Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

A pedestrian's fears rise as bicycles race along District sidewalks

August 17, 2011 - 08:40 AM
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Share the road? (Photo: flickr/daquellamanera)

Reverend Frank Dunn, a senior priest at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church since 2004, lives in a condo in a renovated Columbia Heights row house on Park Road. Around the property is a retaining wall as well as a gate, much like his neighbors' houses. When Dunn stepped out onto the sidewalk not long ago, he glanced left, casually and just taking in the day.

And then whoosh! Coming from his right, a middle-aged bicyclist whizzed past.

Once the priest recovered from the shock, he began to grow angry. Dunn thought of his neighbor's children, both under the age of 10 and living in a similar walled house. Would the bicyclist have been able to see a couple of short kids on the sidewalk? Dunn doubted it.

"I don't have a vendetta against bicyclists," Dunn told me. "I have no problem with this being a city of cyclists ... [But] this is an issue of pedestrian safety."

From 2005 to 2010, there have been on average 653 crashes involving pedestrians and 334 crashes involving bicyclists each year, according to the District department of transportation. The majority resulted in injuries and occasionally fatalities. A 68-year-old D.C. woman recently died from head injuries nearly a month after being struck by a San Francisco bicyclist in California, a colleague noted recently. The question of sharing the road ultimately goes deeper than just bicyclists and cars. It also involves bicyclists and pedestrians — and some, such as Dunn, have voiced fear and concern about what we should do. Where he lives in Columbia Heights, it's legal for people to bike on the sidewalks, although the Central Business District doesn't permit it on their blocks. Pedestrians officially have the right of way on sidewalks, according to DDOT, and bicyclists are supposed to stop for them when the sidewalk crosses driveways and alleys.

Dunn took his outrage over this as well as other bicycling close calls to the Columbia Heights community listserv on August 7, and the discussion has erupted into what the New Columbia Heights blog thought might be a record-breaking 80+ comments, as it observed yesterday. On the listserv, Dunn recounted multiple close calls he had faced and wrote:

It is time to do something to address the constant danger of bicyclists on sidewalks. Columbia Heights in particular is getting increasingly dangerous ... I have over the course of the last year had any one of a number of near collisions as a pedestrian for whom bicyclists have apparently no regard.

For what scale of accident are we waiting before someone mounts a campaign (neighbors, I am all for it if there is any support) to stop this unsafe practice? What do we have to do to ensure that proper regulations are in place and warnings made for dangerous cycling activity? This is every bit as urgent as unsafe driving practices, and a lot more significant for public safety than, say, the routine ticketing of illegally parked vehicles (though I have no issue with the latter).

Answers?

The multitude of responses touched on questions of different state laws, of bike lanes, of infrastructure — questions that Dunn saw as retreating from the central concern of pedestrian safety. Those issues of infrastructure and bike lanes, important as they are, are "more comfortable," he said to me.

One person replied, "Kinda don't think it's a coincidence that the parts of this ward that are explicitly bike friendly (11th above Florida, 14th south of U, that great setup at 16th and U) don't really have this problem, and well-trafficked areas like 14th between like Harvard and Park do." Another suggested better signs and education. A bike commuter writes that he "wouldn't make it into a whole campaign against some kind of plague of bicyclists with poor manners. If anything, I would make a campaign about general civility by ALL parties in the urban landscape." Another daily cyclist says that he generally avoids riding on the sidewalk when possible and doesn't think doing so is safe "for pedestrians or cyclists who end up riding through crosswalks where motorists aren't expecting them."

Dunn's other encounters reinforced his reserve about bicyclists on sidewalks. He described to me a bicyclist "really racing" at what he suspected was 10 miles/hour, and a summer night in May when a cyclist brushed against his partner. These moments stir the priest's emotions to the point where in the past he's shouted "Slow down!" at a biker who seemed to recklessly speed along the sidewalk. He's been knocked down before and dropped an umbrella and glasses case. He recounts other moments, such as when two older women encountered young children biking recklessly, and one of the women "really dressed him down" in cautioning one boy about safe biking.

Dunn stresses that he doesn't want to be negative person, he told me, or as he wrote later on in the long Columbia Heights listserv thread, an "axe-grinder" or a "pest." In a follow-up post on August 11, Dunn wrote:

I have actually thought about the question of how someone with my concern about pedestrian safety might actually have an impact without pissing off bicycle riders, without becoming a know-it-all, without being over-controlling, without being unsympathetic to those whose level of common courtesy is different from my own. Should I accost bicycle riders who collide with me (as I did in a fit of rage) and let them have it verbally? Should I take my concern to court when police appear at the scene of a deliberate assault (yes, it was that) and expect something to change? Should I avoid walking on the sidewalk lest I encounter someone whose behavior endangers me? Should I organize a group of likeminded people who will spend untold hours putting up placards pleading with teenage and pre-teen cyclists please to be nice, so that such placards can fade in the summer sun or be ripped down to add to the heavily littered gutters around our neighborhood center? Should I go from door to door, an evangelist to parents and beleaguered grandparents, entreating for greater supervision over their young and half-aware biker children? Might I organize a first aid stand somewhere on a congested street to give aid and comfort to the elderly lady who was smashed into by a seven or eight-year-old, zooming in and out between pedestrian legs on a steamy and crowded sidewalk on a Saturday morning?

What Dunn ultimately expresses is frustration and fear as a sidewalk pedestrian. How do we solve the bikes racing by on the sidewalk? "I wish I knew," he told me. Bike lanes seem fine enough, but he's not convinced they're the silver bullet to fix the problem. He says he's had dangerous encounters even around bike lanes.

"Things like this I believe change best when there's a modus operandi for bringing this to people's attention in a positive way," Dunn said.

The clergyman ponders what would happen if DDOT held a campaign for a year or two, a "real PR campaign" with posters on Metro and buses advocating pedestrian safety. He doesn't know whether it would work but says that might be one possibility. DDOT has shown some sensitivity to the issue. In the past month, the city has brought in members of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association to help train the District's traffic control officers, and as WABA's staff blog observed, the biking organization is "not very fond of endangering pedestrians or drivers." Presumably the WABA training will benefit all parties involved, whether on bike, in a car, or on the sidewalk. The government also has launched a StreetSmart program in recent years to encourage better road etiquette.

What Dunn knows and feels in his bones and with an emotion that spurs on his storytelling is that he's not always safe when walking around his neighborhood. He thinks bikes are good, but his message and concern involves obedience to traffic laws and a desire to deter reckless biking.

"The street's where you need to be riding," Dunn said.

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