July 27, 2012

A Sad State of Bollards

A couple months ago, cyclists along the Mount Vernon Trail in Alexandria noticed something disturbing beginning to happen. VDOT was starting to install bollards along the trail in the vicinity of the Wilson Bridge. First reported by Rootchopper (a regular bike commuter along the trail), these bollards have also been discussed on WashCycle and WABA.

And it's a mess. Besides being hard concrete (making them painful to run into), they considerably narrow the trail lanes, making it difficult to pass through at a normal rate of speed and VERY difficult for bikes hauling a trailer (i.e. a child trailer) or wide wheelchairs to pass through.

Bollards galore.

The bollards in this photo are at the bottom of the hill as one follows the MVT down from the Washington St Bridge Deck. With the downhill grade, cyclists are approaching these bollards at a higher-than-normal rate of speed, making it difficult to slow down and all but guaranteeing significant injury if they were to hit them. Furthermore, there is a curbed area of rocks just beyond the bollards on the left, an additional hazard in this area.

Who installed these and why was at one point a good question. At first it was hard to get clear information on who was responsible. NPS first said VDOT, since it's part of the Wilson Bridge project. Then VDOT said it was NPS, since Jones Point Park is under their jurisdiction. This tug of war lasted until WashCycle regular TurbineBlade (coincidentally a former neighbor of mine) received a letter from VDOT confirming that they were responsible for installation. The letter noted that because the bridge is considered "Critical Infrastructure", additional measures to prevent a terrorist attack were mandated by TSA/Homeland Security. The bike trail bollards are part of those additional measures. That it's VDOT's responsibility was also confirmed in a tweet to me by NPS.

This hasn't sat well with bicyclists and cycling advocates. A meeting at the site was coordinated recently between WABA, the Alexandria Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Committee, VDOT, and Federal officials, discussed in WABA's blog post linked above. Officials acknowledged the bicycle safety concerns of the bollards but insisted that the bollards must remain and it's too late to make major changes. Instead, VDOT's response to the meeting was to add the plastic bollards on either side, additional striping through the bollards, and the warning signs that are still too close to the bollards:

VDOT's "solution".

While the threat of terrorists doing something to the bridge is understandable, the response from Federal and state officials is very excessive compared to the safety concerns the bollards and curbed rock area present to everyday users. In short, officials are sacrificing everyday safety to guard against what is really a very unlikely threat. If Homeland Security and VDOT insist on keeping the bollards, what they need to do is widen the space between bollards so there's less risk of bicyclists crashing into them. The rock curb area also needs to be reduced in size, something that VDOT has agreed to consider.

Second set of bollards on the MVT, north of the Wilson Bridge.

A third set of bollards exists on the connection to Royal St.

I have a full photo set from my "trip to the bollards" on Flickr. All the photos I used in this article are from that photo set.

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