I drive from Capitol Hill to Dupont Circle and back again every day. The traffic is grueling, made worse by all the people trying to stop to let someone out, to pick someone up or to deliver something right in the middle of the street. The increase in bicycles and scooters complicates matters. Bike lanes make things safer and smoother. But not all bicyclists obey traffic laws, even the big ones — don’t run a red light, stop while oncoming cars have a left-turn signal. As a driver, it’s terrifying. As a pedestrian who lives and works in the city, it’s terrifying.
And if you ever call out the rule-breakers, you get an earful of pretty foul language as they fly away with their middle fingers held up.
But here’s what happened when a rule-abiding cyclist called me out when I broke a traffic rule (a lesser one, in my opinion):
Late to pick up my son, I noticed a fellow parent about to vacate a spot, so I pulled over to wait for him to leave. I pulled over — into a bike lane — so I wouldn’t block traffic on Q Street NW. The other parent took a really long time to pull out, longer than I expected him to take. But the longer I waited, the more I needed to see it through. The cars and bikers coming up behind me, seeing my signal, pulled around me.
One cyclist waited behind me. When it was finally time for me to pull into the spot, she came around to my window and told me that there’s a law prohibiting obstruction of the bike lane. I (pretty sternly) told her I was waiting for a spot and it had obviously taken longer than I had anticipated. She suggested I should have circled the block rather than create what was, in her view, a safety hazard. I told her that’s not the way the world works. But what I meant was, that’s not the way cities work. She was persistent but respectful and calm.
I, on the other hand, handled it very badly. On the defensive the entire time, I failed to apologize, which is the first thing I should have done, before explaining myself and overlawyering her. (Do you concede that I can parallel park here? Even though it blocks the bike lane? Is that obstruction?) We talked for about five minutes (while I stayed blocking the bike lane). And each minute we talked, I was later and later for pickup and more and more agitated.
I get it: We’re all on the defensive all the time as we learn to share the road with one another. But one of the reasons emotions run high is that the stakes are high — breaking the rules causes accidents. I applaud the education efforts of cyclists, particularly this woman’s calm in the face of my really, really obvious frustration. We wouldn’t have bike lanes at all were it not for people like them. And bike lanes make everything safer.
But not every violation is a hazard. We live in a city where things can’t always be orderly. Better to focus on the violators who are making the roads more dangerous. (I’d start with the cyclists, but that’s just me.) And once we’ve gotten actual dangers under control, we can turn to everyone else.
Still, if we’re going to cite everyone who double-parks for a couple of minutes (with her signal on, to warn everyone behind her), no one will ever get a delivery again. Or be able to drop off a child at a downtown school. That’s the city.