Last week a cyclists from out of town took a bike ride through Old Town Alexandria. He was headed for the southern part of the Mount Vernon Trail. His ride ended in an ambulance. He is in a local hospital in critical condition.
When the Woodrow Wilson bridge was being replaced, I bitched up a storm about the detours and the design of the trails that went beneath it. Both reflected a complete lack of understanding of bicycling. I focused on bollards that were painted black. And I described treacherous detours that changed by the week. One week there was gravel. Then next asphalt that gave way under the weight of a bike. There were sharp 90 degree turns in the dark. And on and on.
The Washington Area Bicyclists Association and folks from the Alexandria Bike Pedestrian Advisory Committee gathered officials from a number of agencies who were responsible for various aspects of the project. These included Alexandria city, the National Park Service, VDOT, and DHS. They walked these officials through the project and pointed out safety concerns and discussed design changes. Many changes were made including painting the bollards bright yellow and putting reflective material on them.
The bollards are part of an extensive security perimeter that is designed to keep vehicle bombs from blowing up the bridge. The bridge carries I-95 and the Beltway across the Potomac River so this perimeter is obviously justified. (The old bridge had no such protection. ) Other features of the perimeter include huge boulders, stout fences, significantly, a movable gate across the southern end of South Royal Street.
The gate is a metal bar that spans the width of the street. When a driver wants access, he enters a code into a keypad at the gate. The metal bar then descends into a metal slot in the pavement. Both the top and bottom of the gate and the area along the slot are painted yellow. When the vehicle has crossed the gap, the metal bar rises to block further access.
That’s how it’s supposed to work. After they installed the gate, it was often out of commission. Crews worked on it on and off. Every so often I’d see the gate was open and I’d ride through it. The alternative is a 20-yard-long side path that has three bollards across it. Why got through a narrow path when you don’t have to?
The cyclist from out of town rode toward the bridge. He saw an open gate. He rode through it. Either the bar was sitting above the slot or it was rising as he reached it, perhaps visually obscured by the yellow paint of the bar and the slot. And potentially shaded by the bridge or two large trees to either side of the street.
He hit the bar and went flying. He broke two vertebrae in his neck. As of this morning, a week later, he was still in critical condition at a local hospital. His wife was following him. She also hit the bar and fell but her injuries were not as severe.
Note that there are no warnings to cyclists that the open gate is a road hazard. No paint on the road surface or signs direct cyclists to the side path. Long story short, you might want to use the side path.
I hope the cyclist recovers.