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Let's talk about enforcement

Councilmember Jim Graham is eager to create a DDOT bicycle-mounted enforcement squad. Depending on whom you ask, this squad might be designed to mainly enforce laws against cyclists, or to enforce laws against both cyclists and drivers. We need even-handed enforcement of dangerous behavior regardless of the type of vehicle. And we definitely need more enforcement.

19th between K and L at rush hour. Photo by dionhinchcliffe.

Both types of vehicle operators sometimes act dangerously. Both also frequently engage in annoying but not necessarily harmful behavior. For cyclists, blowing through a red light at a busy intersection is an example of the former, while slowing and proceeding through a stop sign without coming to a complete halt is one of the latter. For drivers, driving in the bicycle lane so that cyclists lack room to maneuver, or turning across the bicycle lane without entering it or looking, is dangerous. Overlapping the lane just a bit is wrong, but perhaps not quite so dangerous.

Recently I bicycled down the length of the Q Street bicycle lane from Dupont to Bloomingdale. I slowed and yielded at the many stop signs along the route, but didn't stop completely each time. But when I reached Rhode Island Avenue, I stopped to wait for a safe time to cross.

Meanwhile, nearly half of the drivers positioned their cars not in the center of the car lane, but in or closer to the center of the roadway, overlapping the bicycle lane. For most of the cars, this was annoying and could create a greater risk of getting hit by a parked driver opening a door. Some of the drivers, however, blocked the lane entirely, especially ones with wider vehicles, or parked in the lane, forcing me to merge into traffic to get around. One woman was sitting in her car in the bicycle lane while two consecutive parking spaces sat open just ten feet ahead of her.

Technically, not stopping at the stop signs or driving just a bit over the line into the bicycle lane are illegal. I didn't appreciate the latter, while some drivers find the former annoying. A bicycle enforcement squad could ticket all of these. That would be a waste of time. Instead, they should focus on ticketing cyclists who blow through lights dangerously and drivers who encroach upon bicycle lanes in dangerous ways.

We also need better enforcement of double parking downtown, especially at rush hour. The Downtown BID says that congestion, much of it caused by truck loading and other non-moving vehicles, creates a major obstacle to further economic growth. It's also a major obstacle to safe cycling and less stressful driving.

Not infrequently, I find myself along 18th and 19th Streets around rush hour. Almost every day, a big beer delivery truck parks on 18th Street between Massachusetts and N to deliver goods to Cafe Luna. 18th in this area is only one lane in each direction. It must be tough for Cafe Luna, being sandwiched between Connecticut and 18th with no alley, but that isn't an excuse for taking over a whole street at rush hour.

A lot of bicyclists, in particular, commute on 18th, where they share the lanes with cars which often pass them at close distances. When cars have to squeeze in both directions around delivery trucks, it's even more dangerous for bicycles. Couldn't Luna schedule their deliveries early in the morning or in the middle of the day? 18th is pretty empty then. Or better yet, let's put a midday loading zone on the east side of the street, where there's parking.

Delivery trucks, garbage trucks, and federal employee vehicles also use these major streets as their personal loading zones. Yesterday, I had to drive down 19th at the height of rush hour. 19th was packed with cars and taxis trying to change lanes around the various vehicles turning in and out of garages, at corners, and parked illegally. The left lane was blocked by parked vehicles, but the right side of the road was clear. I was in the rightmost lane. A driver, turning left, was trying to make his way out of the alley between M and L across the travel lanes. Trying to be a courteous driver, I let him in. He immediately entered the lane, stopped, parked, jumped out of the car holding a pink folder, and walked back across the street.

The car bore an official US Government (GSA) license plate. Where was he going? The passport office? Why did he have to exit the alley and cross the street all the way to the other side, only to then block the road to run his errand back on the opposite side? I and the other drivers had to then try to squeeze back to the left, and so did the cyclists, at least one of which I almost didn't see. Today, I was in the area again at rush hour, and there was another government vehicle parked in almost the same spot. This one belonged to the Architect of the Capitol.

It's amazing how many cyclists ride on these roads, given the numbers of parked cars blocking lanes, drivers switching lanes quickly, and general traffic. I sure wouldn't. If there's a place in DC that needs protected bicycle lanes, it's downtown. There should be at least one protected lane north and south on the Golden Triangle side and one on the Metro Center side, plus one east-west across both.

And there's clearly plenty of capacity. At least one and sometimes two lanes of most major roads downtown doesn't even operate for most of rush hour, since they're blocked by government scofflaws or beer deliveries. Get all the double parkers to at least use the same side of the street, and we could create a protected lane like Manhattan's Eighth and Ninth Avenue lanes without taking away any actual capacity from cars or buses.

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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Rant much? ;)

You raise some good points, Dave. One would hope any bicycle enforcement would be judicious and focus on the most egregious offenses, whether vehicle incursions or bicyclist misdeeds.

by ah on Apr 28, 2009 10:39 am • linkreport

Speaking of double-parking on busy thoroughfares, patrons of the nightclub on 14th street block both the right and center lanes of southbound 14th virtually every night, causing backups as all drivers are forced to change into the left lane for a single block. The authorities don't seem to give a damn, either.

by Don Incognito on Apr 28, 2009 10:45 am • linkreport

Umm, you start off with bicycle enforcement and end up with double parking?

Look, bicycle enforcement is just another DC grab at revenue. I've seen many terrible bikers in DC but 99% of them don't deserve a ticket. You think the DC cops are smart enough to make judgments?

And yes, double parking is a pain but isn't the lesson that 1) it is already illegal and 2) the companies that double park deal with the tickets as a cost of doing business? Stricter enforcement may raise that cost, but I don't see it as changing their behavior.

by charlie on Apr 28, 2009 10:49 am • linkreport

I commute downtown every day. I can live with tight spaces. What I want to see are people ticketed for talking on their handsets. Those drivers scare the crap out of me--and you can always tell.

by anonymous on Apr 28, 2009 10:51 am • linkreport

I agree with David and anonymous. The double parkers in bike lanes make one either a) dart in to traffic - which cars also will do often at higher speeds due to irritation, or b) go between - which I find much more dangerous. They should be ticketed mercilessly if DC wants to make the city more bike friendly.

The cellphone talkers I think are the worst. Most of the times where i've had close calls, the driver is on the phone and will pull into the bike lane and stop or just cut me off. I think I'm gonna print a shirt with "Hang up and Drive!" on it to wear when I bike to work. I'm happy DC has the law and wish that Virginia would follow suit.

by Boots on Apr 28, 2009 11:09 am • linkreport

Don't forget pedestrian enforcement. A blinking "don't walk" means don't start crossing the street because cars need to use the intersection too. Pedestrians who don't obey the don't-walk signals, and monopolize an intersection's traffic signal cycle, are the root cause of lots of gridlock.

by crin on Apr 28, 2009 11:15 am • linkreport

Charlie, that may be true but the 1% of them (hello, bike messengers), deserve about 100 tickets each.

by ah on Apr 28, 2009 11:16 am • linkreport

What the DDOT/DPW enforcement scheme will not address are motorists who treat DC streets as freeways. Until either the bike network better addresses the needs of cyclists on arterial roads (Mass, Conn, Wisconsin, 16th, etc.) or there is a serious crackdown on speeding, then any enforcement effort will fall short on improving the safety and comfort for cyclists.

by jeff on Apr 28, 2009 11:22 am • linkreport

ah, the bike messenger problem is down 100% over the last several years. and again, they treat tickets as the cost of doing business.

At certain intersections, better pedestrian traffic control would benefit everyone. tickets are probably not the answer.

by charlie on Apr 28, 2009 11:38 am • linkreport

This is just bullshit. I don't see the compelling reason to devote significant public resources (other than cash generation as mentioned above) to this without evidence of a significant. Where is the research that demonstrates a significant problem? Such data doesn't exist because the problem doesn't exist. The complaints are anecdotal and the response is ad-hoc.

If the city wants to make good money, they should install speed cameras on North Capitol Street between Taylor Street and Michigan Ave. They'd make a bundle.

by Richard Layman on Apr 28, 2009 11:43 am • linkreport

How about we all just start following the law ourselves in stead of ranting about all the idiots doing it themselves.

The roads won't get safer from more enforcement. In fact, laws don't make the roads safer. The roads will only get safer if we all drive safer. In a car, in a bus, on a bike, and even walking down the sidewalk.

by Jasper on Apr 28, 2009 11:57 am • linkreport

Ummm ... you want the vehicles to obey the existing laws and get ticketed when they don't but you readily state that "Recently I bicycled down the length of the Q Street bicycle lane from Dupont to Bloomingdale. I slowed and yielded at the many stop signs along the route, " What makes you or any other bicyclist above the law and not have to stop at the stop signs like all other traffic? For every driver I see breaking a law on my commute in DC during the day, I see just as many cyclists and pedestrians break laws as well. No one is above the rules and laws of the roads. There should be a ZERO-TOLERANCE policy on ticketing - those that blow through traffic lights or coast through stops signs should be treated the same - just as pedestrians who cross against the lights or drivers who blow through crosswalks.

by Rob on Apr 28, 2009 12:02 pm • linkreport


the difference is that if a car coasts through a stop sign and judges incorrectly, other people can die. if a cyclist does the same, it's very unlikely that anyone other than himself is going to be injured.

while that's not a bona fide excuse for flaunting the rules, you simply cannot equate cars and bicycles with regards to driving laws. drivers have the ability to kill...cyclists only have the ability to kill themselves.

does that make cyclists "better" than drivers? no. are cyclists less responsible for following the laws? of course not.

but let's keep some perspective here. a car (which weighs a ton, can kill, has blind spots, and is simple to stop and re-engage) is alot different than a bike (which is light, can't hurt others in most cases, has no blind spots, and takes alot more effort to stop, dismount, remount, and re-engage).

i myself don't see anything wrong with an environment where people who choose to drive heavier, more dangerous vehicles are subject to more rules. why is that irrational?

by rob#2 on Apr 28, 2009 12:33 pm • linkreport

David, I mean this with all due respect and everything, because I love this blog, but I have to wonder what the value of this type of post is. The cyclists are all with you already. The drivers are all against you. No argument will move anybody. All that happens is another unpleasant comment thread.

by Nate on Apr 28, 2009 12:49 pm • linkreport

Rob, does your zero tolerance include ticketing anyone who drives one mph above the speed limit?

by tt on Apr 28, 2009 1:13 pm • linkreport

I like the bike vs car vs ped, everybody hates everybody, threads. The comments pop up just as reliably as flowers after a spring shower. It's very organic in its way and tells me everything's right with the world.

Now everybody get out of my f'in way!!!!!

by crin on Apr 28, 2009 1:46 pm • linkreport

@Rob2: If I as a pedestrian get hit by a cyclist going through a stop sign or redlight, yes, they can severely injure me or kill me - just as a car could if it ran the same stop sign or redlight. It's not a matter of more rules .. . the rules are already on the books regarding how one should drive a car, ride a bicycle, or walk as a pedestrian. Nothing irrational about that ... just follow the rules for the mode of transportation you prefer.

@tt: yes ... it would apply to the speed limit as well. No one changes their behavior when enforcing the rules is subjective to the enforcer. Again, you know what the rules are, follow them.

Funny how you all assumed that I was a driver in this discussion - at no time did I state that I drove to/from my job ... why the assumption that everyone who is against the behavior of cyclists is a driver?

by Rob on Apr 28, 2009 2:20 pm • linkreport

All that happens is another unpleasant comment thread.

I'll hop on that!

I bike to work (in a different city) and occasionally see people double-parked/parked in bike lanes. As this is extremely dangerous (and drivers seem to have no recognition of the hazard they're causing AND enforcement is pretty lax on this, I've decided that keying cars is the solution. Why not-- I stick as close as possible to where I should be riding, and if their car is illegally in the way of my hand...

Obviously I don't actually do this. I'm just another internet tough-talker. But I do firmly believe that I (and other cyclists) have the right to do this.

by Skiddie on Apr 28, 2009 3:08 pm • linkreport

Not sure if I brought this up here or on washcycle, but how exactly does DDOT plan on actually implementing enforcement action against cyclists. Will DDOT personnel have arrest powers, sidearms, radios on MPD channels, etc? MPD already does not allow 'pursuit' for mere traffic offenses, so what's to stop folks from just riding away if one of these DDOT 'enforcement squad' personnel tries to cite them? With automobiles at least there's some accountability in that they have license plates that can be traced, but how exactly will ANY of this work?

by ontarioroader on Apr 28, 2009 3:36 pm • linkreport


well, hold on. I see your point and it's certainly a valid one. Of course, a cyclist could absolutely hurt or even kill a pedestrian if they're moving fast enough. but that's not what we were discussing. we were talking about coasting through a stop sign, not running one outright. a cyclist "coasting" through stop sign, for the sake of this argument, is probably going no more than 5mph. That not exactly going to do alot of damage. On the other hand, a car that is moving through an intersection, even at 5mph, is still a huge piece of steel that if any other car hits, is going to cause serious injury to everyone invloved.

as a cyclist myself, i am def guilty of coasting through stop signs. but i, and most cyclists for that matter, see it as a way to avoid dismounting, not as a way to thumb their noses at the rules. ie...i only continue to move fast enough to keep from having to dismount. that's less than 1mph.

again, this distinction in no way absolves cyclists from ignoring the laws. but let's be honest, laws are there for safety. and cars can inflict alot more damage than bikes. it's not fair to compare the two in every instance. i have nothing against drivers at all. i was one up until two years ago when it became too expensive for me. i respect people's right to drive. but i also recognize that they are more likely to hurt me than I them. it's just a fact.

as for your statement that we all assumed that you were a driver, I'm not sure where you're getting that. only 4 people commented after you and none of them suggested anything about you at all. unless i'm reading this thread wrong.

by rob#2 on Apr 28, 2009 3:38 pm • linkreport

"the difference is that if a car coasts through a stop sign and judges incorrectly, other people can die. if a cyclist does the same, it's very unlikely that anyone other than himself is going to be injured."

That's absolutely not true. You're thinking "immediate ramification". In real life you'd have immediate and consequential ramifications. You're blowing through a stop sign on a bike can easily cause a driver --- who had the right of way --- to veer into a pedestrian (or other motorist) and kill them ... as well as themselves. Imagine if a head between 2 cars occurs because you as the cyclist thought the world revolved around your needs and desires.

by Lance on Apr 28, 2009 3:38 pm • linkreport


Again...I stress the importance of terms here.

"coasting" and "blowing through" are not the same thing. You cannot use those terms interchangeably. We're talking about two totally different scenarios here.

by rob#2 on Apr 28, 2009 3:44 pm • linkreport

ticketing or arresting cyclists when the city has no dedicated separated bicycle ways is totally outrageous and stupid.

First off- create areas that are separated on the downtown sidewalks for cyclists and segways so that we are not put in danger and the pedestrains have their own danger free spaces.

two- prioritize cycling over auto use- and re-design the intersections to the advantage of the cyclist- as is done in Holland and Germany.

Third- get rid of the ban on cycling on the sidewalks downtown where there are no biketracks. DC has gigantic sidewalks and there is no reason on earth why a painted or bollarded bike way cannot be put on the safer sidewalks.

Fourth- time the lights at all intersections to allow bicycles to go first.

We need to do EVERYTHING POSSIBLE to encourage and not dissuade people from walking, biking or taking transit.

Fifth- get super aggressive about all car infractions. delivery or worker vehicles should not be infairly targeted- but harshly discourage all single driver vehicles not used by handicapped, elderly or the infirm.

by w on Apr 28, 2009 3:44 pm • linkreport

@Lance: I don't think that when any of us say we coast through stop signs we mean we do it even if there is someone else (driver, biker, walker, skater, etc.) who has the right of way. Speaking purely for myself, but I would think many others on this blog do the same, I stop at every red or yellow light while I am on my bike and at any intersection with a stop sign where I don't have the right of way. The only time I will coast through a stop sign (at a very slow speed) is if I've looked and realized that there is no one else who is to move before I am. If there is someone else I'll stop.

by Chris Seay on Apr 28, 2009 3:47 pm • linkreport

It's my personal opinion that no auto should be ticketed for any infraction until no cyclist breaks any law--regardless of how trivial--anywhere, at any time.

In addition, you cyclists are so stuck up with your massive sense of entitlement, and self-importance, but someday you will get your comeuppance when I run you over with my Yukon XL.

(Did I forget anything?)

by ibc on Apr 28, 2009 4:14 pm • linkreport

ibc, please refrain from making threats of violence. If you find a debate over the proper role of cyclists too frustrating to participate civilly then you are welcome to not read; otherwise, I will have to start deleting your posts. You are welcome to assert your opinion about when autos should be ticketed, but not welcome to threaten to kill human beings.

by David Alpert on Apr 28, 2009 4:18 pm • linkreport

@David: It appears ibc was just kidding, as his statements are constructed to be as comically ridiculous as possible.

by Joey on Apr 28, 2009 4:35 pm • linkreport

@ David: Ever heard of disemvoweling?

by Jasper on Apr 28, 2009 5:12 pm • linkreport

I generally support Rob#2's comments. The biggest problem facing enforcement is car drivers blowing or chasing red (or "pink") lights, sitting in the middle of the intersection in red lights, and generally driving and accelerating too fast. This puts both bikers and peds at risk.

Of course there's law-breaking to go around - but the most important to overall public safety is the behavior of car drivers. Hands down.

by Neb on Apr 29, 2009 2:02 pm • linkreport

Of course there's law-breaking to go around - but the most important to overall public safety is the behavior of car drivers. Hands down.

And that's the point that bears repeating. It makes it all the more ludicrous that every blog posting or article on this topic generates at least 50% of its comments arguing that we should tackle all forms of law-breaking equally.

After all, it certainly is sad when someone gets raped and murdered in this city, but I was walking to work this morning and saw someone throw an empty soda bottle on the ground. All of us need to follow the law rapist, or litterer.

It's a way of drawing a not-so-subtle false equivalence.

by ibc on Apr 29, 2009 2:45 pm • linkreport

"It's not a matter of more rules .. . the rules are already on the books regarding how one should drive a car, ride a bicycle, or walk as a pedestrian. Nothing irrational about that ... just follow the rules for the mode of transportation you prefer."

The problem is that the rules were written many years ago in a policy environment that never envisaged cycling as a mainstream transportation option, and thus do not take the differing characteristics of bicycles and cars into consideration. It is as if car drivers were asked to follow rules that were appropriate for horse-drawn carriages. OK when autos were a rare novelty on the roads, but as they became a greater and greater proportion of the transportation mix, the rules had to be changed. I suspect there must have been a period of informal transition before official (re)writing of the traffic code.

For those who think cyclists are inherently entitled jerks, please reflect that many of us also drive cars, and would never dream of "blowing through" or even coasting through a red light when behind the wheel. Different vehicle, different amount of danger.

by Erica on Apr 29, 2009 7:16 pm • linkreport

vehicle operators sometimes act dangerously.

by Washington Traffic Laws` on Apr 30, 2009 4:16 am • linkreport

In general, double-parking for the purpose of making deliveries is not illegal in DC. Even in bike lanes.

by contrarian on May 4, 2009 9:16 am • linkreport

As a regular driver in the District, I do note vehicles frequently tracking over into the bike lane, but the rationale is easy to comprehend - all those parked cars to the left. Drivers will normally shy away from objects close to either side (note driver behavior through work zones with barrels or Jersey barriers to the left - most cars move clear out of the left lane even though there is plenty of space between the lane edge and the barrels), and with a bike lane, you have parked cars to the left and eight feet of unobstructed space to the right, so they move right. I'm afraid this is a problem with no real solution.

by ksu499 on Jul 6, 2009 8:46 am • linkreport

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