When discussing bicycling in the city, newspaper editorials and letters often follow a similar theme: “We’re all for bicycling in the city, but those crazy cyclists need to follow the law.” These sentiments reflect a common perception among drivers that bicyclists aren’t behaving safely or legally. Cyclists often respond, frustrated, that drivers honk, throw things, almost run them off the road, turn right without looking, and more.
They’re both right. And to improve relations between cyclists and drivers, we have to admit and acknowledge these realities. Bicycling on 15th Street last night, no fewer than three cars (one with New York plates, one with Virginia plates, and one EnviroCab) passed me at unsafe distances, with less than three feet of space and all in a two-block segment. One car honked, another car (on Q) blocked the bicycle lane while stopped in traffic nowhere near the intersection, and several turned right at intersections without properly moving into the bike lane. This all happened in a single 15-minute, one-mile ride.
At the same time, when I drive, I see numerous examples of unsafe bicycle behavior. One recent evening as it was starting to get dark, I was driving down the hill southbound on 16th approaching U, taking care to go slowly. Many people speed down this hill, making it one of the city’s most dangerous intersections. I approached the intersection with a green light only to see a cyclist in all black without lights fly through the intersection along U Street at very high speed. Drive down Massachusetts Avenue toward Dupont in the evening rush and you’re almost certain to encounter some cyclists weaving in and out of moving traffic around Massachusetts, Florida and Q. It’s very scary to drive through the city afraid you’ll kill a cyclist despite taking considerable care.
Of course, when a driver behaves badly, he’s endangering others, while when a cyclist weaves in and out of traffic, he’s mostly only endangering himself. Still, these bad apples hurt the public perception of bicycling for everyone. I’ve written that preservationists should admit they have an image problem. So should cyclists.
How do we solve this problem? Enforcement is key. According to the January Bicycle Advisory Council meeting, Councilmember Jim Graham’s constituents have been complaining about bicyclists too. He’s considering creating a bicycle patrol to better enforce the laws. And unlike current traffic enforcement, these officers would work for DDOT instead of MPD. That will make it much easier to focus their efforts on the truly unsafe behaviors (like flying through 16th and U against the light without looking) instead of the unimportant stuff (like contraflow riding on New Hampshire Avenue, or not stopping fully at a stop sign with no traffic anywhere in sight).
The bicycle patrol also needs the power to pull over drivers. In fact, bike-mounted officers will probably observe more driver violations than officers in patrol cars do. Just as I encountered copious motorist infractions while cycling but observed mostly cyclist bad behavior while driving, so will these cycle patrols better see the motorists breaking the laws.
Even if the DDOT patrols have more discretion and better training, just cracking down on bicyclists isn’t the whole solution. We should also fix our laws. Right now, pedestrians have one set of laws customized to their needs. They walk on the sidewalk, cross at pedestrian signals, can cross midblock under certain circumstances, and more. But bicyclists have to follow the same laws as cars, even though they’re not cars. The “vehicular cyclists” disagree, but I believe we shouldn’t treat bicycles as cars any more than we should treat pedestrians as bicycles.
A car takes some distance to stop, and carries a lot of dangerous momentum. Therefore, we have stop signs to make cars stop and look for oncoming traffic or pedestrians. A bicycle, on the other hand, can see oncoming traffic as he or she approaches an intersection in plenty of time to stop, while stopping and starting takes a lot of energy. Most cyclists just slow down at stop signs, then proceed if it’s safe. There’s nothing wrong with this, as long as the cyclist really does make sure it’s safe. If the law simply allowed this, but prescribed a fine for riding through when it’s unsafe, we could catch the real dangerous behavior without forcing needless starts and stops on everyone.
Likewise, many of our lights are timed for cars to travel multiple blocks on one green cycle. A bicycle moves much slower, and riding along a one-way street like Q and R, a cyclist is sure to encounter many red lights. At many of these intersections, no cars are coming the other way. Cyclists frequently proceed through red lights when there’s no cross traffic at all, as do pedestrians, and forcing already-slow vehicles and people to wait 30 seconds for no good reason is similarly silly.
European cities have much more extensive bicycle infrastructure. There are physically separated bicycle lanes, bicycle traffic signals, even bicycle-only roads. Many times more people bicycle than in the United States. Where we’ve designed infrastructure for the cyclists, those signals are tuned to the riders’ needs, and they ought to follow them. But when we only have car infrastructure, we should let cyclists follow a set of rules that make sense for cyclists. Idaho has such laws, and the DC BAC has discussed such changes, possibly to be called the “DC Cyclist Safe Stopping Act”.
Let’s make a deal. We change the laws, not to give cyclists a free pass, but to make unsafe behavior illegal and safe behavior legal. In exchange, we crack down, seriously, on unsafe riding (and walking and driving). The message is simple. Cyclists, you can now ride legally in a way that’s reasonable. But cross the new lines, and you’ll get a ticket. The good, safe cyclists, who make up the vast majority on the road, benefit. So do the safe drivers. And by seriously enforcing the law for the small minority of both groups that behave badly, we can improve safety and relations between drivers and cyclists.