In the past ten years, D.C.’s biking community has grown not just in numbers, but has also evolved greatly in reputation. So much so, that this year, Bike to Work Day almost seems passe, even though it’s as popular as ever. Since 2005, the number of people who have registered for the event the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) describes as “a celebration of bicycling as a clean, fun, and healthy way to get to work,” has increased dramatically. And though there’s no real way to know how many people exactly are riding to work on that day, the jump in interest alone is a good indicator of how far we have come. A decade ago, approximately 3,500 riders signed up. This year? More than 16,000.
But all that interest hasn’t only come from those we might stereotypically view as the urban biker. The cyclist community is as diverse as ever in D.C.: many bikers are recreational, while still others ride competitively or for work. It’s that variety of purpose that will have the most impact in helping bikes become more accepted overall in the Washington area.
Organizations like WABA will continue to work hard to force area departments of transportation to weigh the needs of bikers in design and planning, along with providing much needed public safety initiatives that help drivers, cyclist and pedestrians. Yet, the overall destigmatization of bike culture might be most important.
Peter Chapanov, service manager at Bike and Roll at Union Station, thinks the high barriers of entry, psychologically, keeps people off of two wheels. “Bicycling is fun. Everyone knows that. [Particularly] when one tries it and makes it convenient and non-threatening,” Chapanov, who came to D.C. in 2004, said. “We all know that some people are scared of being in the traffic, they feel exposed, when that becomes a habit and it becomes something that is easy to most riders, we have growth. I think we will have more growth, mostly because of necessity.”
And that growth has spawned random events that are there just for fun. Back in 2009, the social group Dandies & Quaintrelles began the D.C. Tweed Ride, an annual “vintage-inspired” ride that is still going strong. Now, the group D.C. Bike Party is doing the same thing every month. This week, they met up at their usual staring point of Dupont Circle for a Star Wars-themed night.
The woman who started it two years ago isn’t some bike-obsessed fanatic looking for a fix. She just didn’t have much else to do. “Boredom,” Lia Seremetis, 25, said Wednesday about why she launched D.C. Bike Party. “Boredom and I thought it sounded like fun. And yes, it turned out to be really fun. I grew up in San Jose. There’s bike parties in San Jose, and that’s what made me think hey, this is doable.”
And how did she get into biking? Capital Bikeshare. “To be honest, I didn’t start biking until April 2012 on a bikeshare and then it just kind of took off from there,” said Seremetis, who lives in Columbia Heights. A party that had a couple hundred people showing up in Yoda, Chewbacca and Darth Maul outfits was conceived on a completely organic level.
One of the people there was Jennifer Byers, who blasted “The Imperial March” from her basket speakers for all to hear as the group rode off. She got into biking for triathlon training, and loves how the biking community has grown and diversified, but recognizes there is still a lot of work to do within. “The biking community can be intimidating,” she said. “I went to pump my tires somewhere the other day, and I had a guy look at me and go, ‘you know you should just buy a bike pump.’ I was like: ‘ Listen guys, we need to drop the egos, because we’re all here for the same thing. We’re all enjoying the same thing.’”
Overall, the evolution of adult urban biking in D.C. from fringe specialist activity to a more mainstream transportation model has been positive. It’s easy to see at a place like Bicycle Space DC on 7th Street. The judgment free zone and inviting decor is designed to welcome people who might be new to the life. And judging from the 3-floor warehouse full of bikes next door to their main storefront, the strategy is working.
“The people I hear from most nowadays, are the ones who are buying cargo bikes. A lot of families are moving to taking their kids to school on bikes and doing all their grocery shopping on bikes…that’s who I hear from most,” Antonio Pelton, their marketing manager said Thursday. “Because they want to talk about their situation and how their needs are going to be met, if they can go car-free.”
Pelton, 25, has lived in two other well-known biking meccas, San Francisco and Portland as well as spent a lot of time Minneapolis. He believes the District’s growth rate is exciting, but still quite disjointed — a problem the city needs to solve before it can truly consider itself a bikeable city.
“I think for D.C. to really hit a next level, [it] might be to sort of settle on a way that they’re going to do these bike lanes. And think of comprehensive plan on how to connect them. And not make it sort of this strange hodgepodge of, you know, two-way lanes down a one way street, a lane in the middle of the street, some interesting type of bollard,” he said. “I think that’s a really great sign, but I do think they need to sort of pare it down, figure out which way’s going to work the best and make that happen. Not just trying these different things in different places to see what the outcome is.”
The days of looking at bike lanes and bicyclist issues as a fringe cause are over. Tolerance and acceptance of bikes on roads, which will help everyone stay safe, won’t come from the guy in your office who keeps a helmet at his desk and carries on about how epic his rides are. It’ll happen when scores of people start realizing how sitting in hours of traffic a week is not only probably taking years off their life, but also wasting incredible amounts of time.
Or it’ll come from moments like one I had Wednesday, when I sheepishly realized that I was the person left out, standing on the wrong side of smart growth, not to mention unable to participate in what looked like a fun event. Why?
Because I don’t have a bike.