- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 9, 2001

On a typical weekday evening in downtown Washington recently, motorists inched along in stop-and-go traffic, pedestrians braced themselves against a blustery wind, trying to make their way home. And several bicyclists knowingly or unknowingly broke the law at the intersection of L Street and Connecticut Avenue NW.
On this particular night, 24 cyclists crossed through the intersection between 6:30 and 7 p.m.
Some of them broke just the most basic laws like crossing on a red light or riding against traffic and many cyclists broke more than one.
Even seemingly responsible riders were guilty: One man wearing a bicycle helmet rolled to a stop on the sidewalk of L Street, waiting for the light to turn green. When asked, he said he didn't know it was illegal to ride on the sidewalk there.
While D.C. Code says "operators of bicyclists have the same rights as do operators of other vehicles," nowhere does it say they are entitled to cross on red lights or weave in and out of traffic waiting at an intersection or to ride on the sidewalks of the city's central business district.
Bicycle ridership in the area has swelled in the past decade: The number of daily bicycle trips in the region rose from 43,000 in 1988 to 76,800 in 1999, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. And with extensive trail-building and programs encouraging alternate transportation, ridership could double in the near future.
Yet for all the optimism about a future in which wide, well-kept trails connect the suburbs to the city, little is being said about safety and the hazards that increase along with the number of riders.
Between 1997 and 1999 bicyclists were involved in 771 crashes, or 2 percent all accidents, according to a recent study by the D.C. Division of Transportation. The intersection at L Street and Connecticut Avenue NW was, the study found, the most dangerous in the city, with seven crashes during that time.
The number of reported bicycle collisions seems small about 260 a year but officials warn as many as 40 percent go unreported.
Bicyclists on sidewalks are a particular frustration for Annie Rice of Northwest.
Mrs. Rice, 70, says she generally supports cycling, but in the afternoons when she walks along Connecticut Avenue where bicycling on sidewalks is legal confrontations with cyclists are frequent.
"I would say I pretty much run into the problem every day," she said. "They feel like it's more their space than yours."
Mrs. Rice said that there are several elderly residents in her building, and that bicyclists who go whipping by on the sidewalk are not only insensitive but often rude.
"There are people who live in this apartment house who don't want to go outside," she said.
But other than common courtesy, bicyclists have little incentive to behave.
Police can ticket bicyclists, but the fine is only $5 and points aren't assessed against the offender's driver's license.
Metropolitan Police Department Lt. Patrick Burke said fines need to be higher to discourage cyclists from breaking traffic laws. The paltry fine also discourages officers from writing the tickets, he said only 135 were issued last year.
Bicycles must be registered, but riders are not required to carry identification.
Chasing down bicyclists is "just not safe," Lt. Burke said. "And the reality is they're going to get away."
D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz called the $5 sanction a "ridiculously low fine" and said she supports raising the amount.
"I know if we started giving out tickets for that sort of behavior that would put a stop to it," she said. "I think we have a lot of bicyclists who are going to and from work who just ignore the laws," Mrs. Schwartz said last month at a Public Works Committee hearing to address bicycle and pedestrian safety.
Lt. Burke said there are plans under way to begin safety programs for children, as well as targeted enforcement by police on bicycles at the most dangerous bicycle intersections.

The root of the problem?
Many consider the city's roughly 500 couriers, to whom time is literally money, the biggest bicycle safety problem.
In 1995 the D.C. Council passed legislation requiring bicycle couriers to be licensed, but that law has not been enforced.
Todd McDonald, 31, of Mount Ranier has been a bike courier in the city for four years.
"Many couriers I know like to be physically fit. They like to be outside," he said, adding that part of the challenge is planning the fastest routes in his head.
Though he says he rides "fairly responsibly," Mr. McDonald has been in six or seven accidents in which he's had to take at least one day off from work. He has never gotten a citation.
"As someone who's done this for a while, you start to notice the safety of it," he said. "It's one of those things that's so simple, but it takes a shift in thinking."
A few months ago, he was hit by a car pulling out of a parking lane, tumbled from his bike and was run over by a motor scooter. He didn't break any bones but missed two weeks of work because of muscle strain in his lower back.
He considers himself lucky to have insurance through his wife but says most couriers aren't covered.
"Lots of guys just give fake names at the hospital and hope they get away with it," he said.
Just weeks ago, as he was easing back into a full-time schedule, he struck a jaywalker. Neither was seriously injured, but Mr. McDonald had to take another day off.
Shawn Bega, president of the D.C. Bicycle Couriers Association, has asked the D.C. Council to get involved in regulating the courier industry. He says companies that advertise unrealistic delivery times, make no provisions for inclement weather, and offer little training and no insurance should be held accountable for accidents.

Making progress
Ten years ago, D.C. Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon eliminated the bicycle coordinator post to trim bureaucratic fat. Current Mayor Anthony A. Williams restored the bicycle coordinator position this year when he hired Jim Sebastian, who previously held the same job at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
Hiring a bicycle coordinator was one of the mayor's scorecard goals for cycling; others are distributing 100 bike racks throughout the city each year and the striping of 10 miles of bike lanes on city streets this year and each of the next five years.
Mr. Sebastian is responsible for the city's overall bicycle plan and ensuring cycling is included in larger projects.
And he said the plans aren't just for the spandex-clad set crossing into the city from Virginia for a weekend tour of the monuments.
"The fact is that a lot of people use bicycles because they can't afford a car, and we want to reach out to those folks as well," said Mr. Sebastian, 36, who bikes to work from his Takoma Park home four times a week and says bicycle riding is a sign of a livable community.
"I think we can serve all those groups with effort and planning. The more people we can plan for, the more we can get done and the more people will use it."
Mr. Sebastian said progress has already been made.
A bike map is in the planning stages that would outline the District's 1,100 miles of roads for bicycling suitability, according to traffic speed and volume, and a comprehensive bike plan should be completed by the end of next year.
Last month at Union Station, ground was broken on a second section of the Metropolitan Branch Trail. When completed, the D.C. segment of the trail will be eight miles long and extend from the Takoma Park neighborhood through Northeast to Union Station. It will provide access to eight subway stops and, by linking to three other trails in the metropolitan Washington area, provide 41 miles of interconnected regional trails and a 25-mile "bicycle beltway."
But only about a half-mile of bike lanes, on Massachusetts Avenue NE from Sixth to 11th streets, has been striped this year. Mr. Sebastian said it's unlikely the city will meet the 10-mile goal, but he remains confident it will have 50 miles striped in five years.
The challenge is to find appropriate streets to stripe, he said. Streets with state names are customarily wide enough to add bike lanes, but rush-hour parking restrictions can make things more complicated.
When Massachusetts Avenue was restriped, the traffic lanes were made narrower to make room for bike lanes, but Mr. Sebastian said he thinks most striping will be done in conjunction with road work.
He said more dramatic changes, like eliminating parking or narrowing roadways, would only be done after the community involved had a chance to provide input.
"We're going to go for the easy ones first," he said.
Ellen Jones, director of the Washington Area Bicyclists Association, supports the progress but says the mayor and Mr. Sebastian need to make bike lanes a bigger priority.
"I think they need to be much bolder than they have to date," Miss Jones said. "They've got to pick up the pace."
She praised a Metro program that allows bicycles on trains during nonpeak hours and rates the region high on trail facilities.
"Where I think the region falls down is on-road facilities," she said. "I think we have a very good infrastructure, but it's incomplete We know that the lack of safe routes is the number one reason people cite for not riding."

Old promises
It's easy to understand why bike advocates aren't satisfied with ambitious plans.
In the early 1980s, the city was considered one of the most progressive biking cities in the nation, even named such by Bicycling magazine. In 1975, the District published a comprehensive bicycle plan that ambitiously called for the striping of 75 miles of bike lanes.
But as transportation dollars dried up during the '80s and '90s, biking was set back.
In addition to cutting the bicycle coordinator position, less than two of the planned 75 miles of bike lanes were striped, the last city bike map was published in 1982 and shared bicycle and bus lanes were removed in the 1980s to accommodate greater vehicle flow.
"What happened then had everything to do with the economic decline of the District of Columbia," Miss Jones said. "What you see now is a reinvestment in the transportation infrastructure of the District." She said availability of federal funds for transportation projects is at an "all-time high."
Rep. Earl Blumenauer, Oregon Democrat, knows firsthand about cycling in the city.
"My experience, in both Washington, D.C., and at home, is it is relatively hassle-free. People tend to be pretty courteous. I've actually had more close calls in automobiles than on a bike," he said. "You never get stuck in traffic when you're cycling around here. You cycle past the problems."
He says a bicycle is his primary mode of transportation in the District. He rides a bike about a mile each way to and from his home on Capitol Hill. He doesn't own a car in the District and says he's even ridden to the White House on his bike, which has left more than a few people scratching their heads.
"I think there have been a lot of really nice advances in terms of cycling in D.C.," he said. "I'm excited about what metropolitan Washington can do in the future."
Ross Ruske, bike coordinator at the Environmental Protection Agency's Ariel Rios building, has been biking to work for 22 years, year-round, 14 miles each way from Vienna. He says he rides the Washington & Old Dominion Trail and the Custis Trail, and the trip takes him about 50 minutes each way.
"Once it becomes routine, it's something to look forward to every day," he said.
He said the biggest change he's seen in two decades of cycling in the city is today he has fewer problems with motorists.
"Now you don't have people honking behind you when you're on the street," he said. "I think the biggest reason is many more motorists are now cycling."

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