Image by urbandispute used with permission.

The Washington Post recently published a letter to the editor from someone who parked in a bike lane arguing that blocking a bike lane isn’t really a problem. The writer Claudia Burke describes the incident: she is picking up her child and pulls over into the bike lane to wait. A bicyclist calmly confronts her, and points out that this is a safety hazard.

Burke claims she respects road safety and the diligence of people like the cyclist who demand better biking infrastructure (though she also claims they're the ones making roads more dangerous). But really, what’s the big deal? Burke writes:

“... not every violation is a hazard. We live in a city where things can’t always be orderly. Better to focus on the violators who are making the roads more dangerous (I’d start with the cyclists, but that’s just me.) And once we’ve gotten actual dangers under control, we can turn to everyone else.”

She is correct that not every traffic violation is a hazard, but parking in lanes with moving traffic certainly is one. Though anecdotally common, this sort of blasé attitude towards traffic safety puts bicyclists — and other road users — at risk.

Cyclist Anita Kinney says,

“It is incredibly dangerous when a bike lane is blocked because of the maneuvers that cyclists have to undertake to avoid the parked car, especially when the car stops suddenly as in the case of Uber. Just because I’m able to avoid a car in the bike lane and thus avoid becoming a statistic does not mean this isn’t among the most dangerous situations that I encounter daily.

It’s well-known that the value of bike lanes is in the FEELING of safety that they create in cyclists: although this can be illusory, they nonetheless encourage ridership. A sufficient amount of continuous bicycle lanes then creates a network which has a multiplier effect in encouraging people to use alternative routes of transit.”

Canaan Merchant says,

The point about cities not being very orderly has a kernel of truth. But it just means that cars, which need a ton of order and rules to operate safely AND quickly, really prevent cities and neighborhoods from enjoying some of that organized chaos. This is easy to see anywhere you have bikes and pedestrians mixing together without cars, trails, the national mall, Pennsylvania Avenue (when its open), etc.

The author is slick enough to co-opt some of the language which fits in the pattern of anti-bike arguments today that no longer mention a war on cars, but instead invoke a war on pedestrians as a reason not to improve cycling in the city.

Nonetheless, the author seems unconvinced she did anything really wrong. Burke writes,

I pulled over — into a bike lane — so I wouldn’t block traffic on Q Street NW…One cyclist waited behind me. When it was finally time for me to pull into the spot, she came around to my window and told me that there’s a law prohibiting obstruction of the bike lane. I (pretty sternly) told her I was waiting for a spot and it had obviously taken longer than I had anticipated. She suggested I should have circled the block rather than create what was, in her view, a safety hazard. I told her that’s not the way the world works. But what I meant was, that’s not the way cities work.

Although cars and bikes are different in many ways, Burke's “windshield perspective” ignores the fact that they both constitute traffic. If someone was parked in a traffic lane for motor vehicle traffic, would that be a hazard? Most drivers would agree this is the case.

Under ideal conditions, drivers and cyclists alike will see the (illegally) parked vehicle in the lane and stop. But as Burke pointed out, things can’t always be orderly. People make mistakes. Car crashes happen all the time when people don’t spot hazards. Without the protection of a two-ton vehicle, airbags, and seat belts, cyclists are at a particular disadvantage in a collision with a car.

Traffic deaths should not be an inevitable consequence of trying to move automobile traffic efficiently. This is why jurisdictions like DC have committed to road safety initiatives like Vision Zero (even if the seriousness of their commitment is questionable).

Tracy Loh points out:

I am all for focusing on the violators who make the roads dangerous for themselves or others. And the data are crystal clear that is the operators of motor vehicles, much like the author of that piece.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported last year that the proportion of people killed “inside the vehicle” has declined from a high of 80% (1996-2000) to 67% (2015-2016), while the proportion of people killed “outside the vehicle” (including pedestrians and cyclists) has increased from a low of 20% (1996-2000) to a high of 33% (2015-2016).

The timing of this letter is particularly tone-deaf, since just blocks away from the incident that Burke describes, a cyclist was killed in a traffic collision a few weeks ago. After that accident, the District government removed dangerous parking spaces from the intersection of M Street and New Hampshire Avenue.

David Cranor says,

This incident really has little to do with cycling, but the driver chose to make it all about cycling because a cyclist was the person who made her feel bad about breaking the law. She stopped in a bike lane and a cyclist confronted her about it. That's it. How cyclists behave in general and who we enforce the law on is a total red herring. She just brings that stuff up to discredit (by proxy) her accuser. “I can't be that bad because the person who accused me is a part of a group of known bad actors.”

I imagine this letter would have been much different, and maybe not even sent, if the person who confronted her had been a pedestrian who confronted her from the sidewalk after she parked.

The letter admits that drivers and cyclists need to learn to share the road, but in reality, most of this sharing will be up to drivers. Despite its increasing popularity of biking as a mode of transportation, there are still only 96 miles of bike lanes in the District, compared with over 3,000 miles of road lanes. Cyclists simply don’t have nearly as much infrastructure to ‘share’ as drivers do.

Bike lanes that are wedged in between car lanes and parking spaces, as was the case in Burke’s incident, present a particular problem. To park, cars have to cut across a lane of bike traffic. This is clearly a hazard, but one that street designs, such as protected bike lanes, can alleviate.

Protected bikeways keep car and bike traffic separate, so in theory, this should make everyone happy. The problem? Automobile users must concede road space and parking lots for that bicycle infrastructure. That means until we have Copenhagen or Amsterdam-calibre bike infrastructure, automobile drivers will have to learn to share the road.

Stephen Hudson resides in Southwest DC — the fourth quadrant he has lived in. He works for a government relations firm and has previous experience with transportation policy at a trade association. His professional interests include transportation and infrastructure, foreign languages, and comparative international politics. The views expressed are his own.