As tensions rise among D.C. road users, many say police enforcement lags


A bicyclist rides along L Street Northwest in Washington. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

As an increasing number of Washington-area residents forgo their vehicles and choose to bike or walk to work, tensions between drivers, cyclists and pedestrians have escalated, with reports of terrifying encounters: drivers intimidating cyclists, cyclists antagonizing drivers, pedestrians at the mercy of both bikers and drivers.

The one thing that all three agree on: D.C. police are not doing enough to enforce the rules for any of the groups.

“There hasn’t been much priority to enforce those laws,” said Joe Reiner, a member of the nonprofit organization All Walks DC, which promotes pedestrian safety. “Cars and bikes are speeding through pedestrian crosswalks ignoring that pedestrians have a right of way. This is an issue that we really need to have the police do better with.”

While D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier has expanded the city’s lucrative traffic-camera program to catch speeders and red-light runners, critics say that has led to the department becoming too dependent on automated enforcement and moving away from officers on the streets monitoring behavior such as distracted driving, bicyclists running red lights and pedestrians obstructing traffic.

“The things that actually kill people is what we should be targeting with enforcement, and that can’t be done with cameras,” said Greg Billing, advocacy coordinator for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA). “When you have an officer whose job is community policing and responding to dispatch, they don’t get around to traffic enforcement, because it’s not a priority.”

D.C. police deny that there are too few officers out monitoring the roads. They say officers are out ticketing drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians violating traffic laws. Police, however, declined to provide statistics about citations issued to motorists and pedestrians, saying a reporter would need to submit a Freedom of Information Act request.

Earlier this month, police did provide some information on citations issued to bicyclists, and data shows a decline in tickets issued so far this year compared with previous years. The precipitous drop comes even as there are more cyclists on the roads, something that even bike advocates say is an indication of a lack of enforcement.

Police this year have issued 63 tickets to bicyclists and users of other personal modes of transportation, such as Segways. Last year, the department issued 203 citations, less than half the number issued in 2012, when 446 citations were issued.

“We have a higher support of bicycle enforcement than there’s been in a long time,” said Sgt. Terry Thorne of the D.C. police. “We have campaigns that work on education and enforcement of any traffic issue.”

Police conduct stings targeting violations related to pedestrian crosswalks and motorists parking in bike lanes, Thorne said. When cyclists complained about illegal U-turns across the Pennsylvania Avenue bike lane, police spent time at an intersection issuing warnings and citations, he said.

Data on the number of citations issued is not a good measure of enforcement, which often includes verbal warnings, Thorne said. The department recently announced plans to start regular pedestrian safety stings at busy and dangerous intersections. Police will hand out safety tips, warnings and citations to violators, including drivers, bikers and pedestrians.

But it is not just about the number of tickets issued, transportation advocates say — it is about changing the culture on the roads. What they want is enforcement that is equitable among all users to make sure everyone is safe and follows the rules.

“There has to be more officers getting out of the cars,” said AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman John Townsend, adding that D.C. police have to “not just rely on automated enforcement to enforce traffic laws and traffic safety in the city. . . . All of us are violators from time to time, and there should be equity in handing out tickets. That is not only fair for all of us, it will make our roadways safer.”

Looking west

Some advocates say a specialized police division to oversee traffic enforcement would help. D.C. police officials say, however, that a centralized unit dedicated solely to enforcement would not be enough to address traffic safety citywide.

Other cities such as Portland, Ore., have such units. That enforcement strategy, along with other city initiatives, are viewed as instrumental in making Portland one of the most bike-friendly cities in the United States. In general, officials there say, pedestrians, cyclists and drivers have learned to coexist peacefully; pedestrian and cyclist fatalities are down, and behavior has changed. Studies suggest that 94 percent of Portland cyclists now stop at red lights, for example.

“It is reasonable to expect that you are going to have some continued stress,” said Rob Sadowsky, executive director of the Portland-based Bicycle Transportation Alliance. “But the more people biking, the safer it gets, the more cars will get used to seeing them.”

Portland began installing bike lanes about two decades ago, and since then the city has adopted a series of policies that have made the transition easier, officials said. The city has installed separate traffic signals for bikes and invested in signage that is more visible to drivers, cyclists and pedestrians.

There also are special green “bike boxes” where bicyclists wait during red lights. Bicyclists stop inside the green box, while drivers stop at the white line behind the box. (The District has begun adding them, as well.)

“There is always a learning curve when you introduce something new. People do learn by seeing all the people bicycling. They figure it out over time,” said Roger Geller, bicycle coordinator with the Portland Bureau of Transportation. “The challenge really is to create conditions so that motorists become aware of people bicycling.”

Officials with the District Department of Transportation, which oversees the city’s road infrastructure, say they work closely with police and groups such as WABA as they plan bike lanes and changes in road patterns. DDOT’s long-range transportation plan envisions 200 miles of on-street bicycle facilities, greater transit use and more pedestrian access, but it also emphasizes that its success depends on having a clear education campaign and enforcement strategies.

Bicycle boom

Because the District is still a young bike city, confusion and frustration are to be expected, transportation officials say. It has been only in the past five years that biking has taken off as a popular mode of transportation. The first protected bike lane opened on 15th Street NW in 2009, and there are now about 60 miles of bike lanes. Capital Bikeshare, which launched in 2010, puts more than 2,500 bikes on District and suburban streets.

The growth corresponds with an increase in the number of crashes involving cyclists and pedestrians, AAA’s Townsend said. The city recorded nearly 600 crashes involving bicyclists and 988 involving pedestrians last year, according to data from the region’s Street Smart campaign, which promotes road safety and awareness. Those numbers were up slightly from 2012 but have increased steadily over the past five years; in 2009, there were 312 crashes involving cyclists and 657 involving pedestrians.

Last year, the city recorded 12 pedestrian and two cyclist fatalities, up from eight pedestrian fatalities in 2012. No cyclists were killed in 2012, according to Street Smart.

Residents say more needs to be done to discourage bad behavior, such as pedestrians who are so distracted by their cellphones that they do not pay attention to what is going on around them and drivers who fail to keep a safe distance — at least three feet — when overtaking or passing cyclists.

“People are genuinely ignorant of the rules,” said Elizabeth Lyttleton, 37, a stay-at-home mother in Northeast Washington who rides her bike daily with her 22-month-old daughter in tow. She said she regularly has to remind drivers of the three-foot rule. “They often tell me, ‘How am I supposed to know that?’ I say, ‘I don’t know how you are supposed to know that, but you should.’ We need a lot more education and enforcement across the board. A civility campaign would be nice.”

Tyler Lopez, a Dupont Circle resident who walks to work at Georgetown University, said the sudden spike of bike traffic has created new challenges for pedestrians.

“I have seen plenty of cyclists that do follow the rules, but I think there is a significant minority of cyclists who feel that they are entitled to do whatever they want on the road or the sidewalk,” he said.

Motorists and cyclists say that nothing prepared them for the new hazards on the roads they now share.

“This is really about a culture shift for all users of the road,” said Sam Zimbabwe, a director of policy and planning at DDOT.

“We are a city where people are in a hurry and people are trying to get from place to place as quickly as they can, and that sort of is at odds with being respectful and following the rules,” Zimbabwe said. “Enforcement needs to be targeting those who are causing a problem. If 99 percent of the people are obeying the laws, we don’t want to vilify those people or make them feel persecuted. We want to address the 1 percent.”

Luz Lazo writes about transportation and development. She has recently written about the challenges of bus commuting, Metro’s dark stations, and the impact of sequestration on air travel.
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