickets, he said. Meanwhile, parking enforcement officers have told him that they don’t write tickets because they know it is just not worth the effort. DPW, the city agency that issues parking tickets, did not return a comment in time for publication.

“It’s just a matter of enforcement,” Clare said. “We don’t really have parking enforcement, even on the weekends, in (ANC) 6D. It seems like it’s very underfunded.”

Clare points to the work of Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh (D), who released data in December of last year indicating the District lacks the staff to enforce tickets issued to drivers. Cheh has been working on ways to increase DPW staffing and work on reciprocity agreements. District residents must pay all outstanding fines before they can renew their license. But residents of Maryland and Virginia can renew their licenses with outstanding fines in the District.

Planning for Ideal Conditions
Goods have to get from place to place somehow. DDOT needs to compel developers to create a delivery zone in private space front of new building entrances, said Daniels.

DDOT controls all public space in the District of Columbia. Whether it is a new curb cut, the placement of a building entrance or the placement of a loading dock, the Zoning Commission, the Department of Regulatory and Consumer Affairs (DCRA) or the Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) consult DDOT as a stakeholder before any decisions are made. This is particularly true during more complicated Planned Unit Developments (PUDs), which dictate the design and massing of most recent construction in the Navy Yard.

At DDOT’s insistence, all new buildings include loading docks designed to place all building deliveries on a development’s own property rather than on public streets. ANCs, which carry “great weight,” are also consulted. Developers spend thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours complying with their advice. However, all of this painstaking planning is for naught if delivery drivers refuse to use loading docks.

Bike Lanes to Expand
Construction is about to start at Westminster Presbyterian Church (400 I St. SW). The Planned Unit Development (PUD), approved by DDOT last year, includes affordable senior housing. Plans call for three entrances on I Street SW for the church, the market rate units and the affordable senior housing. The loading dock is located around the corner, a block down on Makemie Place SW. This is similar to the kind of arrangements that delivery drivers resist using on First Street and New Jersey Avenue SE.

During PUD discussions with ANC 6D and at the Zoning Commission, developers stated their expectation that the curbside in front of the three building entrances would be the site of pickup and drop-off for hire vehicles, particularly important for senior residents. All packages, on the other hand, would be delivered at the Makemie Place loading dock.

However, if DDOT installs protected bike lanes as part of the agency’s proposed I Street Safety Project, there will be no curbside parking on eastbound side of I Street SW. Designs show a protected bike lane will run along the road in front of the building entrances. There will be a parking lane on the opposite side in front of Amidon Bowen Elementary School (401 I St. SW). In a concession to parents, DDOT has agreed to leave the current parental pickup/drop-off zone and parking in front of the school. The bike lane along the westbound lane there will remain unprotected.

According to a Westminster Church representative, DDOT had agreed to share updates to bike lane plans with developers before public presentation at the January ANC 6D meeting. However, the agency did not do so. “Probably an oversight, but frustrating nonetheless,” the representative added.

DDOT is committed to work with the Westminster team, which they say is still in the design phase, to encourage the developers to locate as much loading activity as possible on their property and outside the public right of way, an agency representative stated.

In the best cases, Commissioner Frederica Kramer (6D05) said, developers sit down with ANCs in a working session to address concerns with plans; DDOT and the ANC should be able to do that with bike lanes as well. “After all, we’re elected government officials working with a public agency,” Kramer said.

Next Steps
Cyclists living in the area want to see protected bike lanes installed, viewing them as a critical part of road safety infrastructure. “Anything that could possibly stop a car from driving into me is a good thing,” Clare said, “and [protected bike lanes] just possibly make them slow down a little bit.” DDOT argues that the I Street Safety Project is pivotal to achieving a totally protected bicycle network, helping to make a safer city for all.

Many ANC 6D commissioners remain skeptical. They have repeatedly raised concerns since first seeing the plans in early 2020. There are many issues that remain to need to be addressed —and deliveries are only the tip of the iceberg.

“I’d like to see DDOT work with the community and the ANC as they go about the project and putting in these bike lanes,” said Commissioner Ron Collins (6DO3).

Now in preliminary and at 30 percent concept planning, final designs for the I Street project are expected in the spring, when DDOT expects to issue a Notice of Intent (NOI). Construction is planned for fall 2022.

The Jan. 10, 2022 DDOT presentation of the I Street Safety Project can be found at https://bit.ly/344JklR