WASHINGTON — In a town known for its traffic, the number of cyclists is growing.
And while this trend is great for the health of the environment and the health of District residents, it has caused some tension among motorists, pedestrians and cyclists.
Here’s some information on what’s legal and what isn’t when it comes to biking in D.C., plus the city’s best streets and trails for biking.
Who sets D.C.’s bike laws and who is responsible for enforcing them?
Bike laws in D.C. are enacted by the D.C. Council and enforced by the Metropolitan Police Department. The laws can be found on the D.C. Department of Transportation’s website.
According to Shane Farthing, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, biking is growing in the D.C. region faster than anywhere else in the nation. Because of this, more cyclists, motorists and advocacy organizations have called on the MPD to further enforce the laws and crack down on all parties who break the rules.
“When things devolve into chaos — when you let cars park in bike lanes, when you let folks do all sorts of things on the roads and no one’s getting ticketed — we’re the ones that are getting sent to the hospital,” Farthing says.
Columbia Heights resident and cyclist Tom Allison says he’s not afraid to call out fellow bikers when they break the rules of the road.
Cyclists meet in D.C. for Bike to Work Day. (Getty Images)
“I often yell at bikers for endangering themselves and pedestrians when they don’t follow the rules of the road,” says Allison. “Of course, I yell at drivers for not yielding the right of way and at jaywalking pedestrians.”
DDOT reports that in the past five years there have been an average of 334 crashes involving bicyclists each year in the District.
On a recent WTOP Ask the Chief, D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier addressed bike safety and enforcement in the District. She said while the MPD is ramping up enforcement efforts, tourists and irregular commuters make it difficult.
“When you have so many tourists and visitors who are non-residents who are coming here for short visits and renting bikes, our enforcement efforts don’t have the same impact that they would in a neighborhood that’s not a tourist area,” she said on WTOP.
Tom Grahsler, who lives in Columbia Heights and bikes every day, says he would like to see smart legislation adopted around biking.
“The problem is that traffic laws are written for 2 tons of steel and not for 170 pounds of meat. Right now we are treated as either cars or pedestrians and we are neither,” says Grahsler, 30.
He references a law adopted in Idaho, called the “Idaho stop,” which lets cyclists treat stop signs like yield signs.
“Due to the fundamental difference in mechanics around cycling, coming to a full and complete stop is both difficult and unnecessary. And really, how many cars actually come to a full and complete stop and count to three at every intersection?”
Is it illegal for bicyclists to ride on D.C.’s sidewalks?
That depends on where you are. You cannot ride a bike on the sidewalk in D.C.’s Central Business District, the boundaries of which stretch from Constitution Avenue NW and 23rd Street NW, north to Massachusetts Avenue NW, east to 2nd Street NE, south to D Street SE, west to 14th Street NW and back up to Constitution Avenue.
Outside of the Central Business District, it is legal for cyclists to ride on the sidewalk.
“But bicyclists should always yield the right of way to pedestrians on the sidewalk and should really be respectful of people who are walking,” says Sam Zimbabwe, associate director for policy, planning and sustainability at the District Department of Transportation.
How many bike lanes does D.C. have?
D.C. continues to build more bike lanes. (Getty Images)
D.C. has about 60 miles of on-street bike lanes, and the city is continuing to build more, including nine in 2014, Zimbabwe says.
“We definitely have a growing number of cyclists,” he says, adding that 4 percent of the commuters in D.C. commute by bike. “But we also see a lot of people riding for leisure and people getting around and tourists and things like that.”
The city’s most popular bike lanes (those with the highest volume) include the cycle tracks on 15th Street NW, L Street NW, M Street NW and Pennsylvania Avenue.
Cars cannot park in a bike lane.
Can cyclists ride in the road?
In addition to riding in the city’s bike lanes, cyclists can claim a whole traffic lane — even if the street has a bike lane. There are no regulations stating bicyclists must use a bike lane when one is provided.
Grahsler says riding in the center of the lane is the safest way to ride a bike in D.C. when there isn’t a bike lane.
“Some cyclists will ride on the right side of the lane, but in my 12 years of bike commuting, I’ve found that that can invite disaster,” he says. “Sticking to the right of the lane can get you hit by the opening door of a parked car — colloquially known as ‘getting doored.’ Sticking to the right of the lane can also tempt cars to pass too closely, which is dangerous for both cyclists and cars.”
When they are on the road, cyclists need to follow traffic laws and must ride with traffic.
“Bikes on the road should consider themselves to be cars; they should follow all the traffic laws that cars have to follow. Similarly, drivers need to recognize that bikes have those same rights and responsibilities. Bikes are entitled to the full use of a lane; bikes are responsible for stopping at red lights; cyclists need to yield the right of way to pedestrians in crosswalks. At an uncontrolled crossing, if there’s no stop sign or red light and a pedestrian’s crossing, a bike needs to stop and yield the right of way to the pedestrian,” Zimbabwe says.
However, there are certain roads cyclists can’t ride on, such as I-295 and in the city’s limited-access freeways.
Do you have to wear a helmet when riding a bike in D.C.?
It is against the law for anyone under the age of 16 to ride a bike without a helmet; for those over 16, a helmet is recommended for safety.
You can talk on a cell phone while riding a bike, too, but it is not advised. Phones and other electronic devices are prohibited while operating a moving motor vehicle, according to the Pocket Guide to D.C. Bike Laws.
Bikes, when operated at night, must have a light that’s visible from a distance of 500 feet.
Do you need to register your bike?
Ever since June 1, 2008, bikes are no longer required to be registered with D.C.; you can’t get pulled over for having an unregistered bike.
What are some of the best and worst streets to ride a bike?
Grahsler finds Northwest neighborhoods, such as Columbia Heights, Mt. Pleasant and Bloomingdale, to be the friendliest for cyclists.
“Even if there is no dedicated bike lane, people don’t seem to be in as much of a rush on residential streets. I also think that as the demographics of the city have changed, residents in the Northwest have become more used to interacting with cyclists,” he says.
In his opinion, the least biker-friendly street is Florida Avenue NW, between New York Avenue and U Street.
“There are no dedicated bike lanes, and often there are commuters coming in and out of the city that aren’t used to interacting with cyclists. It’s the most direct route from the Northeast to the Northwest so I take it often, though I know many cyclists that avoid that corridor completely,” he says.
Where can families bike with children?
There is plenty of family-friendly biking in D.C. (Getty Images)
Megan Odett, founder and organizer of Kidical Mass DC, the local chapter of a national movement to encourage parents and kids to bike together, says there are lots of places where parents can ride with their children in the city.
On the weekends, one of her favorite places to ride is the Metropolitan Branch Trail, an eight-mile trail that runs from Union Station to Silver Spring, Maryland.
“It’s really fantastic because it’s wide and it’s easy to ride on,” says Odett, who adds that her son loves to watch the trains that pass on the three tracks parallel to the trail.
The Anacostia River Walk Trail is another family-friendly path.
“It’s beautiful, because you get these great views of D.C. from over the river; it’s easy to ride on; it’s quiet, and it goes past Kingman Island, which is this beautiful, really secluded nature preserve. It’s a way to feel like you’re getting out of the city but have the amazing city skyline right in front of you,” Odett says.
Odett rides with her young kids on her bike, and has some advice for other parents looking to do the same: Most importantly, make sure you develop your own cycling skills.
“Be very comfortable biking on the streets, knowing how to handle yourself biking in traffic. I ride in the street; I take the lane when I have to. I just make sure that I’m taking up the space that I need to take on the street to stay safe,” she says.
When teaching kids to be independent cyclists, Odett says to reinforce the rules of the road when you walk with your kids.
“Make sure your kid is a good walker before you start biking on the streets or biking on the trails with other people,” she says.
What are some of the area’s bike trails?
The D.C. area has several trails open to cyclists. Some of the more popular trails include the Mount Vernon Trail, the Washington and Old Dominion Trail, the Capital Crescent Trail, the C&O Towpath and the North Bethesda Trail.