By Sam Sklar
Cities across the U.S. are once again installing a formerly-common intersection treatment: the “Barnes Dance” or pedestrian scramble, which allows pedestrian movements in all directions simultaneously, including diagonally. A new installation in Washington, D.C., demonstrates both the advantages and limitations of this solution to facilitate pedestrian movement in dense urban areas.
Think of the last time you wanted to cross a street diagonally. You first had to cross one way, then another. Usually, this isn’t too bothersome, and as a pedestrian you are used to it because almost every intersection follows this same pattern and it becomes routine. This type of tends to prioritize users of the street, generally drivers, over those using the sidewalk. That makes sense where motorized traffic is more numerous and frequent than pedestrians. But where pedestrians outnumber cars, it would make operational sense for the intersection’s infrastructure and traffic operations to reflect that imbalance.
In comes Henry Barnes, an early proponent for and popularizer of an all-way pedestrian crossing. His work in New York in the early 1960s helped to normalize this type of intersection design for pedestrian safety and movement, with implementation wherever possible (in the face of an omnipresent Robert Moses, no less). In time it became known as a Barnes dance from an innocuous quote attributed to a NYC City Hall reporter who noted, “Barnes has made the people so happy they’re dancing in the streets.”
Soon, Washington D.C. will add a Barnes dance at 14th and Irving Streets NW in Columbia Heights. As an article in the Washington Post points out, the new infrastructure—which includes updated signal timing and curb ramps that offer a diagonal option—will allow pedestrians to cross this busy intersection in any direction during its cycle. This intersection upgrade is DC’s second—the first coming about seven years ago in Chinatown at 7th and H Streets NW—and is intended to accommodate the increasing number of people who are choosing to walk and bike instead of driving.
This intersection is particularly primed for an infrastructure upgrade because of its proximity to the Columbia Heights Metro Station and history of conflict between cars and pedestrians. By separating pedestrians from motor vehicle traffic both physically on the sidewalk and temporally—no turning movements will be allowed during the pedestrian phase—DC is hoping to increase safety for everyone while also maintaining access and mobility through this highly popular intersection.
Not all intersections with heavy pedestrian traffic can be fitted with a diagonal crossing, but this intersection fits the requirements. First, pedestrians outnumber cars at 14th and Irving Streets NW, by a factor of nearly 2.5 to 1 during peak times, according to George Branyan, who works for the District’s transportation agency, DDOT. Second, the geometry of the intersection allows for comfortable passage for people with disabilities or other mobility problems. In order for a diagonal crossing to work, the intersection’s diagonal must not be too long. Third, there needs to be sufficient space on a sidewalk to allow for large numbers of pedestrians to queue. Since the intervals between crossings will now be longer, traffic engineers do not want pedestrians to overflow onto the streets. All four corners at 14th and Irving Streets NW fit this description well, and, based on the success at 7th and H Streets NW, which shares the same characteristics, the future looks safer and more accessible for non-motorized users in Northwest DC.
Other intersections are candidates for future Barnes Dance installations, but DDOT will look to the success or failure of this installation to determine whether or not to pursue similar safety upgrades for the city.
Sam Sklar is a Program Associate at SSTI.
By Sam Sklar