News & Politics

Should Cyclists Be Allowed to Ride on DC Sidewalks?

A look at both sides of the argument.

Photograph via Shutterstock.

Earlier this year, a brouhaha about bike riding on city sidewalks—generated by a string of Washington Post columns about bike terrorists and escalators—erupted in the District.

Last week, with two months left in office, DC Council member Jim Graham fanned the fire. Citing the death of a 78-year-old man after a bicycle hit-and-run, the Ward 1 representative proposed extending the law against sidewalk riding in DC’s central business district to all streets where bike lanes run in the same direction.

Cycling advocates say, however, that Graham’s bill isn’t likely to do much to make DC safer, apart from underscoring the contention between cyclists and pedestrians. And it may serve to keep newer bikers from joining the cycling community. “For people who may not be confident or experienced cyclists, [riding in the bike lanes] is still a challenge,” says Shane Farthing, executive director of the Washington Area Bicycling Association.

According to Farthing, restrictions on reckless sidewalk biking already exist, but often go unenforced.

DC has gotten accolades for its pioneering Capital Bikeshare program and for building miles of dedicated lanes along city streets, but bike commuting is still largely restricted to west of the river and has gained a reputation as something of a yuppie rite. In areas such as Southeast Washington, the city’s push to turn commuters into cyclists has been lagging.

This is partly because fewer bike lanes have been built in Southeast—Ward 8 received its first bike lanes only this summer. Southeast residents are also less likely to bike in general, ranking it seventh of nine preferred transportation methods. Even more unpopular is bike sharing. Eighty percent of Capital Bikeshare’s members are white, according to the service’s 2013 member survey.

Pushing newbie cyclists off of Southeast’s relatively uncrowded sidewalks into traffic won’t help matters. “There may well be parts of the District where … a sidewalk for a cyclist might actually be a good idea. If there’s not a ton of pedestrians or if it’s not causing a problem, I’m not sure that we should necessarily treat it the same as we would someone riding on K Street on the sidewalk,” said Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists.

Clarke said increased biking outside of the city center will come with implementation of the “5 E’s”: engagement, education, enforcement, engineering, and encouragement.

Groups like Black Women Bike DC, an advocacy organization working to encourage women and girls in a biking community, are doing the most they can to increase cycling within the community. “We particularly want to see bicycling infrastructure and accessibility brought to parts of the District that are underserved, particularly in Ward 7 and Ward 8 where you have high populations of African-Americans and low-income families. There, bicycling is an economic issue. It’s transportation, it’s economics, and it’s health,” says Allyson Criner Brown, a leader in the organization and a member of the District government’s Bicycle Advisory Council.

Brown says the “blanket” bill is an oversimplification of complex public policy affecting a diverse district: “We need to recognize that not everybody is comfortable riding in the street with traffic. Even though bicyclists have rights, our number one concern is still safety. That’s what a lot of people feel is keeping them off bicycles.”

Graham argues allowing bikes onto sidewalks only transfers the hazards bikers face to pedestrians. “It doesn’t make sense to me, and I’ve got too many people who have fear of injury,” Graham says. The council member said he believes the bill will encourage more bike lanes, as pedestrians lobby for their construction to protect walking space.

Another recent piece of legislation, introduced by David Grosso, would give bicyclists the opportunity to receive compensation after crashes with cars, even if they were partly at fault. Grosso’s action lessens risk for bikers who can’t afford a $3,000 Trek and trendy compression shorts—those who will hopefully gain more rule of the District’s streets and trails.

“It’s important to enable people to feel like they’re not going to be punished for doing something that helps them figure out how to ride their bike,” Clarke says.

Correction: An earlier version of this post stated Capital Bikeshare’s membership is 90 percent white and male. According to Bikeshare’s most recent membership survey, 80 percent of members are Caucasian and 53 percent of members are male.