Photo by Karl-Ludwig G. Poggemann on Flickr.

People riding bicycles often feel threatened by the minority of rude drivers who get impatient at having to wait behind a slow vehicle and pass too closely, honk, or turn without looking. People walking also feel threatened by a rude minority of bicycle riders who ride quickly on a sidewalk without regard for pedestrians. What should we do?

Some residents are trying to push for new laws that limit bicycling on sidewalks, an InTowner editorial reports. In DC, it’s not legal to ride on sidewalks south of Massachusetts Avenue in the central business district; some cities outlaw riding on sidewalks entirely.

Truly, a few people are behaving badly. Someone on a bike was riding fairly quickly past my pregnant wife and myself as we were crossing through Dupont Circle; he suddenly swerved and very nearly hit her. Perhaps something must be done. On the other hand, any cyclist can recount experiences almost being hit by an inattentive driver. If the driver does hit the cyclist, very little is done.

The InTowner is concerned about people:

zooming along sidewalks and not giving warning or careening around a corner into a one-way street but going in opposite direction so that pedestrians who are crossing and looking in the direction of on-coming traffic are blindsided by a speeding cyclist coming from the unexpected, wrong direction.

I would have few objections to a measure that specifically stops these behaviors. The bigger question is, how can we differentiate them from times that sidewalk cycling is not hurting anyone?

There are many places in the city that simply feel too inhospitable, especially to a less experienced cyclist. More cycle tracks and bike lanes can fix that. In the meantime, a ban on sidewalk riding even in these harrowing areas will simply push more people to drive.

The Logan Circle ANC passed a resolution asking the District Department of Transportation to analyze potential changes to the law, like:

a. Expanding the area in which riding bicycles on sidewalks is prohibited to streets where (i) population density or infrastructure limitations make it unsafe for pedestrians, (ii) bike lanes are already available for bicyclists, (iii) other factors that, in DDOT’s view, support extending the prohibition and that (iv) recommends limited exemptions for the public’s safety, such as bicyclists 12 yrs old and under;

b. Reducing the speed limit for bikes traveling on sidewalks;

c. Whether existing penalties encourage compliance with the law.

To the ANC’s credit, these are pretty narrow requests; they’re not pushing for a blanket ban. Where sidewalks are particularly crowded, and also there are bike lanes, it’s particularly nonsensical to ride on the sidewalk. (The other day, I saw someone riding on the sidewalk on L Street, on the same side of the street as the cycle track, in the same direction. What the heck?)

However, there are many legitimate reasons at times to ride slowly along sidewalks, give pedestrians a wide berth, and only carefully edge around corners. The biggest justifiable reason, in my experience, is one-way streets. In past decades, we’ve made streets one way to speed motor vehicle traffic, but that presents large obstacles to cyclists, especially when the routes in the other direction are especially bike-unfriendly.

Contraflow lanes, like the ones DDOT is planning next to H Street NE, can address many of these problems. There need to be many more of these to make people feel safe while cycling, however. We could use them on 17th Street in Dupont, a one-way street with very narrow and crowded sidewalks and at best poor alternatives.

Two years ago, I suggested a common-sense rule for sidewalk riding:

Ride on the sidewalk if you don’t feel comfortable on the street, or if it’s one-way the wrong way, but NOT if the sidewalk is crowded.

If you do ride on the sidewalk, assume that all pedestrians are inviolate. It’s their sidewalk, not yours; you are a guest. You can use it as long as you don’t get in their way.

Treat them like they are…say…zombies. Pedestrians move slowly, and you can’t make them change direction, but you absolutely don’t want to touch them.

Is there any way to put this into law? Probably not. Is there any law that would curb the worst behaviors without making okay behavior illegal?

Meanwhile, if we’re talking about ways the law doesn’t reflect our expectations, cyclists can give plenty of examples. If we’re trying to make the laws of our streets prescribe reasonable rules for all modes, then let’s not just make more cycling illegal, but actually fix the laws to not shoehorn cycling into the same box as driving.

Pedestrians want to feel safe on the sidewalks. That’s reasonable. Cyclists want to have a way to get around and feel safe, too. Both are worthwhile motivations. We need to find solutions that to ensure everyone feels safe, not just have one group of vulnerable road users try to attack the rights of another, different group. Is there a solution?

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). 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 lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.