How to Make DC Safe for Cyclists
Infrastructure, enforcement, and ticket collection
Biking in Washington, DC in a bike lane is an exercise in narrowly avoiding death. Take a look at this photo of the 14th Street NW in Columbia Heights (below). The bike lane you are in is protected by little more than paint lines on the ground. On one side of you, there are parking spaces that you have to watch with an eagle eye for opening doors and cars pulling out into traffic. On the other, you have traffic whizzing by you. Your lane is sometimes blocked by half-parked cars, rideshare or taxis picking up, delivery drivers dropping off, and very special people with their 4-ways on who are parked in your lane for “just a second” to run into a store.
This is clearly not optimal public policy. Over the past two weeks, I have tried to lay out a case that there are areas of Washington, DC that have a large number of bike crashes that result in a fatality or several injuries, and these hot spots can not be explained solely through bike traffic. To make biking safer and percent these sorts of crashes, DC has various options.
Simplified cycling infrastructure
One of the best things that Washington, DC could do to make cycling safer would be to ditch at-grade cycling infrastructure and replace it with a uniform system of raised cycle tracks. This would dramatically reduce confusion by both cyclists and motorists, which leads to cyclists being put in danger.
Right now, Washington DC has nine different kinds of bike infrastructure. To make this more confusing, cyclists are placed in various spots around a driver, depending on which type of bike lane is installed. This Virginia driver probably had no idea they were driving into a bike lane.
In DC, most bike infrastructure is at-grade with the road, providing little to no protection for cyclists. When cyclists get protection, it is often in the form of flex posts and, sometimes, low concrete barriers. The safety provided by flex posts alone, such as in this picture on DDOT’s website, is primarily psychological because they do nothing to stop a car. Further, Washington, DC uses white flex posts for various other uses. To a driver, they don’t scream protected bike lane.
I currently live in Denmark. Danes have four kinds of bike lanes depending on the speed limit of the road. The most common is a bike lane protected by a curb. Mikael Colville-Andersen claims these are found on streets with speed limits between 30 and 40 mph, but I have experienced them on roads with speed limits as low as 25 mph. One of them can be found on Dag Hammarskjölds Allé in front of the US Embassy, which has a speed limit between 40 and 50 kph (25 to 30 mph).
These kinds of bike lanes are easy to understand because of the design rules used. Bikes move with the flow of traffic. Bike lanes are always in the most protected position next to the sidewalk unless there is a crossover due to turns. On-street parking spots for cars never require crossing over a bike lane. Bike lanes do not look like a place for vehicles to occupy. If the conditions call for a two-way bike lane, it is separated from the road by a large berm. Our confused Virginia driver should never be put in the position to drive down the bike lane.
If you think Dutch-style two-way cycle tracks are superior to Danish-style one-way, the solution is the same:
Reduce complexity by adopting a minimal number of possible installation options.
Standardize everything you can, from turning at stoplights to connecting feeder to the side of the road with a bike lane, so there is an element of predictability.
Get cyclists off the road level and onto the sidewalk level or an intermediate one for added protection.
Burn every flex post.
Cycling would be much safer with these changes.
Bike lane enforcement
If the sun is up, a bike lane in DC is being used for its intended purpose. That is, of course, being the pick-up and drop-off zone for taxis, rideshare, delivery, and other drivers. No matter how much paint DDOT puts on the road or flex posts they put up, it continues to happen.
One of the most dangerous things a cyclist has to do is swerving around these cars and trucks. Due to the curb, you have a limited number of options. You risk getting doored by going between the vehicle and the curb. If you go between the car and traffic, you risk getting hit by a passing vehicle.
Instead of higher fines, DC needs to tow cars that use bike lanes as their personal parking spot. If the impound lot is filled with taxis, UPS trucks, and the cars of uber eats drivers every weekend, so be it. The current system of ticketing drivers, especially by mail, does not work. When cars can have $6584 in outstanding fines, adding another $150 to the pile is not an effective deterrent.
Further, if blocking a bike lane leads to the death of a cyclist, the driver who parked the car should be held liable for their death. They were the ones, through negligence, that forced a cyclist into traffic from their lane. Too often, cities shrug when this happens.
One of the major issues leading to unsafe streets is the lack of ticket reciprocity for automated tickets between Washington, DC, Maryland, and Virginia. This creates a situation where cars with out-of-state plates can rack up thousands of dollars of tickets without any consequences. Things aren’t much better with DC-tagged cars. Safe Sidewalks DC routinely finds cars with DC plates with similar outrageous amounts of unpaid tickets. DC will boot vehicles with unpaid tickets if DPW comes across them, but it will take years to get through the backlog.
This has created a situation where speed limits are optional if a Metropolitan Police Department officer is not present to write a ticket. It doesn’t matter if DC reduces the speed limit if there is no enforcement. One of the ways to do this is to work out a cross-state agreement to give the speed limits in DC some teeth. Within the district, cars with more than $1000 of tickets should be towed, not just booted. Slower speeds save lives.
I had too many good pictures of cars blocking bike lanes to use all of them in this post, but this one from Vienna Terrell perfectly shows the struggle of biking in DC. You know for a fact that the driver of this truck either works for the US Secret Service or is closely connected to them. They would never let a rando block a lane around the White House. While I tried to be hopeful, it is easy to be cynical.