Cyclists explain why they sometimes ride on the sidewalk in downtown D.C.


A bicyclist rides on a sidewalk near 17th and L streets NW in downtown Washington. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
John Kelly
Columnist July 14

I will be happy when the bicycle becomes as utilitarian — and as boring — as the toothbrush, when everybody has one, knows how to use it and doesn’t freight it and its users with all manner of symbolism, either demonizing it or sacralizing it.

Folks, it’s just a toothbrush.

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

Obviously we’re not there yet.

Last week, I pointed out something that struck me as fairly innocuous: District law prohibits bicyclists from riding on the sidewalk in the city’s business core. You’d have thought I’d called for the public execution of puppies.

Of course, my modest request to keep the downtown sidewalks bike-free was quickly overshadowed by what you might call “other events.” Even so, I was sincere in my curiosity as to why sidewalk-riding cyclists do it and what pedestrians think about it.

Some cyclists said they didn’t know it was against the law. Many more said they knew, but, well . . .

“The reason that cyclists use the sidewalks is that they don’t want to die,” wrote the District’s John Glad. “If and when they are provided with dedicated bike lanes that are not accessible to drivers, they will be only too happy to use them.”

Another reader who bicycles wrote: “Generally speaking, a car will hurt me a lot more than I will hurt a pedestrian. This includes the risk of getting ‘doored’ if I bike too close to parked cars.”

This is what you might call the “lesser of two evils” argument. As you can imagine, it does not sit well with pedestrians, who don’t like being thought of as potential collateral damage in the conflict between bikes and cars.

Cyclists should know that I detect real concern among pedestrians, who want to feel as safe and secure on sidewalks as cyclists want to feel on roads and in bike lanes. The arguments that bike-car collisions are more dangerous than bike-pedestrian collisions or that bike-pedestrian collisions don’t happen very often aren’t much consolation if you’re a pedestrian who feels threatened — or is hit by — a bicycle wheeling up on you in a place it shouldn’t be.

“Just as cyclists expect vehicles to cut them some slack, so cyclists should realize they must cut slack to pedestrians,” wrote Sarah Snyder, who describes herself as a cyclist and an avid walker.

(Two readers wrote that they were thinking of moving out of downtown Washington because they don’t feel safe walking on the sidewalks. One has a blind, elderly dog whose walks, she said, have become too risky.)

Many cyclists wrote that they try to be polite around pedestrians, only riding on sidewalks when they need to get to a business on that block or when they need to traverse a one-way street or get around construction.

To which I say: Would it kill you to walk your bike on the sidewalk, just for a little way?

I realize that most cyclists are generally law-abiding, just like, it must be conceded, most drivers. Also, moving through a city — whether in a car, on a bike, on your feet, on a hoverboard, on a pogo stick or on stilts — means being aware of your surroundings and the people around you.

I’ll leave you with two quotes. The first one is about how cycling could solve a lot of our society’s problems:

“There’s too much traffic. There’s too much pollution. There’s too much fat. It seems to me that every new road that’s built around here — and plenty of old ones — should include dedicated bike lanes.”

That’s me, writing in this space in 2008.

The second one is about cycling on sidewalks:

“Sidewalks are not suitable places to ride bicycles; sidewalks are designed for the slower speeds of pedestrians, not the faster speeds of bicyclists.”

That’s in a booklet published in 2011 by the Washington Area Bicyclists Association.

Park life

By the way, a reader pointed out that there’s an important exception to the city’s downtown sidewalk-riding prohibitions.

So, cycling isn’t allowed on sidewalks in the central business district: defined as the area bounded by Second Street NE and SE, D Street SE and SW, 14th Street SW and NW, Constitution Avenue NW, 23rd Street NW and Massachusetts Avenue NW.

But, according to the District, within the CBD, bicycling on sidewalks is allowed “on lands under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service including places like Lafayette Park, Farragut Square Park, the National Mall and Dupont Circle.”

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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