Bikes and Sidewalks: Time to Update D.C.’s Laws?

by Borderstan.com July 19, 2011 at 10:20 am 2,298 11 Comments

Mary Burgan, bicycle lanes in DC, 15th Street NW

Looking south in the two-way bike lane at 15th and Q Streets NW. (Luis Gomez Photos)

Editor’s note: Mary Burgan writes for Borderstan as the Borderstan Movie Fan and has lived in the Dupont-Logan area since 1995. For the record, she is a strong supporter of bike lanes, public transportation and a myriad of environmental causes that will make our city and planet a better, cleaner place to live. She and her husband do not own a car and walk most everywhere. Borderstan would love to hear from you on any number of subjects related to the Dupont-Logan-U Street area, including bike lanes and laws. Got an idea for a column? Email us at [email protected]

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From Mary Burgan. Leave a comment or email her at [email protected]

Biking laws in the District need updating. The language of the District law seems designed to apply to special populations such as courier services, but there are not many rules for growing population of ordinary bike riders. The city has tried to meet the needs of ordinary riders by constructing bike lanes and establishing the Bike Share program but, while these measures have increased bike riding, they haven’t established better rules for the road.

For example, the north/south lane on 15th Street NW has created confusion for all parties. This is especially true at the intersection of 15th and P Streets, where the left turn lane signal for northbound cars is unexpected. Some cars ignore it. Others obey, only to be assaulted by loud honks from behind. Nevertheless the bike riders in that bike lane rely on cars, and pedestrians, obeying that signal.

The dramatic increase in bicycle traffic in the past two years is a wonderful contribution to the neighborhood and its environment, nobody doubts that. But the increase also calls for some changes in the old laws as well as new attitudes.

The battle is usually between bikes and cars, but at intersections such as 15th and P, there is also a battle between bikes and pedestrians. Some bike riders, especially couriers, actually ignore traffic signals. Many of them don’t come to a stop, they make their own risky turns against oncoming traffic, and they shift from street to sidewalk at will.

I live in the neighborhood and walk everywhere, and so I can assert that these infractions happen far too often.  A police officer has told me that the situation a block away at 14th and P is practically suicidal, with bicycles running red lights, cars trying to turn against oncoming traffic, and pedestrians jaywalking.

The boundaries of areas where bikes on sidewalks are prohibited need to be redrawn. The number of pedestrians on local streets in the Borderstan area is many times what it was a decade ago. It made sense then to allow bikes on some of these sidewalks, but does it now?

The laws for cycling in the District don’t always help. For example, bicycles are allowed on sidewalks, except in the central business district of the city, only if they “yield the right-of-way to pedestrians.”

The dramatic increase in bicycle traffic in the past two years is a wonderful contribution to the neighborhood and its environment, nobody doubts that. But the increase also calls for some changes in the old laws as well as new attitudes.

  • Perhaps the District should have a law that requires cyclists to use bike lanes rather than roadways or sidewalks where the bike lanes exist. The state of Maryland has such a law, though some advocates would object to such a law when it doesn’t provide lanes for turns so that cyclists can safely maneuver into transverse streets.
  • Bikes are not allowed on sidewalks in D.C.’s “business district” (south of Massachusetts Avenue NW), but the boundaries drawn for this area are so narrow as to be useless for near-downtown neighborhoods like U, 14th, 17th, and P Streets. The boundaries of areas where bikes on sidewalks are prohibited need to be redrawn. The number of pedestrians on local streets in the Borderstan area is many times what it was a decade ago. It made sense then to allow bikes on some of these sidewalks, but does it now? For example, think of the 1400 block of P Street NW, home to Whole Foods and a thriving business district.
  • The penalties for illegal parking should be doubled for vehicles that park in bike lanes. This blocking of bike lanes is a major problem on 15th Street south of M.

I have called the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) to talk about some of my ideas for change, but I concluded that it would be difficult for WABA to support any of them. I also asked a police officer on the beat near Whole Foods and was told: “Do you want the politically correct answer, or what I really think?” That answer confirmed my sense that critics of the present situation would find themselves labeled as enemies of bicycling.

After exploring the laws and controversies surrounding bike riding in our urban setting my conclusion is that accommodation of bicycle riding and pedestrian walking in the neighborhood will require esoteric knowledge and generous impulses on the part of both.

There is a useful rundown of the District bicycle laws at the WABA website. Also, see the DC Department of Transportation site.

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