July-August 2015

Cyclists vs. Drivers

Tensions between cyclists and drivers are at an all-time high

Jodi Grant was riding her bike along Massachusetts Avenue near Westbard Avenue at 10:30 a.m. on a Friday in August 2012 when it happened.

On her way home from a group ride, Grant was in the far right side of the right lane on a slight downhill when she saw two cars in the left lane. The car in front was waiting to make a left turn, and Grant noticed that the driver of the second vehicle, a minivan, seemed impatient.

Suddenly, the minivan swerved into the right lane to pass the other car, plowing down Grant and her bike and then speeding away, according to witnesses who called for emergency services and then provided information for a police report as an ambulance carried Grant away.

The mother of two young girls, Grant woke up in the ambulance. She had a broken neck and back, a concussion, multiple lacerations on her face and 14 shattered teeth. The driver of the minivan hasn’t been found.

It’s an extreme example of a regular occurrence in Montgomery County. According to a county report released in late 2014, there were 613 reported bicycle-vehicle collisions from 2009 to 2013, and the driver was at fault in 52 percent of them.

In downtown Bethesda, police determined the driver to be at fault in 54 percent of the 37 bicycle-vehicle collisions from 2009 to 2013. Cyclists were found to be at fault 13 percent of the time. In the remainder of the incidents, cyclists and drivers shared the blame, or the fault wasn’t determined.

The statistics underscore a relationship between cyclists and drivers that can be tense at best and vicious at worst, as illustrated by Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy in July 2014.

In the column—headlined “Bicyclist bullies try to rule the road in D.C.”— Milloy compared groups of bicyclists with motorcycle gangs, and complained that if you ask a bike rider to obey the rules of the road, “a biker just might spit on your car. Kick the door. Hit the side mirrors. Bang on the hood.” The column sparked outrage among cyclists, who responded with angry letters to the editor and online diatribes.

Grant says she’s familiar with the contentious relationship between cyclists and drivers. “I’m a driver, too, and I know it can be frustrating to have to wait behind a bike,” Grant says. “I also know that not all cyclists obey the law, and it irks me when I see cyclists weaving between cars or otherwise behaving unpredictably.” One of the biggest complaints from drivers is that some cyclists run red lights.

Rui Ponte, an avid cyclist and former bike racer, says he has been hit by cars multiple times, sometimes when cars have attempted to pass him while he was riding his bike. “Unless they’re a rider themselves, they don’t have any sense of the speeds at which a bicycle can move,” Ponte says. “I find that it’s safer to take up a whole lane and not give a car room to pass you—if you allow for that space, the car will take it, whether it’s safe to pass or not.”

Maryland law allows cyclists traveling at the speed of traffic to operate in any lane, except where the speed limit is higher than 50 mph (in which case, cyclists may ride on the shoulder). If cyclists are traveling slower than the speed of traffic, the law requires that they stay in the right lane, and as close to the right side of the road as is safe. However, Maryland law also states that the ride-to-the-right provision does not apply if the lane is too narrow for a bicycle and a vehicle to ride safely side-by-side in the same lane; in that case, the cyclist may take up the whole lane.

New dedicated bike lanes, a possible solution to the problem, could be part of the next update to Montgomery County’s Bicycle Master Plan, which is being discussed in public meetings throughout the summer, says David Anspacher of the Montgomery County Planning Department.

Currently, there’s only about three-tenths of a mile of bike lanes in Montgomery County, and none of them are buffered or protected, Anspacher says. Unlike a conventional bike lane, which give cyclists their own dedicated lane immediately adjacent to car traffic, a buffered bike lane further separates bikes from cars by incorporating a painted space, or buffer, between the bike lane and vehicular traffic lanes. A protected bike lane uses posts or other physical barriers to add even more protection. In contrast, Arlington County has 34 miles of bike lanes, including 1.2 miles of buffered lanes and one-tenth of a mile of protected lanes, according to Henry Dunbar, program director of Bike Arlington.

Better-connected bike trails could also help ease tension. Though Grant isn’t back to riding on the road, she commutes by bike daily to her job as executive director of the Afterschool Alliance in downtown Washington, D.C. She travels via the Capital Crescent Trail and around the monuments. It’s a 10-mile commute each way—3 miles longer than it would be if she chose to ride on traditional roads. Improvements to existing bike trails and the addition of new bike trails could also be part of the master plan update, Anspacher says.

Grant and other cycling advocates say that both sides need to be more patient and courteous. “I think that people forget that bikers are your friends and your neighbors—just everyday workers who are trying to find an easier or healthier way to commute to work or to take one more car off the road,” Grant says. “We all need to learn to respect each other more.”



BE PREDICTABLE. The best thing drivers and cyclists can do is behave in a predictable manner, Grant says. Making sudden moves—especially those that break or bend traffic rules—makes it difficult for others to respond appropriately.

TAKE UP THE LANE. Grant says that while she wasn’t at fault in her crash, if she had the morning to do over, she would have taken up the entire right lane, rather than leaving room for a car to pass her. “By doing what I thought was better for the cars, I left room for something terrible to happen,” Grant says.

MAKE YOURSELF SEEN. Wear bright or reflective clothing, use bike lights, and ride in a group (according to state law, cyclists may ride two abreast only if the flow of traffic is not impeded).

BE PATIENT. Grant notes that drivers may underestimate the speed of cyclists, who often can keep up with traffic in zones with low speed limits. “If a cyclist is going 25 mph and the speed limit is 30 mph, cars probably shouldn’t be honking for the bike to get out of the way,” Grant says.



All jersey photos by Stacy Zarin-Goldberg

When cyclists are out on the road, their jerseys can be both a conversation starter and a badge of honor. Bethesda rider Michael Gildenhorn tells the stories behind four of his favorite jerseys.

Since 2006, Gildenhorn has organized a cycling trip for friends to national parks and other iconic biking locations around the country. The group is called No Chains Attached, and Gildenhorn has a custom jersey made for the trip each year. In 2008, about a dozen Bethesda-area riders went to Crater Lake National Park in Oregon. “There were forest fires raging nearby, so there was a smoke haze around the lake,” he says. “We couldn’t go up certain roads, and there was ash falling all over us.”


The AIDS Ride was a 3½-day, 330-mile ride from Raleigh, North Carolina, to Washington, D.C. Each night, the riders stayed in a “mobile city” with tents and dining rooms. The ride finished with a trip across Key Bridge into Georgetown and then onto the National Mall. “I don’t think there’s been a larger local charity ride,” Gildenhorn says. “It was epic.”


A one-day, 120-mile ride over three mountain passes in Colorado, the Triple Bypass includes more than 10,000 feet of climbing. This jersey was from the 2010 event, the first time Gildenhorn did the ride. “You’re surrounded by the Rocky Mountains,” he says. “You’re always rewarded after a long climb with a thrilling descent.”


Gildenhorn climbed California’s Figueroa Mountain last year as part of a three-day cycling training camp led by Chris Carmichael, who used to coach Lance Armstrong. The camp, which had about 12 participants, taught riders how to stay in tight formations over long distances. “It required a lot of concentration, but it made for a quicker ride,” Gildenhorn says. “The camp really improved my bike-handling skills.”




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