Bollards: A Barrier to Safety?
Bollards are, in theory, intended to keep people safe. So why do people keep getting hurt by them?
Bollards. You know, those posts they put in the middle of the trails, usually at entrances?
In theory, they’re there to keep vehicles from entering the trails and endangering pedestrians and cyclists on the trails.
But in practice? It seems, lately, that they’re there to create one more hazard for the users they’re supposed to protect.
Arlington cycling advocates have been pushing Arlington County to remove a number of useless and/or dangerous bollards on Arlington’s trails for a while, but there seems to have been an uptick of bollard-related injuries this year. It’s time for the County to formulate a coherent policy on where bollards should be used. Then, it needs to act to remove the bollards that pose an undue danger to trail users.
If the purpose of bollards is to deter motor vehicles from accessing pedestrian and bicycle facilities, they should only be located at points where trails and streets intersect. This makes particular sense at points where a driver may mistake a trail for a street. There aren’t too many of these situations in Arlington, but the W&OD near Bluemont Park is no stranger to SUVs driving to the picnic pavilion. And I can imagine how bored teenagers might find it fun to try to drive up the access bridge from the Roosevelt Island parking lot. So yes, bollards do have their place.
However, there is no reason bollards should be placed in trail/trail intersections or along the middle of trails. Yet Arlington is not only full of these instances, but they seem to be proliferating.
Some of them are historical artifacts – the bollard at the W&OD trail intersection just east of Lee Highway is there because a road used to lead up to that point. But despite all the work that was done to turn that area into a park with a trail, the original bollard was left there, needlessly endangering trail users. It, and other similarly redundant bollards, should be removed.
Then there are the new bollards that have been installed because . . . well, honestly, it’s something of a mystery to me. For example, it’s still not entirely clear why the forest of bollards on the new bridge near East Falls Church were installed. The bridge was already inside of a protected perimeter (i.e., there are no cars anywhere near here). Yet the County installed three bollards on one end and one on the other (just to keep things even?). After being pressed at a public hearing, the County seems to have relented, removing some of the bollards.
But not all of the bollards were removed from the new bridge. It appears – and now I should emphasize that I’m speaking from second-hand information – that some parts of Arlington County government think that bollards are a great way to calm trail traffic. This would explain, in part, the bollards posted like ski-gates on the bridge. But this over-application is plainly out-of-step with the best practices of transportation professionals.
The Federal Highway Administration provides guidance specifically for the use of bollards and other barriers. It notes:
Even "properly" installed bollards constitute a serious and potentially fatal safety hazard to unwary trail users. [ . . .] For these reasons, bollards should never be a default treatment, and should not be used unless there is a documented history of intrusion by unauthorized cars, trucks, or other unauthorized vehicles.
Bollards are often a hazard to trail users, who can crash into them, possibly resulting in serious injury or death. Poorly installed bollards can lead to head-on collisions. Bollards are involved in "second user" crashes, where the first user hides the bollard until it is too late to avoid it, even if the first user has adequate sight distance. These crashes can produce serious or incapacitating injuries. This can happen to pedestrians as well as bicyclists or other higher speed users.
There have been several serious crashes directly related to bollards in Arlington County. One, earlier this week, appears to have happened at the west entrance to the bike/pedestrian bridge crossing the George Washington Parkway to the Mount Vernon Trail. This bollard is utterly superfluous, and is just one of many the County should have removed by now.
When the County finally does take the danger of bollards seriously, and starts removing the unnecessary ones, it should be sure to remove the bollard collars left behind. This is the part of the bollard base that sticks out of the ground. Short, metal and usually poorly marked, it’s a menace to pedestrians and cyclists alike. Concerns about empty bollard collars have been raised before, but their removal is not a priority for the County. That needs to change.
Arlington County needs to develop a consistent policy regarding bollards that takes into account the FHWA’s guidance and the actual dangers posed by vehicle traffic at proposed bollard locations. Any future bollard installation anywhere in Arlington should respect this policy. Finally, the County should take an inventory of existing bollards, and develop a schedule for removal of those that don’t comply with this policy.
Where are all these bollards? Check out this map, which has been maintained by citizens concerned about this problem. You, too, can contribute.
Mark Blacknell is chairman of the Arlington Bicycle Advisory Committee, president of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, and a League Cycling Instructor.
About this column: A regular examination of cycling in Arlington and what its growth means to our community.