With temperatures dropping, likely too are the tensions between cyclists and motorists in and around Montgomery County that defined the summer.
The disagreement, which featured open forums, potential legislation and a case of assault currently under investigation, was rather simple: Cyclists wanted more mutual respect on the roadways. Motorists wanted cyclists to obey traffic laws with consistency.
The disagreement first manifested itself in a June 20 Montgomery County Police-hosted open forum to discuss a particularly problematic street: Bethesda’s MacAurthur Boulevard.
“Each year, MCPD’s 1st District receives a large number of letters, emails, and phone calls regarding the sharing of the roadways between motorists and cyclists along MacArthur Boulevard,” the department said in a release issued that week.
The forum allowed cyclists and motorists alike to voice their concerns, and the results were somewhat predictable. While motorists asked for increased recognition of traffic laws, cyclists wanted more civil treatment on the road.
While the forum included some review of traffic laws to further educate those in attendance, it primarily served to take the simmering issue off the back burner and into the forefront. Within a month, cyclists and motorists from all over the Washington metropolitan area took to public forums and voiced their issues with the area’s roadway culture.
“I really can’t stand bikers. I love the good bikers, but I have yet to come across one,” said Justine Whelan of Arlington in an online post, “and so I’m going to continue saying that I can’t stand bikers until that changes.”
When Los Angeles approved historic legislation on July 21, providing cyclists with further protection against harassment and making lawsuits against drivers more accessible, Washington-area cyclists did not want to be far behind.
The Washington Area Bicyclist Association —which covers Washington along with Prince George’s and Montgomery Counties and northern Virginia – drafted potential legislation based on Los Angeles’ example, and has since been on a campaign to push the law through the city council. However, some feel that laws should be two-way streets.
“The idea that they’re supposed to stop at stop signs and lights seems to be lost on them,” said Mark Scott, a Cabin John resident who prominently voiced his opinion in July. “Most motorists I talk with find the general attitude of cyclists pretty irritating.”
That irritation was caught on tape on August 31, when a local cyclist, who had a video camera mounted on his helmet, was hospitalized after a driver seemingly intentionally struck him in northeastern Washington, further inflaming the already contentious relationship.
The unidentified victim has not pressed charges, but a police investigation is ongoing.
According to the WABA website, most incidents like these go unreported, because of “the knowledge that there is little a cyclist can do after being attacked.”
“The burden of proof for a case like this is so high, and that level of proof is almost never existent,” said WABA spokesman Greg Billings. “This is a one in a million case where somebody has a camera recording. Most time it’s your word against theirs … what we’re seeing is cyclists getting harassed on the roads with very little justice.”
And as fewer cyclists take to the roads with winter months approaching, the conflict appears to be fading, and both sides seem to agree on one thing.
“It’s important to educate cyclists about what bike laws are, how to follow them and how to bike safely It’s also important to educate motorists: What are the laws around cycling? How much space do you need to give a cyclist when you pass them? What are the rules of a bike lanes and how to drive around them?”
“I think education, more than anything else can improve the situation,” said Scott, who agreed that outreach from police, organizations like WABA and daily commuters is necessary for a comprehensive solution.
“A war on cars, or ‘cars vs. bikes’ doesn’t really exist,” Billings said. Citing former D.C. Department of Transportation Director Gabe Klein Billings continued, “It’s more an issue of the right tool for the right job.”