Better bicycle policies more helpful than vehicular homicide

Washington Post columnist trolled the internet last night when he suggested that Washington drivers use their cars as weapons against bicyclists, or, when on foot, cause injury by inserting broomsticks into their front wheels. His silly and ill-considered clickbait generated lots of hate reads and responses.

GGW’s Dave Alpert focused on the need for greater empathy between people utilizing different modes of transportation, while Vox’s Matt Yglesias noted that poor people are much more likely than the affluent to commute to work via bicycle. If you’re wondering why Yglesias would point that out, “bike lanes” is a euphemism for white political influence sometimes used by those who don’t want the District government to cater to younger, often-white newcomers.

When bicyclists and drivers meet on poorly-designed roads tempers can flare, sometimes resulting in serious injuries or death. Whether racially-motivated, WaPo-style political violence or just  ol’ fashioned road rage, these situations will be less common if we can make a few changes to our current policies.

1. Implement the Idaho Stop

As I’ve written before, no one stops at stop signs unless there is a physical barrier to proceeding through an intersection:

It’s true that cyclists rarely come to a complete stop at stop signs unless there is cross traffic that requires the cyclist to yield. Cyclists usually slow to a speed that allows them to ascertain whether or not the intersection is clear, and then proceed forward if it is. This is called an Idaho Stop.

It’s not just something scofflaw cyclists do, but a universal feature in all forms of road transportation. See for yourself:

Rather than using stop sign adherence as a test to determine whether or not not bicyclists should live, we should just grant bicycles the legal right to treat stop signs like yield signs. When cyclists are able to proceed through an empty intersection it makes them less of an obstacle for drivers, and reduces opportunities for them to get Milloyed by a car.

2. Improve East-West Bicycle Routes

There aren’t many good routes between Northeast and Northwest. H Street is a bicycle death trap. Massachusetts lacks bike lanes for most of the stretch between Stanton Park and Mt. Vernon Square.  NY Avenue is basically a freeway, as is Irving. Florida is too wide and fast. G and I Streets dead end at railroad tracks, and K Street doesn’t have bike lanes.

Dedicated bike lanes along Florida, Massachusetts and other streets would make it easier for bicyclists to commute downtown and other areas of interest in Northwest without having to share lanes along dangerous stretches of road, a win-win for all involved.

3.  Educate Drivers About Bicycle Laws

D.C. Metro Area governments don’t require drivers to have a rudimentary understanding of how bicycle riding is governed in the District, and it shows. For example, it’s not uncommon to hear an uninformed person complain about scofflaw bicyclists who “routinely worm their way to the front of a line of cars waiting at a red light” even though this action, called filtering, is completely legal in D.C.

According to D.C. Municipal Regulations, “A person operating a bicycle may overtake and pass other vehicles on the left or right side, staying in the same lane as the overtaken vehicle, or changing to a different lane, or riding off the roadway, as necessary to pass with safety.”

Bicyclists are also allowed to ride outside of bike lanes, ride two abreast, ride on sidewalks (outside the Central Business District), and make use of all streets aside from freeways. Educating drivers about the rules of the road will make bicyclists’ actions seem less erratic to drivers, and also make inconveniences seem less intentional.

According to a study from the U.K.,

The unpredictability of cycle users is seen to be a particular source of irritation to drivers when it compromises drivers’ own convenience. Further, drivers’ estimation of cyclists’ unpredictability is partly related to other sources of negative attitude and cyclists’ status as an ‘out group’ leading to drivers to interpret their behaviour as dispositional and therefore not to be predicted by reference to situational factors. Drivers’ estimation of the unpredictability of cyclists in particular seems to be significant in influencing driver behaviour, resulting from its apparent negative impact on drivers’ perceived behavioural control: their perceived ability to successfully behave in the way that they know to be ideal.

That is, drivers who understand the basics are less likely to see bicyclists as outlaws who need to be taught a lesson, and less likely to excuse sociopathic behavior–like intentionally hitting someone with a car–on their own part.

Local governments could implement this rule by adding a few questions to the written tests teenagers take to earn a driver license.

By changing just a few rules, improving infrastructure in a few key places, and increasing driver knowledge of already-existing regulations, we could greatly improve bicyclist-driver relations in the District.

D.C. cab strike wasn’t designed to win over customers

D.C. cabbies don’t have a great reputation when it comes friendliness, courteous driving, or car maintenance. Hailing a cab sometimes means riding in a beat-up, dirty car driven by a rude person on a circuitous, fare-maximizing route. Customers have taken notice, and have flocked to upstarts Uber and Lyft as soon as they were given a chance for exit. 

Drivers don’t like competition from car services with better booking options, newer cars, nicer drives, and better regulations, and they want our local politicians to know. So the cabbies did what they thought would best serve their interests: massively disrupt downtown traffic for hours as part of a “strike.”

The disruption didn’t go over well the public,  and generated lots of bad press on Twitter.

A similar cabbie strike in London–just two weeks ago–completely backfired, and increased Uber membership in the city by 850%.

Why would cabbies expect to fare better here in the states?

They probably didn’t. D.C. cabbies and cab companies aren’t trying to win over customers at this point. Instead of improving their business model to better compete with the new ride-sharing services, they want politicians to use regulations so that you can’t choose something better than a D.C cab.

Height Act debacle shows politicians aren’t serious about D.C. autonomy

The House of Representatives voted earlier this week to change the Height of Buildings Act of 1910, and it soon will be legal to build habitable spaces in buildings’ penthouses. Prior to the legislation, that space could only be occupied by machines—usually elevator and air conditioning units.

This change to our local rules is positive, though extremely minor. A handful of new buildings will likely have office, event or living space where they previously would not. But this tiny concession from our federal rulers is really a major loss, and a self-inflicted one at that.

When Rep. Darrel Issa, R-Calif., offered the D.C. government autonomy to decide how tall buildings can be,  every District Council member, with the notable exception of Marion Barry, asked the federal government to deny District residents control over how tall our buildings can be.

Council Chair Phil Mendelson, Chair Pro Tempore Kenyan McDuffie and members David Catania, Vincent Orange, Jack Evans, Muriel Bowser, Tommy Wells, Anita Bonds, David Grosso, Jim Graham, Mary Cheh and Yvette Alexander submitted a  resolution to Issa stating that no “big city municipal government in this country has been able to resist the allure of easy real estate money,” an argument that the District of Columbia simply can’t be trusted to make the right decision.

Though they would have you believe otherwise, amending or repealing the Height Act wouldn’t make tall buildings legal. It would just give us the power to do so in the future. As I wrote last year:

 [R]emoving the federally-imposed height limitation wouldn’t legalize tall buildings in the District. In addition to the federal rules, there are local rules about height that are difficult to get around without changing the zoning code. The PUD process allows small increases in height in exchange for offering community benefits, but those increases are very modest.

In addition, local parking minimums, floor area ratio maximums and setback requirements serve as strict de facto limits on height. The D.C. Code also gives neighbors many opportunities and venues in which they can halt a project or severely limit its scale.

The actual stakes of what is being proposed–tiny, incremental changes to the Height Acts–tend to get lost in exchanges like council hearings, but let’s make it clear here:

Entirely removing the federal height limits in the District, which is not even being proposed, would only be a first step in a long process to make tall buildings legal. Before anything gets built, the District government would have to remove height limits in the zoning code, amend or remove parking restrictions, more than double the maximum floor area ratio and lower setback requirements. The only immediate effect of a full repeal would be that the local government, not the feds, would choose how tall buildings can be within the District of Columbia.

That is, nearly every current council member would disenfranchise residents for the foreseeable future rather than give voters the opportunity to elect leaders who disagree in this policy area.

Pretty much every candidate for local office will support autonomy gimmicks they know have no chance of being implemented, but when offered the real thing for building heights, nearly all of them balked.

When Mendelson came forward with his anti-autonomy resolution, Marion Barry wrote that the “District is only 68 miles square, 10 of which are water. Therefore, in my view, we have to do all that we can to maximize height on the land that we have.” He’s right.

A more affordable District requires that we allow greater density where people want to live and work. That means downtown office buildings taller than currently allowed by federal law. In other parts of the city, it means building taller residential buildings to accommodate all the people who want to call D.C. home.

The status quo might allow for the “human scale” and “horizontality” that our council members value so much, but is that worth the cost of displacing working families and low-income residents? Unless views are more important than people, our council members have let us all down.

The next time a local politician claims to support District autonomy, don’t forget to laugh.