The most important consideration to me as an everyday cyclist is safety. I’ve been extraordinarilly fortunate. I have never been hit by a motor vehicle. (Ironically, I have actually hit motor vehicles twice. Both were stationary cars.) All too many people I know have been hit. I saw first hand what a physical and mental toll this takes when my wife was run over while walking across the street on a clear spring day. Day after day of pain, tears, and brutal hard work to get back to some sense of normal. As awful as her experience was, it could have been worse. It doesn’t have to be this way.
When a bicyclist or a pedestrian is hit by a car, truck or bus, the motor vehicle wins. It’s simple physics. One would think that our laws and our transportation infrastructure would be designed to even things out. Such is not the case. If you are hit by a car in DC or Virginia and your actions contribute in any way to the crash, the driver is absolved of all responsibility for your injuries or death. This legal standard is called contributory negligence. When police give you a ticket after someone runs you over, you have to beat the ticket or you will likely be found to have contributed to the crash.
Our infrastructure often puts cyclists on the same roadways as motor vehicles. Most people have come to agree that physically separated bicycle lanes are far safer than unseparated bike lanes and cycle tracks. When we use unseparated cycling facilities we do so with the hope that motor vehicle operators will stay in their lanes and out of ours. As it turns out, in DC (and elsewhere) hope is not very effective.
Our Nation’s Main Street
Pennsylvania Avenue is often called our nation’s main street. From the White House complex to the foot of Capitol Hill, the center of Pennsylvania Avenue features a two way cycletrack. Time and again, motorists do illegal u-turns through the cycle track. Cyclists who use this facilty are sitting ducks. Most of the cycletrack is protected by flex posts and park-its. (Park-its are a sort of low curb stone, like a short speed bump.) The 1400 and 1500 blocks are unprotected. The 1400 block is the location of the Wilson Building, DC’s City Hall. It seems the districts public officials like the convenience of doing u-turns to get to and from the office.
Bicyclists have been telling the city to extend the flex posts and park-its to the 1400 and 1500 blocks, because police are ineffective at deterring u-turning drivers. The city is studying the issue. There is nothing about the 1400 and 1500 blocks that require study. (I think city officials who are so concerned with studing the issue will offer their time to the victims of u-turning vehicles during the study period. They can drive us to physical therapy. They can come to our funerals.)
Many of my friends use the Pennsylvania Avenue cycletrack on a regular basis. The epidemic of u-turns continues despite repeated efforts to document the offenses. A few weeks ago, my friend Sam decided to take action, what she calls Biketivism. She organized an event designed to raise awareness about the problem. She invited friends who invited friends. She alerted the media and the police. On Thursday, under threat of heavy rain, about 50 cyclists (including me) showed up and formed a human barrier along the cycletrack for the evening rush. Many of the cyclists like Sam and Jeff, her husband, have been hit by cars in DC. Sam brought swimming pool noodles (on the street to the right in the photo) to use as temporary park-its.
The event was serious but we had fun too. #bikedc is a pretty awesome social circle. I met new people and enjoyed the opportunity to hang out with friends.
An Unexpected Education
The experience was an eye opener for me. I thought we’d stand there, give a few interviews, get on TV and the radio, talk to some city government people and that would be it. We did all that. To my utter amazement, however, we witnessed u-turn after u-turn through the cycletrack. Cars repeatedly swerved into the cycletrack to get around bottlenecks in the car lanes. Several police officers, mostly on bicycles, sprung into action, giving the drivers warnings. After several warnings, they pulled out their ticket books. They literally could not write tickets fast enough. Drivers were doing u-turns through our line. As a cabbie slowed to do a u-turn, I warned him that it was illegal, that he could get a $100 ticket, and that a police officer was standing directly in his path if he were to do a u-turn. The cabbie shrugged and did a u-turn anyway! He got a ticket.
At one point a driver drove through the line laughing, floored it going the opposite direction, and took a right on red without stopping from the center lane. He got away with it because all the police were writing tickets!
I was flabbergasted by the behavior of the drivers. No wonder my friends are mad.
This event might have been about illegal u-turns through a cycletrack, but it’s really about a lot more. It’s a small step in changing our culture for the better. We cannot have livable cities until we rebalance the use of our streets to protect the vulnerable, to make our streets inviting spaces instead of demolition derby tracks.
Thanks to Sam for making this happen.
Here are some links to stories in the media: