Dear PoP – Bike Dangers at Thomas Circle

“Dear PoP,

In my mind, this is a pretty clear cut case of cars being dangerous, bikes being vulnerable, and infrastructure failing to mediate the situation, but the first comment on YouTube was a bike hater saying I should ride on the sidewalk. I’m hoping this video will draw attention to the danger at this intersection, but am also curious how your readers will respond.”

For folks who use the bike lanes – do you share these experiences? If so do you think they require barriers like 15th St, NW. Are there other barriers that can be put in place. Or is this just the reality?

68 Comment

  • Bikers should have dedicated physically separated lanes. Otherwise cars and bikes should obey ALL of the same traffic rules.

  • you can rent a bolt gun for shooting anchors into concrete at home depot.
    sacrete concrete mix is about $6 per 50 lbs bag.

    osha safety orange spray paint can is about 6 bucks too.

  • I’m not sure a barrier is going to fix this situation–cars are going to turn right to get out of the circle on to Mass or other streets—so at some point, cars are going to cut across the bike lane. Also, I;d like to think that these cars are being lazy and cutting over because there’s no biker currently in the lane.

    As a biker, I think the best way to handle this is to avoid being in a car’s blind spot. I try to not bike side by side with a car going through an intersection, and I always check the car coming up behind and try to maintain speed to stay ahead of that car so that I’m in the driver’s view point. In other words defensive biking is that best way to protect yourself.

    • Kate – I totally agree that the whole circle is sketchy, and fixing this won’t make it a perfect route. And I agree that there’s a lot a biker can do to avoid the situation. There’s also a lot that drivers can do. But the city can make changes, too, to make this specific spot a lot safer.

      • Maybe–but what? I’m not sure those yellow posts are going to be very beneficial, since cars have to be able to exit the circle, cutting across the bike lane. So even if this particular entry into the circle is fixed, won’t the same problem exist 20 feet down the lane where cars are exiting? I think I’d rather see the money spent on making more bike lanes where there are none at all.

        Maybe the better solution is not put bike lanes in circles, where there is too much going on already. I avoid the circles for this reason–why not a bike lane extending further down 15th street instead? (I think it ends at M or L street)

  • I bike and drive in the city regularly. Filming without a cyclist here is a bit confusing. I’ve seen many cars that do watch for cyclists cut corners into bike lines or other traffic lanes when they are clear. In fact, I occasionally veer into a bike lane to pass parking cars in traffic, but only after looking for a cyclist in the rear view mirror and blind spot – the same as one would if the adjacent lane were vehicular traffic. I haven’t been on this particular intersection in awhile though. Are there specific instances of conflicts or near conflicts here?

    • The narration of the video says he was cut off 3 times at that same spot.

      As a bike commuter, I don’t think bike lanes like the one on 15th are always necessary, but for high-traffic areas like this spot, they would be the best choice, simply because they are too tall to ignore.

    • The reason I recorded the video was because I was run off the road here three times last week.

      And I’m not a bad rider hanging out in blind spots. One of the three times I was probably in a blind spot, but the other two times I was right on their passenger side door and should have been in plain view. And in all three cases the cars were going faster than me, which means they’d come from behind and there is no way they didn’t see me.

      What freaks me out about this intersection is that the angles of the curve really encourage people to cut into the bike lane without even realizing they are doing it.

      While I’d love to have caught this with a cyclist, that’s not exactly a scenario you can create on demand, and I’m not going to ask a cyclist to intentionally cut it close just for the video.

      • Thanks for the additional info. I admit, I didn’t have the sound on as I was at work. Yeah, some sort of delineators might really help here.

      • “the other two times I was right on their passenger side door and should have been in plain view.”

        I’m not familiar with this spot, but I would have taken the lane at least a hundred yards before getting to this point.

  • I watch this happen at Thomas Circle every morning. Fortunately, the traffic is usually either sparse enough that I can cross the turn at a safe moment, or it’s so heavily bottlenecked that hardly anything but bikes are moving. I can’t say that I consider it the most dangerous aspect of my daily ride, but it does sometimes annoy me. It’s bad especially at that spot because there is a soft right turn that immediately follows it.

  • Bike lanes are nice, but I frequently see cars drive in them. One time, on Q St btw 15th and 14th, a cab from behind me, drove past me half in the bike lane. I banged on his roof and told him he was driving in the bike lane. He shouted something incoherent at me and kept on driving – in the bike lane. I stopped by his window and chastised him again. He was oblivious.

    • This morning on Tilden, just east of Connecticut, a woman driving a Jeep Grand Cherokee with DC plates used the bike lane to skip past all off the traffic waiting at the light. She had to slow way down to squeeze through a particularly tight spot and then stop for the light and a biker pointedly rode into the back of her car. If I’d been him, I probably would’ve given it an extra couple of hits with my fist and been sure to scrape my pedal alongside her door, too.

      Ballsy and inconsiderate. We often edge a tire over into that bike lane to stop people like her from thinking they can use it as a lane. I just hope that no one on a bike thinks we’re doing it to block them.

  • i ride here everyday, too (11th and monroe to 16th and i). lots of cars run in to the bike lanes, though i’ve never been forced off or been in a dangerous spot. barriers with gaps for cars to make turns at the various spokes would be great, but would not eliminate problems of right-of-way in those gaps and might not be feasible with buses and trucks and their turn radius.

    ragged dog, i follow all the traffic laws when riding and yell at bikers who whip by me while i’m stopped at red lights or slowing down at stop signs. dedicated bike only infrastructure would be great. but this example is not a danger brought on by bikers braking rules. that might be a favorite topic of yours and you can raise it how you like, but it’s not directly relevant to the discussion here.

    • So, you’re at the front of the pack at a stoplight, and there is no cross traffic, and you’re watching the walk meter count down from 45 seconds… and you still wait out the light?

      • I do … that’s the rules – plus I’ve nearly hit many a biker crossing in front of me while I have the green.

      • to elaborate: i was much more brash, ran through red lights and stop signs, rode along the double yellow line between oncoming and stopped traffic, never wore a helmet, etc. when i was like 17–22. then i lived in vietnam for two years, biked quite a bit. you follow the traffic laws on your bike, no special exceptions because you don’t have a motor. i wound up seeing brain on the pavement a few times, once because a biker was doing something crazy, once because a car was out-of-line, and once because just a whole bunch of stuff went wrong. now that i’m back home, i’m more careful. it also just doesn’t sit right with me to break laws because i find them inconvenient. you can probably site something or claim that stopping at red lights can increase your danger, but that doesn’t jive with my experience. i also think that flaunting traffic rules alienates everyone who isn’t on a bike. i’d rather wait those 45 seconds and feel in the right. i actually get a lot of positive remarks from folks on their porches, folks in cars saying thanks.

        • I don’t disagree with most of what you say, but when I wait for lights (and I’ll admit, I’m a rule-breaker when it’s convenient and safe enough) I’ll often have cars tailgating me through an intersection, honking at me if I’m trying to turn left and “in their way” and otherwise harassing me. It’s a no-win situation until there’s better education about sharing the road.

          • yeah, we all have to do what we think is best in each situation, keeping in mind that maintaining basic civility and the safety of others is within our responsibility when it doesn’t put us in direct risk of harm.

            i would say though that i don’t agree that finding yourself (or proclaiming yourself to be in )a “no-win” situation gives you license to not do the right thing. education starts with you taking responsibility for what you can control.

            i feel similarly about drivers that put making the light, getting home 30 seconds sooner, the conversation they’re having on their phone before the safety of pedestrians, bikers, and other motorists.

        • Fair enough. Thanks for the thoughtful reply. Maybe if I wasn’t running late all the time…

  • I think there should be, on the bike side of the lane, a cushy barrier of playing puppies and kittens and teddy bears that all lick you and hoist you back up onto your bike if you fall, and rose petals dropping from the sky, and chocolate cherubs to cover and guide your way on a rainy day.

    I think there should be, on the car side of the lane, a gaping chasm belching demon fire and acid, and if a car strays into the bike area it will be swallowed by this infernal horror and will plummet for a thousand years into the bowels of hell.

    • horrible attempt at humor

    • you clearly haven’t thought this through: the chocolate cherubs would melt in the rain! duh!

      and the bowels of hell are only a few hundred yards down, so…. y’know…

      (actually, I think it was a pretty sharp, deliciously snarky and barbed instance of successful humor!)

    • If we’re going to go that route, we might as well just install chocolate cherub puppy stations at every cyclist’s home. If they spend their days on the couch in a teddy bear and roses euphoria, instead of cluttering up the streets with their tiny transport and enormous egos, then this whole cars vs bikes issue would go away, and drivers could get back to ignoring lane markers without worrying that they might get their paint scratched.

      Alternatively, the could install bolsters. The sweet thing about that approach is that the car is already equipped with air bags, so all you need is a rose-scented air freshener and a roadkill squirrel and the car becomes the protected paradise that you just described. Except it’s even better, because it’s mobile.

  • The other issue in Thomas Circle is where Mass comes in from the west. There is a bike lane, but a lot of cars (many of them cabs) make the hairpin turn onto M street and don’t check the bike lane — I either have to grab my brakes, smack a car, or get nudged there about once a week.

    At least we’re soon to be in windows down season where you can make yourself heard without banging on cars.

  • Thomas Circle is dangerous and frustrating for both cyclists and drivers, but I don’t think barriers will help alleviate that. It’s a trouble spot for traffic precisely because it’s already over-engineered. Traffic circles are not meant to have lights, but rather force cars to slow, yield and merge as modern roundabouts in the UK and elsewhere do.

  • As a biker, you have to own Thomas Circle. It’s not a matter of your traffic philosophy – which laws drivers and bikers know or choose to follow. The circle can smell fear and will eat you if it so chooses. If you’re on a bike, you have to be aggressive or you likely will get cut off, hit or run over.

  • Are traffic circles really unavoidable on a bike? Every time I drive in DC I plan a way around them… I think that is what I would do if I were on a bike as well.

    To make a broad over generalization though, most of my biking friends are super intense, type A worldbeating 24 year olds with a chip on their shoulder (for some inexplicable reason) and would never consider altering their route because that would be some sort of admission of defeat or that they don’t deserve the circle or something equally crazy.

    • It’s not that they’re unavoidable, it’s that they’re often the shortest/safest connection between bike lanes in other areas. I use Thomas Circle to connect from McPherson Square to the 14th St. bike lane.

      Also, Thomas Circle attracts a lot more bikes than the other circles, since it a) is the only one with a bike lane and b) connects directly to the 14th St. bike lane, which is a major commuting route for cyclists.

    • Sometimes you’re running late. There’s no faster route from Capitol Hill to Georgetown than just bombing down Mass Ave. When cyclists run late, they take non-optimal routes, increasing their personal danger by some trivial amount.

      When drivers run late, they drive like fucking assholes, speed, and otherwise but everyone else’s lives in danger.

  • I ride through Thomas Circle twice a day for my commute on a bike and to be honest, this video was tame for what I normally see. Cars are constantly in the bike lane. There are a lot of bikers too, so how could they not realize there is a bike lane there?

  • About a week ago I was run off the road here by a car who sped up from behind me and then cut me off turning northbound on Vermont. I yelled loudly in reaction to nearly getting hit. The woman in the car slammed on her brakes and then threated to “cut” me.

  • For what it’s worth, this circle is bad for drivers too – at least those of us who actually stay in lane as we drive through it. Many drivers in DC don’t know how to drive the circles properly, this causes problems for everyone else (though obviously bigger problems for peds and bikers.)

    There’s always the possibility of avoiding the circles (at least the bad ones.) When I drive I often take a different route to avoid trouble spots – heck, I do this when I walk too. No better way to avoid trouble than to stay away from it….

  • yes, that’s pretty much the norm for any striped bike lane – that’s why we need physically separated bike lanes, like the one on 15th street.

    i ride through thomas circle on my morning commute, and i just make sure i use hand signals to get from lane to lane. it’s tricky the first time, but then you get the hang of the signal timing!

  • My commuting route goes right through this circle and it really is just hopeless to rely on the bike lane. My preferred option is the Mass Ave. tunnel from 15th to 13th under the circle. I wait till the Mass Ave light is red, and make sure no cars have turned right from 15th onto Mass; that way, I have the tunnel to myself 9 times out of 10. On the 10th time, I just pedal like hell, turn on my taillight, and hope they see my silhouette against the bright sun at the eastern end of the tunnel…

  • I live right off Thomas Circle and frequent this intersection as a pedestrian every day. I agree that it’s only a matter of time before someone is killed or seriously injured at this circle. Multiple times I have almost been run over by a car having no clue what they are doing/which lane to drive in….. and yes, I walk when the pedestrian light tells me to.
    What can i say….. dc drivers are the worst in the country.

  • Bikers, avoid Thomas Circle between 6 and 6:30 today. Cant stand any of you. I used to ride my bike on the street. I learned to never do that again. You think your the only one on the road. Not smart when everyone else on the road is in a massive vehicle like me.

    • Critical Mass in Thomas Circle at 6:15! I have always though that douchebags who project “arrogance” and “entitlement” onto cyclists while telling them to stay off “their” road. The best thing about cycling in the city is that the cowards can’t “bully and run” like they do in the ‘burbs. There’s always a red light or back-up somewhere.

  • TJ,

    I think you mean “can’t” and “you’re.”

    I will see you at 6:15 or so! xoxox

  • I agree that this circle is just an accident waiting to happen. Usually the cars see the green arrow to turn and veer into the bike lane without looking. I doubt people will stop driving and parking in the bike lanes if there aren’t enforced penalties for doing so.

  • What about the crazy scooter riders that ride in between stopped cars waiting for a red light and parked cars on the side of the street?

    • Seriously, what about those guys? No helmets, no license plates– why don’t the cops crack down on them? Or the teenagers hot-rodding their 2-stroke minibikes?

      • I am actually talking about the legit scooter riders of DC. Helmets, tags, lights, etc.

        I agree they don’t have any business in a bike lane, but should they be allowed to split when the cars are stopped?

        I expect Darwin to take care of the guys without helmets with the legs dangling to the sides barreling through red lights.

      • And don’t even get me started about the kids on the mini bikes from Auto Zone.

  • I live on Thomas Circle and deal with this situation daily. I often park on Highland Terrace, the access road just before Mass Ave. It is nearly impossible to not cut off bikers when turning on to that road. I try to use my blinker to signal to bikers that I’m getting in their territory, but there is little else I can do. I believe the city is responsible and should find a way to fix it….but I also fear the installation of guard rails would significantly hinder traffic flow around an already congested circle.

    • Seriously! I mean, what else can you do? Other than slow down and get in behind the cyclist for 5 1/2 seconds, then make the turn. But everyone knows that’s not going to happen.

      Better to just signal and hope you don’t run ’em off the road.

  • I would have been a millionaire if I got 1 cent for evertime a cyclist broke a traffic law in DC over a period of 1 week. This just explains it all.

    • I would also be a millionaire if I got 1 cent for every time a motorist broke a traffic law in DC over the period of 1 week. Now if only we could get somebody to pay us 😉

  • Bikers should use back alleys. No cars, no traffic, no problems for anyone. Why do they even need to be on the roads? Alleys are bug enough for bikes to go comfortably. Just try it.

  • I came up with this idea to photograph people, that is pedestrians or bicyclists, that cross blatantly on green lights. I would have the green lights in every shot, bright as day, in the background of each shot. Georgia Avenue would be my first major shoot site… The book would make a brilliant coffee table accessory which people could use to admire the idiocy of DC foot and bike traffic. Aw geez! I don’t have time… I’ll just move to Hawaii instead, where people don’t jaywalk, because they know cars can kill them. Hopefully Vincent Gray will change DC pedestrian vaguery that’s plagued the city for the last 4 years with longer stop lights perhaps. Bike lanes are useless.

  • I believe the city is responsible and should find a way to fix it…

  • I have a legitimate question for the bikers: Since moving into the city and selling my car, I walk to and from Metro and the bus. My question is that as a pedestrian I have had a few close calls with bikes on sidewalks. I was told that bikes aren’t supposed to be on the sidewalks. Is this true?

  • Part of the fundamental issue here is that DC bikers very often want a fast, safe, unimpeded route. Not an unreasonable goal of course, that would be great and deserved. But we’re very far from getting such an environment, despite the city’s good recent efforts.

    So what to do? How about a change (or, at least, an addition) to DC bike culture and mentality? Ride slower, upright, following traffic laws, wearing your normal clothes (unsplattered thanks to chainguard, fenders, etc)? Get on and go, using good bike lanes as much as possible, sidewalks or sidestreet detours when the bike lanes are lacking. Helmet or no helmet, as it suits you. If you’re riding slow and upright you’re unlikely to pitch forward onto your noggin if you do crash (which itself becomes less likely in the above scenario).

    Yes, sneer if you want, but the Copenhagen/Amsterdam model is the most advanced on the planet, why not try to adopt it in DC as much as possible. The Copenhagenize and Cycle Chic blogs articulate these things very well. Yes, they already have a safer bike landscape, but the Danish/Dutch way might help move us in a good direction, and make DC bike culture a bit less grim along the way. (Capital Bikeshare fits well into this way of biking.)

    It would help on many levels to get vastly more ordinary, mainstream people on bikes, which is key, since the pool of self-selected ‘bike types’ is probably near its limit in DC. People don’t want to feel like they need to embrace a kind of alternative lifestyle.

  • Thanks, brad, for the video. I hope this will help get DDOT to take notice. I too commute through this circle daily, although I usually have this happen more often going north than south. City buses the real scariest part.

    It’s not a safe spot for cars either. If you had been zoomed out more, I bet you would have seen half of those cars from the right lane, after clipping the bike lane, coast right into the middle lane of the circle, potentially cutting off the cars coming into the circle from the left lane (which goes to the middle lane). This is screwed up spot and needs a re-think from the city.

    I admit I generally enter this circle against the light — specifically so that I am out in front of the traffic to avoid getting clipped.

  • Why not just take the extra 10 seconds to pedal over to 15th street and avoid the situation altogether? Or do we need bike lanes on every single street? It’s not like 15th wasn’t just totally ripped up and reconfigured for the benefit of cyclists (and to the explicit detriment of drivers who lost the only smooth north-south route with timed lights in the middle of the city, as a result).

    Seems like, given all that the city’s drivers have done (through their taxes) to accommodate cyclists, perhaps some simple common sense and reciprocal courtesy may be in order.

    Just go down 15th.

    This jazzy video is cool and all, but if after filming its hazards the auteur were to be hurt in a future, similar accident, it seems like it would be a reasonable question to ask: why didn’t he just take 15th instead?

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