A look back at the early days of D.C.’s bicycling laws


Carl Bergman helped write the city’s modern biking regulations, which include a provision linked to another Carl — Carl Bernstein, the former Washington Post reporter of Watergate fame. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
John Kelly
Columnist July 21

This is a tale of two Carls and the role each played in the modern history of bicycling in Washington.

The first Carl you probably know. He’s Carl Bernstein, the former Washington Post reporter famous for his role in bringing down a president.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

The second one you may not know. Carl Bergman worked for the D.C. government for nine years. He started in 1968 as an intern and then became the clerk to the council’s transportation committee.

In 1969, John Volpe, Richard Nixon’s secretary of transportation, told the District’s appointed council chairman, Gil Hahn, to explore alternatives to commuting by automobile. Carl used to ride his bike to work from his home on Capitol Hill and so was a good person to look into what it would take to make the city friendlier to cyclists.

Carl eventually helped draft language that outlined the rights and responsibilities of bicyclists in Washington. That included spelling out that bicyclists could ride in any traffic lane, not just the right one.


Carl Bernstein (The Washington Post)

The new regulations included some seemingly no-brainer stuff, too. They stipulated that cars couldn’t flunk the District’s safety inspection just because they had bike racks on them — something that had been happening — and that it was okay for people to take their bicycles into buildings.

In 1971, the council recommended that 15 miles of commuter bike lanes be designated and that curbs be cut so riders could easily move on and off sidewalks. Rules were also put in place prohibiting cycling on sidewalks in the central business district.

Carl said serious resistance to these bike-friendly moves came from Thomas F. Airis, head of the city highway department, who, Carl said, preferred four wheels to two.

One day, Airis went into Carl’s office, Carl remembered, and said he didn’t think much of promoting the use of bicycles. “Carl, you can’t move orange crates on a bicycle,” Carl recalled Airis saying.

Carl continued: “ I couldn’t resist. I said, ‘Really Tom, haven’t you heard of the Ho Chi Minh Trail?’ He was not amused.”

(For the youngsters among you, the Ho Chi Minh Trail was the network of roads — some dirt or gravel and traveled by bicycles — that the North Vietnamese military used to move men and material south.)

As these new laws were being considered, the city surveyed 407 cyclists about their experiences. The results sound painfully familiar. A commuter to Georgetown University said: “I have been run into the curb by autos and buses. Another favorite is to sneak into the bicyclist’s lane and run him into a line of parked cars. Motorists can’t stand to have a bicycle act like a car.”

The paper noted that despite the dangers, “only” one bike-riding adult had been killed that year, a 21-year-old man who sped through a red light and was hit by a car.

But what about the other Carl, Carl Bernstein? On Sept. 18, 1970 — almost two years before the Watergate break-in — Bernstein, then a Post Metro reporter, was riding a friend’s bicycle south on Connecticut Avenue NW when he came to a red light at Van Ness Street. Bernstein threaded his way through a gap in the traffic and ran the red light.

Officer Paul DeTerese happened to be stopped at the light. He pulled Bernstein over and wrote him a ticket. According to The Post, “After being told that the ticket would result in a two-point assessment against his driver’s license, as well as a fine, Bernstein inquired what would have happened if he were a ‘kid’ without a driver’s license.”

The officer replied that the 26-year-old Bernstein was not a kid and had a driver’s license.

Bernstein fought the two-point assessment and won. The DMV also admitted that some clerks, when processing tickets, hadn’t been looking to see whether the vehicle in question was a bicycle. So, the assessment had been a mistake. But Carl Bergman thought it best to enshrine the point in the law: Cyclists cannot be assessed points. He calls it “the Carl Bernstein proviso.”

Carl Bergman has been following the recent kerfuffle over cycling. He finds it similar to what he experienced 40 years ago. “I expect that in another 40 or so, we’ll hear the same arguments,” he said. “Only, I expect they won’t have me to kick around anymore.”

I can’t help but ponder the karmic coincidences. Richard Nixon appoints John Volpe to be secretary of transportation. Volpe lets it be known that he wants Washington to be a more bikeable city. Carl Bernstein gets a ticket for running a red light on his bike. Carl Bernstein sticks it to Richard Nixon.

You couldn’t make it up.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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