Urban Commuting: the Invisible Cyclist

Today I decided to take a post-work commute home through the White House Plaza across 17th Street and over to Georgetown.

Those of you familiar with this area know that, for drivers traveling east-bound, Pennsylvania Avenue T’s into 17th and the White House Plaza. The only traffic crossing drivers’ paths at 17th and Pennsylvania is either pedestrian or cyclist.

Riding along on the Surly LHT

As I exited the plaza and made my entry to cross 17th Street and continue onto Pennsylvania, a car approached from the opposite direction (at the T) to make a left. We both had the green light to go and the pedestrian signal indicated at least 10 seconds before the light change.

Something about the speed of the car gave me pause, and I touched my brakes as a cautionary measure. The car never saw me and bulldozed its way through the intersection right in front of me. I stood eyeball to eyeball with the passenger, and just shook my head as they zipped past.

This situation recalled a piece of advice someone had shared with me once. I think many cyclists have heard it. “Act like you’re invisible.” I don’t really agree with it, but I get the point that it’s trying to make.

I don’t think cyclists should act like they’re invisible, as this mentality has the potential to put a cyclist in a vulnerable situation. There are times to take the lane and act as visible as possible.

However, it’s also important to be cognizant that some people (particularly, people who are driving cars and SUVs and other vehicles that can possibly kill you) simply do not see people on bikes.

Today’s traffic scare wasn’t a super-close call, but close enough that it amped up my heart rate for the next hour or so. I rode extra-cautiously and burned in anger toward the driver. I had the green light and just as much of the right of way as did this driver. They should have been looking out for cyclists. GRRR!

Don’t they know the White House Plaza area is a main thoroughfare for cyclists? That we have rights to the road, too? Does this person have no respect for my life? I was ticked.

Whatever. Ultimately, I know I did the right thing by being aware of the driver, sensing that they wouldn’t stop, and grabbing the brakes. Infuriating? Yes, but I avoided getting hit and nothing bad happened.

The ride ended up being one of those reminder-type rides.

  • Remember commute trouble spots.
  • Remember that drivers don’t always yield to cyclists, even when it is supposedly the law.
  • Remember what’s important, i.e., my personal safety.

Sure, I could have pressed through the intersection, but it would have ended up with me being struck and who knows what else. I have no interest in my epitaph reading “She had the right of way.” I much prefer one that says something like “She was a good friend to people (and zombies).”


  1. One of my superpowers is knowing what a driver is going to do before they do. It really isn’t a superpower, just a sensitivity to subtle signals. The speed of the vehicle and lack of deceleration in your story is an example.

    I don’t like the “ride like you’re invisible” approach. This might seem like semantics but I like to think “ride visibly, just don’t assume they can see you.”


  2. Maybe it’s just that I’ve gotten cynical, but over the years I’ve become convinced that a large number of the “close calls” that I’ve encountered aren’t because of people not noticing cyclists, it’s from people simply not caring.

    I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve taken the lane near intersections, resplendent in my uber-Fred fluorescent jersey and lights, and had someone intentionally try to right-hook me. It’s clearly not a visibility problem, since they often precede it with honking.

    Heck, I ride a couple thousand miles a year with my 10-year-old son, also an up-and-coming uber-Fred, and in spite of clearly being a very small kid, motorists still make intentional close-calls against him.


  3. Glad you’re okay, MG. On Monday, the daughter of a colleague of mine was running across the street to catch the school bus. The bus was stopped and she “knew” that traffic would be stopped. What she didn’t know was that a 25-year old was searching for her dropped cell phone as she drove down the same street. Never stopped for the bus. Hit the little girl.

    The girl is okay. I think the driver should have her license revoked for 5 years and her car confiscated. Then maybe we’ll start seeing some change.


  4. Glad you’re OK – a less aware cyclist might have been toast.

    This reminds me of a similar incident in that location that occurred maybe a year ago. I was on 17 Street about to cross H St and go into Lafayette Square. The light turned green and I was about to take off, but something about one of the cars traveling eastbound on H St. made me reconsider. The driver was on her cellphone, and although she was traveling slowly, she didn’t appear to be stopping. And then she did it – went right through the red light. Pedestrians scattered, people yelled (including me), but she just kept chatting away, oblivious.


  5. MG, Glad to hear you are OK. There are those car drivers who consider themselves “invincible” and just don’t care about anyone else on the road. I liken it to the “only camel in the desert” syndrome which often typifies driving in the Middle East and in Central Asia. So I won’t comment on being “invisible” or riding as though you were; I will just say, “Be safe.”


  6. I often take that route headed West up Penn Ave. The Penn Ave cycle track should really be extended west, from the WH all the way to Washington Cr. There should be a cyclists green light for going E & W across 17th. There’s really no reason not to, except DDOT not wanting to.


    • That would be a good idea, I think. It’s such a main artery for cyclists that it would be great to have it recognized as such.


  7. I’m always nervous when lights change and there aren’t any stopped cars yet. As I enter the intersection, I wonder if someone will miss the red light and plow into me. Glad you are ok and have checked in from the brevet season to give us a report, even one of a distressing nature.


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