Squaring off on sidewalks

July 10, 2013

As bicycle use grows and the city’s population skews younger, new bike lanes have become a subject of intense turf battles. But those cycle tracks aren’t the only contested territory. Some D.C. residents are asking for new restrictions on bicycle riding on sidewalks.

“I am in favor of banning sidewalk bicycling entirely, except for children 12 and under,” says Jeanne Mallett, a Dupont Circle resident who blogs about the issue at dcpedestriandiaries.wordpress.com. “Because that’s what a sidewalk is for. For people to walk.”

Mallett’s position recently got a boost from Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2F, which represents the Logan Circle area. On June 5, the ANC passed a resolution that called for a study of expanding the area in which riding bicycles on the sidewalk is prohibited.

Currently, bicycle riding is banned on sidewalks in the city’s central business district (CBD). That area’s principal boundaries are Massachusetts Avenue on the north, Second Street NE on the east and 23rd Street NW on the west. The eastern area of the Mall is within the CBD, but the section west of 14th Street NW is not.

The ANC resolution does not propose new boundaries for an expanded no-bikes-on-sidewalks zone. But it does reiterate an already stated request that the city paint symbols on the ground at the northern border of the CBD to indicate the prohibition on sidewalk biking.

The commission also asked for a lower speed limit for bicycles on sidewalks, for increased enforcement of existing traffic laws and for study of increasing penalties for traffic violations.

“It’s a baby step, but it’s one more step than anyone else has done,” Mallett said.

The ANC didn’t ask for an immediate expansion of the no-bikes zone, said commissioner Chris Linn, because “we wanted a city agency to take the lead in identifying what other cities are doing to manage that issue, and also get more input from the community.”

Current traffic laws are not well enforced, in part because they’re ambiguous, noted Linn, chairman of the ANC’s Crime and Public Safety Committee. “What we hear from the police is that there’s not a lot of urgency and interest in enforcing even the existing law. One of the reasons for that is that it’s pretty widely defined, in terms of what’s safe and what’s reckless, and what can and can’t be done.”

Before any changes, Linn wants bicyclists to have their say. “There are members of the bicycling community who feel that having a regulation that is strongly prohibitive inhibits people from adopting bicycling as a means of transportation,” he said.

“We understand that there are concerns with sidewalk bicycling, but we think that sidewalk riding is normally a problem where there is not a space in the roadway that bicyclists perceive as safe,” said Shane Farthing, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association.

“I do think that where bike infrastructure exists, bicyclists are better off not riding on the sidewalks,” he added.

A longtime Washingtonian, Mallett is originally from Ohio. There, she said, “we all obey all the rules that make any sense at all.” She supports increased enforcement of existing laws, “but the biggest problem right now, beside pedestrians not following basic safety tips themselves, is the bicyclists on the sidewalk. Because that’s legal!”

Major cities with blanket bans on adult bicyclists on sidewalks are hailed on Mallett’s blog. Farthing counters that these are “not the cities that are doing a good job of encouraging walking and biking. I would say that many more cities don’t have those sorts of bans. If you want biking to grow, you have to create space for it to happen.”

Locally, laws governing bicyclists on sidewalks are various and often changed. In June, Alexandria lifted its ban on sidewalk biking, save for parts of pedestrian-heavy Old Town.

“It’s very complicated in this area, because we have counties with towns inside that do different things,” Farthing said. “There are probably 30 different decision-making processes in the region.”

To Mallett, though, the basic issue is elementary. “You ride on the city streets. You stop at the lights. Make signals. I’ve known this stuff since I was 9 years old.”

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