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Bike, Scooter Riders Demand Safety, Right of Way in DC’s Shifting Urban Transit Scene

Accompanying images can be viewed starting on page 1 of the October 2018 issue pdf

By William G. Schulz

Thirty-one-year-old Ryan Ha bounded down the steps of his 17th Street, NW row house on a recent Sunday morning, a Bird electric-motor scooter held aloft over his right shoulder.

Asked if he was keeping the scooter indoors for some reason, the web developer and obvious hipster replied that no, he had plugged in and charged the scooter overnight, a service for which Bird pays him $6.00.

Ha is an enthusiast for the new, dockless scooters that seem to have popped up everywhere on DC sidewalks this year. Bird, Lime-S, Skip, and Waybots are the first companies to have introduced these — little more than skateboards with a tiny electric motor and handlebar — in DC last winter. Each company, for now, has agreed to a limit of 400 individual scooters, which riders rent by the minute via Smartphone apps.

Ha said he likes the extra money Bird pays him to charge the two-wheeler, and, like other Millennials, he is a believer in scooters as part of the gig economy as well an answer to problems like global warming and urban traffic congestion.

Asked if he wears a helmet when he rides a scooter, Ha paused, shook his head, and said, “No. Not cool. Nobody wears a helmet.”

Asked if he knew about 20-year-old Carlos Sanchez-Martin, a scooter-rider who was killed on Sept. 21st at Dupont Circle after being struck by an SUV, pulled under the vehicle and dragged to his death, Ha cast his eyes downward. “There’s always risk,” he said. The accident will not change his mind about riding without a helmet.

News of the scooter fatality on Dupont Circle lit up neighborhood listservs, such as HearMeNow! sponsored by ANC 2B Commissioner Nick DelleDonne. Calls to ban the scooters, require riders to wear a helmet, and push the city to fix dangerous intersections and other roadway hazards are common themes.

The accident prompted ANC 2B to issue a statement on transportation safety that read in part:

“This incident points out that the District’s broad vision of creating a safe and efficient multi-modal transport system has yet to be realized and will not be achieved without proper enforcement, education, and infrastructure changes. As one of the mostly densely populated neighborhoods at the forefront of the adoption of the latest modes of transport in the District, we must figure out how to create safe streets for all.”

Pedestrians, especially the elderly, parents with toddlers, the hearing impaired, dog owners, and many others are also concerned. Riding bicycles and scooters on sidewalks is legal in most areas of the city except for portions of downtown. But when bikes and scooters come whizzing by at unsafe speeds with no bells or other warnings, many Dupont residents say pedestrians’ fears are escalating with the number of near-misses.

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The Law

DC Law Title 18 (Vehicle and Traffic), Chapter 18-12 (Bicycles, Motorized Bicycles, and Miscellaneous Vehicles), Sec. 1201.9 states, “There shall be no prohibition against any person riding a bicycle . . . upon a sidewalk within the District, so long as the rider does not create a hazard. . . .” [Editor’s emphasis.]

Sec. 1201.10 states, “Any person riding a bicycle . . . upon a sidewalk shall yield the right-of-way to pedestrians, and shall travel at a speed no greater than the posted speed limit of the adjacent roadway; provided, that such speed is safe for the conditions then existing on the sidewalk.” [Editor’s emphasis, adding that the lowest posted vehicular speed limit is 15 mph; clearly that is not safe on sidewalks.]

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“What is the ANC doing to promote protection of pedestrians on sidewalks in our area?,” asked one commenter on the HearMeNow! listserv. “Too many bicycle and scooter riders seem to think that the sidewalks belong to them.” [Ed. Note: even ythough the slowest posted

Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans says he gets many complaints about the scooters — “a problem that didn’t exist three or four months ago.” The recent scooter and bike fatalities in Dupont Circle are “tragic and outrageous,” Evans says, and the city must do all it can to prevent them from happening.

But Evans says he also hears from residents about the bikes and scooters on sidewalks, including hazardous placement of dockless scooters on city sidewalks where they may be a trip hazard.

Evans, a five-mile-a-day runner who has witnessed the bike and scooter problems first-hand, says wanting to include the concerns of pedestrians has sometimes angered those in the bicycling community who believe that their safety concerns should be paramount. But, he continues, “we need a comprehensive approach to everything. “It has become dangerous out there.”

First Capital Bike Share, then dockless and electric bikes, and now motorized scooters, all have become emblematic of a growing generational and lifestyle split that plays out every day on streets and sidewalks in DC. The multiplying options for transportation are part of a mise-en-scene that attracts young people from across the country — indeed, from around the world — to partake in the city’s sustained economic boom and reinvention as 21st Century urban idyll.

In turn, DC’s newer residents — as well as the city’s long-established community of bicycle commuters — are demanding that DC completely revamp its transportation infrastructure in ways that fit their two-wheeling lifestyle. They want maximum safety protections for bicyclists, scooter riders or anyone who is moving around the city on something, other than a car or motorcycle that doesn’t burn fossil fuel.

At every opportunity, the city’s younger residents express impatience with what they see as city officials’ hidebound fixation on facilitating auto traffic and not doing enough to usher in an era of cleaner, safer, lower-carbon transport.

These proponents of so-called multi-modal transportation say that city officials must stop favoring automobiles in urban planning. Instead, they say, the city should start eliminating street parking and traffic lanes in order to create dedicated and safe thoroughfares for bikes, scooters, and other “personal mobility” devices.

One commuter bicycling advocate told city officials recently, “no one has a God-given right to drive a car.” Her comment was part of testimony at a Sept. 27th, public roundtable on transportation safety convened by the City Council’s Committee on Transportation and the Environment.

Ward 6 Councilmember, Charles Allen, commenced the hearing with a recap of the recent bike and scooter tragedies, including the Dupont Circle scooter accident.

As if that accident wasn’t bad enough, Allen said, “On Monday, a reckless car driver sped through a red light and killed a bicycle rider right around the corner from this room at 12th and Constitution, NW. These tragedies are a serious reminder that when it comes to improved traffic safety and importance, human lives are very much at stake.”

But Allen says he and Ward 3 Councilmember, Mary Cheh, who chairs the transportation committee, didn’t schedule the roundtable simply in response to the recent accidents.

“I scheduled this long ago, because, unfortunately, bicyclists and pedestrians being killed is a tragically regular occurrence,” Allen said. “And more than anything, let’s remember that the common element of all of the tragedies that we’ll hear about today are drivers of cars unwilling to slow their travel to ensure the safety of those around them.”

Many of those who came to testify, especially bicycle commuters, singled out Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Vision Zero initiative under the aegis of the DC Department of Transportation (DDOT), for particular scorn.

Vision Zero aims for zero fatalities or serious injuries on DC streets by 2024. To do so will require that the city build new transportation infrastructure to accommodate all of the new modes of transportation that have popped up in DC in recent years.

But as many witnesses and council members pointed out, the city doesn’t seem to be taking its own plan seriously. Councilmember Allen pointed out that in his neighborhood broken down curbs and bike lanes go unaddressed, and cars park in bike lanes seemingly without consequence, even though it is illegal.

And nearly every councilmember on the committee could recite similar or worse conditions in their areas of the city.

For elderly pedestrians on sidewalks with bikes and scooters, one witness said, “it’s become the Wild West out there.”

“I am not even sure they see it as part of Vision Zero,” Allen said of city workers who are responsible for identifying and fixing road hazards, including those for bicyclists and pedestrians. Even the Vision Zero website, he said, does not appear to have been updated in more than two years.

Evans said he thought the roundtable “lit a fire” under DDOT’s director, Jeff Marootian, to get to work on fully implementing Vision Zero.

“He got the message loud and clear,” Evans said, adding that the Council could also undertake emergency legislation to address bike and scooter transportation hazards if it finds that to be necessary.

Bike and scooter sharing companies say that with the widespread popularity of their services, they hope to convince city officials to allow them to place thousands of their units on city streets– the sooner the better.

Whether the city is ready to yield its restrictions and fully embrace what looks to be a new era in urban transit will surely test Mayor Bowser, the City Council, and DDOT.

Copyright © 2018 InTowner Publishing Corp. & William G. Schulz. All rights reserved.