Bicycling in D.C.: Part I

BicycleSPACE is proud to sponsor Bike to Work Day on May 15. It’s thrilling to see as many as 18,000 Washingtonians illustrating the power of the bicycle as everyday transportation. In this three-part series, BicycleSPACE co-owner Erik Kugler takes a long view of bicycle commuting, sharing navigation strategies gleaned over more than 20 years. Parts II and III will publish on May 8 and 11.

As an introduction, I’m Erik Kugler and I’ve been riding bicycles in the Washington, D.C. region for more than 20 years.  I have never once been involved in an accident.
I’ve followed with great interest the media debate about cycling scofflaws. As more and more people start using bicycles as transportation, it’s apparent that our traffic laws and infrastructure willfully ignore the safety needs of people riding bicycles.
I was asked in my City Paper interview whether I wear a helmet and whether I run red lights. That question has caused me to circle back and re-examine the expectations of the general public and even bicycle advocacy organizations and to compare that with what is actually the best for people who get around by bicycle.
Overall, the primary concern for me while I’m out on a bicycle is to get to my destination as safely as possible, intact to carry on living and ride another day. This is the guiding frame of reference for the advice I’m about to give.  

Unfortunately, the people who design and implement our bicycle infrastructure do not have the same priorities. Often, the main criterion for infrastructure designers and traffic-flow experts is getting as many cars moving as swiftly as possible, not protecting the lives of bicyclists and pedestrians and our most vulnerable – the young, the old and the sick.
We in D.C. are projected to have a population increase of 20,000 per year for each of the next 10 years. If you’ve been downtown – or even uptown – during rush hour, you’ll see that we’re already at maximum car capacity.

With more and more people moving into the city and the roads already at capacity, many are turning to the bicycle as transportation. This is happening and will continue to happen, whether our Department of Transportation (DDOT) likes it or not.  

If they do not build a safe bicycle infrastructure, we will experience more and more chaos on the roads, characterized by hot tempers and confrontation. And it won’t take much for it to spiral out of control. The moveDC plan is a great step forward. If it is not implemented rapidly and the situation descends into more consistent chaos, then it will be the leaders at DDOT and those who give their marching orders who are responsible. I would hope that no one would want to be responsible for creating a violent dynamic, even if it meant that there were vocal complainers, led by people like Courtland Milloy and his employer, the Washington Post.
Until we get a safe, connected bicycle transportation system, we all need to use what I’ve learned over the past 20 years to stay safe and avoid confrontation.
Most of riding safely is knowing the danger points and avoiding them either altogether or before they become an issue. As corny as it sounds, I use the I.P.D.E. method which I was taught in high school drivers ed. Identify, Predict, Decide, Execute. That would be the one sentence which sums this all up.
What are the major danger points, the potentially dangerous situations to avoid? 
First, identify the flashpoints.

1. Taxis. The problem with taxis is that they are unpredictable. They are more concerned about their next fare than road safety. This is ironic because they use a public resource (our roads) for their personal gain, so one would think that they’d be held to a higher standard. Expect that when you’re near a taxi, it will suddenly stop, make a U-turn, open doors into your path or even honk at you. They are a complete wildcard. Expect erratic behavior and you’ll be prepared. Nine times out of 10, nothing will happen. That one time eventually will happen, so expect it and you’ll never have any trouble.

2. Slow or erratic cars. Chances are that they will randomly exhibit behavior similar to taxi drivers. They are either lost, texting, drunk, angry or otherwise distracted. Look for the warning signs and either stay behind or pass with a very wide berth.

3. Tourists. In the spring and summer – and really almost any time of the year – our District is loaded with tourists. I love tourists and all they bring to and take away from our city. But, they’re a hazard and should be avoided just like other hazards. Why? Well, they’re not used to bicycles being a form of transportation and they’re so absorbed in seeing new things and pointing them out to others that they are not so aware of their surroundings. Tourists are in the habit of backing up randomly to get a better view. They may be walking in a very seemingly predictable way and all of a sudden their kid runs out at a 90-degree angle from their path. Or, even as commonly, the one on your side as you pass swings an arm out, fully extended to point at something. Or they stop and back up randomly as they try to perfectly frame their photo.

4. Joggers with or without headphones or anyone with headphones. They have the habit of stopping suddenly or making a U-turn, especially when you are passing on a bike path. I always slow down to just a tiny bit faster than the walker or jogger in confined areas and only speed up again when I’m sure they’ve seen me or are aware that I’m there.

5. Right turn on red. When drivers pull up to a red light and are looking to turn right, they usually only look left to make sure they’re not in personal danger of pulling out in front of another motor vehicle. They are not looking to their right. Don’t be there.

6. Trucks and buses. God bless them, they are supplying our city with everything we need to live well. But, their visibility is very limited. Don’t ride near a moving truck or bus and expect that they will turn in front of you because they don’t see you.

7. Rush-hour commuters and speeding drivers. They just want to get home or to their meetings and they have a horrible attitude. Avoid the roads that commuters use. Avoid riding on busy roads. Don’t do it. Sidewalks are a better alternative if they exist, even if the law says you can’t use them. For example, take the south side of Massachusetts Avenue NW. It’s nice and wide, it’s grade separated and it’s much safer than riding on the road, even if the laws don’t permit it. Your responsibility is to live another day, not to act like you’re a car, which you’re not. Many cyclists study maps to find alternative, safer routes, even if it means going a block or two out of your way. Talk with others to see what they do. Connect with people like those at Friday Coffee Club or join our Nice & Easy rides and we’ll show you safer ways to go.

8. Oncoming drivers turning in front of you. They don’t see you. Watch the front wheels of cars showing suspicious behavior for clues that they’re going to turn in front of you and make sure you have an out if you need it.

Next steps:

  • Register for May 15 Bike to Work Day. Bicyclists pre-registered by May 8 get a status-symbol t-shirt.