After utility companies rip up the streets, they’re supposed to restore them. But the low-quality way they often restore pavement under bike lanes and cycletracks makes them very dangerous for cyclists.

Photo by the author.

On Wednesday, I lost control of my bike and crashed after riding over an asphalt patch and a large, loose chunk of asphalt in the L Street NW bike lane. What I hit may have been no more than a minor inconvenience for someone in a car, but since I couldn’t see well because it was raining and the sun had yet to rise, it was enough to knock me off my bike.

Leather gloves, a few layers of clothing, and an impact-absorbing roll that I half-jokingly credit to my Army training cushioned my fall. I scraped my right arm, hip, and leg during the initial impact. When I instinctively put out my left arm to break the fall, I badly bruised that wrist. Thankfully, my trusty helmet didn’t come into play.

As a cyclist, I’m mindful of drivers, obstacles, other bikes, weather, and even deer when I ride. If I wreck, I’m likely to receive a disproportionate share of the impact and injury.

But at the site of my crash, the asphalt patch I hit looked smooth and the chunk of concrete blended into the rest of the road. I felt a couple bumps, and next thing I knew my wheel turned sharply, I was in the air, and then on the ground.

A DDOT inspector responds

After getting to work and bandaging my wounds, I emailed District Department of Transportation (DDOT) Director Matt Brown asking if he could send an inspector to look at the spot. At the very least, I thought, this might keep someone else from also getting injured. Six minutes later, Brown responded, “Thanks. I’ll send someone to check it out.”

The inspector found chunks of asphalt but couldn’t determine whether they came from that site or somewhere else, like off the back of a passing truck. A utility company had temporarily laid the asphalt patch. Utilities are allowed to use these as long as they permanently fix the road before their construction permits end.

GGW contributor Kelli Lafferty reported manhole covers on the 4th Street SW bike lane with patches that aren’t flush with the rest of the street, and Payton Chung fell a few months ago at 9th and G NW where pavement had worn away around a gas outlet that was inside the bike lane. Both problems, they say, persist despite having been reported months ago.

Photo by Payton Chung.

Utility companies need to do their part

DDOT regulations require utility companies to ensure safety where they dig up the road whether the fix is permanent or temporary. The agency says, “When the work is completed, the utilities are responsible for restoring the roadway, and DDOT ensures that all utility cuts are in compliance with the District’s permitting guidelines and that public space is properly restored within District Standard Specifications to ensure safety.”

But utility companies sometimes need prodding to properly restore the road or sidewalk. Too often they just to slap down some asphalt and leave a more hazardous situation. People can report a bad restoration through SeeClickFix or by calling 311 directly.

It’s not practical to expect every street and alley to be perfectly smooth. And being aware of the conditions and risks is ultimately each cyclist’s responsibility. But it is reasonable to expect utility companies to be sensitive to cyclist (and pedestrian) safety.

Mitch Wander first arrived in Washington, DC over 30 years ago as a US House of Representatives page while in high school. An avid promoter of DC living, Mitch has lived in wards 1, 2, 3, and 6. He and his wife are proud DC Public School parents. He serves as an officer in the US Army Reserve.