On D.C. culture and the acceptance of bicycling


Us cyclists are just regular folks. (Linda Davidson/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Sorry to go through this much of the day before sharing a link to Alex Baca’s very good City Paper cover story that ventures to answer this excellent question: “[H]ow did this most egalitarian mode of transportation come to signify for so many D.C. residents a very specific caricature: the rich, white, gentrifying newcomer?”

Baca runs through a variety of explanations for frustrations with bicyclists, bikes and their attendant infrastructure: that it reflects less-than-zealous community outreach from bike-lane-constructing city agencies; that it challenges the deeply held American car obsession; that it’s a betrayal of the District’s crypto-suburban ideals; that it’s become media shorthand for deeper sociocultural divides. There’s something to each of those, I think, as there is with her closing sentiment: that cycling in D.C., given time, will approach something much closer to accepted behavior.

Let me add to the conversation by interrogating my own cycling habits: I ride my bike most days, out of utility more than anything. I bike when it is the fastest, cheapest, most convenient option, which is most times I need to go somewhere; when it isn’t, I walk, take Metro or drive.

Utility, I think, is how mostly people approach their transportation options, and many non-bicyclists or occasional recreational bicyclists find it hard to relate to the utility of cycling. Hence, they tend to wrap that choice up with broader cultural choices. To them, it’s not about logic; it’s fashion, an affect, a philosophy.

At some point, when government starts making decisions favoring something that does not immediately appear to be useful, it starts to run into this city’s deep-rooted resentment against being told what’s good for it. No matter how honorable the intentions of folks who throw around words like “multimodal” and “sustainable,” the evangelical nature of the urban mobility program rubs a lot of folks the wrong way.

Let me add a confession: As a utility-minded cyclist, I’m not immune to bike-related resentments. I ride a ratty old road bike; unless I’m on a long weekend excursion, I do nothing but tuck my pant leg into my sock. For various reasons, I sometimes harbor some dudgeon toward those “cultural cyclists” — whether Lance Armstrong-wannabe commuters on their high-dollar racing bikes or skinny dudes on fixies with a U-locks tucked into their jeans. (Don’t get me started on the tweed riders.)

My point: The more sock-tuckers hit the streets, the quicker I think cycling becomes part and parcel of mainstream D.C. culture. And Capital Bikeshare, I would submit, is helping a great deal.

Mike DeBonis covers Congress and national politics for The Washington Post. He previously covered D.C. politics and government from 2007 to 2015.

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