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What's our bicycle "social contract"?

With the frequent calls for cyclists to "start behaving," it's clear that a number of people driving and walking are unsettled by the conduct of at least some people on bikes. But people in cars speed all the time, and people walking cross against the light, and neither generates as many newspaper letters to the editor. What is the difference?

Photo by fromcaliw/love on Flickr.

One explanation is that people naturally notice infractions by others on different modes more than those on the same mode. People driving tend to see misbehavior by people walking and cycling rather than from other people driving, for example. Since relatively few people ride bicycles while a great many drive, the outraged letters would skew toward misbehavior by those on bikes and away from that by people in cars.

Felix Salmon proposed another interesting explanation a while back. Basically, he argues that we've developed a clear understanding of what to expect from people walking and driving generally, but lack that consensus for people bicycling:

The trouble all starts when you drop bicyclists into the mix. At that point, a whole new set of combinations comes into play, and as a city we haven't worked out how to make them work. In other cities, especially in places like Copenhagen or Utrecht, bicycles are ubiquitous and everybody knows how to behave on and around them. But we're not there yet.
We expect that people on foot stay on the sidewalk most of the time, and cross when there's a walk signal or an unsignalized intersection, as the law says. We also expect that people on foot sometimes cross against the light if no cars are coming. That might not be legal, but it's generally commonplace and pretty safe. People driving might not like it, but they tend not to be too surprised when it happens and don't write angry letters to the editor about it.

Likewise, we expect that people driving will obey traffic signals and stop signs, and not drive up onto the sidewalk. We also expect that people driving may go a little over the speed limit, which can increase the risk of fatal crashes but is generally widespread. Likewise, people driving often don't stop fully at a stop sign, which adds a small amount of danger but not that much, and so it's generally tolerated.

But what do we expect from people biking? What should they do that's legal, and what are they going to do that's not technically legal, like people crossing on foot against the light or driving a bit over the speed limit?

As Felix Salmon noted, we're not in northern Europe where people riding bikes are everywhere. There, there are so many people on bikes that if 99% of them behave a certain way, people walking and driving are used to it and will generally expect it. Those that stray outside those boundaries will face criticism.

Here are a few examples of bicycling behaviors that are fairly common, and my opinion about whether they should be part of the bicycle "social contract" or not:

Okay: The Idaho Stop. Basically, people on bikes ought to treat intersections as people on foot generally do. If it's a stop sign, look carefully, and proceed if it's safe to do so. If there's a light, stop, look even more carefully, but it's still okay to proceed if it's safe and continuing wouldn't interfere with any people driving or walking.

Bad: Blowing through an intersection against the light without slowing down. This should go without saying, but some do it.

The "C maneuver."
Bad: The "C maneuver." I often see people on bikes approach a moderately busy two-way cross street, then turn right onto that street, merging into the right-moving traffic, then make a U-turn merging into the left-moving traffic, and finally turn right to get back onto the original street continuing along. (Can you come up with a better name for this?)

Good: Riding in the middle of the lane. This is legal but most people riding bikes don't do it. If you're traveling on a bike down a street that doesn't have a bike lane, it's best to act like a car. Ride in the very middle of the appropriate car lane, as if you were in a car.

Most people on bikes ride on the right edge of the roadway. But this entices the people driving cars to try to pass them in the same lane. And if that person in the car turns right, they might "right hook" the person on the bike. Being in the center of the lane makes you very visible. If it's a one-lane street, people on any mode probably shouldn't be traveling that fast. If it's a multi-lane street, people in cars can go around.

Bad: Jumping the queue when it's not really necessary. If you're on a bike, and there's one car ahead of you at a stoplight with enough cross traffic that it's not safe to Idaho Stop across, why go around that car only to make the person driving it pass you again? Just wait behind the car, as if you were in a car yourself.

Okay: Jumping the queue when there are a lot of cars waiting. If there's a lot of traffic, cyclists are going to squeeze up to the front of the line. It's not necessarily safest and as an individual on a bike you might be best off waiting at the back of the line, but when there will be a fairly long wait to get going again after the light changes, people riding bikes are generally going to move up. That's not going to be reasonable to stop.

What do you think about these? What other bicycle behaviors should be part of the ideal "social contract" that will allow people on foot, on bikes and in cars to coexist peacefully, knowing what the others are likely to do and not do?

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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To the bad category, I would add "assuming that multi-use trails are high speed bicycle highways". I had a fender-bender on the Mount Vernon trail last autumn. I was rear-ended by another bicyclist who was traveling way too fast in a dangerous section of trail, where they were doing construction. All I could think about was what could have happened if it were a child on a bike instead of me.

by Rob P on Jan 5, 2011 1:47 pm • linkreport

The multi-use trails are bicycle highways. I feel safer sharing roads with cars than using Mt. Vernon during rush hour.

I'd add NOT riding on the sidewalk.

You're looking at this from biker-driver interaction; the real problem is bicycle-pedestrian. Much better than 15 years ago at the peak of the bike messengers downtown.

Getting everyone a bell and learning how to use it would be helpful.

by charlie on Jan 5, 2011 1:51 pm • linkreport

I think the Felix Salmon explanation has some validity -- just a few years ago I used to get honked at, yelled at, etc., by drivers at least once every couple of weeks just for riding on the street in downtown DC (e.g, "Get on the sidewalk!"). That hasn't happened to me in DC in a long time -- probably at least a year -- although it still happens in the suburbs from time to time. I think DC drivers are getting used to the idea that biyclists are going to be riding on the street, but lots of suburbans drivers don't see many bikes on the road.

by Casey Anderson on Jan 5, 2011 2:02 pm • linkreport

@Charlie: what about on the avenues outside of downtown, where it's legal to ride on the sidewalk? I'm thinking especially of RI Ave through Bloomingdale or Upper 16th St, where there's +30mph traffic and mostly empty sidewalks.

You're right though about looking also at the bike-ped interaction--I'd say that even under the Idaho Stop, pedestrians still have ROW at crosswalks, but I could be convinced either way.

by Ted on Jan 5, 2011 2:02 pm • linkreport

Great list David.
@charlie, I find that while biking, using bells and/or saying things like "on your left" has the impact of confusing pedestrians. They tend to turn towards you and move laterally in ways that are hard to predict. When, for some reason I am biking some place with peds (usually a bike trail) I tend, to pass based on the direction they are moving and projecting that they will continue in the same direction. Not a great result but certainly safer than confusing people.

by zt on Jan 5, 2011 2:04 pm • linkreport

I'll agree that bicycle-pedestrian is a problem, but I don't think it's as large of a problem as you're making it out to be. Bicycle-driver is by far the more serious problem when it comes to severity.

I half-disagree with the Idaho Stop point. Agree with the stop sign part...if there's no traffic, no big deal. But a red light is a red light. Unless you're making a right-turn-on-red, I see no reason why bicyclists can't stop and wait for the green (or if it's traffic-actuated, force the green).

by Froggie on Jan 5, 2011 2:05 pm • linkreport

It seems to me that the premise of this article is sound: if WABA asks us to ride "responsibly" it would be nice to have some sort of idea what is and is not responsible. Personally, I ride in the manner least likely to get me killed. What that means depends on the context: on some streets, taking the lane is safest. On others, it means riding to the right as per the law so drivers don't get po'd and aggressive. Given the importance of context and the rich diversity of bicycle infrastructure and traffic patterns in this city, it's a fool's errand to try and codify a set of unacceptable and acceptable actions -- particularly when (as in the queue jumping example) some of the "unacceptable" actions are specifically legal in many jurisdictions, and "good" actions may be illegal in some cases (riding in the middle of the lane is generally legal only where it's necessary for safety or on multi-lane roads).

So: while the idea of creating social norms is perhaps a good one, the execution here is flawed. It seems to me that a more basic approach would be more productive. Start with what most people already do, and try to get everyone to agree on that. So: Idaho stops, as noted. Stopping at red lights (perhaps treating as a stop sign, as per Idaho law). Not riding the wrong way on one-way streets. For the rest of the more nuanced issues, perhaps a better solution is a simpler one, until bike infrastructure offers uniformly safe travel options (cf. Copenhagen): Just ride safely.

by reader on Jan 5, 2011 2:06 pm • linkreport

I'd call "the C-turn", "the extended serif U-turn".

by Tina on Jan 5, 2011 2:07 pm • linkreport

How about another one, jumping the queue when lots are waiting, then taking the lane to accelerate when the light turns green. While not dangerous, doing this 4-5 times while passing the same set of people and slowing them down will piss anyone off.

This seems to be popular among the fixed-wheel crowd (guessing momentum, hard to accelerate, etc).

by m on Jan 5, 2011 2:12 pm • linkreport

I could not agree more with this post. This is a great list.

Sidewalk riding is still a gray area.

Bad. Riding on sidewalk when there is a usable bike lane or travel lane for bicycles.

Okay. Riding on a sidewalk temporarily to avoid a danger, like a delivery truck blocking the right lane and fast-moving cars in the left lane or to get into crosswalks to make a dangerous left turn that other cars are not letting you do the "car" way.

Okay. Riding on a sidewalk if you are a child or are with a child who is just learning to ride a bike. Sorry, but I'm not ready to let my kid onto the road, even with bike lanes. Cycle track is ok.

Okay. Riding on a sidewalk the opposite way on a one-way street. It's better than riding in the street or bike lane opposite traffic, which is a big no-no.

Sidewalk riding should always be slower than regular riding and the rider should be extremely vigilant of pedestrians, giving them wide berth.

One more on the Bad list: riding at night without at least a taillight. Sorry to require more equipment, but we have to let cars know we're there if we want them to not run us over.

by Ward 1 Guy on Jan 5, 2011 2:14 pm • linkreport

Interesting discussion. For the sake of background, I should note I'm a pedestrian every day, a motorist most days, and have yet to take up using a bike.

I find most bike users in my neighborhood to considerate and safety conscious (more so than motorists, by the way), but a day doesn't go by when I'm not reminded of the quote by Douglas Adams, in Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul who noted "a moral high ground that cyclists alone seem able to inhabit"

I'd suggest not barking "on your left" or using your bell when passing me on a sidewalk. I don't honk at bikes going slow in traffic lanes; I wait patiently until it is safe to go around. I'd like the same courtesy when walking.

by TimK on Jan 5, 2011 2:15 pm • linkreport

@Ted; even where it is legal, a bike on a sidewalk is really a threat to pedestrians. It is a bad idea and a carry over of bike are only for kids.

@Froggie; I'd agree that bike vs pedestrian is actually better than 15 years ago, but in no way I'd say it is near ideal. As someone who walks around the city 3-4 miles a day I am so glad winter is here and a lot of bikers have packed up.

My rule of thumb on the idaho stop is if there is no traffic at all at a light, then you can go. Any traffic means wait for the red.

Having small, bike only signals that would give bikes 5-10 seconds to accelerate would be amazing on a few routes.

by charlie on Jan 5, 2011 2:17 pm • linkreport

@zt I do the same, but I have also developed a technique for saying "on your left" to pedestrians that is designed to not startle them. You start early, when you're not anywhere near them and they can barely hear you, then you put on as soothing and conversational a voice as possible and not too loud and use a long phrase instead of a short one, "hey there, coming up on your left, no need to move...thanks"

That hits them doppler-style and they don't even register consciously what you're saying right away but it usually works so that by the time you whiz by them they get that it was a bike and not someone trying to steal their purse.

by Ward 1 Guy on Jan 5, 2011 2:21 pm • linkreport

If you're continually finding yourself saying on your left or ringing a bell and not able to just move easily around people, maybe you're riding too fast.

by m on Jan 5, 2011 2:23 pm • linkreport

Riding on the right side of the lane is not actually required. In DC, basically you have to ride to the right, except if it's safer not to, or if the lane is "substandard width," which just about every lane is. So basically, you're legally fine taking the rightmost lane essentially all the time.

And this is why these norms are worth discussing. I think most people driving AND biking both think that the person on the bike is supposed to ride to the right. But that's not really correct.

As for riding on the sidewalk, my list would agree with Ward 1 Guy's. I'd also say that riding on the sidewalk is okay if the sidewalk is not very crowded, and the person on the bike should yield to every pedestrian.

Don't ride somewhere it would get in a pedestrian's way; if passing one, just ride extremely slowly until there's plenty of room to go around. Basically, the sidewalk is the walker's realm, and the person on the bike has to act like they're a guest.

by David Alpert on Jan 5, 2011 2:24 pm • linkreport

If it is a choice of riding on a mostly empty sidewalk or riding on a high traffic volume highway in the suburbs I am going to continue to take the safer route of riding on the sidewalk.

by Fred on Jan 5, 2011 2:24 pm • linkreport

I'd add to the issues
  • Signal within-lane shifts, e.g. when you are going from the right portion to the center portion of the lane.

  • Don't become a moving roadblock. There is a fine line between making the system more efficient and being selfish. Consider whether the total delay you are causing others is disproportionate to what you gain, when deciding whether to quewue jump or pull over to let a line of cars pass.

  • When riding on a sidewalk, ride on the right side of the street and slow down at intersections.

  • When riding on sidewalks, say "excuse me" alot

by JimT on Jan 5, 2011 2:31 pm • linkreport

As a cyclist, I think the bad behavior of cyclists is more than just people noticing infractions by different modes of transportation. Cyclists in DC ARE very irresponsible, especially downtown. Every day, I see someone blow through a red light without looking, go the wrong way against traffic, cut between cars stopped at a light so they can cut in front of them only to force the cars to pass them 5 seconds later, go dangerously fast on sidewalks even in crowded downtown, pass me close on the left without warning and, last but not least, get angry with drivers for not knowing cyclists are allowed to do all of the above. Yes, DC pedestrians are also especially dense (like the lady who crossed against a green with a stroller yesterday, and didn't even look up when I skidded my bike to keep from killing her baby) and DC drivers, especially of commercial vehicles, are dangerously aggressive, especially to cyclists. But, per capita, no one is as irresponsible as DC cyclists. The new 16th & New Hampshire bike light is a perfect example; maybe 1 in 10 cyclists actually stops at it.

by Vakil on Jan 5, 2011 2:37 pm • linkreport

You're missing the social contract or just plain etiquette from cyclists to other cyclists. My biggest pet peeve is waiting at the stop bar at a light and having someone come from behind and pull directly in front of me like they would a queue of cars. I've also almost been hit multiple times by other cyclists turning right on red onto a street with a bike lane that I'm riding in without yielding to my right of way.

by jeff on Jan 5, 2011 2:40 pm • linkreport

I've had more run-ins with cyclists on sidewalks here in DC than I ever have in NYC. I understand that thought process that it is safer for the cyclist on the sidewalk than on a busy street, but what about for the pedestrian? I've been on mostly empty sidewalks and have still been forced off the sidewalk by bikers barreling through. I don't ride a bike because I'm not comfortable riding in the streets with cars. It's also one of the reasons why I don't run in the streets. Aside from child riders, there should be a zero tolerance rule when it comes to bikes on the sidewalk. There is barely enough room for pedestrians, let alone bikes. Surely, cyclists wouldn't like it if I walked in the bike lane.

I would like to add that while I'm not a rider (mostly because I'm a big scareddy-cat), I am 100% pro cyclist, and I would hate to see my comment twisted around to mean that I am anti-bike. Whatever makes the streets safer for cyclists, makes the streets safer for me, a pedestrian, and a non-driver to boot. So please, stay off the sidewalks, do not salmon, and do not fly through intersections when you don't have the light. In return, I will treat you as a car and wait for you to pass if I'm crossing against the light and there are no other cars coming.

by Jess on Jan 5, 2011 2:43 pm • linkreport

@Ted: Have you seen the sidewalks along RI Ave where you're talking about? With the tree boxes, the sidewalks are impossibly narrow and cracked to ride on, even if no pedestrians are present.

by Rom on Jan 5, 2011 2:44 pm • linkreport

I'm with Ward 1 Guy in regard to "on your left". As a non-biking pedestrian, being passed even at entirely safe speeds without warning is extremely startling. The call is not to demand the pedestrian to move over, it's to alert them so they don't jump into the bike's path when they hear the tire whirring directly behind them.

by Dave on Jan 5, 2011 2:51 pm • linkreport

I'm an experienced cyclist and I cycle commute most of the year.

When commuting during work hours, I would prefer it if cyclists didn't observe the Idaho stop and instead acted as if they were cars. This isn't Idaho - there are no streets that are truly quiet at rush hour, not even residential streets. I do roll through some stop signs if there aren't cars around (especially if there's a stop sign and I'm climbing a hill - I think it's the equivalent of a car rolling slowly through a stop), but I think stop signs should be respected at any time during rush hour and any time a pedestrian is waiting to cross at a stop sign. Cyclists should not ever blow a light at rush hour.

On weekends - I think the Idaho stop at stop signs and lights is OK if there are no cars or pedestrians. As someone else noted, Idaho stop means cyclists may treat a stop sign as a yield sign, and a light as a stop sign. This should be coded into law and enforced.

I would say always signal your turns should be a norm. Unfortunately, some less confident cyclists might not want to take one hand off the bar. Additionally, most signals are made with the left hand; in the US, your primary brake (the front one, which provides 70% of the braking power) is typically the left brake. I actually reverse all my brakes so I can signal better. However, this is a problem that's probably due to a persistent misconception that the front brake will flip you over the bars. That would only happen with user error, but it is a persistent misconception.

Sidewalks: as the others have said, peds get priority on the sidewalks. It should be acceptable to allow bikes on the less crowded sidewalks if they don't impede pedestrian traffic. And cyclists will do it anyway, particularly the less confident ones.

Aside from that, I think that about covers the general norms that cyclists should observe. These will make it safe for cyclists to use the roads where appropriate, and garner respect from drivers. I note that WABA, during ride to work day, says that the organized groups (they organize rides to one destination from several points in the suburbs) will stop at all stop signs. I think that's a good start towards developing norms. The problem is, I think the more experienced rides already live in the suburbs. It's the people riding in from downtown that we need to educate.

by Weiwen Ng on Jan 5, 2011 2:54 pm • linkreport

The overall concept of Salmon's seems pretty good. I think there's also a problem of cyclists (generally speaking) sometimes acting as motorists and sometimes acting as pedestrians, hence crossing in crosswalks on a walk signal rather than a light (or on wrong side of street); riding on sidewalk; not always following traffic signals.

I'll also note that he's misdescribed the Idaho stop, which properly applied only at stop signs, not lights

by ah on Jan 5, 2011 2:58 pm • linkreport

Don't: ride your bike the wrong way in one-way traffic circles. I was hit by a bicyclist riding in the Thomas Circle bike lane going northbound against traffic. He came up M Street the wrong way (also a one-way street) and slammed into me.

I love the bike lanes and I especially love bicyclists that love pedestrians! Crossing traffic circles is hairy enough! Be nice!

by Dan on Jan 5, 2011 2:59 pm • linkreport

As a biker/runner/walker... with very few exceptions (mainly that being children) I think bikes need to be banned from sidewalks in DC. I can't count how many times I've been clipped by people riding their bikes on very busy sidewalk areas (14th at DCUSA, U st, etc). This goes doubly for roads with bike lanes (like 14th).

by Jeff on Jan 5, 2011 3:03 pm • linkreport

@Rom - I ride on the sidewalk along RI Ave NE around the metro stop and NE-ward of it all the time. The sidewalks are narrow but they are mostly made of rubber around the tree boxes, and NE of the metro the pedestrian traffic is sparse.

by Tina on Jan 5, 2011 3:07 pm • linkreport

IMO a bike on a sidewalk is okay if:
1) The bike is traveling at approximately the same rate as pedestrian traffic, and
2) The sidewalk is not so crowded as to render lateral collisions likely.
I find that when I ride on a sidewalk in this manner, few if any complain, perhaps because few if any feel threatened or inconvenienced.

by Mark on Jan 5, 2011 3:09 pm • linkreport

I'd add that not all sidewalks are created equally. There are a lot of bicyclists on the sidewalks of the Key Bridge. The Arlington County bike map even marks the sidewalks as bike routes. If you want to ride at a cautious pace, the sidewalk is the way to go. If you want to speed across the bridge at 30 mph, the right lane sees more appropriate.

by Rob P on Jan 5, 2011 3:11 pm • linkreport

I'd argue another reason is the "Bike Messenger" problem. The most common bike city cyclists for a long time were messengers, who often rode be blunt...batshit maniacs. Most of the "bad" was common place, and I know of a couple of times when I was almost knocked over as a pedestrian in the crosswalk by messengers ignoring the lights and walk signs, often screaming insults for getting in their way.

This left a tar brush across all cyclists, even though as it has become more common place for mere mortals like myself the average cyclist behavior has much improved.

by John on Jan 5, 2011 3:14 pm • linkreport

I think it needs to be better established that trails are a single roadway, not multiple. Walk on the right, bike on the right, just like in normal traffic.

Also, this gets into runners'/walkers' social contract, but I don't care how much you love walking with your best friend, you don't have the right to go side-by-side on a 10 foot-wide trail.

I don't bike during the winter, so I don't know how it's been lately, but when the weather is warmer, I go from Glenmont to Metro Center. I would regularly encounter large groups of runners and walkers that would take up the entire trail with no concept that somebody might be coming the opposite direction.

Oh, and then there's the lady who stretches on the trail bridge at the bottom of the hill just past Calvert on the Rock Creek Trail. I encountered her multiple times.

Bikers may need to behave themselves on the roads just a *little* better, but runners and walkers need a lot of improvement on the trails. For what it's worth, it's almost never the elite/serious runners. Those people know what they're doing. It's the people who run five miles a week that cause the problems.

by Chris on Jan 5, 2011 3:18 pm • linkreport

I think a lot of this is right on especially the part about people just not being used to bikes. But like jeff said above one of my pet bike complaints is general rudeness by my fellow bikers when stopped at a light. This problem seems to be not specific to DC as the BikeSnobNYC has even given it a name. Shoaling. Which he likens to pushing past someone who is waiting in line at the men’s room.

by Keith on Jan 5, 2011 3:34 pm • linkreport

Hey David,

You gonna shut down this discussion, too? is it too off topic yet?...IT'S A BLOG! no one reads it! blogs and blog commentary are *therapy* for those who are too oppressed to have their concerns effected satisfactorily in daily life!

constructive intervention requires a face to face meeting, taking a stand, and pissing someone off. its the only way social change has ever occurred!!

but good thing you shut down that other discussion...iut could have gotten WAAAY OUT OF HAND!!!!! ha ha ha this made me laugh...thanks for that...

by mike on Jan 5, 2011 3:55 pm • linkreport

I lost a lot of sympathy for bikers when I almost hit one on Mass Ave near Union Station a few days ago. I waited at a red light and then accelerated into the intersection after the light turned green behind two or three other cars. Before I knew it, a bike was right in front of me. I braked and swerved, barely missing him and nearly being rear ended. The idiot had run the red light (blatantly) and was trying to cross a heavy stream of cars at a busy intersection. He just kept biking like it was his god given right for everyone to stop so that he could cross the intersection. If I'd hit him or been hit, I'm sure I would have been held accountable even though he ran the red light and drove right in front of my moving car.

If bikes are on the roads with cars, they need to follow ALL traffic rules and behave like cars. If they are on sidewalks they need to behave like pedestrians, including moving at the speed of pedestrians.

Bikers ARE NOT above the law, despite what they may think.

by k on Jan 5, 2011 3:58 pm • linkreport

It's never ok for a cyclist to proceed when (s)he has a red light. The "C" maneuver is likewise never ok. They're also both incredibly stupid in terms of safety to the rider. I don't mind filtering and I agree that you generally shouldn't filter all the way to the front..that'll piss off a driver more than it will help you get somewhere faster. There's a guy in England on Youtube called that documents his daily commute by bike on camera...although the traffic laws are slightly different and he's worried about "left hooks", the basic human responses are pretty similar. It's good to see what get's reactions from motorists and what endangers cyclists the most.

by thump on Jan 5, 2011 3:58 pm • linkreport

If you're on a hiker/biker trail or a sidewalk ring a bell or vocally tell a pedestrian you are passing. If they are wearing headphones and not acknowledge you, slow down and pass them at slightly faster than their walking speed. If there are so many pedestrians that you're barely moving on a sidewalk, you probably shouldn't be on the sidewalk.

On my commute, I depend on the Jones Bridge Rd sidewalk in Bethesda/Chevy Chase. On busy days I'll pass 3 pedestrians over a mile stretch and I'm not sure a fast enough biker to ride on the streets where cars race around limit visibility turns and hills.

Also of note, be aware that bells are heard farther away than a voice, but are hard to localize. Ring a bell when you are 10-15s away so that have time to figure out where you are. If you're closer, you're equally likely to turn into you.

As for Idaho stops and red lights, if the social contract means no one would bat an eye if a pedestrian jay walked, then a bike can slowly jay cycle. If you need to go faster than a pedestrian to make it across the street safely, then you shouldn't be doing it.

by Dan on Jan 5, 2011 4:03 pm • linkreport

I want to echo the comment that having a driver yell "get off the road" is a much less common occurance than it was 10 years ago. So, yes, drivers are getting used to sharing the road, thank goodness.

I do announce "on your left" if I am on a sidewalk (where I ride slowly), but it's not effective (I often pass with one foot on the ground to demonstrate caution). And on trails, where I go faster, signaling before passing is essential, because too many people will spin around or shift without warning. Though it does seem women are more likely to respond to "on your left" by moving left, whereas men are more likely to move right. And couples will pull apart, with the man then pulling the woman to the right after she skoots to the left!

by M.V. Jantzen on Jan 5, 2011 4:10 pm • linkreport

Somebody needs to make a recording of James Earl Jones saying "On your left" that cyclists can use on sidewalks. Just sayin'.

by Mike B on Jan 5, 2011 4:20 pm • linkreport

Ok, here's the social contract in the Netherlands: Bikes can do whatever pleases them as long as it's not too crazy, but cars will behave as if bikes aren't there. Bikers know that cars will ignore them, and can take evasive action. Cars on the other hand, will not go after bikes.

Personally, I consider all stop sings to be yield signs. But red lights are red lights. They are not to be crossed. No biking on the side walk either. Going against a one-way is ok, if the one-way is wide enough. Bikers should stay in the right traffic lane, unless that's a turning lane. At traffic lights, it's perfectly fine to stand in front of cars to get a head start.

For safety reasons, you should always ride 1/3 from the left of a lane when in car traffic, just like motorbikes do. This way cars can not pretend you're not there. You can move to 1/3 of the right when allowing cars to pass.

The mixed-use trails around DCare too narrow. Dogs on a leash and bikes don't mix very well on such narrow trails, even if the dog owner and the biker try to be responsible.

by Jasper on Jan 5, 2011 4:26 pm • linkreport


Bikers should stay in the right traffic lane, unless that's a turning lane.

Do folks in the Netherlands ever have to turn left?


by oboe on Jan 5, 2011 4:35 pm • linkreport

I'm a biker, and kind of a jerk of one, at that, in that I break many of the laws that are on the books and probably anger many folks in cars in the process. It's truly an ethical swamp, biking in this city if you want to get anywhere efficiently. Here's the thing: even we the jerk riders that tend to ride without much of a care ought to at least respect the people who do obey the law and not behave in a manner that interferes with others' obvious rights and the sense of safety and security that goes with those rights. That means keep off the sidewalk when people are using it for walking; similarly, stay out of the crosswalk when pedestrians are rightfully in it; at least look before darting out at red lights into oncoming traffic, then don't go if cars with the green light are coming; and so on.

by rosenrosen on Jan 5, 2011 4:36 pm • linkreport


Unless you're making a right-turn-on-red, I see no reason why bicyclists can't stop and wait for the green (or if it's traffic-actuated, force the green).

Just want to point out that most signals are synchronized for auto traffic speeds (albeit poorly). This means that if you're on a bicycle, you'll often hit every single light in sequence, and some of them are quite long.

One could make the argument that that's just the price of riding a bike, and cyclists should have another 30-90 seconds added to their trip time for every single block, even if no traffic is coming, but you probably won't get many takers in the real world.

(This is the same reason you see so many jaywalkers in DC, btw. Signals are there solely to ensure the efficient flow of autos, and pedestrians are expected to subsist around the margins. So you get things like a) 15 seconds to cross eight lanes of traffic; and b) pedestrian signals configured such that the pedestrian is expected to proceed to a tiny median, then wait for a second signal to be allowed to cross from the median to the other side.

Most folks who primarily drive never even notice their privileged status in this regard, by the way. It's a bit like the "white privilege" phenomenon. (At the risk of re-igniting the great "slavery" bruhaha of a previous thread).

by oboe on Jan 5, 2011 4:47 pm • linkreport


I lost a lot of sympathy for bikers when I almost hit one on Mass Ave near Union Station a few days ago. I waited at a red light and then accelerated into the intersection after the light turned green behind two or three other cars. Before I knew it, a bike was right in front of me. I braked and swerved, barely missing him and nearly being rear ended. The idiot had run the red light (blatantly) and was trying to cross a heavy stream of cars at a busy intersection.

Man, some random jerk acted like a jerk, you almost killed him (and almost dented your bumper), and now you've "lost a lot of respect for cyclists."

If anyone wants a more stark example of the irrational prejudices that develop between various travel modes, you need look no further.

Hey! I lost a lot of respect for pedestrians when some guy stepped out from between two parked cars and I ran him over! All you all need to watch where the F you're going!

by oboe on Jan 5, 2011 4:56 pm • linkreport


I think I'd always given cyclists in the city a little more leeway regarding traffic rules figuring most were experienced and protective of their own safety. (A person without cycling experience would have to be crazy to try to navigate city traffic!)

I was mostly okay with cyclists merely pausing at stop signs or passing through intersections when no one was around because I (perhaps naively) assumed that cyclists would use good judgment, actions that many on this thread acknowledge and condone. So yes, a very scary incident with a cyclist has changed my views. Cyclists should be held to the rules of the road, just like cars and pedestrians. I think this holds true even if it means cyclists have to stop frequently to wait for 30 or 60 seconds at a light or stop on a hill. Others shouldn't be responsible for their erratic and unpredictable actions because they don't feel compelled to follow standard traffic laws.

If riding a bike is inconvenient when following the law, perhaps people should reconsider their mode of transportation. No argument for convenience overrides safety concerns, IMO.

by k on Jan 5, 2011 6:02 pm • linkreport

Just want to point out that most signals are synchronized for auto traffic speeds (albeit poorly). This means that if you're on a bicycle, you'll often hit every single light in sequence, and some of them are quite long.

They're timed for free-flowing auto traffic speeds. During commuting hours most cars are going from one to the next, or close to it.

by ah on Jan 5, 2011 6:06 pm • linkreport

I like what Jasper said about the Netherlands. It's how I learned to cross the streets as a pedestrian, right here in DC. Then I moved to a place where the cops for jaywalking and was gobsmacked. It turns out that it's illegal to ride on the sidewalk most places. And it will cost you serious money, too.

In general, if its legal, I will ride on the sidewalk but I agree that all riders should act as guests on sidewalks. Mups are NOT bicycle superhighways if pedestrians are allowed on them and pedestrians ALWAYS have the row! Pedestrians are the more vulnerable people there just like cyclists are in roadways.

But I think it's crazy for sidewalks to be legal to ride on and I would support it being banned even though I luv luv luv jumping curbs. Its crazy to put cyclists on sidewalks as if they belong there.

But Idaho stops all the way, lights. signs, whatever. If its safe to get across the road, it is safe to get across the road so why not? Did I mention that I thought jay walking was legal b/c I learned to cross the street in DC?

But regardless of your relationship with the laws, and mine is rather tenuous at best, safety first. If you get smacked and it's your fault, you're an idiot. If you do the smacking and its your fault, you're a jerk and you probably owe someone money. You definitely owe them an apology.

Most other places I've been in the world treat the most vulnerable with the most respect. What does it say about us that we do the opposite?


by badassador on Jan 5, 2011 6:29 pm • linkreport

@k: Cyclists should be held to the rules of the road, just like cars and pedestrians.

The key here is what you mean by rules of the road. Do you mean the letter of the law? If so, your assumption that drivers and pedestrians obey the letter of the law is false, and you are creating an unreasonable double standard for cyclists.

Or by "rules of the road" do you mean socially accepted, courteous, responsible behavior - whether it's legal or not? As David notes, our society has evolved "social contract" - a set of unwritten, unspoken rules - about how to behave on the street when walking or driving, but not for when you're on a bike. As more people hop on their bikes, these rules will develop and become widely known.

The solution here isn't to "throw the book" at cyclists but to create a set of socially accepted standards.

I'm sorry you had a bad experience with someone on a bike, but that's an argument against that person's judgement, not the judgement of all people on bikes.

Captcha: safety, Mortan

by Stephen Miller on Jan 5, 2011 6:43 pm • linkreport

you say
"If riding a bike is inconvenient when following the law, perhaps people should reconsider their mode of transportation. No argument for convenience overrides safety concerns, IMO."

What about if the laws or circumstances surrounding the laws make bike riding unnecessarily inconvenient (and within inconvenience I include the inconvenience of the inability to feel safe while riding your bike)?

by Canaan on Jan 5, 2011 8:34 pm • linkreport

why are motorists and pedestrians "unsettled" by certain cyclist behaviors yet inured to the fact that, for example, thousands of people a year are killed by motorists with their cars?

because, ideologically, we live in an automobile-centric society. to rephrase an axiom, it's the material conditions of people's lives, stupid!

change the laws and transform the infrastructure so citizen cycling is not just the normal, but the privileged, mode of transportation, along with transit and walking, and you won't need lists like this.

but, in the meantime, sure.

by tony on Jan 5, 2011 8:43 pm • linkreport

They're timed for free-flowing auto traffic speeds. During commuting hours most cars are going from one to the next, or close to it.

This may be true for many suburban arterials in the area, and even some in the city. But for many of the streets that cyclists tend to favor, this type of gridlock is not the norm.

by oboe on Jan 5, 2011 8:55 pm • linkreport

i question david's metaphor here, which, if we look at it more closely, leads everything else to fall apart:

the notion of a "social contract" presumes that each and every sovereign subject shares a theoretically level playing field with everyone else. its use here thus makes little sense, in the asymmetrical context of transit modes in the u.s., where one mode and class, the private automobile and motorists, in terms of the resources they enjoy and the reigning laws in their favor, completely dominate the other mode and class, the bicycle and the citizen cyclist.

in other words, there can't be a social contract between motorists and cyclist, just as there couldn't be one historically (at least any social contract worth its name) between, say, women and men (until the suffrage movement) or whites and blacks (until the 1960s)--and, as we know, relations of race, gender, and the "contract" are still disputed today.

so what's the right metaphor? here are a few:

what's our bicycle "reform movement"?

what's our bicycle "non-violent protest"?

what's our bicycle "tea party"? (oh.)

what's our bicycle "revolution"?

by tony on Jan 5, 2011 9:01 pm • linkreport

Weiwen, by definition, you don't do the Idaho Stop if there is oncoming traffic. I do it often during rush hour, because there is no oncoming traffic. That's the advantage of the transit system here. Maybe we ride different roads. I am amazed at how often streets are empty of traffic downtown, and in abutting neighborhoods. There's no good reason for sitting there, if there is no oncoming traffic.

casey anderson's point about more drivers becoming more familiar with bicyclists is apt I think. The people on DC streets in cars who yell about getting on the sidewalk tend to not be driving cars with DC license plates. MD and other states are far more common on such cars.

by Richard Layman on Jan 5, 2011 9:29 pm • linkreport

i don't agree with the foundation of this post -- that there is a social contract that cyclists, not pedestrians and drivers, need to be educated on.

it doesn't make any sense.

the root 'education' problem as i see it is that it is drivers and pedestrians who need to learn how to share the streets of DC with the new users of the streets, cyclists. even in the cases where drivers and walkers _do_ know about "The Streets/Transportation Social Contract" (which includes all modes), they all-too-often fail in their contractual duties. so, educating walkers and drivers is the first part -- enforcement through social norms/shame comes later.

it is actually bikers who are best-informed about all modes of transport, because anyone who bikes has also and probably still does drive, walk, and take transit. the reason we so often hear such ignorant comments from non-bikers about biking is because there is no possible way for a non-biker to appreciate what it is like to ride a bike. just the fact that we cyclists have to explain why we don't like to stop at stop signs and red lights shows how deep the ignorance among non-bikers runs.

so, let's build The Streets Social Contract and use it as an educational tool for the people who most need it -- people who don't bike.

i think most folks try to live by The Golden Rule, so that would take care of most issues, but the ignorance among non-cyclists is where the problems start.

we might still quibble about the exact details of how all the modes should interact, but none of it can be controversial if you a) know what biking is like, and b) agree that walking and biking should be prioritized, in that order, above motorized transport. done and done.

NY Mag did and etiquette guide that includes subways and taxis, but not necessarily all the other transportation stuff.

Spacing Toronto did a 'Rules' issue.

i have a problem with many of the proposed rules-for-cyclists, and many of the comments, but a few jumped out:

1) traffic lights are primarily to allow us to conduct motorized transport in the city, specifically car, truck, and bus transport, and we need to continue to de-motorize the city. if the only motorized transport we allowed was trains, we could get rid of just about every traffic light in the city. suggesting that bikers or pedestrians or anyone else should stop at red lights or any other (motor) traffic control device 'just because' is not an answer. there _could be_ a valid reason -- like maybe crossing is dangerous for the walker/biker and/or other people, but i personally don't know what that reason could be if it's not 'danger'.

2) bus drivers leapfrogging cyclists is the worst -- they roar past you, cut you off and stop short, pushing you out into the lane or forcing you to stop, putting you at risk of getting hit from behind, etc. insane.

3) all of the talk of 'pissing off' drivers and making them angry and whatever is pretty compelling, in part b/c it's true -- we cyclists know that if we make a driver angry, accidentally or otherwise, whether we are doing nothing wrong or otherwise, those drivers could decide to ruin and/or end our lives, just because they can. so, we often, if not always, ride in fear -- often grave fear. it's a terrible situation, and it needs to change, and establishing some social norms for drivers (and door-ers, and walkers, etc.) would go some way towards addressing this very serious problem.

walkers and bikers up! motorized transport down!

by Peter Smith on Jan 5, 2011 9:57 pm • linkreport

Biking around campus in college I learned that where your eyes are pointing indicates to the oncoming pedestrians your intended path. Looking a pedestrian in the eye tends to cause some terrible confusion as to where you're going.

Furthermore, there are actually many instances in American law, especially property law, where a stricter law eventually comes around to match social convention either in the letter of the law or in matters of enforcement. I wouldn't be surprised if we see more and more laws tailored specifically to cyclist conventions. The Idaho Stop is an example.

by Eric Fidler on Jan 5, 2011 10:40 pm • linkreport

Bad: Riding the wrong way in a bike lane. This frequently happens on Q & R Streets NW. What is so hard about going to the very next block to ride the correct direction. It irks me when I have to dash into traffic to avoid someone going the opposing direction, not to mention the safety risks involved.

by Jeff on Jan 5, 2011 10:46 pm • linkreport

Charlie, riding on the sidewalk is sometimes the best option. DDOT even signs some as bike routes. And, I'd be shocked if anyone ever had their life saved by a bike bell.

@TimK, I'd suggest not barking "on your left" or using your bell when passing me on a sidewalk. I don't honk at bikes going slow in traffic lanes for every person who asks that cyclists not do this, there is someone else out there complaining that cyclists never announce themselves when passing. "On your left" is not a call to "get out of my way" it is a warning because bikes are so quiet they can surprise you.

@Vakil, but, per capita, no one is as irresponsible as DC cyclists. The numbers don't back that up. Drivers are more often responsible for crashes with cyclists and pedestrians.

@Jess, in DC biking on the sidewalk is usually legal - in NYC it never is. And I see plenty of people jogging in the bike lane.

by David C on Jan 5, 2011 11:20 pm • linkreport

Good post David. You're observations (and rules) are spot on. Incidentally, I've noticed cyclists of late starting to stop at stop signs and actually following some of the best practices you noted above. Perhaps you're having an influence (for the better) ... perhaps it's WABA's campaign ... perhaps it's just the fact that with more bikes flooding the streets, cyclists have to start abiding by the rules ... Which as you aptly noted aren't necessarily the 'written' rules ... but the rules 'as practiced' ... which are based on common sense, civility, and respect for one's fellow road users irrespective of their means of propulsion ...

by Lance on Jan 5, 2011 11:33 pm • linkreport

@ JimT

Saying excuse me wont always work in the cases of the deaf or blind what do you suggest then ?

What about when wheelchairs are present they can take up the whole sidewalk sometimes especially on streets/roads/avenues with narrow sidewalks (R.I. Ave, NY Ave, North/East/South Capitol Streets at some parts)

by kk on Jan 5, 2011 11:48 pm • linkreport

" ...If you do the smacking and its your fault, you're a jerk and you probably owe someone money. You definitely owe them an apology."

The apology thing already seems impossible to most people i've met so far. The money thing get's solved by the law anyway.

by rags on Jan 6, 2011 2:16 am • linkreport

@kk: Are you saying that you never say "excuse me" to deaf, blind, or people in wheelchairs? I'd say that manners are always appropriate. (I do hope you realize that saying "excuse me" is a way of communicating to people that you recognize that you had intruded into space where ideally you would not be. Drivers often make a deferential wave under such circumstances--if you knew someone was deaf I suppose you could wave instead.") I say "excuse me" if I am passing within 5-10 feet of a pedestrian. If there is not 5 feet of clearance I become a ped (I only ride sidewalks when the road is one-way in the other direction.)

by JimT on Jan 6, 2011 6:58 am • linkreport

Social contract in 10 words or less: "Don't get killed."

by crin on Jan 6, 2011 7:20 am • linkreport

Bicyclists seem to want their cake and eat it too. They want equal respect on the roads from cars, but they don't seem to want to give equal respect to pedestrians on the sidewalks.

In my view, we are still in an auto-centric society, and so cyclists should whenever possible ride in designated bike lanes and/or trails, and then on sidewalks. Only when neither of those options is available should a cyclist use the roadway. When using the roadway, cyclists need to recognize that they are not equal to the vehicles, and thus take care to stay out of the way and allow vehicular traffic to proceed appropriately. No- I am not saying that drivers of cars get to ignore cyclists.

Another problem is, cyclists don't want to slow down and share the sidewalks safely with pedestrians. Using a bell or even calling out "on your left" should be used only to alert the pedestrian that the cyclist is approaching, however most cyclists seem to think that their warning is a call for the pedestrian to get out of the way. When I approach a cyclist in my car, I always give a short toot of my horn, but only just to let them know that I am passing. Of course, I always get a scowl from the cyclist, as if I am expected to ride along behind them for as long we are on the same road.

Until there is political consensus to build cycling infrastructure that allows for safe and speedy cycling all around town(which consensus does not exist at this time), cycling is not the alternative to driving that some of you wish it to be. Meanwhile cyclists must learn to slow down, share the sidewalks safely with pedestrians whenever possible, and quit whining.

by KevinM on Jan 6, 2011 7:33 am • linkreport

@David I know it is legal -- doesn't make it the best option. I've nearly become "sidewalk pizza" too many times due to bikes on the sidewalk. There is just not enough room. To me, it doesn't matter if there is 1 person or 20 on the sidewalk, there is just no room on these narrow sidewalks. On the bike lane joggers point, I said I don't run in the bike lane. Didn't say others don't.

by Jessica on Jan 6, 2011 7:54 am • linkreport

In Virginia, bicyclists are required to give audible warning when passsing pedestrians on a sidewalk.

by Mitch Wander on Jan 6, 2011 7:55 am • linkreport

To me bad is if you biking nowhere near the speed of traffic. If there is no bike lane or painted arrows and you can't come within 15MPH of the local speed limit, find another route. I don't care if you're training for the Tour de France.

by movement on Jan 6, 2011 8:36 am • linkreport

@KevinM: "Of course, I always get a scowl from the cyclist, as if I am expected to ride along behind them for as long we are on the same road."

Umm . . . you ARE expected to ride along behind them if they are taking the lane (as they are permitted to do) on a single lane road.

by dcd on Jan 6, 2011 8:54 am • linkreport


1. I think your prioritization of which paths cyclists "should" use is completely wrong. "Don't be on the road unless you absolutely have to!" Not right.

2. I often find that pedestrians wrongly thing that my bell means "get out of my way" when really I only mean to announce my presence. But you are right that SOME cyclists on the sidewalk ride way too fast. It's not "most" though.

3. The reason we get pissed when you "toot" your horn at us is that its 10,000 times louder to us than it is to you. Horns are REALLY LOUD when a car 10 feet behind you uses it. I can hear your car without a horn, it has an engine.

by MLD on Jan 6, 2011 9:05 am • linkreport

@ KevinM
"When using the roadway, cyclists need to recognize that they are not equal to the vehicles, and thus take care to stay out of the way and allow vehicular traffic to proceed appropriately."

Actually, when using the roadway we are in fact equal to the cars by law. That said, I try to give way to faster moving traffic when possible, because I think it's the polite thing to do. I do the same in my car on the interstate.

"Meanwhile cyclists must learn to slow down, share the sidewalks safely with pedestrians whenever possible, and quit whining.

Slow down and quit whining is good advice for both cars and bikes alike. Sharing the sidewalk is not, and is illegal in much of the city.

by jcm on Jan 6, 2011 9:10 am • linkreport

@David C

I speak from personal experience, which is anecdotal, of course. I'm a cautious cyclist because I expect cars to ignore me, so I rarely put myself in a position to be threatened by cars. I do ride in the middle of the lane when there is no bike lane, and this gets jerk drivers like movement angry at me, but I stay far enough over that they can't pass me dangerously close. So, maybe the statistics show otherwise, but I see far too many cyclists flouting the rules in ways that endanger themselves, drivers and pedestrians. Perhaps cars show up in the stats more because they are more capable of doing damage?

@movement If you don't like being "stuck" behind a cyclist while driving in the city, I have a suggestion for you. Take the Metro.

by Vakil on Jan 6, 2011 9:15 am • linkreport

@ KevinM As a floow up, you may want to familiarize yourself with the documents linked on this page. In the DC regs Title 18 Chapter 12 § 1200.3 you'll find the following:

Operators of bicycles have the same rights as do operators of other vehicles and in the additional rights granted by this chapter.

There's probably some other stuff you aren't aware of as well.

by jcm on Jan 6, 2011 9:19 am • linkreport

@KevinM [cyclists] want equal respect on the roads from cars, but they don't seem to want to give equal respect to pedestrians on the sidewalks. Not true. Every one here seems to recognize that peds have the ROW on sidewalks. And most say that cyclists should avoid the sidewalk, something you seem to contradict. The difficulty with being a cyclist is that many drivers seem to think we belong on the sidewalk and many pedestrians seem to think we belong in the road.

When using the roadway, cyclists need to recognize that they are not equal to the vehicles, and thus take care to stay out of the way and allow vehicular traffic to proceed appropriately. Bicycles are vehicles. By this same logic, when cyclists are on the sidewalk, pedestrians need to recognize that they are not equal to the bicycles, and thus take care to stay out of the way and allow bicycle traffic to proceed appropriately. Is that your position? Why should cyclists have to defer to cars because they're bigger, but to peds because they're smaller. That's illogical.

Another problem is, cyclists don't want to slow down and share the sidewalks safely with pedestrians. So they should stay off the road to stay out of the way of drivers but go slow on the sidewalk. If we are to only go at a walking pace on the sidewalk at all times, what is the point of biking?

most cyclists seem to think that their warning is a call for the pedestrian to get out of the way. Unless you're Dr. Xavier, I'm left to wonder how you know what cyclists think.

When I approach a cyclist in my car, I always give a short toot of my horn, but only just to let them know that I am passing. Please, please, please do not do this ever again. It only serves to startle and/or enrage cyclists. You're in a car. If you are under the impression that you are some sort of quiet ninja in your car, you are mistaken. We can here you coming - for a long time. Give us three feet and no toot is necessary. It will usually be interpreted as a "get the hell out of my way horn" since 99.9999% of drivers are capable of safely passing without such a toot and that will make us angry.

Until there is political consensus to build cycling infrastructure that allows for safe and speedy cycling all around town(which consensus does not exist at this time), cycling is not the alternative to driving that some of you wish it to be. I'm sorry, are you not aware that every bike law passes in DC unanimously. That the Secretary of Transportation stood on a table and announced that making streets safe for cycling was a priority. That DC is pulling out car parking and traffic lanes to put in bike parking and bike lanes. If that is not a consensus, what is?

Meanwhile cyclists must learn to slow down, share the sidewalks safely with pedestrians whenever possible, and quit whining. Says the person who just whined for four paragraphs. I'd say drivers must learn to slow down, share the roads safely with cyclists whenever possible, and quit whining.

@Jessica, you said you saw more sidewalk cycling in DC than in NYC. I was explaining why - namely that it is legal in DC and where it is not in NYC; not that NYC cyclists are more conscientious - a claim I have never heard before. Not all sidewalks are narrow, and some have 0 people on them. I use two sidewalks as part of my commute, both up steep hills with high-speed car traffic. I almost never see a ped on these. I'm not going to stop that since it keeps me safe. The problem with blanket rules is that they don't allow for the many many exceptions.

by David C on Jan 6, 2011 9:34 am • linkreport

@ JimT

I'm saying how do you say excuse me to a deaf person whom can not hear you or a blind person who will hear you but will not know where you are. The deaf person or blind person and or guide animal could move a different way than you are expecting causing you to hit/bump them

Saying excuse me does not equal the other party hearing you this also is true for a person who has bad hearing or earphones on.

I for example never cut in front of anyone i'll just wait and perhaps walk around them when reaching a curb where there is more room so I would never come in contact with them.

If the road is one way in the other direction why not just take another road and not be in conflict with pedestrians.

I believe that if you can not do something safely in this case walk, drive or bike you should not be doing it all and that you should do what ever the largest majority in the specific area does unless absolutely necessary and then respect them.

I also believe that the streets + sidewalks are designed totally wrong for the different ways people may circulate (people walking,people in wheelchairs, bikers and drivers)

by kk on Jan 6, 2011 9:43 am • linkreport

I walk and I bike and I notice people using all forms doing things they shouldn't be doing. I very seldom see people on foot waiting at the cross walk for the walk signal. I see people dart across streets outside of cross walks or signals. I see bikers riding in the wrong lane against the flow of traffic with no helmet--or worse, see the bikers whizzing down narrow sidewalks nearly mowing down every pedestrian in their way. Likewise, I see people in cars failing to use turn signals, running red lights, and failing to yield to pedestrians. Clearly there are plenty of examples of all travelers breaking the laws (written or unwritten)... I think EVERYONE needs to go back to driving/walking/biking school and learn how to respect the laws and common sense rules of the road/sidewalk!

by Matt on Jan 6, 2011 10:08 am • linkreport

@KevinM: Your misunderstanding about honking is forgiveable. Not sure about DC, but the Maryland code says that one may honk before passing, and that the overtaken vehicle should give way to the right. However, the Maryland Driver Handbook says not to honk your horn at cyclists, for the reasons that others have mentioned.

@David Alpert: Maybe the honking rule ought to be elevated to the "social contract" since best practice when overtaking a cyclist is different than what laws sometimes advise for overtaking a motor vehicle.

@kk If you don't want to say "excuse me" to people for the reasons you have mentioned, I doubt you will do significant harm. But there will be better feelings all the way around if at least a significant fraction do in situations when common courtesy would suggest doing so. Common courtesy generally does not mean shouting "excuse me" from 20 feet away, but rather saying so quietly when you are nearby. While people may on occasion use that phrase as an indirect request to give way, it is more correctly what one says after having found their way, to acknowledge the trespass and to beg forgiveness.

by JimT on Jan 6, 2011 10:23 am • linkreport

"Okay: Jumping the queue when there are a lot of cars waiting. If there's a lot of traffic, cyclists are going to squeeze up to the front of the line."

*Said with no sarcasm or mean spirit intended, I just really don't understand (isn't it sad that I have to qualify so as not to get snapped at?)*: Can someone explain to me why this would be acceptable behavior? No one in the comments has seemed to contradict it, but it seems really unsafe to me. Why should a cyclist be permitted to jump the line - if traffic is heavy enough that there are a lot of cars, should a cyclist really be scooting between them/around them to get up front? I feel like that puts the cyclist in a place where it is unlikely they'll be seen, possibly between two cars and not really in a lane at all, and at the mercy of someone turning right to guess that you're in their blind spot and will soon be shooting out and in their path. I could understand this a little more if the light was at the top of the hill and the cyclist was taking the red light to go slowly up the hill, but otherwise it just seems rude and unsafe. It sounds a lot like when motorcycles squeeze between lanes when there is traffic on the highway. Just because you're small and you can fit doesn't mean its safe or that you should.

In my opinion, if there is heavy traffic and bikes are sharing the road, they should act more like cars. Unless there's a bike lane, its the safest thing.

Unrelated, but should be added to the list: If you're cycling when its dark, have some kind of reflective material or lighting on your bike, or don't wear all black. Better yet, both! I desperately don't want to hit you, but when I can't see you at all, its hard.

by elysian on Jan 6, 2011 10:44 am • linkreport

As another person said, cyclists should always use appropriate signals to indicate a change of direction. Drivers should as well, of course, but it's that much more important for the cyclist because he has more to lose if he's in a crash. When I'm out on the bike my bottom line is to assume that the driver cannot see me and will not know what I intend to do unless I make sure he can. If I have any doubt that a driver saw my signal, I'll hold back on turning, regardless of whether I would be in the right. I'd rather be delayed than be in a crash. (I was in a bike crash back in 1991 in Charlottesville on McCormick Road through the UVA Grounds when a woman turned right into a parking space without looking. I wasn't hurt much, but I wound up having to take my bike in for repairs. Ever since then, I might be a bit overly cautious at times.)

Cyclists should respect one-way streets and should recognize that bike lanes on one-way streets are also one-way with traffic unless specifically designated otherwise. I'm thinking in particular of 9th Street NW from New York Avenue south to Pennsylvania. For much of that stretch, there are two general-purpose lanes to the left, then a bike lane to the right of those, then a bus lane to the right of the bike lane. I've seen a few cyclists riding the wrong way in that bike lane and I'd call that sort of behavior suicidal. No driver is looking for you there, especially not as you pass the big car park where the old convention center used to be (and that's even more so after a game at the Verizon Center). This goes back to my point above about common sense.

Riding on the wrong side of a two-way street is a bad idea as well, though I can see some situations where it might not be the worst idea--residential neighborhoods when you're riding with your kid, for example, if the kid is not yet coordinated enough to check over his shoulder for traffic.

My bottom line, regardless of mode of transportation (car, bike, pedestrian), is to use some common sense and consider who else is out there. If I'm on vacation in my car somewhere and I want to drive somewhat slowly to look at the sights, I'll keep an eye on the traffic behind me and I'll pull off to let people go by if several vehicles start to stack up. I recognize that the local residents are not on vacation and they have someplace to be such that it's not appropriate for me to hold up traffic. If I'm on a bike and I cannot maintain sufficient speed up a hill, for example, such that I would hold up traffic, I'll likely pull over, get off the bike, and walk it up a hill, regardless of whether I have the "right" to crawl up that hill in the lane of traffic. I'd rather not hold up the motorized traffic that doesn't have the same problem, especially when I'm in a more vulnerable position on the bike. If I'm a pedestrian, I'm not so arrogant as to ignore the flashing "Don't Walk" sign because I recognize that when that sign is up, it's the time for drivers to complete their turns. It seems to me that if we'd all think about how all users of the streets relate to each other, things would be a lot more efficient than they are with all the "up-yours" sniping that always permeates these debates (including some of the comments in this thread).

by Rich on Jan 6, 2011 10:49 am • linkreport

elysian, I agree with you on the lights - but I think it goes beyond social contract. It is the law, it is in your best interest and it is plain stupid to not be visible.

On the filtering question (aka queue jumping). First of all, it's legal. Second of all the thinking is that drivers may - if it safe - pass cyclists in the same lane, so cyclists should be allowed to do that as well. It is generally safe, but your point about possible right hooks is valid. Cyclists need to make sure not to put themselves in that position. On the flip side. Cyclists are often safer if they start to cross ahead of cars so that they can get their speed up and be more stable - unlike cars, bikes are instable at low speeds. Being in front of cars also makes cyclists more visible. Finally, we want to encourage cycling and by letting cyclist move faster we do so - this alone is not justification, but it is a nice element.

by David C on Jan 6, 2011 10:59 am • linkreport

I suppose I ride as "reader" suggested he/she does:

"Personally, I ride in the manner least likely to get me killed. What that means depends on the context: on some streets, taking the lane is safest. On others, it means riding to the right as per the law so drivers don't get po'd and aggressive."

While many cyclists are quite aware that riding in the center of the lane is legal, actually pulling this off in traffic typically means encounters with many, many aggressive drivers who almost appear out for blood. Speaking as someone who's been hit by a car in a classic right hook impact (in fact an illegal turn from a straight only lane) I can say that there's a point where physical safety outweighs legality when you're a soft human on a 20-30 pound bike surrounded by distracted and often extremely aggressive drivers piloting vehicles weighing tons.

Drivers are 100% convinced you have no right to do that. As a commuter cyclist and part time racer over the years who barely drives THE number one thing people say to me when they find I'm a cyclist is something about cyclists impeding them in traffic and how much it pisses them off. They believe they have exclusive dominion over the road. There is no other single way to piss off drivers and earn their disdain for cyclists as a whole than to do this all the time. I've met several cycling advocates who do this constantly even when safety is not a factor (of course, I'm not saying that there aren't times when it's required for preservation of life and limb) just to "make a point".

by pete on Jan 6, 2011 11:31 am • linkreport

This is a great discussion but it needs to become a city-wide discussion:
1. In DC cyclists are considered motorists on the road and must obey the law. That said, cars/buses etc also need to respect that cyclists can ride in the center of a lane without feeling like they are going to get clipped, rear-ended, or screamed at.
2. Trail riding is a touchy subject. Everyone who uses a trail needs to be well aware that it is a multi-purpose trail and respect every use of it. As a cyclist I find that letting people know that I am passing has prevented many potential accidents and walkers/joggers appreciate it. To the walkers/joggers and cyclists, if you are on a trail, please do NOT crank up your music so loud that you cannot hear people coming and then yell at the passer for scaring you.
3. Riding bikes in the "business district" in DC on the sidewalks is illegal during rush hour. Who would want to ride on the sidewalk in DC anyway - too many people!
4. It is required by DC law that cyclists use a head light and tail light when it is dark outside. This is just common sense!
My concern for everyone is that, as someone else mentioned, a few dangerous cyclists give all cyclists a bad reputation. I always ride as safely as possible and do my best to be considerate of drivers and pedestrians because I DO NOT WANT TO GET KILLED. When I ride alone, I take up more space on the road so that I am visible. When I ride in large groups of cyclists, we try to maintain a "two-up" rule meaning we are no more than two people abreast on roads that will allow cars to pass us safely. If we are on a single lane road, we generally ride single file for our own safety.
What vehicles do not realize is how hard it is for a bike to stop quickly and safely when reacting to the many crazy drives in DC who have to be somewhere immediately because they are already 10 minutes late. Cars have a really big safety shell that protects them if they hit a cyclist. Cyclists have a layer of spandex and a helmet!
No matter how this discussion goes, simple respect for ourselves and each other will greatly improve how we behave on the road.

by Erin on Jan 6, 2011 11:34 am • linkreport

The final 'Okay' in this post, jumping the queue when there are a lot of cars waiting, shows exactly the mentality that is so frustrating about bicyclists and the bicycle movement. The posts states that it's clearly against the rules and unfair to other transit modes, but because you want to do it (it saves you time and you feel good about getting to the front of the line!), you fit around and between idling cars, and it's not really harming anyone, it should be accepted practice. Should bike lanes be used as motorcycle freeways? Motorcyclists want to do it, they fit there, and they're not really harming anyone. But I expect the author to oppose that behavior because it's bad policy, it's potentially dangerous, and it just seems unfair.

Unfortunately, many bicyclists advocate for bad policy and behavior because they are blinded by their expectation that we should all agree that they're superior to other modes.

by keho15 on Jan 6, 2011 11:42 am • linkreport

I call the "C maneuver" the "Right turn of shame"

They were about to go through the intersection. Realized they were going to get hit. Took a right turn to make it look like they meant to do it. Then U turn to get back on track.

by Charles on Jan 6, 2011 11:51 am • linkreport

@keho15, filtering is not against the rules, and the post never makes that claim. Also, your analogy stinks. [cyclists] are blinded by their expectation that we should all agree that they're superior to other modes. Not all other modes, but it is official policy that cycling is superior (or more desirable) than driving. Unfortunately, many drivers advocate for bad policy and behavior because they are blinded by their belief that driving is transportation and biking is not.

by David C on Jan 6, 2011 12:05 pm • linkreport

Haven't read the comments but don't WABA and other groups recommend riding to the right in a lane? This article is advocating riding in the middle.

The thing I worry about the most while riding in this city are Metrobuses. It's just dangerous to ride in the middle of the road in front of one. One time a metrobus literally ran me off the road by tailgating the rear end of my bike, speeding up and finally forcing me into a construction zone on the shoulder. Next time this happens I'll be sure to take down its number and to report the offense.

by Scoot on Jan 6, 2011 12:07 pm • linkreport

The last time I was hit in my car, I was sitting at a red light, with another car sitting behind me. The driver of the next vehicle approaching the red light fell asleep and rammed his GMC truck full speed into the car parked behind me, which in turn caused about $7k of damage to my car. If I had been on my bike, I would have been hospitalized (or not here today). The point is: traffic laws are made for people surrounded in the protective cocoon of a car. My #1 goal when cycling in traffic is to come out alive. I will make up my own rules, thank you.

That being said, I'm old enough (and have enough kids) not to put myself in dangerous situations. The biggest complaint I hear from my non-bicycling friends is that they are repeatedly slowed-down by bicyclists, especially those that they pass, then have to pass again, when the cyclist pulls ahead of them at a stoplight. In other words, it's not the law-breaking issue that bothers these motorists, it's the fact that a bicyclist has caused their trip to last longer. I understand. People around here have terrible commutes. Cyclists need to understand that everyone is not as lucky as they are.

by Mark on Jan 6, 2011 12:37 pm • linkreport

I have a problem with the combination of the filtering plus lane rights. A lot of bikers act like, "Drive slower behind me because I want to take up this lane!" Then when they get to a red light they act like, "I can't bother to wait like a car I'm cutting to the head of the queue!"

Furthermore, as a poster pointed out, the lights are designed for Auto-flow traffic, when 10 cars are stuck behind a cyclist this significantly impedes the flow. On certain roads (say on Mass Ave during rush hours) this can add significant time as cars miss lights, get stuck in intersections, etc. All this contributes to the horrible traffic conditions during rush hour.

I suppose more than anything it's a respect thing for me.

by DC Driver on Jan 6, 2011 1:51 pm • linkreport

You should consider further "jumping the queue of cars". Some points:

1. Moving to the front eliminates the risk of a right hook by a car turning without use of blinker. This is a significant risk.

2. If you choose to stop behind a line of cars, you can either occupy the lane or go to the side. If you occupy the lane, you tend to annoy car drivers who think you have no business being in the middle of the lane. You also have to match your start-up speed to the start-up speed of the car in front. That can be difficult over any significant distance. If a gap opens up, car drivers get annoyed.

If you're on the side of the road and the line of cars extends behind you, the additional cars are less likely to notice you. That increases the risk of them hitting you.

My preferred solution: Go to the front of the lane. Edge out enough toward the center and front so that the first car clearly sees you, and, ideally, enough so that cars across the street also see you. Accelerate hard as soon as the green light shows (while keeping a wary eye out for cars blowing the just-turned-red cross light). A bike can easily accelerate faster than a car for half the street width (bike has much lower mass than car). With fast acceleration, you avoid the risk of right hooks as well as left-turning cars. Get to the extreme right of the lane within your first few pedal strokes so that you don't impede the acceleration of the cars behind you.

I think this approach to a car queue at an intersection is the safest and also creates the least impediment to cars. One obvious caveat:

** Don't try this if you can't or don’t want to accelerate faster than a car over the first few meters. **

One issue:

What about the risk of annoying car drivers who don't understand that this technique is meant to help them see you, and to keep you out of their way? I haven't noticed car drivers getting annoyed at my doing this. If a driver responded with signs of serious hostility, I would get off the road immediately, and if the hostility was violent enough, note the driver's license plate and consider reporting him or her. Over time as car drivers get used to this technique, they should recognize that it helps them.

by cyclist on Jan 6, 2011 1:58 pm • linkreport


I don't feel bad about motorists who are basically mad because of mode envy - they see the cyclist getting there faster by pulling to the front of the line, going around obstructions instead of waiting, etc. (This group includes my wife, by the way, who hates urban cyclists even though she married one).

I feel mode envy when it's stinging cold out and the motorist next to me at a stoplight at the bottom of a steep hill is cozy in her bucket seat with a steaming cappuccino and 180 hp engine waiting for her gentle tap of the foot to trigger the vehicle into action.

We all make trade-offs.

by Ward 1 Guy on Jan 6, 2011 2:05 pm • linkreport

DC Driver, if you pulled up to a red light and saw only a cyclist stopped and she was over to the right hand side of the lane, would you stop behind her, or pull up beside her? I have never, ever had a driver stop behind me in that situation. They always pull up beside me. So for a cyclist to pull up beside a car is really no different right?

Furthermore, as a poster pointed out, the lights are designed for Auto-flow traffic, when 10 cars are stuck behind a cyclist this significantly impedes the flow. On certain roads (say on Mass Ave during rush hours) this can add significant time as cars miss lights, get stuck in intersections, etc. All this contributes to the horrible traffic conditions during rush hour. Yes, slower vehicles slow traffic, but in general getting more people on bikes improves traffic. Imagine you were the only person who drove, do you think your drive would be faster or slower. I suspect it would be way faster.

I suppose more than anything it's a respect thing for me. The trick is to realize that no one is showing you disrespect. They are trying to do what is safest. It is not about you and it is not done to you. For every mile you are behind a cyclist there are dozens of miles where they are on trails, in bike lanes, on shoulders, in the pulses between traffic or on roads you would never drive on. The problem is you see the cyclist who is slowing you down, but not the drivers that don't exist because they are cyclists on trails.

by David C on Jan 6, 2011 2:14 pm • linkreport

David: And my point is seeing "you" on the sidewalk when I'm walking doesn't keep me safe. If the road has high speed traffic, take another route. Don't endanger peds on the sidewalk. And as a NYer, the laws aren't what keep bikers off of the sidewalks. Silly you thinking that NYers, or NY bikers for that matter, care what the rules say. :-)

by Jess on Jan 6, 2011 2:24 pm • linkreport

Jess, there often is not another route - or the alternative is a mile or more detour. Collisions between peds and bikes on sidewalks are pretty rare - especially outside of the CBD where bikes are banned. Keeping me off the sidewalk doesn't keep you safe either (you're still more likely to be killed by a car while walking on the sidewalk then you are by a cyclist).

by David C on Jan 6, 2011 2:57 pm • linkreport

A variant on navigating stop signs & lights: at intersections where there are bike lanes on the right side of the lane, if cars stop and cyclists don't, pedestrians crossing the intersection may not see the cyclist because their view is blocked by the stopping cars. This is particularly true at night and during rush hour. As a pedestrian, I've nearly been hit by both cyclists & scooters a couple of times this way.

by Tracey on Jan 6, 2011 3:12 pm • linkreport

FROM TORONTO: It's a fact that we need less people in cars and more people on bikes so we need to have traffic prioritized as such. There is a looming debate of how to accomplish this prioritization and I have an unusual but functional proposal. Counter to traditional ideas of giving cyclists a head start on a green light a much more effective method is to have an early red light for motor vehicles leaving the cyclists to get well ahead. While this isn't standard in Ontario we do have a 2 second all-red delay between directions to allow vehicles to safely exit the intersection. I use this delay plus the red light to get at least 30-45 seconds ahead of traffic versus the mere few seconds an advanced green would permit. By the time traffic catches up I'm already at the next intersection ready to do it again. This keeps the cars from continually passing the cyclists and everybody safer. Motor vehicles and cyclists would move in separate "blocks" on the road.
My idea was developed from the "scramble" pedestrian intersections that we've recently introduced in Toronto to much fanfare.

by Ian Howes on Jan 6, 2011 3:39 pm • linkreport

Hi! I have a question--what about vehicles that turn right on red? I had a bit of an issue with a driver the other night when I was stopped at a red light, in a marked bike lane. A car then approached me from behind and also stopped at the red light, but behind my line of sight. A few minutes later he began honking at me. I turned around, and the driver was indicating that he wanted to turn right. I shrugged my shoulders and continued to wait for the light change. The driver continued to honk, and then rolled down his window and basically shouted that if I didn't move out of his $^#^$*# way, he was going to run me over. I moved out of his #^%$&@ way.

Now, here's the thing:

1. It's not like I passed him and decided to stop right in front of me. I was there first, and he came later.

2. He actually had plenty of room to make that turn if he really wanted to--it was a one way street with a marked bike lane and virtually no traffic. I'm glad he didn't because, frankly, I think its rude and dangerous for vehicle to do that to cyclists, whether there is a bike lane or not. Not to mention illegal, since I believe motorists are required to make turns from the lane closest to the curb whenever possible (in this case, the bike lane, which I happened to be currently occupying)

3. If I had been a motor vehicle, I don't think I would have received that treatment. The driver would have had to simply wait until the other vehicle proceeded through the intersection before making a right turn. But because I was a cyclist, apparently the rules no longer applied.

So what's the deal? This isn't the first time that drivers have honked their irritation at having to wait an entire 45 second signal light cycle to make a right turn when I've had the audacity to not move my bicycle out of "their" way.

by Kate on Jan 6, 2011 4:18 pm • linkreport

Kate, it was a very inconsiderate thing for a motorist to have done, but my guess is that he would have done so even if another car were in front of him. That's just how those people are. They only care about themselves. You did the right thing by waiting at the light. I would have told him to run me over if he really cared that much about making the turn.

Motorists are required to make turns from lanes closest to the curb assuming those lanes are designed for motor vehicles; bike lanes don't count :)

by Scoot on Jan 6, 2011 5:10 pm • linkreport

@Kate: The driver was rude, and you were within your legal rights to stand your ground. However, when I find myself in these circumstances, I look behind me and motion so as to ask the driver if they are turning right. If they say yes and there is room for me to do so, I will move my bike to the left, leaving them enough room to make the turn from the bike lane, to my right. It's just a small courtesy.

@Scoot: In fact, drivers should merge into the bike lane before completing a right turn. This cuts down on right-hooks.

by Stephen Miller on Jan 6, 2011 5:19 pm • linkreport

Scoot, actually drivers are to make the turn from the bike lane. That's why the line becomes dashed. They should safely merge into the bike lane and then turn, this prevents them from right hooking a cyclist.

by David C on Jan 6, 2011 5:25 pm • linkreport

cyclist probably said everything I wanted to about moving up the queue. It's about maintaining visibility and separation, it's like a bike box without the box.

Most of my riding on the street is defensive in nature. I move up the queue and do Idaho Stops to maximize the amount of time and space that I am separated as best as possible from cars.

It's not until you ride on a trail (maybe not MVT) that you realize how much of your energy spent riding is dealing with
defensive concerns.

KevinM makes a point that I actually agree with. Bicyclists can't compete physically with cars in terms of weight or speed. That means for me that I work to minimize the opportunity for conflict with cars. Sure we can take the lane as bicyclists, but that doesn't mean it's always the smartest, safest, or most defensive course.

WRT the lack of bike infrastructure that KevinM discusses, we have to be very careful to differentiate when we talk between DC (or center cities generally) and the suburbs in general. With the grid street network in DC, you have a massive inventory of parallel streets that fully support bicycling, whether or not there is significant bicycle-dedicated infrastructure present. This isn't the case for the suburbs, making trips on bicycle there much more difficult. Except when I do planning projects in the suburbs, I am referring to the city when I write/comment on this issue.

Sure vehicular cyclists will ride in most any condition (I saw a guy riding today on the 400 block of NY Ave. NW which surprised me. The issue is how to support the 60% of the U.S. population willing to ride, but not comfortable enough because of safety concerns to do so regularly.

by Richard Layman on Jan 6, 2011 5:43 pm • linkreport

Jumping the queue also means avoiding breathing the noxious (lethal in large concentrations, harmful at any) exhaust gases drivers put in my face. I'll do it every time.

by George D on Jan 6, 2011 7:41 pm • linkreport


by JJJJJ on Jan 7, 2011 2:15 am • linkreport

re: "Queue Jumping"

With the amount of auto congestion on the city's roadways, unless you "filter" two other things happen: a) you're far enough back from the light that you can't actually make it through the light cycle, and b) any cars behind you will be stuck not making it through the light either.

On a lighter note, my favorite driver complaint is "That cyclist keeps passing me! And I've had to pass him back, like, five times now!!!"

Always makes me want to ask, "Why the Hell do you keep passing the cyclist then?" Ah, right, because the posted speed limit is a minimum, not a maximum. ;)

by oboe on Jan 7, 2011 9:49 am • linkreport

You left out THE biggest safety concern with biking in the city. City bicyclists NEED to stay off sidewalks! Riding on a sidewalk endangers the bicyclist as well as pedestrians. Not to mention, some DC sidewalks are so narrow pedestrians are literally driven off the sidewalk in order to avoid being hit by bicycles. Studies show it is much safer for a cyclist to ride in the street. This should be the first commandment for any city biker. And if you're not confident enough to ride in the street, you shouldn't be riding a bike in a big city.

by Leilah on Jan 7, 2011 9:53 am • linkreport

Ugggjhshs! Some sidewalks are critical parts of the bike network. Look at this on Irving Street. I'm a pretty confident cyclist and I won't ride on Irving Street. And there aren't a lot of other options. Michigan Ave is no better, Allison Street is a long way away. As is Rhode Island Avenue. What about going uphill on Good Hope Road. I can't do this at a speed faster than 5mph. Should I really be in the street, where drivers routinely hit 50mph, especially since I almost never see pedestrians on the sidewalk? Unless you're willing to defend every sidewalk in the city as a poor place for cyclists stop making blanket statements against sidewalk cycling. At times it is the right choice. That's why we made it legal!!!!!! Flexibility people. That's all I'm asking for.

by David C on Jan 7, 2011 10:58 am • linkreport

@Scoot. You state "Haven't read the comments but don't WABA and other groups recommend riding to the right in a lane? This article is advocating riding in the middle. The thing I worry about the most while riding in this city are Metrobuses. It's just dangerous to ride in the middle of the road in front of one."

WABA and others advocate riding as far right as practicable. VA code states that cyclists: "ride as close as safely practicable to the right curb or edge of the roadway" with several exceptions including: "3. When reasonably necessary to avoid conditions including, but not limited to, fixed or moving objects, parked or moving vehicles, pedestrians, animals, surface hazards, or substandard width lanes that make it unsafe to continue along the right curb or edge;" This is the case in most states.

As David Alpert noted in a comment above (I suggest you read the comments), most streets in the District are substandard width. The AASHTO bike guide indicates the appropriate width for a shared lane is greater than 12 feet and preferably 14 feet. Riding too far to the right is much more dangerous than taking the lane; cyclists avoid the door zone, are visible to motorists approaching from behind and from in front, and it reduces the chances of a motorist trying to share a too-narrow lane.

Here's the VA code:

and the AASHTO bike guide:

by Bruce Wright on Jan 7, 2011 11:20 am • linkreport


Ok, I know everyone's aware that riding from the sidewalk into an intersection is certainly a dangerous proposition for many reasons and interactions with pedestrians are a BAD thing.

But, I've always wondered about that oft quoted "Studies show it is much safer for a cyclist to ride in the street" thing. The studies that I'm aware of (and I'm not aware of many nor am I an expert) are both pretty old. See and

Humor me here. Are there any studies like this that have been done in the current era where everyone owns a cell phone, everyone texts, and everyone has GPS to distract them? The things I've seen in traffic on my bike, my motorcycle, and my car have proven to me that almost no one pays attention and drifting in your lane and many times out of your lane is quite common. Of course some people might be afraid to ride in traffic.

by pete on Jan 7, 2011 11:26 am • linkreport

Also, those studies show that if you only consider people riding on the sidewalk going with traffic (so the road on your left hand side), it isn't that much more dangerous. It's going against traffic (the road on your right hand side) that is dangerous.

by David C on Jan 7, 2011 11:35 am • linkreport

Riding too far to the right is much more dangerous than taking the lane; cyclists avoid the door zone, are visible to motorists approaching from behind and from in front, and it reduces the chances of a motorist trying to share a too-narrow lane.

Absolutely. Generally speaking, if you're visible, you're safe. And there have been several studies done that show that the further a cyclist is from the curb, the more clearance space they're given by a passing auto.

by oboe on Jan 7, 2011 11:40 am • linkreport

"Scoot, actually drivers are to make the turn from the bike lane. That's why the line becomes dashed. They should safely merge into the bike lane and then turn, this prevents them from right hooking a cyclist.

"by David C on Jan 6, 2011 5:25 pm"

In Virginia, where there's a bike lane, there's usually a sign prior to each intersection admonishing turning drivers to yield to bikes. I frequently use the bike lane on Beulah Street (east of Springfield) and I've noted those signs many times. I don't rely on them, though. If there's a driver coming up behind me and I suspect he won't yield, I either pedal faster to get ahead or I slow down. As I've said before, I see no benefit in being "dead right."

by Rich on Jan 7, 2011 12:00 pm • linkreport


Well said. As we all know there's a huge difference between what the law says and what actually happens on the road. In fact, even though it technically illegal for the woman who hit me to take a right turn where she did, she did it nevertheless. And to assume that drivers know the laws regarding cyclists even when many barely have a grasp of it concerning their own vehicles is a recipe for disaster. I've given up quoting laws to people because of the simple fact that THEY DO NOT CARE.

Almost no one is given a ticket for traffic infractions (driver or cyclist). If you were to note all of the infractions you see each day and then do the numbers you'd probably find you have a better chance of being struck by lightning than receiving a traffic ticket (if you exclude egregious movie car chase type driving).

by pete on Jan 7, 2011 12:49 pm • linkreport

I apologize if someone already said this, but sidewalk cycling puts you at greater risk of getting hit by a car turning into a driveway or side street.

Also, many signals can't detect bicyclists. If a motor vehicle doesn't come by to trigger the signal, a lone cyclist may never get the green. In cases like that, I can understand why a cyclist may choose to run the red after stopping and yielding.

by Z. Fechten, P.E. on Jan 7, 2011 1:03 pm • linkreport

@Tim K:

I generally say "on your left" when I pass pedestrians or slower bikes as a courtesy to the people I pass. I'm giving them advance warning so I won't startle them as I pass. I don't expect them to get out of my way -- I wait until it's safe, and then move to the left lane to pass -- but I want them to refrain from inadvertently stepping to the left, and into my path.

When I say "on your left" some people actually say "thank you." Once, when I didn't say it, an older couple on the bike path scolded me.

It's also necessary to slow down, and to use a friendly tone of voice; but saying "on your left" in the right way is not inherently obnoxious.

by Mitch on Jan 7, 2011 7:00 pm • linkreport

I'm a driver to and from work, but I want to encourage cycling for a number of reasons.

That said, there's plenty of bad behavior all around -- drivers, pedestrians and riders. What would help is some predictability. I respect that bikes have the rights of vehicles when on the road, but I think that means they have to respect the laws. Idaho stops don't seem safe to me at all -- they certainly don't look safe. And while filtering sometimes inconveniences me as a driver, I understand and accept it as a convention IF there's some order to it. During rush hours at a red light, the bikes come filtering through on the left and right of vehicles in the right line. It's more like swarming and just adds to the perception of chaos.

There have been a number of generalizations on this site from all sides. While I don't bike in DC, I believe more of it is better for us all. Two main rules would seem to eleviate much of this: be safe and be considerate of others.

by Kenneth on Jan 7, 2011 7:23 pm • linkreport

k: "No argument for convenience overrides safety concerns, IMO." Hmm, then we should set all speed limits at 30MPH, or 10MPH where there are pedestrians present, and such speeds should be mechanically governed -- i.e., cars should be engineered to go no faster. There are countless rules out there that override safety in the name of drivers' convenience, but as Oboe points out, as with white privilege they're invisible to those behind the windshield.

It really all does come down to the Golden Rule. I don't leap out in front of other people and make them suddenly brake. Nor should you. A driver who suddenly stops for a cyclist barreling through a red is understandably infuriated, but a cyclist who suddenly stops for an opening door or for a "right hook" turn (a driver who makes a right turn across a cyclist's path) is equally infuriated -- even though the driver may not realize that they've done anything wrong. That ignorance does not excuse the driver, and really does not excuse said driver screaming invective at the cyclist (usually my experience).

Re: "audible warning" on sidewalks. I usually use a bell, just out of courtesy, but sometimes people just freak out. In Japan (where bikes usually ride slowly on the sidewalk and pass on the right), pedestrians have a predictable and instinctual reaction to a bell, and the results can be hilarious.

Re: "filtering" for keho15 and elysian. I do this because it pre-empts anyone from right-hooking me. If I can position myself ahead and to the left of the right-turners and ahead and to the right of the go-aheaders, then I'm in a good spot out of everyone's way. As with cyclist, I don't know why you drivers wouldn't want me out of your way -- I really am trying to help by doing this.

by Payton on Jan 7, 2011 8:20 pm • linkreport

If multi-use trails were truly multi-use, they'd have sidewalks for pedestrian traffic. They are bicycle highways, that said, speeding in construction zones is just fucking retarded.

by Paul Johnson on Jan 10, 2011 11:11 pm • linkreport

regarding "Bad: Jumping the queue when it's not really necessary," to which I generally agree. But want to add that if cars used turn signals more often some of this problem would go away. very often I find myself in the right lane at a stoplight behind a row of 5 cars, none of which have their signals on, only to find out that they're all turning right and I could have moved up ahead of them without delaying anyone's trip. the fact that a large portion of drivers do this leads to me to assume that _every_ car doesn't use their turn signals, so I skip ahead of all of them anyway now, turn signal or not.

by Jon on Jan 11, 2011 8:00 am • linkreport

This "contract" is based on the premise that because someone else is breaking the rules and getting away with it (drivers and peds), it's ok for you to break the rules as well. Please remember back to kindergarten when you learned this isn't so. This "contract" only serves to rationalize bad behavior. Drivers, bicyclists, and peds can and should all be fined when they don't follow the rules.

by John on Jan 11, 2011 3:46 pm • linkreport

I like the several comments posted, pointing out the futility of a "cycling social contract," where the legal and infrastructure framework is tilted so heavily against the cyclist. Some scofflaw cycling might in this light be seen as a form of consciencious objection or non-violent resistance.

Consider: people think (and the law treats) cyclists are equivalent to motor vehicles. This is rubbish. The only way bicycles are similar to motor vehicles is that they have wheels - that's where the similarity ends. The mass of motor vehicles is 100 to 1000 times greater than a bicyclist. Their size is 10 to 20 times larger. Their top speed is far higher, while their maneuverability is significantly reduced.

Furthermore, cyclists have naturally far greater awareness of the traffic situation, with out the obstructions to vision and hearing that motorists in their vehicles take for granted. The ability of cyclists to negotiate naturally unpredictable traffic situations - even if all the traffic were other cyclists - is greater and more flexible. On top of all this, the amount of damage that an accident with a cyclist can cause is far less than with a motor vehicle.

To illustrate:

In sum: contrary to the common presumption, cyclists are not "vehicles" in the USA-street-legal meaning of the word. Cycling is nothing like motoring. Until the laws can respect that fact, one can hardly expect free-thinking cyclists to obey them.

To repeat, most of traffic laws and control devices were designed, created, produced, or put up to benefit motor traffic - to ease motor traffic congestion or increase safety for motor vehicle operators. Motor vehicles and their drivers need the regulation because their mode of transport is heavy, not very maneuverable, requiring lots more physical space (for mobility and parking), does not allow good awareness of traffic situation (being in a car interferes with your vision and hearing), and can cause a huge amount of damage in collisions because of their momentum (speed times mass). None of these factors characterize cyclists.

Nevertheless, the success of the Idaho "Stop as Yield" laws notwithstanding, it is practically impossible to get cycling friendly laws passed in a democratic municipality, where cyclists are a minority (and that would be just about every municipality in the country). The majority will always be motorists, and they will vote any such nonsense down. It's almost like motorists in a traffic jam would rather see you in a car in front of them, rather than on a bike, passing them by.

My answer to those who advocate meek submission to motor traffic laws: let's not dumb-down cycling to the level of motoring.

The above being said, I always advocate that cyclists ride in a safe, courteous, considerate, and civil (even if not legal) manner.

Can a city get used to "lawless" cycling? Yes. I ride frequently in Manhattan, and motorists and police alike pretty much ignore, even expect, cyclists to ride like pedestrians walk. "Jaywalking" is an institution in Manhattan, where creativity, wit and efficiency are prized human qualities.

by retro_cycler on Jan 14, 2011 3:03 pm • linkreport

You are invited to help make cycling safer in Virginia. Come to Cycling Lobby Day on Wed, Jan 19th at 7am and/or call the legislators in the House and Senate who are considering a 3ft passing law. Your involvement could make the difference!

Links to the full details can be found through

Please spread the word.

by Heather Higgins on Jan 18, 2011 3:18 pm • linkreport

I agree with the article. As both a frequent bike rider and car driver I can see both sides. In general bikes should be allowed to treat traffic signals/signs as yields. However, if you take the lane, you better be able to keep up with traffic (if so no problem, although this still seems to piss off some drivers). As far as sidewalks go, I think they are fair game, with the exception that bikes should yield to pedestrians and ride at near walking speed when peds are near.) I ride my bike through downtown portland every day. I often take the lane on streets where the average traffic speeds are only 15-20 mph (and can easily keep up with the car in front of me.) Still even when I'm not holding up traffic at all, I still run into a**hole drivers who honk, yell, and get dangerously close. I think its time cities cracked down on drivers who use their cars to menace law abiding cyclists.

by Isaac on Sep 2, 2011 4:04 pm • linkreport

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