D.C. struggles to keep pace as bike-riding population grows

Stephen Weigand - A cyclist waits at the intersection of 15th Street NW and Massachusetts Avenue NW.

Faced with a frustrating Metro ride or the cost of a taxi during a late-afternoon rush hour, Cameron Tabucchi instead opted for a two-wheeled commute across town.

The 27-year-old pulled a bright red bike from the rack at Park Road and Holmead Place NW on her way to Adams Morgan. Tabucchi said she feels safe using Capital Bikeshare for her usual trek to yoga class — most of the time. The native Californian has been “doored” — struck by an opening car door while bicycling — twice since moving to Petworth just over a year ago.

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“Drivers aren’t as conscious here as they are in other cities,” she said before pedaling away.

By some indicators, it has never been a better time to travel by bike. Gas prices are soaring, spring has arrived, and the District is already one of the most active cities in the country, second in biking and walking only to Boston, according to the Alliance for Biking and Walking. But there’s a downside to the region’s cycling growth: Authorities and advocates are struggling to keep up with a crowd of riders whose skills range from expert to novice in an already congested city.

According to rush-hour counts at 20 intersections throughout the city each year by the District Department of Transportation, bike traffic during peak times surged an average of 20.7 percent from 2010 to 2011, with a total of 7,113 bikes moving through those intersections. Nearly 25 percent of those riders weren’t wearing helmets, according to the data.

A chunk of the District’s growing user group comes from Capital Bikeshare, a regional rental system started by the District and Arlington County in September 2010. By this past January, it had mushroomed into a 1,200-bike, 140-station system. Compared with overall ridership, the number of reported collisions is lows, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the problem is much bigger. Police have logged 829 bicycle collisions in the District in that time frame.

Since Bikeshare’s inception, 20 collisions have been reported by people using the system, a small number when one considers that 93,082 Bikeshare trips were taken in the District in January. But when crashes happen, injury rates are high — two-thirds of bike accidents injured one or more people involved, according to police data.

Data collected by the Washington Area Bicyclist Association indicate that some crashes go unreported to authorities: A form the association distributed to cyclists pointed to at least 80 incidents over the past year, according to bike ambassador coordinator Daniel Hoagland. The group is also collecting data on cases of intimidation and harassment from motorists and encouraging cyclists to serve as better accident witnesses.

“It’s very hard for someone who has been in a crash to resist the urge to leave,” Hoagland said. “If you get doored and can walk away, there’s no way anyone’s going to report that. It’s just really important to take the time to do it right.”

Miscommunication and human error can result in serious accidents and fuel tension between motorists and bicyclists. When a cyclist riding a Bikeshare bike Feb. 28 was struck by a tractor-trailer during morning rush hour, he was issued three citations. But one of the alleged violations — biking without a helmet — is not a law on the D.C. books for people older than 16. The ticket was issued in error and withdrawn, according to police spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump.

“For the police department the relatively quick expansion of bicycling in the city has led to a need for better training in the bicycle regulations,” Crump said in an e-mail. Crump said officers are able to refer to bike association material as the department plans expands training.

“The most important thing we can do is to educate both the motoring public and the biking community about the laws,” Crump said.

In September, bicycle advocates met with the District’s Police Complaint Board to voice concern over police knowledge of the city’s bicycle laws. Hoagland thinks that there’s still progress to be made.

“We hear from one side that every officer is getting their new bike training,” Hoagland said, “and then we see an adult cyclist given a citation for not wearing a helmet or a single cyclist given a ticket for riding abreast.”

Riding abreast, a citation-worthy act for cyclists riding in groups of two or more and impeding traffic flow, is frequently issued to single cyclists who ride alongside or weave between cars. Police are “looking at the charge of ‘riding abreast’ and its application in a couple of bicycle-involved accidents,” Crump said.

Hoagland acknowledges that a significant challenge of bike advocacy is trying to encourage all cyclists to familiarize themselves with a common set of rules. The association’s 61 volunteer bike ambassadors are approaching their “busy season,” Hoagland said, and are hoping to hold enough classes to draw 15,000 people for the group’s “Bike to Work Day” in May.

To help make sure riders of all wheel counts are on the same page, local police will begin a spring Street Smart campaign this week across the region. The program is geared toward enforcing safe bicycling and safe driving.

But advocates say that even more can be done to make biking a safer mode of travel; in short, they want more funding for bike paths, lanes, walkways and pedestrian bridges in cities across the country. Bicyclists attending the National Bike Summit in the District this week will lobby for what they see as a lack of funding.

“Our goal is equity across modes of transportation,” Hoagland said. “Equal share of the roadway for every type of user.”

 
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