Picture it: You’re walking down the sidewalk in your D.C. neighborhood, minding your own beeswax. Then, out of nowhere, a cyclist whooshes past you on the sidewalk, nearly knocking your arm with his handlebars.

“Watch it!” you yell, shaking your fist like one of those angry geezers you swore you’d never become. But it doesn’t matter – the guy is already long gone. “I hate cyclists,” you think to yourself.

Picture it: You’re biking down the street in your D.C. neighborhood, minding your own beeswax. Then, out of nowhere, you see a Lyft driver pull into the bike lane, and a bus making a wide right turn up ahead.

“Watch it!” you yell, shaking your fist like one of those angry geezers you swore you’d never become. But it doesn’t matter — the drivers can’t hear you. So you swerve up onto the sidewalk, squeezing past some guy. “I hate cars,” you think to yourself.

The Rules

The question of who’s in the right here — the frustrated pedestrians, or the wary cyclists — is the subject of our latest What’s With Washington investigation. Who exactly should be on the sidewalks around here? And why do they suddenly feel so crowded?

The first question comes with a straightforward answer: Bicycling on the sidewalks in D.C. is legal, except in an area called the “Central Business District,” which is roughly bounded by Massachusetts Avenue and the National Mall.

You can’t bike on the sidewalks in the purple section of this map, but you’re good to go in the green and white.
District Department of Transportation

In classic D.C. Metro Area fashion, the rules are different in both Maryland and Virginia. In Maryland, it’s illegal to bike on the sidewalks, unless a municipal government votes to change the rules. Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties, for example, have legalized the practice.

In Virginia, the opposite is true: it’s legal to bike on sidewalks, unless a local government decides to ban it.

But just because you can bike on the sidewalks doesn’t mean you should be a jerk about it. Colin Browne, communications director for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA), says that riding on the sidewalk puts a cyclist in the same power position as a driver on a road.

“You are the large, fast vehicle, and it’s your responsibility to make sure that everyone around you not just is safe, but feels safe,” Browne said.

Browne also noted that biking on the sidewalk isn’t necessarily safer than being on the road. In particular, biking down from the sidewalk and onto a crosswalk can be dangerous, since turning cars often don’t expect a quickly moving cyclist to appear in the crosswalk.

But the broader problem here, he said, doesn’t have anything to do with the relationship between pedestrians or cyclists. It’s about the fact that D.C. is still so devoted to cars.

The Chaos

“We have this big, wide chunk of space,” Browne said of the D.C. streets, “that we have decided, this is how we’re going to move people through the city. And bicyclists and pedestrians are going to get this teeny little wedge of it, and we’re going to sort of let them fight over it.”

To its credit, the city has made a number of accommodations for non-automobile transportation in recent years. It has a total of 81.6 miles of bike lanes, about half of which were built in the last decade, according to Greg Billing, WABA’s director. And in 2015, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced plans for “Vision Zero,” a plan to protect pedestrians and reduce the number of traffic fatalities to zero by 2024.

But look at it from another angle, and the city still has a long way to go. There are about 1,500 miles of streets in the District, which means only about 5 percent have bike lanes. The number of traffic fatalities in the District increased for the second year in a row last year, and eleven of the 30 people killed were pedestrians — nearly 37 percent of the total.

The streets and sidewalks have gotten more crowded in recent years, too. For one, the population is the highest it’s been in decades: It crested 700,000 earlier this year. Then, there are the bikes. Since September, a half-dozen companies have rolled out dockless shared bikes. Unwilling to be left behind, the original shared bike program, Capital Bikeshare, is adding more than 100 stations and expanding into Prince George’s County and Falls Church this year.

And, in the past three months, three companies have introduced electric scooters to the mix.

On the roads, rideshare companies like Uber, Lyft, and Via often clog the city’s bike lanes and curbsides. In an attempt to solve the safety and traffic issues, the District’s Department of Transportation is trying out a new pick-up and drop-off zone for rideshares in the area just south of Dupont Circle. The pilot project involved making a deal with the devil: eliminate precious street parking in order to create special zones where drivers can pull over on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.

In short, there’s a lot going on. But, according to one transportation planner, a little chaos isn’t always a bad thing.

The Solution(s)

Adie Tomer directs the Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative at the Brookings Institution. In his opinion, embracing and adapting to all these new options is what makes a modern city.

“It’s definitely creating a little bit of tension, but at the same time, excitement,” he said.

Take Oslo, Norway’s capital, which has basically written the definition for “modern city.” Thanks to excellent Scandinavian health care and an increase in immigration, it has one of the fastest-growing populations in Europe. To relieve traffic congestion and cut down on greenhouse gas emissions, the city decided to eliminate all downtown parking spaces last year. It’s also in the process of building 40 miles of new bike lanes, with the goal of having a car-free city center by next year.

D.C. isn’t quite that visionary yet. But, Tomer said, we’re doing something a little different — we’re experimenting. By allowing in companies that peddle alternate transportation options (pun intended), the District has made itself into one of the country’s leading testings grounds for a wave of new technologies that could help cities become denser and more efficient.

“The less we regulate our streets, you inherently allow more innovation, right?” Tomer said. “We’re seeing ever-more-promising ways to move around our cities, in ways that actually allow us to fit more people into them.”

In some ways, it seems to be working: Since Capital Bikeshare launched in 2010, the percentage of people who commute by bike in D.C. has nearly quintupled, from around one to nearly five percent. Ridesharing powerhouse Uber recently bought Jump Bikes, which pioneered its electric bikeshares in D.C. and San Francisco. The Washington Post saw the move as part of Uber’s plan to become “a one-stop shop for urban mobility.” It might work, and it might not, but it’ll be fascinating to watch.

The next step, Tomer says, is taking a hard look at the pendulum that’s currently swinging “between order and chaos, and innovation and stasis,” and finding a good balance.

But if there’s one major takeaway from all the madness, it’s this: It’s mostly legal to bike on the sidewalks in D.C.