Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Pennsylvania Avenue U-turns

On 10/16, starting at 8:30 AM, I stood on the sidewalk of Pennsylvania Avenue NW between 12th and 13th streets to count illegal U-turns, and to capture some in pictures. I stayed in the same half-block, but had to move a bit to see around buses and trucks.

By the time I left just after 9 AM, I had witnessed 25 U-turns from this block. About 80% were executed by taxis. I also was harassed by one person, a passenger in one of the U-turning vehicles, and further harassed by a security guard from the passenger's office over the legality of the pictures I was taking. Those pictures, and a bit more commentary, after the jump...

So, in the 40 minutes I stood on the street, I observed for about 30 minutes and spent about 10 minutes in various conversations. I saw two people I know, just riding their bikes down the bike lanes as they do many days I suppose. I saw people towing children in bike trailers and riding with them on extra seats, headed to somewhere very important to them. I saw people going to work, people out for exercise, people with yoga mats and fishing poles, people wearing lycra bike racing clothes and people wearing suits and ties, as young as 5 or 6 and as old as "enough to know better", and everything in between.

And I saw at least 25 drivers who one day may shatter all that, in most cases simply to save someone the trouble of walking across the street at the crosswalk when the light indicates. So far, we've been relatively lucky, with few crashes leading to injuries and nobody killed (that I know of), but we could be lucky like this for a hundred years and it wouldn't be worth what it gains us to look the other way and allow this conduct.

The following pictures are in chronological order, with one exception. The first led the pack in crazy, so I wanted to lead off in showing it:

FIRST UP, OUR GRAND PRIZE WINNER!!! This taxi drove IN the bike lanes between stanchions to prepare for this U-turn, then made it in the crosswalk - with pedestrians present, almost hitting the "No U-Turn" sign, all on a red light too!

I missed taking pictures of the first two U-turns I saw, so this was the first photo and the 3rd U-turn.

Not all U-turns were made by taxis.

This picture and the next are the same cab - here, finishing a U-turn...

...and here discharging a passenger in the middle of the intersection.

This taxi was immediately followed by the next - same pedestrians.

The khaki jacket on the right was on the left of the last photo.

Sorry for bad focus - this is not a taxi.

Not only illegal because of the bike lanes, illegal for crossing other lanes too.

Small taxi companies do it...

...and big taxi companies too.

This one deserves a special mention...
After 20 minutes of observation I learned some"tells" that indicated a driver was considering making a U-turn across the bike lanes: a quick glance in the side mirror, slowing down mid-block, eyes shifting from straight ahead to slightly left. Also, turn signals.

The passenger in the red SUV saw me take this picture. When she stepped out, she looked at me and talked with her driver for a bit, then approached me and took my picture and asked why I had taken hers. I explained that I was observing traffic, and she said there was nothing to observe. I explained that her SUV had just made an illegal U-turn across the bike lanes, and she replied that it isn't illegal. I told her what I've learned, that any U-turn that crosses another lane like a bike lane is illegal. She went on to tell me that everyone does it, that there's no other way for cars to drop people off or park there, and that finally I should be observing illegal cyclists - such as the one that rode by in the motor vehicle lane, who should be in the bike lanes. I responded that if she wants to tell cyclists what to do she really ought to learn what the law expects them to do in the first place. She shouted back something mostly garbled but clearly impolite, and I pointed out that reactions like that show why pictures like this are necessary.

I thought I was done with this, and I was about to pack up and go to work, but few minutes later  a security guard came out of the building and asked if I was taking pictures. I said yes, with no further explanation. He went on to say he'd had complaints that I was taking pictures of people and license plates, and I had to stop. I asked him why, and he replied that it's illegal without permission or authority. When I asked why he thought that and who had told him so, he told me that he was going to get a "rover" to explain it all to me. Maybe he meant from Mars, because I stayed there another 15 minutes and never saw him or his "rover" the whole time.So I went back to taking pictures...

Like this one.

Even small, eco-friendly taxis do it.

By this time the parking restrictions expired and traffic had filled in, so this taxi made its U-turn and had to stop in the middle of traffic to discharge the passenger.

More eco-taxis, more bad focus, more U-turns.

I'm not great at reading expressions - do you suppose he'd like to thank me?

This taxi started the U-turn with no regard for traffic in his destination lanes, and had to stop across the bike lanes for 10-15 seconds before bullying his way through when the light turned red.


  1. Great post and observations. This is definitely a problem in DC on several streets. I have had several close calls on my bike because of illegal U-turns and witnessed near hits of others. Hopefully the people who have the power to make design and policy interventions will see this or at least be made aware of this.

  2. Great post and effort on your part. Thanks! Are you attempting to report any of these people?

    1. I'm not. I've tried before and been frustrated. My aim is to increase awareness and enforcement and compliance across the board, not to punish people I happened to see and let the ones I didn't get away with it.

  3. Down with the evil taxi empire.

  4. A simple bit of field research, and yet revealing. I knew that illegal u-turns were a problem on Penn, but nearly one a minute in a single block? Time for strong enforcement and for putting up more of the white poles.

  5. Ok, your next challenge is to go to 2nd and F streets NE during rush hour, stand there for an hour and count how many cyclists blow through the four-way stop without slowing down. I guarantee it'll be more than 40.

    1. I appreciate the suggestion. I'm working on changing that too.

    2. I always hate seeing that. How do you feel when you see that, Anonymous? Did you fear for your safety, or just feel frustrated because it is illegal and should be punished?

    3. Ha! That was the best response ultra! "Do you fear for your safety?" Nail on the head!

  6. @ Anonymous, 10:05 AM - Cyclists who don't stop don't excuse drivers who make U-turns through two bike lanes.

  7. I can see how those U turns would be a problem for the cyclists. That bike lane really shouldn't be there. We have plenty of paths through parks and other parts of the metro area where people can get their excercise. Putting a path on a busy city street like this doesn't make much sense as your pictures prove.

    1. A network of bike lanes serves the same purpose as a network of roads, getting people from one place to another. If anything, providing bike lanes where people already use bikes improves the roads for non-bikers too.

      Wherever you see bike lanes or bike paths and there are bikers who pick an alternative such as riding on the roadway, that's a sign that the lanes or paths aren't meeting their needs. The Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes need improvement, not elimination.

    2. But there are many cyclists that use bikes to commute to work and run errands, not just for exercise and recreation. For the former, a winding road through Rock Creek Park doesn't serve that purpose like on-street bike lanes.

  8. I wish MPD *at least* had a program like Rockville's WRITE program:

    1. For DC, 311 is the only method. I've used 311 for many service requests, but it's sometimes hard to find out what, if anything, was done in response.

  9. Anonymous at 11:13,
    while it is difficult to fit both bicycles and motorized vehicles on the roadway it does not mean that cyclists should be shoved off of roadways that provide the most direct access to their workplace or other location simply because they are smaller. If roadway users used the roadway as is legally expected there would be no issues here, but because many of the vehicles cross over bike lanes a danger is created for cyclists and for drivers (emotionally, I wouldn't want to deal with seriously injuring or killing a cyclist because I pulled an illegal U-Turn). It is often argued that cyclists break many laws (such as running red lights) because they get so little respect on the roadway. If motorized vehicles acted the way they are supposed to, and if space were provided for, and actually given to, cyclists, they may be more inclined to follow the laws as well. As it is, they have to compete with cars, and often, in order to ensure their safety.

  10. I have almost been hit on Penn several times for drivers' disregard for cyclists lanes.

    Taken straight from DC Pocket Bike Law Guide:
    Does a cyclist have to ride in a bike lane?
    "There are no regulations in DC which state that
    bicyclists must use a bike lane when one is provided."

    Bike lanes are put there for the safety of vehicles and pedestrians, as it is illegal to ride bikes on the sidewalk in that part of the city. But it is also part of the cyclists duty to pay attention to the laws and follow them. "We" the cyclists would be just as bad as those vehicles who make those illegal U-turns.

    Great research!

  11. Can you provide the photos to the relevant cab companies and the taxi commission? I know it's not "news" to them, but maybe it would put a little pressure on them. Even if nothing is likely to come of it directly, complaints add up and documenting the problem in their own records could be useful -- especially if (hopefully not when) one of these cabs causes a serious accident.

  12. I second reporting it to the cab companies if you can, especially the first one. A single report may cause no action, but if enough people do it, and pressure is applied...

    Also, Im surprised people noticed you taking pictures, especially in DC where tourists photograph everything. What kind of camera was it, point and shoot or big lens?

    1. I'm not sure why I observed so many taxis making these U-turns. I'm not surprised, but I don't know what it is about driving a taxi that is incompatible with driving legally and safely. I didn't single them out; the main focus is on the turns and not who did them.

      The camera is a point-and-shoot, but i took a lot of pictures. The red SUV's U-turn was to let the passenger off at the Ariel Rios building right next to where I was standing, so she saw me doing it and wanted to know why. She didn't really argue with me about that, but she did complain to the security guard about it.

    2. I appreciate that you were not singling out cabs. But I still think it is worthwhile to report this to the cab companies. Those companies have the ability to affect their drivers' behavior. If 80% of offenders are taxis (consistent with what you observed), then reforming them will go a long way to making the cycle track safer. Further, for the regular drivers who may or may not realize they are doing wrong, not seeing cabs constantly U turn may reduce the perception that this is acceptible behavior. Finally, I don't see a problem with holding professional drivers to a higher standard. Quite the opposite!

      Please consider reporting this info.

  13. I don't mind too much the illegal U-turns--I figure you're never going to stop it in a city like this--but I wish they'd look first. The number of times I've almost been hit (on a bike) by taxis and others U-turning on top of me is ridiculous. I've even had them shout at me for being in the way. It would seem to me that a little respect for the right of others to actually live wouldn't be that difficult to have, but I appear to be wrong.

    1. I t-boned a taxi at night in these lanes. The driver stopped perpendicular to the bike lanes (waiting to turn left) and I applied brakes but could not stop in time, so I hit the rear door panel. I was using a flashing headlight and bell, but he didn't notice me until I slammed into his taxi. It was terrifying that only a tiny amount of speed and distance saved me from just getting straight hit.

  14. This is really excellent. Thank you for posting.

  15. I think part of the problem is that the lanes are painted white and I have spoken to several people who believe that white (as opposed to yellow) lanes are ones through which u-turns are permitted. Sadly, the fact that there are bike lanes between opposing lanes of vehicular traffic doesn't seem to be much of a deterrent.

    1. The CFA rejected the standard yellow center line markings for aesthetic reasons. Legally it wouldn't matter - I've been unable to find any reference in DC's regulations that prohibits U-turns across even double yellow center lines or allows them across white lines.

      Just having markings and laws doesn't seem to matter either. In my conversations with drivers making these turns I've heard layer upon layer of excuses: it's not illegal, the markings aren't clear, it's too inconvenient, everyone does it, enforcement is a job for law enforcement, they were careful, and so on.

    2. I think the signs that indicate "No u-turns" at every single block make it plenty evident that U-turns are illegal. I agree; it's not an issue of ignorance on the part of the drivers, it's an issue of lack of enforcement combined with insufficient infrastructure.

  16. I applaud your efforts to document a growing problem on the streets of our nation's capitol. Illegal U-turns are just one of the many traffic enforcement issues requiring attention by the DCPD. I have been a DC-area bike commuter for the last 20 years, and have observed that compliance with traffic laws by vehicle drivers, the growing number of cyclists, and pedestrians has increased.

    Some, but not all, drivers not only make illegal u-turns; they also turn without looking first and signaling; they double-park and block traffic and bike lanes; they drive without their headlights on; they drive the wrong way on one-way streets; they talk and text on their smartphones while driving; and while it is not illegal, they often don't respect bike commuters as having equal rights to use the road for transportation (see Anonymous 11:13 who only thinks bikes are for exercise and recreation).

    Some, but not all, cyclists commit illegal maneuvers and practices as well. They don't stop at stop signs or red lights; they "salmon" (cycling against traffic); they don't signal; they don't wear helmets; and they don't have reflectors or lights on their bikes.

    Some, but not all, pedestrians also violate the rules. They cross against the pedestrian signals and they J-walk.

    So, if we are to all get along on these roads in a safe manner, we need to start by complying with the rules which are designed by transportation experts to keep us safe. If we aren't willing to comply voluntarily (as I have observed over the last 20 years), then DCPD needs to start enforcing those rules against all users in an even-handed manner. Rules without enforcement are just "good advice." Strong and fair enforcement will change behavior whether you drive, bike or walk.

  17. I just sent a complaint to the DC Taxicab Commission ( I encourage everyone to do the same:

    Dear DC Taxicab Commission,

    I recently came across a number of online photographs of drivers illegally making U-turns across the median bike lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, near Federal Triangle. The photographs, which were taken along just one block of the avenue, show illegal U-turns at a rate of about one-per-minute. Unfortunately, they also show the majority of the drivers driving taxis.

    The photos can be found here: For your reference, I have also noted the company, number, and licence plate (where available) and would encourage you to inform licensed taxi drivers to respect the laws for the safety of all road users.

    Company / Number / License Plate:

    Silver Cab Ass'n / 663 / NA
    NA / NA / H91653
    Eugene Kelly / 1516 / NA
    Yellow Cab Company / 216 / NA
    NA / 180 / NA
    Dynasty Cab / 3 / NA
    Yellow Cab Company / 688 / NA
    Grand Cab / 172
    NA / NA / H99184 or H99164 and VA IHJ-9483

    Thank you for your attention to this important matter.


  18. Thank you for doing this! And great work!

  19. This is infuriating! Great post; I tweeted it. (@I_Live_DC) Thanks for taking the time to observe, photograph, and blog this.

  20. Today I was hit by a taxi and knocked of my bike and across the bike lane right in front of city hall. I was in the bike lane and he was making a U-Turn. He came from behind me and I never saw him until he slammed into me. This is really dangerous - the U-turns aren't actually deemed illegal, but yet these guys don't look for bike traffic coming behind them when they swerve toi get a cab fare or deliver a car to valet. It's worse because there is barely any street light on Penn Ave too. I've alerted WABA and DDOT, posted pictures on twitter.


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