Who can make peace between bikers and the rest of D.C.? Enter diplomats on wheels.


WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 10: Members of the bicycling community ride bikes to demonstrate their opposition to a column by Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy characterizing the behavior of bicyclists as terrorists, on Thursday, July 10, 2014 in Washington, D.C. (Yue Wu/The Washington Post)

People sure don’t like cyclists.

But why? Bikes are good for the environment, good for reducing traffic and good for riders’ health. At least that’s what cyclists think.

To other people — drivers, pedestrians, opinion columnists — bicyclists are an unchecked menace, millennials zipping through city streets with little regard for stop signs or small children.

Carefully biking across this deep divide, obeying all traffic signals, are Nelle Pierson of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association and her team of “bike ambassadors.”

The program is funded by the District Department of Transportation with the stated goal of teaching cyclists, pedestrians and drivers about bike laws and safety. But the ambassadors also have a more intangible mission: to put a smiling, law-abiding face on urban biking, replacing the image of “bicycle bullies” in Lycra with one of regular people who wait for pedestrians at crosswalks and smile when they see you.

It’s the same message that Pierson, WABA colleagues and about three dozen other people aimed to convey during a protest Thursday afternoon. The pro-bike crowd gathered in front of The Washington Post building at 15th and L streets NW in response to a column by The Post’s Courtland Milloy in which he referred to bicyclists as “bullies” and “terrorists.”

“It’s a $500 fine for a motorist to hit a bicyclist in the District, but some behaviors are so egregious that some drivers might think it’s worth paying the fine,” he wrote.

The protesters were there to register their outrage at the suggestion that motorists hit cyclists, but also to set the record straight: Bicyclists are not the bullies Milloy made them out to be.

That the District’s bikers have something of an image problem was well documented before Milloy’s column: There are the semi-regular columns and op-eds deploring cyclists who ride on sidewalks and swerve through lanes of traffic, tweets claiming that cyclists “think they’re above the law,” church leaders who worry that new bike lanes will take parking spots away from their parishioners.

“There’s an image of the spandex-clad Lance Armstrong as the cyclist, the evil cyclist that’s cutting you off at every red light,” says Aaron Reese, a regular bike commuter who attended the protest.

This perception is problematic, says protest organizer Michael Forster, because it’s used to justify behavior that makes bicyclists feel less safe.

He and his fellow riders hoped to counter the “evil cyclist” image by keeping their protest low key. There was no shouting, no obstruction of traffic and no need for the four police officers observing from a distance to intervene.

“Look: We aren’t terrorists, we aren’t angry. We’re just normal folks in D.C. who choose to ride a bicycle,” Forster says.

The bike ambassadors have been riding around for three years trying to make that same point.

“Our goal is to make biking as normal as putting on your shoes and walking outside,” Pierson says.

Step one is to show how normal and polite they are. On a recent 8 a.m. ride from the WABA’s headquarters in Adams Morgan, a group of five ambassadors makes its way downtown cheerfully but slowly. They pause at each stop sign and use hand signals at every intersection, shouting “Good morning” to passing pedestrians and encouragements to fellow cyclists. Two WABA employees have large, tent-like signs attached to their bikes that read “Be a roll model” and “Bike lanes are not parking spaces.” Pierson blows some bubbles.

Five other cyclists zoom past while the ambassadors wait at a red light on 15th Street, but Pierson isn’t dismayed by this blatant rule-breaking.

“You all look great today,” she calls out.

WABA’s ambassadors — Dani Moore and Pete Beers, along with program coordinator Jon Gonzalez and a rotating cast of volunteers — have been meeting more or less weekly since 2011. The program started when the District Department of Transportation, struggling to find a way to ensure that D.C. residents were trained to navigate changes in biking and bike infrastructure, put out a call for programs that would be more efficient than the voluntary education classes the department had previously been relying on.

A bike ambassador program — spontaneous, on-the-street interactions aimed at answering commuters’ questions and promoting biking in general — seemed to fill that need.

“This way, it’s education for everybody who encounters a bicyclist,” says DDOT’s Jennifer Hefferan, who works with the program.

Even when passersby seem less than receptive to the ambassadors’ outreach, the WABA crew is unflaggingly upbeat. During another morning outing, Gonzalez stands at the corner of New Hampshire Avenue and L Street NW and waves at passing traffic, aiming to promote better relations between bikers and motorists. Though most of the drivers avert their gaze when they see him — a couple even scowl — he is undeterred.

Across the intersection, Moore smiles patiently while a pedestrian wags his finger at her and insists that most bikers are rule-breakers. She disagrees, but when he is done, she wishes him a good day and thanks him for his time. After a moment’s hesi­ta­tion, he thanks her back.

In general, the bike ambassadors keep things positive, which means they don’t do much in the way of enforcing rules. When a passing cyclist points out a delivery truck parked in the L Street bicycle lane, Moore takes a picture to report to 311 but doesn’t argue with the truck driver.

“Unfortunately, I’m not a police officer,” she tells the cyclist.

Instead, the ambassadors’s education efforts fall somewhere more along the lines of gentle nudging.

Moore’s sign — “Hey Drivers, thanks for your compassion, patience, and understanding” — may be more aspirational than descriptive. One cyclist, stopped at a red light in front of Moore, snorts at the word “patience.” But Moore hopes it will guilt drivers into better behavior.

They use this tactic on fellow bicyclists as well. At the corner of 15th and L streets, Pierson wishes a good morning to a turning cyclist who cuts off a pair of pedestrians in the crosswalk. She also points to her sign, eyebrows raised. The sign reads: “Bike polite.”

It’s about striking a balance, Pierson says: getting the message across without making another cyclist enemy. It can be exhausting, especially at 8 a.m. in muggy summer weather, though the work has some unexpected rewards.

During the outreach event in Foggy Bottom, a woman in a pink shirt and sunglasses walks up to Beers and Moore holding two paper bags.

“I just want to thank you guys for being out here,” she says, handing the bags to Moore. One holds a couple of water bottles; the other contains two muffins.

Moore breaks into a giddy grin and thanks the woman.

She isn’t even a bicyclist, the woman tells the group. She’s just a fan of the ambassadors’ efforts and their earnest signs — the opposite of the biker-baiting columnists and Twitter whiners.

“We’ve never gotten muffins before,” Moore says, once her breakfast benefactor has walked away. “When people go out of their way like that . . .”

She shakes her head and smiles some more.

All in all, it’s a good morning for the ambassadors — the indifference and the finger-wagging offset by muffins and thumbs-up as cyclists ride by.

Maybe they even inspired someone to get on a bike. After all, Pierson says, that’s the best way to change cycling’s image: “In order to make biking normal, we have to get normal people biking.”

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