15th Street: The 2-Way, Multi-Purpose Bike Lane

by Borderstan.com March 22, 2010 at 8:00 am 2,166 20 Comments

Borderstan 15th Street NW contraflow bike lane

Sunday at 15th and R NW: A northbound cyclist and a southbound rollerblader in the dedicated southbound bike lane on the west side of 15th. The graphic image depicting a southbound cyclist is visible at the bottom of the photo. (Borderstan)

The southbound bicycle lane on 15th Street NW has turned into a two-way bike lane and, sometimes, a multi-purpose lane. Southbound cyclists now regularly share the lane with northbound cyclists. In addition, the dedicated lane–between the curb and parked cars on the west side of the street–sometimes hosts rollerbladers, skateboarders, parents with strollers, joggers and motorized wheelchairs.

The bike lane opened last November as a pilot program. The lane’s purpose is to give bikers a safe, wide lane between the curb and parked cars to ride southbound on 15th Street–which is a one-way, northbound traffic street north of Massachusetts Avenue. In addition, the city created a shared lane on the east side of 15th Street; the far right lane is to be shared by northbound cars and bikes and there is signage on the pavement to that effect.

The dedicated curb-side bike lane grew out of the DC Department of Transportation’s study of what to do with 15th Street: basically, whether to leave car traffic one-way or turn it into a two-way street. The removal of one lane of northbound car traffic has also effectively slowed the speed of car traffic on 15th Street during evening rush hour.

One danger to northbound cyclists (and other users) is that there drivers are not looking for them. The signage put up by DDoT with the bike lane only instructs drivers to look for southbound cyclists when turning left off 15th. In addition, pedestrians now have to remember to watch for cyclists coming from the south.

So now what?

  • Should the city bow to the reality of the situation and turn the southbound lane into a two-way bike lane?
  • Is the bike lane wide enough for two-way bike traffic? Should the city widen it?
  • What about other uses for the lane? Are joggers and rollerbladers a danger to cyclists?
  • Are people using the bike lane for other purposes because the sidewalks are too narrow and/or in disrepair?

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  • Samantha

    I’m a driver, and when I turn left from 15th Street onto any of the east/west streets, I am constantly in fear that I will hit someone (a biker or pedestrian) because I can’t see them on the other side of the parked cars. It’s hard enough seeing bikers coming from the south with the window of 10 feet between parked cars and the curb, but so many drivers don’t heed the white lines and park close to the intersection so it is practically impossible to see anyone coming from the north and especially the south.

  • Taboo

    @Samantha: I hear you. What I worry about now is some biker or even a jogger coming from the south. When I turn left on Corcoran or R Street off of 15th, I pretty much stop during the turn to TRY and see if there is anyone coming from the south in the bike lane. During rush hour, this can be dicey because the suburbanites attempting to drive 80 mph up 15th get crazy. Not sure what the solution is here. I strongly support the bike lane, but the city is going to have to figure out how to deal with what has happened with it. I pray that people using the bike lane going north exercise great caution!

  • Chen

    I am a resident who did not think the dedicated bike lane is a good idea for a number of reasons. And recent experiences have bore it true:

    – The dedicated bike lane is still counter-intuitive for drivers as well as walkers, who risk collision wth bikers b/c we haven’t adjusted to looking both ways for bikes;
    – I’ve seen everyone from joggers, parents with strollers, etc. on the bike lane, but not so much bikes!
    – One reason people don’t walk on the sidewalk is because at some points, the side walk narrows due to tree boxes, so there’s barely enough room for 2 to pass each other.
    – If one of the goals of the bike lane is to slow down traffic on 15th Street, that’s an utter failure. The cars still speed along 15th at 80 miles an hour, with fewer lanes to jocky around.

    Since VDOT recently ruled that reservsable lanes on 15th Street south of Mass Avenue during rush hour is not necessary, why not make the entire length of 15th Street up to Florida Avenue all 2-way?

  • 16th Street Resident

    I routinely exit an alley going east from 16th Street onto 15th Street and am always afraid I’ll hit someone in the bike lane because of poor visibility. Like Samantha, I also fear that I will get hit pulling out because you just can’t see traffic in the far-west lane around the parked cars. I’m even more nervous now after hearing the bike lane is carrying traffic going BOTH ways. Someone is going to get hurt.

    And just to throw this out there since I am so fed up with disrespectful bikers on the road: PLEASE follow traffic signs and lights and give pedestrians the right of way like you’re supposed to!!

  • Ryan

    Although it’s always great to have drivers be more concerned with safety around bikers and pedestrians, this seems a bit silly. There were always cars parked along the street, so your visibility hasn’t really changed. The cars have just moved away from the curb, but you can now also creep your car out that much farther to get a peek around the parking lane. And pedestrians and bikers will continue to shake their fists at you for blocking the sidewalk and (now) bike lane.

    I have to admit, however, that even though I supported putting in the counter-flow bike lane, it just doesn’t make a lot of sense. 14th Street has bike lanes in both directions, and is a much better artery through the city. And sure enough, it gets tons of traffic. I think Chen’s right, they should just make 15th a 2-way street from McPherson to Meridian and leave the bikes to 14th.

  • TomTom

    I think bike lanes are a great idea. However, this opposite-direction one on 15th has made me nervous from the beginning. I still don’t understand the rationale. Moreover, the city is going to have to figure out what to do about all these creative new uses of the bike lane — before someone on a $5,000 mountain bike runs over some old woman in a wheel chair.

    • mattyillini

      @TomTom: Any particular reason that “a $5,000 mountain bike” is any more of a problem than any other bike? Heavier? (:>)

  • jules

    Enforcement seems pretty bad, too. I saw a car (Virginia tags) parked in the bike lane on Friday.

  • Mike

    The majority of residents who reviewed the plans and alternatives for slowing down traffic on 15th Street opted for a Two-way street with interior bike lanes like 14th Street. 
    The jerk at DDOT who decided this solution for himself at the last minute (along with final approval from The Mayors Office) has put peoples lives in danger!  The current traffic pattern was never a solution! Lots of our tax dollars have been wasted and the citizens who actually live on the street ignored!!’ GET YOUR ACT TOGETHER FENTY!! 

  • Roz

    Crossing 15th Street on foot from E to W, I was nearly hit by a bike which I could not see behind the row of parked cars. Sandwiching the bike lane between a row of parked cars and the curb creates a hazard for pedestrians.

  • CJ

    My house is on T street between 15th and 16th. My alley entrance is off of Caroline street, which is one way. Consequently, I cross the 15th street bike lane every time I park my car.
    I support the bike lane, even though I believe that the implementation has been less than perfect. However, the lane is dangerous and un-usable right now. The lane is marked as a one way bike lane. It is used as a two lane multi-use track. Anyone who uses it regularly or crosses it regularly can see that a accident is eminent. I don’t check for north bound traffic when I cross it as I turn on to Caroline. I don’t yield to walkers and north bound bicyclists when I cycle the lane. I’m a safety professional, and I believe that if I’m not doing these things, then very few people are.

    A two lane track type approach might be the best answer for this experiment. Most fast cyclists cross over to 14th street (including me, usually) because the timing of the 15th street lights and the crosswalks make it a slow lane. Maybe the people who do utilize it are interested in the safety over speed that the lane provides, and might be OK with sharing the lane with baby strollers.

    The important point is that the lane MUST be marked appropriately, and drivers must know what to expect, in order to keep 15th street safe.

  • CJ

    And to those pedestrians complaining that the lane is inherently unsafe because they can’t see oncoming traffic – come on. Really?

    Please say what you mean. Many cyclists are not yielding, or are yielding at uncomfortably close distances, to pedestrians. That is a problem.

    There is no structural reason that you cannot see these cyclists, and no hazard has been created by this lane, which has been implemented in the same form in cities all over the world. If you didn’t see a cyclist, it’s because you didn’t look. If the cyclists was breaking the law, then complain about that. Maintaining that this lane creates a structural hazard makes you sound like a pedestrian with a sense of entitlement.

  • Michael

    DC has enough terrible drivers and scoff law cyclists to begin with. Adding a confusing and misused bike lane on a street with high speed traffic is a recipe for disaster. If everyone were good drivers and cyclists, this would be less of a problem, but reality, in this case, could lead to a fatality.

  • Brendan

    Sounds like cars are being allowed to park too close to the intersections of bike lane and street. There shouldn’t be any parking within 30 feet of the intersection so parked cars don’t block line of sight. That’s pretty much the reason why people aren’t allowed to park right in front of a stop sign, but rather the last spot on the block is some feet back away from the intersection.

    Ultimately though, after all the non-cyclists take over the bike lane, the city will just annex the bike lane into a widened, raised sidewalk.

  • Posted at streetfilms.org…”While we were down in Washington, DC for the National Bike Summit, Streetfilms got the chance to check out some of the innovative bike infrastructure. Tops on our list: the city’s first protected, contraflow lane for bicyclists. The district DOT has redesigned 15th Street NW between U Street and Massachusetts Avenue to accommodate two-way bike traffic on a one-way street…”


  • Northbound cyclists don’t have many good options. The right-hand traffic lane is still too narrow to share with fast-moving traffic, and the sharrows don’t help much.

    The best solution is to make 15th two ways for both cars and bikes, with bike lanes on both sides. (And 17th St should do the same.)

  • Michael

    It’s also turned into a parking lane for MPD – I have a picture but not sure where to upload it.

  • J

    Making 15th Street two ways would not only finish the job of basically eliminating what used to be a quick and convenient route out of downtown, but it would also make it considerably more hazardous for pedestrians in our neighborhood. At peak times it can be almost impossible to cross 16th street at a crosswalk (e.g. 16th & Corcoran), whereas on 15th it is easy to cross between the short bursts of traffic. I’ve never understood why we need bike lanes on both 14th and 15th.

  • Mary

    Our house is on 15th St and I really like having a bike lane. It cuts down on the speed of traffic (my belief is that cars don’t drive as fast), makes it easier to cross the street, makes 15th feel more residential (which it is, as most of the frontage is made up of homes) and, while I too park on the street, the presence of the lane hasn’t bothered me. I look both ways when pulling across. I do see the point about the dangers of a two-way lane. My preferred solution would be to have a dedicated bike lane on both sides. Re: one-way versus two-way, as long as we have bike lanes I’m indifferent.

  • gcr

    I’m a cyclist that uses the lane daily to commute (southbound only). I much prefer it to other bike lanes or ways downtown, as it feels much safer and is faster.

    The main problem I have noticed so far is pedestrians jaywalking into the lane without looking north to check for oncoming cyclists — they’re looking south for cars. Look both ways before you cross the street please.

    However, this still feels safer than riding with traffic. I can look at pedestrians and oncoming traffic. I can’t do that so much when I’m being passed by cars on the 14th street bike lane.


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