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Bicycle Riding on Neighborhood Sidewalks Out of Control

As we were starting to prepare this commentary we received a copy of the Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC 2B) November meeting announcement which noted, among other agenda items, the following: “Consideration of resolution on bicycle lane renovations and bicycle safety (10 mins).”

We fear however, that the focus is primarily on the safety of bicyclists using the designated lanes in the roadways. While that is clearly an important matter, what concerns us is that what appears to be missing is any discussion of the serious problem –- not just in Dupont but throughout our inner-city neighborhoods –- of pedestrian safety. And, even if that aspect is somehow a part of the discussion, 10 minutes is in no way sufficient time to address the issue.

The interaction between pedestrians and bicyclists has just within the last couple of years become a serious matter as more and more residents have been responding to the encouragement of city officials and bicycle advocates, along with the wide proliferation of Capital Bikeshare stations, to partake in this healthy and practical form of getting around. We think this is a wonderful thing indeed.

However, there is a definite downside: increasing danger to pedestrians on sidewalks and when crossing, especially, one-way streets. Not only have we had our own near collisions with inattentive or even thoughtless bicyclists, but we have heard from many others of the same –- sometimes not just near misses but real injuries.

Some scary examples (experienced by this writer and others): bicycle on sidewalk quietly approaching from behind just as pedestrian moves slightly into the path of the on-coming cyclist, there having been no warning bell (for which there seems to be no legal requirement in DC) or even vocal warning; bicycles speeding along sidewalks, frequently from behind and without warnings; cyclists riding the wrong way on a one-way street almost (or even sometimes) running down a pedestrian who is crossing legally and who had been looking out for on-coming traffic and not looking both ways as would be done on a two-way street.

Unfortunately, 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; provided, that no person shall ride a bicycle . . . upon a sidewalk within the Central Business District . . . nor shall any person ride a bicycle upon a sidewalk in any area outside of the Central Business District if it is expressly prohibited by Order of the Mayor. . . .” — meaning, of course, it’s legal unless the mayor decides it isn’t! Further, 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.” In our view, even the slowest motor vehicle speed limit is too fast for sidewalks.

These and other regulations addressing the use of bicycles are way too soft to be effective in our crowded neighborhoods. The idea that just because Dupont, Logan, Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights, Shaw, to name but a few, are not way downtown doesn’t mean that pedestrians on the sidewalks are no less at risk from careening cyclists –- especially those who materialize unexpectedly from behind.

We do not need the city council to enact anything to protect us in the neighborhoods by requiring cyclists to use the streets only; Sec. 1201.9, as noted above, authorizes the mayor to issue an executive order that would “expressly” prohibit riding on neighborhood sidewalks so long as “appropriate signs to such effect are posted.”

But nothing that is done to address our concerns will change anything unless the city council and the mayor make it clear that these pedestrian safety issues are given priority and that the police chief instructs MPD officers that they must be alert to infractions and issue citations when called for. And, what about the fines? We suspect they are way too modest and should definitely be increased with the same sense of urgency that the mayor recently applied to motor vehicle moving violations. Why is it critical to protect pedestrians from getting run down by cars when crossing streets but no less critical if the instrument of injury and maybe even death is a speeding bicycle?