A news report about bicyclists running red lights has raised tensions between bikers and motorists. Here, a Capital Bikeshare user rides in a bike lane in Washington. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

A TV news report saying bicyclists blow through stop lights with impunity has once again jacked up tensions between motorists and bicyclists in the nation’s capital.

NBC4, citing city police data, reported this week that bicyclists triggered 1,557 red light cameras since January 2015. The report says none of those bikers is likely to pay any fines for the infractions, either. Bikes aren’t registered and lack license plates to track them down.

All the same, a D.C. police spokesman appeared on camera to huff and puff about how running red lights on a bicycle is a safety issue. He said officers issue citations when they see this happening. (Show of hands — how often have you seen this happen?)

The news report might lead to more enforcement, but it for sure aggravated the big chafing blister that exists between bicyclists and motorists. In comment threads and social media, motorists griped about bicyclists hogging the roads as if they were the Hells Angels, or the “Idaho stop” were just for potato heads. Bicyclists reminded drivers that the real threat to public safety is two tons of steel on wheels.



 

Always in the background is the feeling that the biker v. driver is a proxy war for intergenerational, economic and even racial tensions over an evolving and gentrifying city.

The conflict can be so intense that John B. Townsend, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, was wary of chiming in.

“All you’re doing is warming up the electric chair for me,” Townsend said. And yet into the fray he went.

Townsend said he had little patience for the defense raised by some bicyclists that their traffic infractions aren’t hurting anybody but themselves, or that the more than 1,500 red light violations pale in comparison to the number of summonses issued to vehicles. D.C. police issued more than 84,000 automated red light tickets in 2013, according to an audit.

“Anybody who runs a red light with traffic going through it is not only putting his life in jeopardy, he’s putting others at risk too,” Townsend said. He takes especially strong exception to arguments from bicyclists that it’s so tricky to stop – on uphills, for example  – that it’s okay to sort of just pause before pedaling into an intersection.

“It’s a lie that it’s hard to stop at a stop sign,” he said.

What bugs Townsend and a lot of other people about bicyclists most of all is their militancy, a sense of aggressive entitlement in flouting traffic laws. There’s a perception that for these Sons of Anarchy on Konas, sharing the road is passé, a holdover from the days when bicyclists were rare. Now these Lycra-clad hordes want to own the road. And the sidewalks, too.

“It was always stick it to the motorist, because the motorist was seen as the antagonist,” Townsend said. “It’s a battle that most motorists are not even engaging in. Most motorists have agreed to share the road. Yet you have a warring faction that doesn’t want to obey the rules and excuses away everything.”

Despite all the bike lanes and new bike-friendly infrastructure that have transformed D.C. and other cities, bicyclists seem to act – actually, sometimes proclaim aloud – that they should be allowed to do as they please. They also say that if anybody’s going to get hurt, it’s them.

In short, some bicyclists sound like children.

Greg Billing isn’t one of them. Billing, who is executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, expressed frustration Thursday over the periodic news reports that focus on bicyclist misdeeds. After all, bicyclists are not just promoting a healthier, cleaner, happier alternative for travel, they’re sometimes risking their lives doing it even when they’re following all the rules.

“The question is, who’s causing the most harm in the community?” Billing said. “When a driver runs a red light, they could actually kill somebody. When a biker runs a red light, they’re not going to kill somebody. They’re going to hurt themselves.”


A cyclist enters a bike lane routed between parked cars and the sidewalk in Boston on Aug. 16. Cities around the world are increasingly changing bike lanes to make them safer in light of fatal crashes involving cyclists and cars. (Steven Senne/AP)

Sure, a lot of bicyclists violate traffic rules, Billing said. But so does everybody on the road. Two wrongs also don’t make a right, but it’s worth examining safety issues with some perspective, he said. Bicyclists already feel unfairly singled out for grievances by the driving public, despite the relative risk both pose. Bicycle fatalities account for 2 percent of all traffic fatalities and crash-related injuries, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says.

“They may injure people. They certainly annoy people, and they frustrate people. But they’re not killing people,” Billing said. “The attention to the issue distracts us from the goal of what’s going to get us to zero deaths.”

Billing sees the debate from all sides: He drives, he bicycles, and he rides a motorcycle. Just the other day, he was stopped on his bicycle at a red light when a car blew through the signal – after crossing a double-yellow line to get around him. Don’t even mention how many motorists he sees fooling with smartphones.

Only a minority of bicyclists believe they have a God-given right to ignore traffic laws, Billing said. He said his organization promotes the idea that people should not just share the road but share responsibility for safety, and it’s tossed riders who are cavalier about the rules.

“This should be very clear from our website. That’s not how we teach riding,” Billing said. “You stop at the red light. You stop at the stop sign. You follow the traffic rules. That has been our driving mission.”

Billing said he himself might have been a cop in another life, he’s such a stickler for traffic rules.

“I have sat at red lights when it’s five degrees and snowing and I’m freezing. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve accidentally gone through a red light, and I’m riding every single day,” Billing said.

And yet everyone is up in arms over vehicles that usually go only a little faster than the legs that power them. If anything, Billing said, drivers and motorists should be looking for common ground, perhaps by demanding better engineering on roadways to keep everyone safe.

I’ll bet even AAA’s Townsend would agree with that.

Can’t we all just get – and go – along?

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