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My latest run-in with the law happened last August.
I was biking by the Carnegie Library when a police officer waved me down from his car. My crime: riding a bike on the sidewalk.
I was cycling right outside the border of downtown’s Central Business District, the only part of the city where sidewalk biking is illegal. The cop, who insisted that I had broken the law, let me off with a warning.
I haven’t taken it to heart. I still bike on the sidewalk, even in the CBD, because riding on the sidewalk has its place everywhere in the city. Not that self-hating cycling advocates or the Metropolitan Police Department will tell you that.
Most of the time, I’m not riding on the sidewalk. Almost all of my cycling happens on pavement, because sidewalks just aren’t convenient for most cycling. You have to watch out for pedestrians, dogs, and loose bricks. And if you’re really scrupulous, you’ll have to ring a bell every time you pass a pedestrian.
But when biking on the sidewalk is useful, it’s indispensable. When traffic is backed up and the cars are too close to the curbs to filter past, the sidewalk is perfect. The same goes for avoiding going the wrong way on a one-way street. And of course, the sidewalk is ideal for new cyclists otherwise spooked by city riding.
David Cranor, who blogs about biking in the District at The Wash Cycle, has a long list of situations where riding on the sidewalk makes sense. Whether looking for a place to park a bike or ascending a hill with heavy traffic, you ought to be on the sidewalk.
“Sometimes, it’s useful to get up on the sidewalk,” Cranor says.
I used to live at the Woodner, a rambling apartment building on the western side of 16th Street NW. Biking home through Mount Pleasant, I had to choose between biking on the sidewalk for a block to get home, or risking my life across five lanes of traffic by biking down 16th Street during rush hour, then crossing against that same rush hour traffic to get to my building. Why wouldn’t I take the sidewalk? I went cautiously the whole way for pedestrians’ sake—just like I do when I find people standing in the 15th Street cycletrack.
When you consider how convenient riding on sidewalk can be, it’s strange to think about how many people don’t want you to do it.
For some cyclists, there’s a perverse pride in restricting themselves to the street. Like a toddler throwing away their diapers after using a tiny plastic toilet for the first time, they want nothing to do with baby stuff. Consider local tech blog DC Inno, which appointed itself sidewalk biking czar a few years ago. An adult cyclist on a sidewalk, writer Anthony Sodd claims in one blog post, is “simultaneously revolting and pitiful.”
“You are a big kid now and big kids don’t ride on the sidewalks,” he writes in another post.
Left unexplained is why anyone who isn’t afraid of being confused with a child shouldn’t ride on the sidewalk when it’s the most convenient option. DC Inno would find sympathy with MPD, which earlier this month warned cyclists in tweets to stay off the sidewalk: “At every driveway & [intersection], you are at greater risk of being hit by a motorist than if you were riding on the road with traffic,” MPD tweeted, without explaining that it’s legal to ride on the sidewalk in most of the city.
Sidewalk biking can be more dangerous, thanks to turning drivers who aren’t expected to see a bike come through the crosswalk. But countless other legal things that cyclists, pedestrians, and drivers do are more dangerous than their alternatives. Riding, driving, or walking at night is more dangerous than the alternative, but that doesn’t stop people from doing all three.
The pernicious “safety” argument surfaced last year, when the Washington Area Bicycling Association, the District Department of Transportation, and a local Advisory Neighborhood Commission teamed up to post anti-sidewalk biking signs in Logan Circle. Funded by the ANC, the signs portrayed the kind of unobstructed bike lanes, free of idling trucks and hastily opened car doors, that don’t actually exist in the District.
“All are safer when cyclists use the street” the signs read, “NOT the sidewalk.”
Then-DDOT spokesman Reggie Sanders told me the signs were “the kind of [bottom-up] approach to traffic safety that we like to see.” The joke is that 14th Street NW, where many of the signs appeared, may have the most ignored, potholed bike lanes in the city. One of the signs was placed right in front of a dumpster that was blocking the bike lane. So much for traffic safety.
There’s an ugly classism to complaints about sidewalk biking. The wards that are best served by bicycle lanes also tend to be the richest ones. The city’s two poorest wards, meanwhile, have the least amount of bike lanes, according to 2014 DDOT statistics. Ward 8 didn’t get its first bike lane until last year. DDOT statistics show that cycling infrastructure consistently reduces cycling on the sidewalk by double digits. After the installation of the 15th St. NW cycletrack, bikes on the sidewalk dropped by 70 percent. Before opposing biking on the sidewalk, try cycling across the East Capitol Street Bridge without it.
By stigmatizing cycling on the sidewalk, sidewalk biking prohibitionists make it harder for people who most need the flexible, inexpensive commute that cycling provides. That class difference also makes it worse when District pols try to kick bikes off the sidewalk.
Last year, outgoing Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham proposed a bill that would make biking on the sidewalk illegal on any road with a bike lane. Graham’s bill was inspired by a 78-year-old man’s death after being hit by a cyclist.
The fact that the deceased man was hit in an alley, not a sidewalk, apparently didn’t dissuade Graham from proposing his bill. Fortunately, its chances died when Graham left the D.C. Council. That left the choice about whether it’s wise to ride in street where it belongs: with the cyclists themselves.
About a year ago, I was biking through Mount Vernon Square. A truck came up on me fast, which is exactly what its driver was furious about. Despite being in a bike lane, I still wasn’t moving quickly enough for him.
“Get on the sidewalk!” he yelled.
Photo by Darrow Mongtomery