The great bicyclist-driver clash of Washington is so on.
Bottom line: Everyone is right. And wrong. Too many cyclists ride the streets and sidewalks like they’re above the law and own the place. Too many drivers haul around town in a ton of metal, oblivious that a careless right turn can kill someone.
As Rodney King once asked: Can we all get along?
Some of my colleagues wrote about the conflict this week and received various public responses. (Ashley Halsey III was declared a biking god; Courtland Milloy was the subject of a protest by cyclists Thursday outside The Washington Post.) But I have some ideas that can be win-win all the way around.
There is no doubt that the District’s bike presence is changing. Since 2007, the city has gained at least 9,000 bike commuters and now has more of them than San Francisco or Seattle, according to bike commuting advocates. Ha.
But some days, driving downtown feels like a real-life video game. There is hardly a day behind the wheel that I don’t have a heart-stopping moment with a cyclist.
There are bike riders who swerve through traffic, race through red lights, dart across lanes and between cars, whisk past startled pedestrians on sidewalks, slap cars, shoot the bird and yell at you. And, no, not all cyclists do this. But enough of them ride according to their own rules to anger drivers and walkers and to make moving around the city a little more unsafe for everyone.
Wait, outraged bikers. Don’t yell at me yet.
I’ve spent plenty of time on two wheels. And I can get just as angry about drivers as any other cyclist. I wrote about the righteous indignation one can muster on either side of the issue two years ago.
I began bike commuting around 2005, before many of these cool new bike lanes were created in the District. Whenever I don’t have a carpool to run or multiple bulky errands to do, I try to bike.
It makes perfect sense to save money, get exercise, decrease my carbon footprint, get a different perspective on the city and have a precious sliver of time when I am totally unavailable to anyone I work or live with.
But besides the bedtime battle, bike commuting can be the most terrifying part of the day. It’s not all European fantasy with a baguette and flowers in your basket as you breeze through town.
Drivers have cornered, bumped, doored and terrorized me. I have been cut off, bruised, scraped and scared to death. The truth is, in every driver-cyclist encounter, it’s really only the cyclist who may actually die.
Before that center-lane bicycle track was put in on Pennsylvania Avenue, I got off my bike one day several years ago and was waiting at a red light. A pedestrian turned to me and said: “Wow. You actually stopped. Thank you.” And I said: “Thanks for the compliment, but I’m not really law-abiding. I’m just scared.”
Often, you have to ignore traffic laws, written with motor vehicles in mind, in the interest of self-preservation. So, yeah, we all break the law sometimes.
Check out this rider who was on a busy street, nervous and trying to do what was safest for all when he was stopped by a cop:
“Instructed by the police officer to get off the sidewalk and into the street, I took a deep breath and began to look for an opening in the traffic. The closer I got to the curb, however, the faster the cars and trucks seemed to be going. Not one driver acted like he even saw me.”
That was written by Courtland Milloy. In 1998, back when many of today’s young commuters were on tricycles. Milloy was two-wheeling it after his license was suspended for four-wheeling a little too fast, and he wrote a column about trying to bike in the city.
And his story of feeling beleaguered and endangered on a bike still rings true more than 15 years later.
But wait a minute. What’s this about a police officer stopping him? Yeah. That’s weird. Doesn’t happen much these days, does it?
The only way to make this bike-automobile partnership work is for everyone to obey the law and to understand the danger and power of both types of vehicle. As smart city planners find more ways to engineer bike safety into city streets, D.C. police need to start a serious crackdown, tracking down and ticketing bike riders and drivers who break traffic laws.
If their own safety, the spirit of community and civility aren’t enough to make more cyclists care about the law, then maybe stiff fines will.
And now that city collections from parking tickets are dropping, thanks to mobile apps, we could use a new way to generate revenue. Turn half the city’s parking officers into bike patrol officers.
Wouldn’t it be a good thing if everyone licensed to drive in the District had to cross the city on a bike at least once? Those who can’t ride a bike could do it in a pedicab. That would get them close enough to feel the whoosh of a truck prickle the arm hairs, close enough to taste both car exhaust and the fear of being crushed at any minute.
And what would the city do with the extra revenue from ticketing bikers?
Spend it in the wards that have few if any bike lanes. That’s where most of the city’s children live — with no bike lanes and cracked sidewalks and potholed roads to ride on — and where bicycling may be an economic necessity for some adults.
That’s what I heard Courtland Milloy trying to tell us. I don’t think he wants drivers to run over bikers. And if he did that, he just might lose his license again and end up back on a bike.
For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.