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urban cycling in dc

The mild climate of DC this winter means that more people have been cycling to work this winter.

That’s a good – no, a great thing! I love that people are willing to breathe in a little crisp air, turn their pedals, wake up a bit on their way into work.

All the same, you still see some of the same deplorable habits coming to roost: people running stop signs, people wearing headphones that tune out the traffic noise, people riding without helmets, and people not signaling where they intend to go, people riding without lights or reflective elements after dark.

I try to police things where I can, but I’m not official law enforcement (for the stop sign running and lack of signaling). But it does give those of us who do abide by the law (and common sense, and physics) a bad name. I mean, who’s going to lose when a car and a bike try to share the same space?

If you think it’s the bike, well…. I’m not sure who you are.

And I won’t point the finger at “the usual suspects”: folks like bike couriers and hipsters on their fixies or single-speeds; rather, I point the finger at folks who just don’t think when they ride. As a cyclist on the roads of DC, you are a vehicle using the road – the same as any car, motorcycle or scooter that shares the pavement with you and your wheels. So be an active participant in good road stewarship:

  • Obey stop signs and traffic lights. The extra few seconds per intersection won’t cost you – consider it good power or sprint training for your winter-softened legs.
  • Signal your turns, and take the lane when necessary: be assertive, be seen.
  • Invest $20 in a basic set of lights. Dip a little deeper if you want to get a reflective vest or belt, or a light that’ll give you as much presence as a motorcycle or small car.
  • Take off the headphones when you ride. If you must have tunes, then wear one headphone and keep the volume as low as you can.
  • Wear a helmet: it’s the cheapest insurance policy you can buy if you ride a bike.
  • When in doubt, don’t be stupid: pull off the road and let traffic by, take a breath whatever. Let’s face it: it’s not worth the stress, and sometimes you see some cool stuff by slowing down.

Okay, that was a bit of a rant. I still love the fact that people are still riding their bikes during the winter.

I just hope they also will use some common sense when they ride.


if bush really wants to stomp out earmarks…


ironing out the kinks


  1. I love it, too, and you make some excellent points (esp. about headphones).

    Of course it’s also the responsibility of drivers to slow down and to understand that cyclists have a right to “take the lane” when circumstances require it. Also, when a driver attempts to pass someone on a bike, the driver should allow about 3 feet.

  2. ben

    I’ve been biking since I moved to DC a year ago and was pleasantly shocked to see the number of cyclists out in the sub-freezing windy (but short) snowstorm on the commute home on thursday.

    Your pointers are great, although–

    Most times at four-way stop signs cars (when they see me) expect me as a cyclist not to stop, and therefore come to an excruciatingly slow, full stop, waiting for me to ride by. Sometimes I wave them on but if I don’t have a free hand (e.g. have to use both to brake) then I do us both a favor and speed through.

  3. Grand Poobah

    Ben –

    I’ve found that the key at some of the intersections is to be assertive and make eye contact with the drivers. Let them know that you recognize them, and that you recognize the traffic laws. I’ve found that about 85 percent of drivers in DC respond to some good ‘ol eye contact, and will treat you like a fellow vehicle at a stop.

    For the others, well, I consider it a work-in-progress coaching job, teaching the drivers that there are some cyclists (and hopefully a growing number) who respect the traffic laws and their fellow road users.

  4. Why should cyclists observe all of the traffic laws as if they were driving cars? Bicycles are not cars. Skipping though a red light when the intersection is clear, riding to the front of a long line of cars at a traffic light (safely on the right hand side, of course), being able to ride on both the sidewalk and the road as vehicular and pedestrian traffic permit- are these not some of the advantages of bicycling? I’m not advocating speeding through red lights and ignoring traffic signs- but those signals and signs were developed to keep car travelers safe- not bicyclists. Bicyclists can be selective in their interpretation of these laws without being reckless or bad “road stewards”.

  5. Grand Poobah

    “Why should cyclists observe all of the traffic laws as if they were driving cars? Bicycles are not cars.”

    Here’s why: if a bicycle is using the road it is a vehicle. If I expanded your logic a tad, then motorcyclists should also be immune to traffic laws – as should scooter drivers. Yet you know as well as I that if a motorcyclist blew through stop signs, etc., he’d be issued citations and his operator’s license revoked.

    The traffic laws in DC, as well as in almost all of the United States, apply uniformly to all vehicles that use the road. And when a cyclist rides his bicycle on city streets, the bicycle is a vehicle.

    And the signs are there to keep all road users safe: drivers, cyclists, even pedestrians. And so long as you operate a vehicle on a public road, the law is not open to interpretation: it simply applies.

    I’m not saying that traffic laws are perfect, or that a cookie-cutter system applies perfectly to cyclists. Indeed, there are many jurisdictions where the traffic laws have been amended to make bicycles a strange subset of road user that has more restriction in road use. But the laws are there, and they do apply to cyclists, like it or not.

    You can read more about traffic laws, how they apply to cyclists, and efforts to make traffic laws more applicable and less discriminatory, this is a great page to read:


  6. Yes, that’s all fine and well. My guess is, on a repeating basis, you cross the street as a pedestrian when you do not have a walk signal, or start across the street when the *don’t walk* sign has already started flashing, or speed up a little bit to make it though a yellow traffic light and the whole of civilization does not fall because you make the decision to follow the spirit of the law, not the letter. Just saying: I find it a bit annoying to be lectured by drivers. If I run a red light and get hit by a car, I die. If you run that light and hit me, I die. See how the moral precariousness of the cyclist might make him slightly less accepting of being lectured by the driving public?

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