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Enforce bicycle laws, but the right laws

When discussing bicycling in the city, newspaper editorials and letters often follow a similar theme: "We're all for bicycling in the city, but those crazy cyclists need to follow the law." These sentiments reflect a common perception among drivers that bicyclists aren't behaving safely or legally. Cyclists often respond, frustrated, that drivers honk, throw things, almost run them off the road, turn right without looking, and more.

Photo from Spacing Magazine on Flickr.

They're both right. And to improve relations between cyclists and drivers, we have to admit and acknowledge these realities. Bicycling on 15th Street last night, no fewer than three cars (one with New York plates, one with Virginia plates, and one EnviroCab) passed me at unsafe distances, with less than three feet of space and all in a two-block segment. One car honked, another car (on Q) blocked the bicycle lane while stopped in traffic nowhere near the intersection, and several turned right at intersections without properly moving into the bike lane. This all happened in a single 15-minute, one-mile ride.

At the same time, when I drive, I see numerous examples of unsafe bicycle behavior. One recent evening as it was starting to get dark, I was driving down the hill southbound on 16th approaching U, taking care to go slowly. Many people speed down this hill, making it one of the city's most dangerous intersections. I approached the intersection with a green light only to see a cyclist in all black without lights fly through the intersection along U Street at very high speed. Drive down Massachusetts Avenue toward Dupont in the evening rush and you're almost certain to encounter some cyclists weaving in and out of moving traffic around Massachusetts, Florida and Q. It's very scary to drive through the city afraid you'll kill a cyclist despite taking considerable care.

Of course, when a driver behaves badly, he's endangering others, while when a cyclist weaves in and out of traffic, he's mostly only endangering himself. Still, these bad apples hurt the public perception of bicycling for everyone. I've written that preservationists should admit they have an image problem. So should cyclists.

How do we solve this problem? Enforcement is key. According to the January Bicycle Advisory Council meeting, Councilmember Jim Graham's constituents have been complaining about bicyclists too. He's considering creating a bicycle patrol to better enforce the laws. And unlike current traffic enforcement, these officers would work for DDOT instead of MPD. That will make it much easier to focus their efforts on the truly unsafe behaviors (like flying through 16th and U against the light without looking) instead of the unimportant stuff (like contraflow riding on New Hampshire Avenue, or not stopping fully at a stop sign with no traffic anywhere in sight).

The bicycle patrol also needs the power to pull over drivers. In fact, bike-mounted officers will probably observe more driver violations than officers in patrol cars do. Just as I encountered copious motorist infractions while cycling but observed mostly cyclist bad behavior while driving, so will these cycle patrols better see the motorists breaking the laws.

Even if the DDOT patrols have more discretion and better training, just cracking down on bicyclists isn't the whole solution. We should also fix our laws. Right now, pedestrians have one set of laws customized to their needs. They walk on the sidewalk, cross at pedestrian signals, can cross midblock under certain circumstances, and more. But bicyclists have to follow the same laws as cars, even though they're not cars. The "vehicular cyclists" disagree, but I believe we shouldn't treat bicycles as cars any more than we should treat pedestrians as bicycles.

A car takes some distance to stop, and carries a lot of dangerous momentum. Therefore, we have stop signs to make cars stop and look for oncoming traffic or pedestrians. A bicycle, on the other hand, can see oncoming traffic as he or she approaches an intersection in plenty of time to stop, while stopping and starting takes a lot of energy. Most cyclists just slow down at stop signs, then proceed if it's safe. There's nothing wrong with this, as long as the cyclist really does make sure it's safe. If the law simply allowed this, but prescribed a fine for riding through when it's unsafe, we could catch the real dangerous behavior without forcing needless starts and stops on everyone.

Likewise, many of our lights are timed for cars to travel multiple blocks on one green cycle. A bicycle moves much slower, and riding along a one-way street like Q and R, a cyclist is sure to encounter many red lights. At many of these intersections, no cars are coming the other way. Cyclists frequently proceed through red lights when there's no cross traffic at all, as do pedestrians, and forcing already-slow vehicles and people to wait 30 seconds for no good reason is similarly silly.

European cities have much more extensive bicycle infrastructure. There are physically separated bicycle lanes, bicycle traffic signals, even bicycle-only roads. Many times more people bicycle than in the United States. Where we've designed infrastructure for the cyclists, those signals are tuned to the riders' needs, and they ought to follow them. But when we only have car infrastructure, we should let cyclists follow a set of rules that make sense for cyclists. Idaho has such laws, and the DC BAC has discussed such changes, possibly to be called the "DC Cyclist Safe Stopping Act".

Let's make a deal. We change the laws, not to give cyclists a free pass, but to make unsafe behavior illegal and safe behavior legal. In exchange, we crack down, seriously, on unsafe riding (and walking and driving). The message is simple. Cyclists, you can now ride legally in a way that's reasonable. But cross the new lines, and you'll get a ticket. The good, safe cyclists, who make up the vast majority on the road, benefit. So do the safe drivers. And by seriously enforcing the law for the small minority of both groups that behave badly, we can improve safety and relations between drivers and cyclists.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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As someone who lives and works downtown, I'd like to see much more attention paid to enforcing the laws about riding bicycles on the sidewalk.

by Andy on Jan 16, 2009 1:14 pm • linkreport

Nice post. I like the idea of laws tailored to bikes. Makes sense.

Back in the day (early-mid 90's) I had a lot of friends who were bicycle courriers (sp?). They were notorious traffic law scofflaws, at least in part b/c they were in a hurry everywhere they went. My sense is there aren't as many courriers downtown frightening drivers and walkers as there used to be since the internet has become nearly universal. Is that right? Or is it just me and my friends who have changed? I also have the sense that it was courriers (back then) who contributed substantially to the bad reputation of all bikers, and that the sentiment that bikers behave badly might, in part, be left over historical memory. Not to say there aren't bad bikers now. Of course there are. But maybe there's an old prejudice?

by Bianchi on Jan 16, 2009 1:24 pm • linkreport

There was an excellent article ( a few years ago in Access magazine, published by UC Berkeley, suggesting that cyclists should yield rather than stop at many intersections because of the amount of energy needed to regain speed after the stop sign.

by Ben on Jan 16, 2009 1:32 pm • linkreport

When restarting at a red light when there are a number of cars lined up I find myself much more in the way of cars then if I just went though the light (assuming its clear). I think this is because bike lanes tend to go away at intersections, cars are trying to make turns, etc.

by mafiosa on Jan 16, 2009 1:37 pm • linkreport

I'm mostly a vehicular-cycling person, because it was reading John Forester's Effective Cycling that convinced me to try cycle-commuting in DC in the first place, on roads where many non-cyclists presume that one would have to be crazy to cycle on them.

I agree though about stop signs and stop lights. The important part of stop signs is to yield to cross traffic and cross-pedestrians. Another thing about a bike is that your eyes are much closer to the front of the vehicle than a motorist's are. The point is that you can reach a point where you can determine whether or not there is any traffic you will need to yield to, and still come to a complete stop before encroaching upon their right-of-way, while still moving.

I'd also think that cyclists should be able to treat most red lights like stop signs. There are a few places, though, where the light needs to be absolutely followed, because you can't see far enough down to cross street to know if a vehicle will come before you can get across the intersection. Crossing under the SE-SW freeway, going north, on 3rd street SE, comes to mind.

by thm on Jan 16, 2009 1:39 pm • linkreport

In reference to the sidewalk comment: I commute to and from work on my bike and although I always try to stay off the sidewalks, occasionally I feel compelled to travel a short distance on them to avoid what I consider to be an unsafe stretch of road (cars speeding around construction, cars parked in the bike lanes). I consider myself a fairly adventurous rider, so I can only image people who are less comfortable riding in close proximity to cars would opt for the sidewalk more often.

The safer we make biking on the road, the less people will bike on the sidewalk (the road is a much smoother, faster ride, and no one likes riding a bike on the sidewalk). I think this approach is preferable to enforcing laws against cyclists on the sidewalk (only illegal in parts of downtown currently): if I was a policymaker, I think I would prefer to have cyclists nearly hurting pedestrians then motorists nearly killing cyclists.

by Matt on Jan 16, 2009 1:42 pm • linkreport

Maybe those intersections could have a "Cyclists wait for green" sign like the "No turn on red" signs we have where right turn on red is not safe?

by David Alpert on Jan 16, 2009 1:43 pm • linkreport

im with you. on a bike, drivers look like jerks, and behind the wheel, cyclists look nuts.

i think codifying the whole thing would be good. there is also a lack of bike lanes etc that should be addressed. its a nightmare to try and ride down wisconsin and there are few alternatives, just to name one.

to sum it, as i have before, just dont be a dick. other people have the right to use the road. and whether its a bike or a car, its really people. keep that in mind next time you go cutting someone off.

by dano on Jan 16, 2009 1:43 pm • linkreport

Bicyclists do not have the SAME laws as motorized vehicles. They have SIMILAR laws. That's a huge difference that you fail to comprehend. If they were the SAME laws, there wouldn't be a whole chapter of the vehicle code dedicated to bicycles, now would there?

For instance bicycles are allowed to pass vehicles in either lane, on the right or left. What you call weaving is explicitly allowed in the bicycle chapter of the code, whereas motorized vehicles (like mopeds) are specifically denied the right to do this.

And I've won this case in the Arlington courts within the past 6 months, so please enough with this.

by Egganddart on Jan 16, 2009 1:46 pm • linkreport

I used to be a stickler for obeying traffic signals as a cyclist. Then I started peddling up H St in front of the White House and kept getting sideswiped by cars. Pausing at red lights instead of waiting for them to change to green solved that problem. Of course there were the a-holes who still honked at me, offended that I got a few extra yards on them.

by lou on Jan 16, 2009 3:22 pm • linkreport

In the Netherlands, a lot of accidents were prevented by putting the guilt of any car-bicycle accident on the car driver. The reason is twofold:

1) The assumption is that cyclists, as reckless as they may seem, do realize that physically, they will always loose from a car.

2) It forces motorists to drive in such a way that they can not hurt the biker. It slows them down, which in general is not a bad idea.

In fact, car drivers are even guilty when the bikers was obviously completely drunk (or stoned). The reasoning is that it is cars that kill m bikers, and never (rarely) the other way around.

The way out to abuse is that car drivers (or their insurance) can go to court to fight the guilt, if they can clearly show they took all possible precautions.

by Jasper on Jan 16, 2009 3:24 pm • linkreport

Oh, and I forgot: If everybody would just behave a little more reasonably, and drive a little slower (including bikers), then we wouldn't have this issue.

by Jasper on Jan 16, 2009 3:31 pm • linkreport

Matt, as a pedestrian (too accident-prone to bike), I wish that cyclists only used the sidewalk in situations where it's unsafe to cycle on the road - but I often find myself dodging sidewalk cyclists in quiet, residential parts of Capitol Hill with perfectly nice bike lanes and no car traffic.

And while a collision between a cyclist and a car is more likely to be fatal than a collision between a cyclist and a pedestrian, users of the sidewalk don't tend to be alert to fast-moving, potentially dangerous vehicles in their path.

by lauren on Jan 16, 2009 3:33 pm • linkreport

I am a huge proponent of commuting by bike and doing any other possible errands by bike, but unfortunately find myself commuting by car to work in Dupont Circle. I have been hit by a cyclist on the south side of the Circle where New Hampshire comes in...while I was looking left to merge into traffic, the cyclist decided to take a shortcut from the sidewalk to weave in front of the truck on my right and then in front of my car...luckily I saw him and slammed on my brakes, but not before he lost his balance and fell on my hood (no, I didn't hit him). How am I supposed to know he's coming from the right!? Commuter cyclists, not the really aggressive bikers, also have a habit of riding in the center of the road way on New Hampshire when there are bike lanes in both directions. Until cyclists begin to obey the general rules of the road and ride defensively as we are taught to drive defensively, then they risk serious injury, or God forbid, death. In countries like the Netherlands, where cyclists do for the most part, obey traffic signals and stop signs, accidents are much, much rarer.

by Ellen on Jan 16, 2009 4:09 pm • linkreport

Also, I bet they drive better in the Netherlands than in DC.

I used to bike a lot more than I do now. The reason I don't now is traffic. Once I hit 21st street downtown, I was stuck in traffic. It was the summer, and I was just inhaling exhaust. Who needs that? It was hot, slow, stinky. I'd like to ride much more, but strangely, it's too slow for me.

I won't use that as an excuse to ride on sidewalks since I firmly believe they are for pedestrians except in emergency situations.

by Jazzy on Jan 16, 2009 5:00 pm • linkreport

I'm with you David. Change the laws to make sense and enforce them.

I also agree with Eggandart - "weaving in and out of moving traffic" - is legal as laws for cyclist and drivers are different.

Lauren, I'm sympathetic to your concerns, but I have a confession to make. Before I became a full-time bike commuter I spent a lot of time biking on the sidewalk. I fear that taking that away will reduce the ability of people to transition from nervous cyclist to confident cyclist.

Ellen, riding it the center of the roadway is legal so your claim "Until cyclists begin to obey the general rules of the road and ride defensively as we are taught to drive defensively, then they risk serious injury, or God forbid, death." is not very applicable. I would agree that "In countries like the Netherlands, where cyclists do for the most part, obey traffic signals and stop signs, accidents are much, much rarer. " if you could prove that cyclists were most often to blame for local cyclist fatalities. But since that is not factual, I don't. In most cyclist fatalities in the DC area, drivers are at fault.

by Washcycle on Jan 16, 2009 6:00 pm • linkreport

Kind of amazing reading the self-righteousness of the bikers on here. Because they're "special" they shouldn't have to obey laws. So they hit a few pedestians on the sidewalk (as a runner, I am very familiar with the fact that people on the sidewalk are NOT looking for or expecting anything other than walking speed - and they shouldn't have to) - hey! bikers get to break the laws becaude their needs come first and trump everyone elses.

What a bunch of self-righteous rationalizing jerks. Very typial of Washington DC. Sorry, David, for being intemperate on your blog.

by Andy on Jan 16, 2009 6:43 pm • linkreport

Andy- it's a small but vocal and well-connected (and financed) minority. What do you expect?

by MPC on Jan 16, 2009 7:43 pm • linkreport

Andy, as a commuter and recreational cyclist, I actually wish you'd expand on what in this discussion struck you as so self-righteous. Perhaps it's the idea of claiming all the rights accorded cyclists in traffic under the law while still wanting the law changed to have more rights in traffic? Maybe the justifications for the proposed changes to the stop sign/red light rules that David talked about in his post seem purely selfish to you? I'm only guessing here, and I would like to hear from you. I think you've drawn an unjust caricature of bikers that could just as easily be applied to people taking any other mode of transportation, including pedestrians.

by tpjim on Jan 16, 2009 8:03 pm • linkreport

It's worth pointing out that sidewalk riding, however inconsiderate it may be to pedestrians, is appallingly dangerous for the cyclist. Sidewalks may seem safe, but the danger comes when the sidewalk cyclist has to cross traffic, either at intersections or on curb cuts. A bike moving 5-10 mph just can't avoid cars as easily as someone on foot.

This comes right out of the effective cycling crowd and may thus bear the taint of elitism, but it does make sense and the figures on where accidents happen bear it out. (I'd cite figures but they're buried in my papers somewhere.)

There are times and places where it's possible to ride on the sidewalk safely but they're the exception rather than the rule. I ride on the sidewalk beside Meridian Hill in order to avoid out-of-control drivers on 16th St. I feel that I can do so safely because of the light foot traffic and the complete absence of curb cuts on that stretch.

by David Ramos on Jan 16, 2009 9:32 pm • linkreport

As somebody who neither bikes nor drives, I have to say that I prefer dealing with cars more than I do bicyclists.

Even if we let bicycles go through a stop sign or red light when no cars are coming, there still may be pedestrians crossing. Most bicyclists will simply go through a crosswalk because riders know they can easily avoid walkers.

The problem is that I'm not so trusting of *anybody* who's coming right for me at a faster-than-walking speed. As opposed to bikes, it's easy to determine when a car is going to stop or turn (typically they slow down). The problem with bikes is that I have to trust that the biker will actually be paying attention and not hit me. You try standing still as somebody rides a bike straight at you. Your instinct is to get of the way. Sure, it's just a bike, but if I can help it, I'd prefer not get hit at all.

by Adam on Jan 16, 2009 9:33 pm • linkreport

MPD, yes the bike lobby is powerful and after we get the Idaho stop, our next goal is world domination.

Andy, please explain "self-rightous".

David Ramos, I'm not sure the evidence is in on sidewalk cycling. Much of the data is questionable and overly counts the effect of youth cyclists. Nonetheless, if for a few months of heightened dangerous cycling we can convert people into regular safe cyclists is that worth the cost? I mean teen drivers are not safe, but we view them as a cost of getting them into the driving public, right?

by washcycle on Jan 16, 2009 11:15 pm • linkreport

We can debate back and forth all we want, but we're all biased.

Adam, as he said, has no horse in the race and still decided to give his opinion. We need more unbiased opinions like his, because sometimes we get so caught up in our own hysterics, we forget the need for an outside, objective view.


by MPC on Jan 16, 2009 11:56 pm • linkreport

MPC, I'm not sure how to resolve your first 'graf ("we're all biased") with your second (that Andy's offering an objective view).

I tend to side with the effective cycling crowd, but I also own a car, walk to work, and run most mornings. I don't think that gives my opinion any more or less weight.

Of course everyone's biased! That's what makes talk interesting! I can offer one objective truth: F=MA, but that won't get you very far because so much of the furor about bikes in cities stems from each participant's perception of risk. For better or for worse, this is a subject propelled by emotion. A lot of this is counterintuitive; actual and perceived risk don't align. Look at the question of cyclists occupying a lane: it's explicitly allowed under the law, traffic-savvy cyclists consider it the safest course, but it perennially sends drivers through the sunroof. And I used to find that scary, as a driver, though now I just slow down.

Washcycle, true, the sidewalk riding stats aren't all that great. I think that the study I have in mind actually controls for children. I can't find it. Are there other flaws with it?

I wouldn't change the law to ban sidewalk riding. I'd just discourage it, for reasons of courtesy as much as safety.

For what it's worth, my observations do support the proposition that sidewalk riding is risky. This is something I watch for, and my Blasphemy Index (the number of times I mutter references to the Almighty) is 4-5 times higher for sidewalk cyclists than for street cyclists, 'cause it's the sidewalk riders who nearly get creamed. Of course, I've found that the people riding on the sidewalk tend to be less observant and wobblier than those on the street, so I can't say much about causality.

I base those findings on citywide behavior, but I'm aware of another observation particular to Adams-Morgan/Columbia Heights: in that area, nearly all of the sidewalk cyclists are members of minority groups. It's easy to draw lines between drivers/cyclists/pedestrians, but there are other ways to slice these questions. What happens to these riders if we ban sidewalk cycling?

by David Ramos on Jan 17, 2009 12:52 am • linkreport

I own neither a car nor a bike. I walk and use public transit and do most of my car renting for out of town trips. More laws and more signs seems just insane. Existing traffic laws aren't enforced. I regularly find myself almost runover by halfwits who are "multitasking" when they should be driving. I've had numerous problems with bikers as well. Most memorably as I carefully left a parking spot on 14th Street in Columbia Heights looking out for cars, bikes, whatever only to find myself with an irate biker as soon as I was almost ready to get into the traffic lane. She had a child with her otherwise, I would have let her have it with the flurry of four letter words she deserved. there is a certain entitlement that characterizes DC and MD drivers, while Virginia drivers seem not to give a shit at all. These manners don't get any better when people get on bikes. Engineering bikes into streets will always be a problem and the efforts of people like David to slow down streets like 15th and further strangle traffic won't help. Bikers like runners and uphill hikers need to keep momentum and a rhthym to what they do for physical reasons. More dedicated paths like the Capital Crescent make more sense than adding to the overload of signage and laws. This would encourage waling, as well as biking and help create more livable neighborhoods.

by Rich on Jan 17, 2009 11:08 am • linkreport

It's a little unclear what happened with you at 14th and Columbia, given that you said you don't have a bike or a car, and when you do drive you drive out of town. So, were you in a car? And was that an encounter you had with a person on a bike? It's unclear.

I agree with you about strangling traffic NOT being the answer though. Just today, I read about a man who's biked across the country, being dragged down needlessly by traffic in the cities he rode through.

by Jazzy on Jan 17, 2009 11:50 am • linkreport

But ... what we all REALLY want to know is ... What's going on in that Flickr photo? Who's the bicyclist and who's the motorist in the photo? And what did 'they' do to deserve (a) getting their bike taken away from them by an angry motorist; or (b) having to rescue their bike before an angry motorist takes his frustration out on it? ;)

by Lance on Jan 17, 2009 6:30 pm • linkreport

I have always read comments about cycling in DC, and I have never experienced such problems in Alexandria and Arlington. I cycle pretty regularly, mainly around the Del Ray are Old Town, and parts of South Arlington. Its pretty easy to get around, and most drivers seem accustomed to your presence.

There are a few places I avoid riding in, (honestly, the densest, most "urban" places- more "suburban" areas are easiest to navigate) but I can bypass them via residential streets, or a surprising number of alleyways.

As with my experience piloting an automobile, Maryland drivers are the worst.

by spookiness on Jan 17, 2009 6:36 pm • linkreport

The cyclist had the nerve to stop at a yellow light. The driver was none too pleased.

by washcycle on Jan 17, 2009 7:26 pm • linkreport

Oh, and the driver was a police officer on leave.

by David Cranor on Jan 17, 2009 7:27 pm • linkreport


"Bicycling on 15th Street last night, no fewer than three cars (one with New York plates, one with Virginia plates, and one EnviroCab) passed me at unsafe distances, with less than three feet of space and all in a two-block segment>"

It's dangerous enough out there dodging bad drivers in the daylight. Our gridlocked neighborhood, with its traffic circles, triangle parks, and odd street angles is not the safest place to bicycle after dark. One jerk can ruin - or end - your life. Be careful. Rethink the bike in the darkness.

by Mike S. on Jan 17, 2009 7:30 pm • linkreport

Thanks for clearing up the mystery washcycle. Someone was definitely having a bad day!

by Lance on Jan 18, 2009 12:13 am • linkreport

When considering an urban environment and contemplating the inclusion of multi-modal transportation options, the systems already in place for regulating perambulation of people on their errands, cause the historical methods already in place to be forced into reconsideration. A certain amount of inertia results in a slow adoption of updated laws and expectations. Bicycle and pedestrian access have long been curtailed as the preferred means of access to most destinations in this nation. Cars have been considered to be a superior method of delivery for services and people to destinations. The new adoption of additional modes of delivery for people and services by modes other than by car is causing problems in the systems previously adopted with preferred delivery by car. The eventual adoption of a more fully articulated delivery of people and services by means other than car will only be accomplished by a reconstruction of the systems of transportation and access with a fully installed base of regulations infrastructure, and expectations that allow each of the modes to offer a complete, regulated, safe, and maintained route to all destinations from all starting points. Currently I can expect to find a route and infrastructure in place to safely and securely deliver me in a regulated fashion to nearly ALL destinations by car. I could choose to use a form of mass transit coupled with foot traffic to gain access to many destinations during the majority of hours of the day. I could just walk. I might be able to identify a safe secure regulated route to my destinations. I might choose a bike to get most places at all times, but the level of SAFE, REGULATED, IDENTIFIABLE, AND MAINTAINED INFRASTRUCTURE is much lower than that provided for other modes of travel. Couple this lack of full support with the historical expectations of the car driving public and their unfettered access to ALL destinations, and there is a likelihood of conflict between cars and bikes and even pedestrians. Shucks, cars don't even like having to make adjustments for buses, which out-weigh cars by a significant factor. I am hopeful always, when listening to government officials and elected representatives who support bicycling as a mode of travel. Their travel to work and economic activity exclusively by car belies the truth behind those words of support as empty promises. Bicycles are not yet easily identified as a viable transportation mode due to these constraints of safe, secure, identifiable, and regulated means of transport.

by tommy on Jan 18, 2009 1:17 pm • linkreport

I think I can provide a semi-objective view on this as well, to the extent that any views are objective. I live in Columbia Heights and bike frequently, particularly to the U St. and Adams Morgan areas, but also oftentimes to Woodley Park to catch the Red line to my job in the burbs. I also own a car that I use at least a couple times a week for various commitments that cannot be easily accessed via Metro, and also regularly walk within my neighborhood and to some of the adjacent areas.

I think that, generally speaking, what David proposes here is a good idea. I am a fairly law-abiding cyclist, but I certainly know a lot who aren't. Likewise, I know a lot of drivers who can't handle cyclists at all. Everyone needs to do a better job, I think.

by Nate on Jan 18, 2009 1:47 pm • linkreport

There is a culture of very aggressive and very poor driving in this city, which has always stunned me since moving here in the late 80s.

Having grown up where people drive with a foot or more of snow on the ground, it's amazing to see the vehicular timidity when rain arrives.

Drivers enter Dupont Circle and other circles and somehow assume that, well, it's a confusing circle, and "I want to go THERE, NOW" so the traffic lights disappear in their eyes.

SUVs and limos assume the rank of their passenger trumps the intent of double yellow lines.

Vehicles on major morning rush hour streets (14th esp.) cut across the double yellow to enter parking garages, oblivious to the blockage created.

Drivers do not even keep their cars clean, which to me is a bit indicative of their level of respect for such a weighty and potentially lethal machine.

I was on a business trip to Las Vegas once, when an employee of mine made a huge error, began to blow through a red light, and nearly struck one bicyclist and one car.

Both the bicyclist and the driver waved at us, as if to say "oops, sorry that happened" with slight smiles.

Driving cultures do differentiate from city to city, and it is rare that I have visited cities with worse drivers, and all too common that I've seen better.

by Joel Lawson on Jan 19, 2009 9:42 am • linkreport

I think there is a tacit assumption underlying a lot of rhetoric on the car side of the cyclist-motorist debate: that cars are fundamentally a "serious" mode of transportation and bicycles are fundamentally "frivolous". Even someone commuting or running errands on a bike is assumed to be doing it for the fun of it, because if he (or she) were serious he'd get in a car. Therefore it's unfair for motorists (at work) to make any concessions to cyclists (at play) in the form of public expenditures for facilities or inconvenient safety considerations.

I'd like to come up with a good rhetorical jujitsu move against this, but I haven't yet. Saying "Oh, but on my bike I'm not taking up parking spaces or burning fossil fuels" invites accusations of self-righteousness; saying "Wait a minute, plenty of people need to be able to get around on bicycles because they can't afford cars" invites accusations of hypocrisy if you personally own a car or could. Plus the truth is that biking is more fun for me than getting around by car and going to the gym later. So I don't quite know what to say.

David, you mentioned how most of the people you've seen biking on the sidewalk are minorities; I bet the real correlation is with poverty. As you note, the perception is that the sidewalk is safer than the street, so if you're uninsured and can't afford to get in an accident with a car -- and especially if you're undocumented and can't afford to attract the attention of the police -- you'll want to [do what appears to] minimize your chances of catastrophe.

by tpjim on Jan 19, 2009 12:02 pm • linkreport


It's because of the idiots who move in here from out of the area (like most people on this blog) and never learned to actually drive the right way in an urban/high traffic setting so they make it up as they go along.

People who actually grew up in the area don't suck; it's a pretty clear pattern.

by MPC on Jan 19, 2009 4:27 pm • linkreport

MPC, remind me not to recommend you for a DC welcome wagon.

by David C on Jan 19, 2009 9:08 pm • linkreport

Sorry to have been absent from the discussion for a few days...Washcycle, just to clarify -- when I said the cyclists were riding in the center of the roadway, I didn't mean the center of the lane, which is of course perfectly legal and I have no problem with that. I mean riding on the double yellow lines that separate the lanes going in opposite directions. This to me seems highly dangerous -- maybe it's not explicitly illegal, but it is putting their lives unnecessarily at risk when there is a bike lane on each side of the road.

by Ellen on Jan 21, 2009 10:59 am • linkreport

OK, that makes more sense. Both illegal and dangerous, so I'm not a fan either.

by washcycle on Jan 21, 2009 11:17 am • linkreport

I found this blog after being "pulled over" today for running a stop sign on my bicycle at Columbia and Belmont. This, first of all, is a ridiculous place to have a patrol focusing on cyclists. I was heading west and Belmont dead ends at Columbia, so my having gone through the intersection put me in no danger what-so-ever since all the traffic from Belmont must turn either right of left onto Columbia.

I consider myself a very safe and aware cyclist. I rode in Chicago where most cars are not as courteous, aware or patient with cyclists. I’ve been riding in DC every day for the past 10 months and usually slow down at stops signs and allow cars that are already at the intersection to proceed instead of just blowing through and treat red lights as stop signs proceeding only when the intersection is clear. I am as upset as motorist and pedestrians when I see cyclists blow through intersections or ride on the sidewalk. This is unsafe and as ridiculous as making cyclist come to a complete stop at every stop sign.

I completely agree that there should be separate laws for cyclists. We are not cars and we are not pedestrians, so we should have our own set of rules for the road. It is ridiculous to treat us as cars when we clearly are not. The officer told me that if I wanted to ride on the road I had to obey the laws.

The question is what to do now? If I had done something to endanger myself or others, I would suck it up and pay the ticket and take it as a lesson learned, but I feel like I did nothing wrong.

by Cara on Jun 2, 2009 7:27 pm • linkreport

Cara, the process is we need the BAC to recommend the "Safe Stopping Act" and then for a council member to introduce it and then for a majority of council members to vote yes. I'd write the following people about your story and about why you think the Safe Stopping Act is a good idea (ranked in order) - Tommy Wells (because if anyone will introduce it, it's him), your district council member, WABA, Your BAC rep, and the BAC Chairperson.

by David C on Jun 2, 2009 10:57 pm • linkreport

Cara, on top of David's advice, take it to court if you can spare the time. In my opinion it's almost always a good idea as you almost never end up worse off, will probably end up with some sort of reduction in fines if you had any, and it puts one more case on the public record to raise awareness. And bring a copy of any letter, articles, laws that might help you to make your case.

by dano on Jun 3, 2009 7:45 am • linkreport

Hello all, i too was ticketed for not coming to a complete stop at Belmont and Columbia (I was breaking/ coasting though the intersection at a low speed) either way, i'm happy to go court, but what exactly is the defense other than the laws need to be changed? my interpretation of a stop versus the officers? Also, as this is a moving violation will I receive points if found guilty?

by george on Jul 10, 2009 12:02 pm • linkreport

We need to start enforcing laws on stops, turn signals and lighting for after dark. These laws carry over to cars. If children are allowed to break these safety laws on a bicycle--how are they going to do in a car? I lived in a town when my youngest daughter was riding and she got a ticket for failing to stop. I made her work out her own fine. At least she lived to do so.

by Anna Hurst on Sep 16, 2013 5:40 pm • linkreport

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