As I made my way up 14th Street last night at 10:00, I passed a lone intrepid cyclist slowly cutting his way through the slush, pushing his way uphill. Godspeed, I thought.
But perhaps it shouldn’t have been too surprising. D.C. is becoming a cycle-friendly city, with a young work force living in a densely populated area where offices and entertainment are just blocks from home. More and more residents are giving up cars, or using them less frequently, and getting around by pedal power -- even in the snow.
But this requires new thinking about traffic and safety. At-Large D.C. Councilmember Phil Mendelson tells WAMU that he has been receiving complaints about collisions and police enforcement of the law. He cited the sad case of Alice Swanson, struck and killed by a garbage truck in 2008. The truck driver was exonerated.
Mendelson said, “It’s already illegal to hit somebody, so we can’t pass a second law to make it more illegal to hit somebody. Instead, it comes down to what’s going on with enforcement.” He plans a public safety hearing on the subject.
As bicycles become more common on city streets, cities are grappling with how to enforce their laws -- and what laws apply. In New York, police are cracking down on cyclists who glide through red lights, go the wrong way on one-way streets, and commit similar obvious offenses. Nearly 1,000 tickets were issued to Big Apple cyclists in just the first two weeks of 2011.
D.C. bicyclists could soon face similar attention. Chris Ziemann writes at Greater Greater Washington that he was recently pulled over by a D.C. police officer and told, “There was no turn on red at that last intersection. Bikes are vehicles and you’re required to stop and wait for the green arrow, just like cars.”
Ziemann, a former D.C. transportation department employee, admitted his fault, but still argues, “Bikes aren’t vehicles - not really. They’re not cars; they’re not motorcycles. There’s a lot that separates bikes from cars, and that’s why many cyclists act differently than drivers.” He recounts a DDOT colleague once telling him “how bikers shouldn’t cross when it’s red. I replied that if it’s safe, I did so. She asked, ‘Well, how do you know if it’s safe?’ I was confused and just said, ‘You look.’ … If parents feel safe telling their kids to look both ways, I’m confident I can pull it off, too.”
He writes that D.C. has about 20 pages of regulations for motor vehicles, but barely two for cyclists, and urges the District to update its rules “to stop treating bicycles like vehicles, similar to what Arizona, California, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, and Vermont have done.”
It is true that treating a light, thin, human-powered conveyance the same as a multi-thousand pound motor vehicle is illogical. But it is also true that it’s dangerous for cyclists to move through red lights or cut across lanes in moving traffic, since motorists may not always be able to react in time. When I’ve cursed at a bold bicyclist in my own car, it’s usually because I fear I’ll hit the person, not because I feel inconvenienced.
Mendelson and Ziemann are certainly right about one thing: It’s time for the District to seriously review how it regulates - and protects - cyclists.
Follow P.J. Orvetti on Twitter at @PJOinDC