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Cyclists weary over Penn Ave.'s unprotected lanes

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Photo - A Capital Bikeshare cyclist crosses a busy intersection on Capitol Hill. (Graeme Jennings/Examiner photo)
A Capital Bikeshare cyclist crosses a busy intersection on Capitol Hill. (Graeme Jennings/Examiner photo)
Local,DC,Transportation,Liz Farmer

Urban planner Colin Hughes was cycling down the center bike lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue on Wednesday morning when he was suddenly met with two tons of metal crossing in front of his path.

As he tells it, he slammed right into the cab that cut in front of him to make an illegal U-turn across the bike lanes in order to pick up a customer in front of D.C.'s city hall. Hughes, who bikes to work every day, said he was knocked off his bike by the collision.

Hughes' story highlights a problem city cyclists have been lobbying local officials about for months: They say that because the bike lanes down the center of the road are not protected, vehicles make illegal U-turns across them and put cyclists at risk.

Hughes was not seriously injured but was visibly upset. At one point he shouted at the cab driver while a police office who witnessed the accident took a report.

"The facility [as its set up now] doesn't stop cars from crossing over," he told The Washington Examiner. "So you have a bunch of bicyclists who think they're safe, and then they nail you."

As cycling has increased in popularity in the District, so have bike crashes. Last year, a record 538 cyclists were involved in accidents, according to figures provided by the District Department of Transportation. The accidents peaked in July with 73.

Compounding the problem on Pennsylvania Avenue is that it's a historically protected corridor, meaning its design is subject to federal review. When the city installed the bike lanes down the center of the avenue in 2010, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts nixed the idea of installing protective bollards for aesthetic reasons.

Shane Farthing, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, said safety should trump the arts commission's opinion.

"Their aesthetic concerns need to yield to human safety concerns," he said last week. He added that enforcement of the no-U-turns law was spotty because the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Metropolitan Police Department interpret the law differently.

Pedro Ribeiro, Mayor Vincent Gray's spokesman, said installing that bollards on the road is "not an option" but the mayor is working with the DMV, MPD and DDOT to find a solution. The attorney general is also reviewing the statute for more clarity.

"Making those midblock turns, we believe, is dangerous, and we don't want people doing it," Ribeiro said.

Ward 6 D.C. Councilman Tommy Wells also said after Wednesday's accident that he planned to introduce legislation in December specifying that midblock U-turns are illegal in the District.

lfarmer@washingtonexaminer.com

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