A spin with the D.C. bicycle crowd leads to a tad more sympathy

The D.C. cyclist group Black Women Bike D.C. challenged Post columnist Courtland Milloy to see what navigating Washington traffic as a cyclist or "bully" on the road really looks like. (Alice Li/The Washington Post)
Courtland Milloy
Columnist August 10

After writing about how aggravating rude and reckless bicyclists can be for motorists like myself, I was invited by some bikers to see the road from their point of view.

Payback time.

Veronica O. Davis, co-founder of a biking advocacy and fitness group, BlackWomenBikeDC, had extended the invitation during an interview on WTOP (103.5 FM) last month, a day after my column ran.

She wanted to clear up some misconceptions I had about biker rights and privileges, offering a free, on-road biking lesson with members of her group. The route she chose for our ride, however — through downtown during a Friday morning rush hour — made me wonder whether there might be a hidden cost, a loss of serenity at the very least.

“See that?” Davis said, after a driver approaching from the opposite direction made a sharp left turn in front of us. “He was supposed to yield.”


Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy navigates traffic while riding through downtown Washington with the Black Women Bike D.C. cyclist group on Friday. (Amanda Voisard/For The Washington Post)

Perhaps. But I’d been too busy fidgeting with the gear shifts on my handlebars to notice. Of course, if I had collided with the car, the driver would have been at fault. That’s because in this bike-friendly city, the driver is always wrong.

That still didn’t change the fact that I had been inattentive and, truth be told, did not possess the requisite biking skills to be out in rush-hour traffic in the first place — not even with expert supervision.

And that’s my biggest problem with bikers on D.C. streets. Too many of them bike like me. They are clueless. Wouldn’t know a “cycle track” from an Amtrak.

I’ve even seen rusty old bikers succumb to nostalgia and spontaneously grab one of those “Leave It to Beaver”-looking Capital Bikeshare bikes. They’ll straddle the thing, then hop around on one foot to keep from toppling over. The next thing you know, they are wobbling into traffic, plodding along busy city streets as if they were on some dirt road in Beaver Cleaver’s Mayfield.

“They have a right to ride in the street,” Davis said in response to my criticism.

But surely they could show a little common courtesy and move to the side.

“Riding alongside parked cars is not a good idea,” she said. “Being ‘doored’ is one of the most dangerous accidents a biker can have.”

To avoid a car door swinging open, bikers are encouraged to ride in the middle of the lane, “so we are completely visible to motorists,” Davis said. Bikers have a name for that. It’s called “taking the lane.” I call it impeding traffic.

“There is no minimum speed limit on D.C. streets,” Davis countered. Moreover, by her calculations, the city’s 25 mph limit downtown combined with congestion during “rush” hour would probably mean that a biker doing 2 mph would be the fastest thing on the street.

Depressing but probably true.

During our ride, I did get to explore the District’s miniaturized biker transportation system, complete with little two-way streets and itty-bitty traffic signs. One sign, posted along the 15th Street bike lanes between L and M streets NW, showed a tiny red stop sign followed by the word “to,” then a biker icon and the silhouette of pedestrian.

What does that mean? Some bikers interpret it as telling motorists to stop for bikers and walkers. But it doesn’t say “for.” It says “to,” which could mean that it is a message to bikers and walkers, telling them to stop.

I suspect that the same people who came up with the city’s convoluted parking sign instructions have made yet another mess.

Davis was paying more attention to motorists than to bike signs. “Look at that car blocking the bike lanes,” she scoffed more than once. Bicyclists, on the other hand, managed to rack up a near spotless record in her view — save for a smudge attributable to me.

While our group was lined up single-file in a bike lane, waiting at a light, I slow-rolled my bicycle from the middle of the line to the front. “We call that ‘shoaling,’ ” Davis informed me. “It’s not illegal, but it’s rude. Like people who cut in front of the grocery line because they have only one or two items.”

I get it. When a biker cuts into a line of bikers, it’s denounced as “shoaling,” but when a biker worms his way to the front of a line of cars waiting at a light, then meanders along without letting anybody pass, it’s a right.

Score one for the bikers. In the ongoing jostle with motorists over the right of way, they sure know how to punch above their weight.

Our ride lasted about an hour, and I came away with a deep appreciation for Davis and her group’s dedication to biking safety. I also have a tad more sympathy for bikers in general.

I noticed that in some places their bike lanes are being overrun with Segway riders, rollerskaters, skateboarders and joggers. Even people using motorized wheelchairs have taken a liking to the lanes. Near the Treasury Department, the bike lanes contained manure from a U.S. Park Police horse.

Who knows? A biker just might decide that enough is enough and buy a car.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.

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