About 100 cyclists and advocates gathered in front the John A. Wilson building downtown on Thursday, July 19 at noon to push DC to do more to improve safety for people walking and bicycling. The rally comes after two cyclists were struck and killed by drivers in the city within two weeks of each other at the end of June and early July.
The Washington Area Bicyclist Assocation (WABA) organized the rally to push DC Mayor Muriel Bowser to do more to fulfill the promise she made three years ago to eliminate traffic fatalites by 2024.
The mayor made a personal committment to Vision Zero, a road safety program that originated in Sweden and has since gone global. Nonetheless, more than 100 people have died on the streets of DC since 2015 as a result of traffic crashes.
“People of color and communities that have been systemically underserved are being disproportionately affected, and Vision Zero was our collective effort to change that, to make DC streets safer for the most vulnerable users. Maybe we started off with good intentions, but somewhere, somehow, we went back to business as usual,” said Jonathan Stafford, WABA's Vision Zero Campaign Coordinator. “We're here saying: enough is enough…100 dead people is not zero, and I for one believe that zero is possible.”
Cyclist Malik Habib died in late June while heading home after delivering food on his bike. His tire got stuck in the streetcar track on H Street NE, and he was fatally struck by a bus driver.
“I am not an avid cyclist, I am a mother. I am a mother who lost her child,” says Laura Montiel. She says the last time she saw her son Habib he was riding his new bike, which he loved — as he did his new home in DC.
“The mayor needs to step up and do something about these streetcar flanges that I've heard so much about since the day, June 23, since my son passed. I'm sorry, I didn't know about it — that's not my field of expertise. I believe that's DDOT's. That's all I've got to say. My son's death could have been prevented.”
After the rally, Laura headed into the Wilson building with other advocates to try to talk to the mayor about improving safety.
Habib's brother, Cyrus Monteil, spoke after his mother and pointed out that he's encountered victim-blaming since the incident.
“Believe me, I wish I could have done something to change [what happened],” said Cyrus. Cyrus says he was biking about 10 feet behind his brother when the crash occured. “It really concerns me that so many people are quick to speculate and judge…What's done is done, how can we move forward?”
More recently, cyclist Jeffrey Long was struck and killed on M Street NE on July 8. It's an area cyclists have long flagged as dangerous.
While there are more bicycle lanes and other infrastructure than when Vision Zero started, cyclists point out that lanes are frequently blocked by cars and trucks — including city staff vehicles. This renders them less useful at best, and sometimes even makes the situation more dangerous for cyclists when they are forced to quickly merge into traffic. Many advocates say that enforcement is lacking, even when they directly ask police or other city officials to intervene.
“From the legislative perspective, we pass laws — I've passed many laws, as you know — but it's the implementation and the enforcement [that matters],” said Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh. She talked about starting her Dangerous Intersections initiative, and pointed out that at many of those intersections, nothing has changed.
Although the city released a Vision Zero progress report in 2016, there have been no updates since. Cheh wants the city to provide more reports and updated data so that it can better focus safety efforts.
There are a wide range of policies that advocates say could be improved. For example, the law that allows drivers to take a right turn on a red light is dangerous for vulnerable road users.
“Traffic deaths are preventable. This is a public health crisis,” said WABA director Greg Billing. “What's worse is that we know how to solve it. We need less driving, we need more walking, biking, and transit riding. We need slower, safer speeds for everybody, and we need separate space for people who walk, bike, and drive.”
“People walking are some of the most vulnerable people in our city,” said Jacob Mason, president of All Walks DC, a local pedestrian advocacy group. “We know how to make our streets safer. There's documentation, there's websites, there's guides, there's design manuals, there's all sorts of things. There's example countries out there that have a small fraction of the injuries and deaths that we have. We know what to do — we just need the courage to actually do it.”
Many attendees showed up because they've personally been impacted by unsafe infrastructure and driver behavior.
“I commute every day by bike, and the two recent deaths kind of really impacted me because both of those crashes have happened to me, but I was one of the lucky ones who survived. I've gotten stuck in the streetcar tracks on H Street, and I've gotten by a car turning right right into me while I was in a bike lane,” says Jessica Murgel, Development and Outreach Coordinator at Gearing Up Bicycles. “It's hard to wrap my mind around. Cyclists are doing exactly we're supposed to be doing, and still we're getting killed.”
This article has been updated to reflect that Malik Habib was struck by a bus driver while heading home.