At that intersection of Benning Road and Defense Highway in Bethesda — known at one time as Benning Drive — four businesses remain. But a new ordinance requires each of the premises, including a closed school, to have the same bollards and other common features to prevent anyone on the sidewalk from getting hit. That means that as of Tuesday, Gabriella’s Italian Kitchen could be closed by the threat of gunfire. As of Wednesday night, Ben’s Fresh Meats has the bollards in place as well. If the business closes altogether, that would leave only one remaining business at the intersection, even though one of them, CarMax, cannot be closed by street closures and hasn’t had to be closed at all because of the neighborhood’s bollards.
The controversial setup is one of a handful of such signs around the city that visitors are aware of and rely on. Washington is peppered with angled bollards — 16 percent of all New York-style poles of any kind and one of the highest shares of any city in the country — and police officers have posted stop signs in the middle of intersections with bollards in recent years.
By way of background, a bollard is a temporary system created by having a string of steel posts encased in large columns affixed at the curb, or near the intersection, in front of a storefront. These posts run parallel to the pavement and are spaced across the street — preferably from the same height, not farther apart like an Achilles heel. Because they move with traffic, they are both strong and steady. If pedestrians walking at normal walking speed were to cross a street, the posts would not move unless the pedestrian were running very fast — which would require people to stop and think twice about doing so. That puts the bollards outside the “I’m not running fast” zone but outside the “Bollards are unsafe” zone, too. At some intersections with bollards, cars can make turns around the posts as easily as any light post, although the posts can lock up if someone passes and there is no one immediately standing beneath them.
To install and patrol these measures, the District of Columbia requires a $1.5 million equipment rental fee, plus an annual maintenance charge. The District’s roadways bureau estimates that it has spent around $500,000 on both the vehicles and the bollards in the last two years.
Gauging by reception to this new ordinance, though, that much may be overdone. Police officers have posted stop signs in front of every bollard in Bethesda except one, and have been making an effort to communicate regularly with businesses to get them to remove any, real or fake, that can be used to deter would-be assailants. They are installing dozens of new bollards at intersections all over the District, but there is little evidence they are receiving much in the way of support from either the business owners who are paying for them or the neighbors with parked cars who depend on them. The construction continued today and we’ll update as more details become available.
When the Business Improvement District for the Columbia Heights neighborhood published a letter arguing that DC’s standard bollard allowance of 50 inches above the base line of the street — in line with other cities — doesn’t give enough protection against shooters, officers posted along the sidewalks told the organization that the bollards aren’t too far above the sidewalk for people with cars to pass safely. The density of traffic, they said, makes the bollards high enough to deter people on the sidewalk from getting shot. Their instructions to the letter-writers: Please see the doctor. And yet, in every case we’ve heard from police, the bollards themselves seem mostly protected from a shooter’s bullet.
The bollards have a reassuring logic that may help explain why they’ve endured, and become so common around the city. It’s simple, in a context of subways and roadways with limited side-street parking: If you can’t drive across the street, you won’t stop for pedestrians on the sidewalk. And if you can’t drive, you probably won’t walk. Walking, it seems, has too few other attractions to keep you moving.