On D.C.’s Entitled “Bike Terrorists”
On Monday, I joined Veronica Davis, a self-described "Jill of all trades" whose many roles include transportation planner and co-founder of the organizing and advocacy group Black Women Bike, for a bicycle trip through Ward 7. Davis commutes between her office downtown and her home in Fairfax Village, a quiet residential community by the Maryland border, by bike most days, and it's not an easy trip. She took me along to show me some of the challenges faced by bikers who live east of the Anacostia River.
First, there are the hills. A cyclist who conquers the first big uphill stretch heading southwest along Pennsylvania Avenue past Hillcrest is greeted by the sight of a second, larger one—more daunting than anything most bikers in the Northwest quadrant regularly encounter.
Then there's the lack of bike lanes. Ward 7 has under four miles of bike lanes; Ward 8 has zero. So our trip was taken almost entirely on the sidewalk, preferable to tussling with the speeding car traffic on Pennsylvania. That presented its own challenges: the poor condition of the sidewalk in places; the awkward street crossings sometimes necessitating sharp turns over mysterious sandy patches; the utility poles seemingly placed with the sole intention of impeding a biker's safe passage; the clusters of pedestrians around bus shelters; and the odd tree branch (or, in one instance, electrical wire) requiring a timely duck of the head.
Not a lot of bikers make this trek, but we encountered a few. On reaching the top, we crossed paths with a man on a bike who, upon seeing us, pumped both fists in the air in greeting. You made it, the gesture said. It's not easy biking east of the river, but we're in it together.
Fast forward all of one day, to yesterday evening, when Washington Post columnist Courtland "Myopic Little Twits" Milloy treats us to a column bearing the headline, "Bicyclist bullies try to rule the road in D.C." Cyclists, he writes, are as "nasty" as a motorcycle gang, with more nerve. They push for bike lanes "in front of churches where elderly parishioners used to park their cars. They slow-peddle [sic] those three-wheel rickshaws through downtown during rush hour, laughing at motorists who want them to get out of the way."
Never mind the curious logic that equates bike commuters with maniacal rickshaw drivers, or the insinuation that cyclists are out to terrorize elderly church-going ladies. (Terror is more than hinted at; Milloy later refers to "the biker terrorists out to rule the road.") Where is Milloy getting this idea that cyclists have excessive nerve? It turns out to come from a short item by David Alpert on the blog Greater Greater Washington.
In that piece, Alpert introduces D.C. readers to a piece of technology employed in a city in Norway that helps cyclists get up steep hills. Might, he asks, such a "bike escalator" make it easier for bikers to ascend the steep hill on 15th Street NW that will soon get a bike lane? Sure, it might. But he never actually proposed, much less strayed into the "pushing for" territory that Milloy accuses him of, constructing one. "My post about the Trampe [bike escalator] was just pointing out a technique another city has successfully used in a context similar to one we have in D.C.," Alpert tells me in an email. "I was not making a specific, concrete recommendation at this time."
So what does Milloy make of this entirely hypothetical suggestion on a local blog? "That's nerve," he writes—and grounds for Milloy to pose a suggestion of his own: "It’s a $500 fine for a motorist to hit a bicyclist in the District, but some behaviors are so egregious that some drivers might think it’s worth paying the fine."
I'm sure many Washingtonians—regular cyclists included—would consider a city-funded bike escalator a rather extravagant solution to the problem of a less-than-bike-friendly hill. But if Alpert's idle musings about bike escalators were the best evidence Malloy could muster for his "argument" (and I'm being generous) that all cyclists—the daily commuters, the recreational dabblers, and, yes, the professional rickshaw drivers—possess an attitude of entitlement that's deserving of punishment, then maybe he and his editor should head back to whatever vacation they seem to have interrupted to publish this.
Among the piece's many flaws—the blasé attitude toward cyclists being hit by cars; the misreading of Alpert's post; the false charge that "influential newcomers to the city pressed to get [Malcolm X Park's name] changed back to Meridian Hill," which has always been its legal name as far as the feds were concerned anyway; the undisguised trolling—a less obvious one stands out after my ride with Davis. It's not clear from reading the column that he's aware that she even exists. Or that any of the people east of the river who endure difficult conditions to bike, either for exercise, or because it's faster than transferring buses, or because they can't afford to pay the bus or Metro fare twice daily, do.
Davis isn't even calling for bike lanes, so great is her entitlement; in speaking with the District Department of Transportation, her requests don't get much more ambitious than straightening out sidewalks so the street crossings where she's witnessed several bikers wipe out become less dangerous. But this, of course, is the trademark call of the biker terrorists out to rule the road.
But the column's worst problem? Callous timing. In 2008, a 22-year-old cyclist named Alice Swanson was riding down the bike lane on R Street NW, near Dupont Circle—the epicenter of the bike-lane zone, where pushy bikers have gotten their way and rule the road more than anywhere—when a truck driver turning right hit her and trapped her under the truck, killing her. Perhaps, to the driver, her annoying behavior or the existence of the spacious bike lane was enough to justify risking a $500 fine (though he never even got so much as a ticket for that crash, despite a horrific driving record before then).
Yesterday, the day Milloy chose to rant against the elevated status enjoyed by imperious cyclists, marked the sixth anniversary of her death.
Photos by Darrow Montgomery