Do bicycles belong on the street or on the sidewalk? It's an age-old debate — or at least a conversation that's been going on since bicycles were invented. Here in Alexandria, it's complicated by uneven historic bricks and scores of cyclists that cut through Old Town as part of Mount Vernon Trail. This week, city leaders are hoping to bring some new clarity to the issue.
"When appropriate, ride on the street," said Mayor Bill Euille. "When not appropriate, jump on the sidewalk as long as it's not in the restricted area."
Until members of the Alexandria City Council took action to change the ordinance this week, riding on the sidewalk was prohibited. That caused a problem for younger or less confident cyclists, who wanted to avoid being run over by a DASH bus. So the new ordinance creates a set of new rules for cycling off the street. Critics say the old rules were better.
"Why would you put pedestrians in danger just to let bicyclists use the sidewalks?" said Parker Gray resident Dino Drudi. "Bicyclists don't even drive safely when they are on the street."
NOW THE RULES say that bike riders must yield to pedestrians and give audible warning before they pass. Although cycling on the sidewalk is OK for most of Old Town, it's strictly prohibited in commercial zones. That means no bicycles on the sidewalks on King Street between West Street and the Potomac River. It's also forbidden on Union Street between Prince Street and Cameron Street.
"I don't think outside these areas we will have the complaints," said Rich Baier, director of the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services. "The behavior will change."
More changes are on the horizon for bike regulations. Now that council members have taken action, city officials will be moving forward with notification on maps, signs and a new website. The idea is to get the word out to bicycle riders about when and where it's appropriate to go off road. And city officials are taking steps to do away with an outdated requirement that cyclists register their vehicles with the city and pay a 25-cent registration fee, an ordinance that the Alexandria Police Department has long since abandoned enforcing despite the fact it's still on the books.
"The national registry became a better option than what we were doing locally," said Police Chief Earl Cook. "When the law doesn't become useful and practical, then we should not enforce it."
AND MORE RESTRICTED ZONES may be in the works, increasing the number of areas that are off-limits to the two-wheel set. City officials say proposed zones should have a high volume of pedestrian activity, more than 150 people an hour. They also need to have a significant percentage of the block within the zone containing commercial development. And then there are also areas where sidewalks might be relatively narrow, five feet or less.
"They went about this backwards," said Drudi, who lives on a street with a narrow sidewalk. "On day one of these new rules, almost every sidewalk will be eligible for bicyclists to ride on, even the ones that are inappropriate. They should have kept the status quo and built on that instead of making such a radical change."