When the District closed off three miles of busy Georgia Avenue for four hours earlier this month, none could have been more joyful than the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, which has been pushing hard for the city to “repurpose roads to enhance connectivity for pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit riders, and improving non-motorized access to schools and parks.”
“Woah! The District of Columbia’s first-ever Open Streets was on October 5th and we had so much fun!” Pedro Dana, the WABA programs director, wrote on the group’s website. “How about you? How did you enjoy our car-free streets? Did you do some dancing? Did you ride your bike with child-like joy?”
And that’s just for starters. To achieve its goal of permanent car-free zones across the city, the bicycle lobby is pushing for an array of even stiffer penalties against anyone who impedes the bikers’ roll. Mainly motorists, but also developers who don’t include bike lanes as part of their construction projects.
Consider some of the bicycle-related proposals on the agenda for a hearing before the D.C. Council next week:
No public space permits for certain projects “unless the plans include new sidewalks, bicycle lanes or cycle tracks.” Levy a $10,000 daily fine on contractors who do not restore crosswalks and bicycle lanes within 24 hours of completing work.
The cyclists’ push is in tandem with D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s attempt to ramp up a flailing traffic safety plan called Vision Zero. Launched in 2015, the plan aims for “zero traffic fatalities” by 2024. However, the District had 36 traffic deaths in 2018, up from 31 in 2017, according to city and federal crash data. Half the victims were pedestrians or were riding two-wheelers — bicycles, mopeds, scooters or motorcycles.
It may be one reason that the bicyclists’ proposals are likely to gain traction in ways that, say, having developers build low-income housing along with their high-end condos did not.
On the bicyclists’ agenda: requiring applicants for new or renewed driver’s licenses to take a written test covering bicyclist rights. Let’s try one question: Is it right for bicyclists to cut to the head of a line of cars at a stoplight, then poke along, impeding traffic?
The wrong answer could cost you a driver’s license.
(According to biker law, the correct answer is yes.)
“This is our moment,” Jeremiah Lowery, advocacy director for WABA, wrote on the website last month. “Over the last year, together, we’ve made a lot of noise about the urgent need for safer streets. Right now, we have an opportunity to use that energy to push the DC Council to pass truly transformative legislation.”
It’s hard to argue against policies that could result in fewer traffic deaths. But according to WABA, part of the problem has to do with citations.
“Current penalties in the District for the most dangerous and egregious driving behaviors are generally far too low to serve as a deterrent, and in some cases are entirely nonexistent,” according to the group.
They want harsher penalties, steeper fines.
The problem with that, as any motorist can tell you, is that the District already issues tickets like crazy. The city’s red-light and speed cameras and parking tickets generated about $324 million in fines last year, according to city data.
That’s nearly $1 billion every three years. And traffic fatalities are on the rise? Something is amiss.
“Motorists deserve reasonable assurances that District entities and contractors involved in issuing parking and moving violation tickets emphasize diligence and accuracy over volume and revenue,” the OIG report said.
“One of the most insightful and provocative comments made to the OIG team came from a senior District official: ‘One of the beauties of parking, it’s like the [Internal Revenue Service]. If you get a parking ticket, you are guilty until you have proven yourself innocent. . . . That has worked well for us.’ ”
In response to the report, D.C. police and transportation officials wrote a letter dismissing the concerns.
“Complaints about the District’s [Automated Traffic Enforcement] program generally come from those relatively few people who feel entitled to speed on District streets or run red lights without being held accountable for their endangerment of pedestrians, bicyclists and other motorists.”
Not true. The concerns are real.
WJLA teamed with AAA Mid-Atlantic on a report that showed that tens of thousands of drivers were overcharged for red-light camera violations between 2013 and 2017 — and they still have not received refunds.
“If you care about safety on the roads, you’d be looking at ways to expand telecommuting and the improvement of mass transit,” said John Townsend, a AAA spokesman. “You can’t just focus on motorists and think you’re going to ticket your way out of a regional transportation problem.”
But the bike lobby rolls on. Among the proposals that have been offered: increasing the fine for speeding in excess of 25 mph from $300 to $1,000.
Some WABA members also would like to see the District charge motorists a toll just for entering the city. For a gentrifying city that has forced out thousands of low-income residents, the toll sounds like a way to keep those people from coming back, even for a visit.
That’s not “Vision Zero,” bicycle lobbyists. That’s just blind.