Bicycling in D.C.: Part II

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.

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.

My primary concern 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.

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.

See Part I for Points 1-8.

9. Red lights and stop signs. You’re much safer when you are riding clear of automobile traffic because they start off faster and often squeeze you as they pass. From a pure safety perspective, it’s much better to get out front, even if it means running a red light when the intersection is clear of traffic. Similarly, you’re safer moving closer to the speed of auto traffic than you are standing in the middle of the road at a red light. Although many in the bicycle community would never advise this, I’ve seen even the most vocal “follow all the laws” cyclists use this method. Why? In practice, it’s absurd to pretend that we’re cars and that the laws written for them are our safest option. Here's a case where the law is specifically mindful of cyclists' safety. A D.C. law took effect last year making it legal for cyclists to follow the pedestrian signals and proceed through an intersection as soon as the walk sign appears, even if the traffic light is still red. Engineers call this the "leading pedestrian interval" or LPI.

10. Blind corners. Sure as anything, if you’re approaching a blind corner, someone will eventually pull out in your path. This will happen even if there is a stop sign or your light is green. First, slow down, then use all of the tools at your disposal. Parked vehicles are sometimes shiny. Use them as a mirror to see around the corner and use ground-floor building windows as well.  If you detect movement, expect that someone is about to run the intersection. Slow down and find your out.

 Give yourself plenty of space from surprise door openers. 

Give yourself plenty of space from surprise door openers. 

11. Don't get doored. Beware of cars that just pulled over and stopped or a line of cars parked along the curb. A door will open right in front of you. Expect that it will happen and move clear into the center of your lane. When it does, you’ll be very happy that you knew better.

12. Left turns from busy roads. Don’t stand out in the middle of heavy traffic with your arm out signaling a turn. Use the “jug handle” technique where you get over to the right and then go 270 degrees counterclockwise until you’re facing the way you want to go. Then wait for the cross traffic to clear and go.

 NO. Don't wait to turn facing upstream. 

NO. Don't wait to turn facing upstream. 

 YES. Get in the direction you want to head before turning. 

YES. Get in the direction you want to head before turning. 

13. Riding on a narrow road. Ride in the middle of the lane, not the side. If drivers want to go faster, they can find another route or wait until it’s clear to pass you. Sorry, being in a car doesn’t make you more important.

14. Critters. They’re little people, too. If squirrels, dogs, cats or kids are up ahead, they will jump in front of you as you’re passing. Count on it and you’ll be prepared. They might run out from behind a parked vehicle. It will happen eventually, when you least expect it. So, don’t race down side streets. Race courses and racing rides are much better places to ride fast.

15. Vehicles parked in bike lanes. You need to get out into mainline traffic or get up on the sidewalk. Assess and make your choice. It’s interesting that we’ve seen a recent movement of stickers being put on cars saying “I parked in a bike lane.” I don’t know who’s doing it, but I can see how someone would be motivated to do so.

 Quadruple threat: Big rig + streetcar tracks + parked cars + bus up ahead.

Quadruple threat: Big rig + streetcar tracks + parked cars + bus up ahead.

16. Streetcar tracks. Avoid roads with streetcar tracks. If you must cross streetcar tracks, do it at an angle of as close to 90 degrees as possible and you will be safe. Do this religiously and you’ll never have a problem. A side street is much safer. The sidewalk is safer, too. If you need to ride half a block on a road with streetcar tracks, do it on the sidewalk.

Next steps:

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