BACKGROUND In mammals, ChIP-seq studies of RNA polymerase II (PolII) occupancy have been performed to reveal how recruitment, initiation and pausing of PolII may control transcription rates, but the focus is rarely on obtaining finely resolved profiles that can portray the progression of PolII through sequential promoter states. RESULTS Here, we analyze PolII binding profiles from high-coverage ChIP-seq on promoters of actively transcribed genes in mouse and humans. We show that the enrichment of PolII near transcription start sites exhibits a stereotypical bimodal structure, with one peak near active transcription start sites and a second peak 110 base pairs downstream from the first. Using an empirical model that reliably quantifies the spatial PolII signal, gene by gene, we show that the first PolII peak allows for refined positioning of transcription start sites, which is corroborated by mRNA sequencing. This bimodal signature is found both in mouse and humans. Analysis of the pausing-related factors NELF and DSIF suggests that the downstream peak reflects widespread pausing at the +1 nucleosome barrier. Several features of the bimodal pattern are correlated with sequence features such as CpG content and TATA boxes, as well as the histone mark H3K4me3. CONCLUSIONS We thus show how high coverage DNA sequencing experiments can reveal as-yet unnoticed bimodal spatial features of PolII accumulation that are frequent at individual mammalian genes and reminiscent of transcription initiation and pausing. The initiation-pausing hypothesis is corroborated by evidence from run-on sequencing and immunoprecipitation in other cell types and species.