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Washington, D.C.

Chinatown Barnes Dance

The unique traffic pattern named for an influential urban planner is also known as the Pedestrian Scramble. 

The Barnes Dance at the Zodiac intersection may sound like a Saturday night ho-down where they read your Astrological chart, but at 7th and H Streets in Northwest Washington, DC, it’s a pedestrian-friendly crosswalk pattern that is also a work of art.

The traffic pattern known as the Barnes Dance has fallen in and out of favor with urban planners over the years. Named for an innovative traffic engineer named Henry Barnes, it controls automobile and foot traffic like any other intersection, but with added intervals for walkers to take over, crossing in any direction, even diagonally.

Washington’s Chinatown has the city’s one and only Barnes Dance, where traffic makes way during each change of the lights for 29 seconds of pedestrian free-reign. How do the impatient people at the four corners know what to do?  That’s where the work of art comes in. 

Created by Charles Bergen Studios, the perpendicular zebra stripes are alternated with images of the Zodiac, and large colorful dragons lead the way through the diagonals. The designs are made from pre-formed thermoplastic, sealed to the pavement to create a sense of whimsy, but with no loss of functionality.

Also known as a “pedestrian scramble,” Henry Barnes didn’t come up with the idea—it was first used in the late 1940s in Kansas City, Missouri, and Vancouver, British Columbia. But the influential engineer saw its potential, and as his career took him to other cities he expanded its use to Denver, Baltimore, and eventually New York City.

Naming it the Barnes Dance is attributed to a reporter, writing at the time that by adding the ped-friendly crossing, Barnes had people “dancing in the street.” And although it has had as many detractors as fans over the decades, the crosswalk has been linked to Mr. Barnes ever since.

Most walkers here still use the perpendicular Zodiac, but there are a few who venture to cross with the dragons. And while locals have gotten used to it all, Washington is a town of tourists. They can be spotted looking suspiciously from side to side as they zip across.

Know Before You Go

The Gallery Place/Chinatown metro stop (www.wmata.com) opens at the intersection, and the Friendship Arch is across H Street.

Walkers can get a good look at the artwork from any of the corners, but upstairs at one of the adjacent buildings gives a nice view of the entire intersection. Pothole repair has taken a bit of a toll, but hopefully the dragons will be fully restored soon.