The District plans to crack down on drivers who park in or block bike lanes and put cyclists at risk by creating a team of bike-lane enforcement officers with the power to issue tickets on the scene and by mail.
Starting this fall, that new team, along with all traffic enforcement officers, will no longer be restricted to placing violation notices on vehicle windshields. They will have time to gather evidence, including photographs of a vehicle violating parking rules, and send tickets to drivers’ homes.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser included $2.8 million in her 2020 budget to hire 40 traffic officers within the District Department of Public Works; half would be devoted to enforcing bike lane laws.
The enforcement, officials hope, will help change a hazardous practice by many drivers to park or idle on the bike lanes to deliver goods or drop off and pick up passengers.
The crackdown is part of an enhanced effort to deter bad behaviors that contribute to road injuries. It ultimately aims to put a break on the rising number of fatal traffic collisions. Last year the District logged 36 traffic deaths, up from 31 in 2017, and the highest in a decade, according to records. There have been six traffic-related deaths this year.
The city is also overhauling its red-light and speed camera program, which is two decades old.
In January, the city implemented tougher penalties for more than two dozen traffic infractions, including speeding, and set new restrictions on left turns and right turns on red at dozens of intersections. An additional set of new rules announced in February clarified that stopping, standing and parking in bike lines, as well as loading and unloading passengers and other obstructions of bike lanes, are prohibited. The fine for drivers who park in bike lanes was recently raised to $150 from $65.
“There are some problem areas . . . things that have been posing a real safety issue, and this budget reflects the mayor’s intentions to work toward solutions,” said Jeff Marootian, director of the District Department of Transportation. “A combination of regulatory changes plus enhanced enforcement get us in that direction.”
Cycling advocates say they welcome the hiring of new traffic-control officers, as well as the hiring of 20 tow drivers that would respond to cars blocking crosswalks and bike lanes. But they say the mayor’s investment stops short of addressing the growing problems facing commuters on two wheels and on foot.
“It is a good start,” said Robert Gardner, advocacy director at the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. “It is a little late, however. These are things that should have happened years ago . . . It’s good but still a long way to go.”
Lauren Wolfe, a bike commuter who travels from Anacostia to downtown, said she fears the additional enforcement will not be enough to change a culture of disrespect toward cyclists.
“It is shocking. Cars swerve in all the time,” said Wolfe, who tweets daily about cars blocking bike lanes, including instances involving the city’s own vehicles. “It makes it really unsafe.”
Wolfe said the city should take the enforcement further by adding cameras to police the bike lanes.
Other critics say the city’s enforcement efforts ignores mounting tensions on other areas of the road. Pedestrians are growing frustrated with bike and scooter riders clogging downtown sidewalks, where it’s illegal for them to ride. And drivers complain that the city fails to scold cyclists and scooter riders disregarding the rules of the road.
“I stop people and say, ‘Did you know it is illegal to do this on the sidewalk?’ And none of them knew about it,” said Eileen Carey, a D.C. resident who has been calling for more scooter enforcement.
“Every traffic violator should be ticketed,” said John Townsend, with AAA Mid-Atlantic.
City officials say the enhanced enforcement will address issues affecting pedestrians, cyclists and drivers as a growing number of travelers opt for alternative ways to navigate the city’s streets.
“My hope is that the addition of these new dedicated parking enforcement officers will allow us to keep vehicles out of bike lanes, thus preventing cyclists from having to swerve into traffic and getting injured or worse,” said Chris Geldart, acting director of the Department of Public Works, which oversees the parking enforcement and recently dispatched more officers on bikes.
The Department of Public Works issues tickets for parking violations, including illegal parking in bike lanes. D.C. police officers also are tasked with enforcing traffic laws, including bike-lane violations. And the city’s automated traffic enforcement program — which deploys speed, red-light and stop-sign cameras — has been an arm of the D.C. police department since its launch in 1999.
Now, the city plans to transfer that program to the District Department of Transportation, a change officials say will expedite the deployment of more speed and red-light cameras. Bowser’s budget includes $250,000 for the purchase of more cameras next year.
Marootian, the transportation director, said the agency is already working to identify new locations where cameras could be deployed.
The change, however, is likely to increase criticism from those who say the program is about generating revenue, not traffic safety. Additionally, there are those who say citations for moving violations should be issued by police.
“Traffic enforcement is a function of law enforcement agencies, not transportation departments across the United States,” said Townsend, of AAA Mid-Atlantic. “This will engender the impression that this is about revenue generation, not traffic safety.”
But transportation officials have made the case that a DDOT takeover of the system, which yields hundreds of thousands of citations, will eliminate several steps of management, reduce the time it takes to process tickets and expedite the deployment of additional traffic-enforcement cameras. It will put the decision of camera placement in the hands of traffic engineers who are well-versed on where the trouble spots are, they say.
“We have seen success with automated traffic enforcement as a city over the past 15 years,” Marootian said. “We are looking strategically at how to make it stronger.”