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

by Borderstan.com — July 19, 2011 at 10:20 am 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.

Comments (11)

  1. Just as an FYI – the link to the boundary map referenced on the WABA website no longer works. The following link does (for now): http://ddot.dc.gov/DC/DDOT/About+DDOT/Maps/DC+Central+Business+District+-+No+Bike+Riding+Map+on+Sidewalks+Downtown

  2. I agree, we need to have a meeting of the minds on this issue. I am not against bikes. I love everything that is being done by the city to accommodate cyclists and agree the tickets should be high for drivers who block or park in their lanes. However, I have been struck twice by bikes on the sidewalk(s) at Thomas Circle . One person apologized the other got up and rode away. Much of this is common sense and courtesy from both sides, but people who ride bikes need to remember it is a moving vehicle and the rider needs to respect the pedestrian on the sidewalk.

  3. I wish people like Bike and Roll and the Segway fleets would advise their patrons about the sidewalk restriction around the Mall. I’ve been struck a couple of times from behind by cyclists riding on the sidewalk near 12th NW and the Old Post Office. They also tend to bike in larger groups than the typical downtowm biker. Local bikers are a lot more considerate, too.

  4. I am a big fan of the bike lanes — I think they encourage something very good. The 15th Street bike lane has had the effect of slowing down traffic, especially during rush hour in the evening (a lane was removed).

    But, like many other people, I am still horrified at the dangerous actions I see bikers take. Like Mary, I walk most everywhere and several times a day I see bikers blow through red lights (the biggest one) or head down a street against oncoming traffic. I don’t get it. Is it because many of them are young and think that nothing bad will ever happen to them? The bike lobby will say that this behavior is not common, but it is. We all see it all the time.

    As for bikes on the sidewalks, it’s time to get them off the crowed business strips. Bikers have no business on them. Maybe the answer is more bike lanes AND education for the young bikers.

  5. My young children have been bumped twice by bikes on the sidewalks at 17th street. The problem with bikes here is the same as the problem with cars: no common understanding of the basic rules and courtesies.

    I hate to see something as draconian as forbidding bikes on sidewalks. After all I wonder how this will affect my young children who ride about 80% on sidewalks, and when they do I usually ride with them.

    I have taught them pedestrians have the right of way, to assume a dog on a leash will move at any moment, to give a polite ding of their bell (not to tell a pedestrian to haul over but to let them know a bike is there there).

    As far as stop signs and red lights, adult biker will slow to a near stop and roll through most if clear. 99% are responsible about it.

    So on one hand, I do think the city ought to have the tools to enforce in problem areas. But on the other hand DC has increasing used fining opportunities solely for revenue, fining the susceptible instead of targeting harmful actions

  6. Just writing to thank Mary for calling WABA sharing her thoughts. While WABA would agree with some of elements and disagree with others, we share the goal of making cycling mainstream–including good infrastructure and laws that keep all parties safe and able to reach their destinations. And we absolutely believe–and have taught to nearly 100,000 cycling students in the region–that traffic laws should be followed (unless they are the sort that do not logically or safely apply to cyclists).

    The details of the law of cycling is a bit esoteric, no doubt. But WABA would be happy to meet with residents to discuss those laws and possible outreach opportunities in the neighborhood to make the roads and sidewalks safer, and to clarify some misconceptions–such as why requiring the use of bike lanes–would actually be counterproductive for nearly all.

    Shane Farthing, WABA

    We are committed to safe cycling

  7. Shane,
    Thanks for your response, but I don’t think that calling a meeting is an answer. I think that the on-line disucssion is best. (A meeting means finding a venue, a time when people could come, publicity, etc. etc.) But carrying on our on-line discussion might help. So here are some quetions I still have:
    1. Could you take the time here to let us know why requiring the use of designated bike lanes (rather than streets or sidewalks) would be counter productive?
    2. How hard would it be to establish some of the commercial corridors in our neighborhood as places where bicycles could not be ridden on sidewalks?
    3. Could there be signs warning pedestrians that they are at bicycle crossings and need to keep out of bike lane right-of-ways?

  8. As you point out, bikes are OK on the sidewalk under DC law only if they “yield the right-of-way to pedestrians.”

    Your complaint seems to be that there are bikers who ride on the sidewalk without slowing down and yielding right of way. But that rule is already on the books, and the people who lack the common sense to follow it won’t be swayed by another rule that they can’t ride on the sidewalk at all.

    If there were a no-bikes-on-sidewalk law on the books, and you saw a cyclist on the sidewalk moving at a slow pace and yielding right of way, would you complain? Do you expect that police would bother to write a ticket? I think that if we could educate everybody on the existing rule, that bikes on the sidewalk yield to peds, we’d all get along just fine.

  9. People do seem to keep off sidewalks in the downtown area where they are forbidden to ride on the sidewalks. I’m just wondering whether it’s time to extend that prohibition to some of the busy streets near stores and restaurants in borderstan. I would not be in favor of banning bicycles on ALL sidewalks, just those that have really heavy pedestrian traffic. (See reply to Shane, below).

  10. Bottom line…Bikes NEED to stay off of sidewalks period. You at 13th and N St on your bike, on your cell phone with a dog/leash attached to your bike riding on the sidewalk is blatant rudeness.
    You have elected to ride a bike so accept personal responsibilty and coutesies and stay off of the sidewalks.

    The law or any changes to it will sadly fall on deaf ears though and largely be ignored by police officers like the “no cell phone/texting while driving law” is.

    Walking in the District of Columbia has become a VERY dangerous thing to do between the bikes on the sidewalk and the automobile drivers driven while the drivers chit-chat on their phone. As long as neither are enforced the laws or any changes to them are pointless.

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