News & Politics

The District Used to Be Really Tough on Bicycles

Bike registration, Metro permits, and blaming cyclists for most collisions were all featured in a 1982 city brochure about cycling.

Via District Department of Transportation.

Think that DC’s roadways today are ruled by an epic clash between cyclists and drivers? It was way worse for two-wheeled riders in 1982.

The District Department of Transportation just dug up a 32-year-old manual it used to distribute to the District’s cyclists back when bikes were scarce on city streets and more likely to be scolded than encouraged by the authorities.

The manual includes dozens of pages describing “D.C. Bikeways,” including most of the bridges that cross the Potomac and Anacostia river, but don’t mistake them for actual cycling paths—they’re just arbitrarily assigned corridors where street signs were affixed with “Bike Route” signs, markers that most urban cyclists interpret as not really carving out a safe co-existence with cars.

As for actual bike infrastructure, the District circa 1982 had just two marked bike lanes: 11th Street, Southeast, from East Capitol Street to the 11th Street Bridge, and East Capitol Street between the Capitol Building and Robert F. Kennedy Stadium. Throughout the rest of the city, the manual just lists the “Bike Route” signs and for much of the District, encourages riding on the sidewalk. (Although, the Washington Post’s John Kelly will be relieved to know that biking on sidewalks downtown has always been prohibited.)

Bike ownership was also a tightly controlled activity when this manual was written. The District required all bike owners to register their rides within two weeks of purchasing them. While registration was cheap—$1 for five years—it was enforced randomly, and sometimes led to complaints of police confiscating bikes from owners who simply didn’t follow the low-compliance statute. (Bike registration didn’t come off the books until 2008, and the Metropolitan Police Department now recommends that cyclists join the National Bike Registry instead.)

And what about taking a bike on Metro? These days, it’s only verboten to bring one on a train during rush hour. In 1982, bikes were only permitted on Metro on the weekends, and only then with a special permit.

Perhaps the most antiquated item in this manual—Courtland Milloy might disagree—is an institutional statement from DDOT saying that “the majority of bicycle/motor vehicle accidents in the District are caused by bicyclists.” A quick glance at the five most common types of bike-car collisions, according to Bicycling magazine, including blind left turns and dooring, show that in most cases, it’s actually the car’s fault. Fortunately, DDOT’s current guidelines are more balanced.

Read the full document below.

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.

Getting Around Washington by Bicycle

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.