Every morning, Dorien Van Herpen fills two red bags with items she’ll need later at work. She places them behind her seat, then pulls out of the family garage in McLean to begin her commute to Washington. If she hits Chain Bridge at just the right time, she catches the early sun rising over the Potomac River, on her way to the Washington International School. An hour later, husband Willem Janssen will trace the same route over Chain Bridge on his way to the World Bank.
Unlike the continuous mass of drivers inching over Chain Bridge weekday mornings, Van Herpen and Janssen are a commuter cycling couple who navigate their hybrid bicycles to work in all degrees of weather. They are part of the widening stream of cyclists crossing Chain Bridge to workplaces in the District and Maryland.
What has been your experience trying to bike across the Chain Bridge, or any of the bridges leading out of Virginia? Tell us, and everyone, here.
Many in that stream of cyclists says navigating to Chain Bridge on the Virginia side can be treacherous, particularly in the daily traffic backups at the intersection of Chain Bridge Road and North Glebe Road. The backups extend far up both roads in the morning and evening rush hours, and drivers try to scoot through the intersection on yellow or red lights without regard to cyclists.
And then once you’ve crossed Chain Bridge, getting to the Capital Crescent Trail to actually get anywhere in the District is also no easy task.
Two points are dicey for cyclists traveling over Chain Bridge: The west side of the bridge, where it intersects with Chain Bridge Road, and the C&O Canal tow path on the east side of the bridge.
The crosswalk spanning Chain Bridge Road has a white walk signal that gives the right-of-way to pedestrians and, for a short time, simultaneously gives a green arrow for cars turning north onto Dolley Madison. Also, the "No Turn On Red" sign was moved from the overhead position next to the lights, down to a pole at street level, when the signals were replaced.
"A lot of times, cars will not yield. Sometimes they turn even when they have a red, even though it's not a right turn on red place," said Cris Price, a statistician for Abt Associates, who has been cycling for 15 years from Falls Church to Bethesda. "You can see people are on their phones a lot." Although he hasn't been hit, Price has been cursed at by a motorist for crossing with the right-of-way.
To access the Capital Crescent Trail from Chain Bridge, cyclists maneuver down a zig-zag ramp to the C&O Canal tow path. If they want to head north, they have to cross Canal Road, without a crosswalk, walk along the edge of the road to a wooded footpath that leads to the Crescent Trail. The other option is to ride the tow path south about a mile to Flecher's Cove, switch onto the Capital Crescent, then reverse direction and ride back north, to access places like Bethesda.
"The C&O between Chain Bridge and Flecher's is the worst part of the entire path," says Laura Tuck, who started cycling to work on G Street with her husband, Jim DeMocker, in September. "Now, there are puddles and stuff, but it's like bone jarring, compared to outside, which is beautiful, they refinished." Tuck says the tow path can give you a headache, until you reach the pavement of the Capital Crescent. "It's just worse than washboard."
"I think more people would do this, if they made that a more hospitable spot," said DeMocker. "Fist-size cobblestone type things, I mean, they just poke up.
Even having to dodge puddles, stones and cars, Tuck says, "It's taken the worst part of our day, which is the commute, and made it just the best part. The sun rises about 7:15 and the steam coming up over the river, and it is just so nice."
(Editor’s Note: This blog, completely coincidentally, wrote about Jim DeMocker in March, when he was subpoenaed to testify in his brother’s murder case in Arizona. That case remains far from trial.)
Van Herpen and Janssen say they were warned it would be dangerous to bike, and they make efforts to avoid very busy streets. They say drivers are usually not aggressive. Janssen bikes every day on Pennsylvania Avenue and feels drivers view cyclists as sportsmen, much the same as a jogger, and drivers treat the sportsmen well.
“There are some dangerous moments, but that’s most of the time because the people in the car, they don’t pay attention: they are texting or talking to somebody else. Most of the times, they are on the telephone. And you can see it from afar, you know, ‘Oh, this one is gonna cut me off,’” says Van Herpen.
Riding a bicycle to work is “just what you do” for these natives of the Netherlands, Janssen said. They began cycling to work when they arrived eight years ago, opting for a car only when roads are icy.
“We don’t have the school bus system in Holland,” said Van Herpen. “So when we were young, it was the only way to get to school or you had to walk.”
Chain Bridge commuter Dave Clayton’s motivation for hitting the two-wheel road struck when his son turned 16 and was taking the other car to school with his sister. “The time riding is shorter than in a car or the metro. There’s a sense of community, you get connected to people on the trail.”
Many cyclists interviewed while crossing Chain Bridge said they worked off stress and got their daily exercise on their bikes, and none had any plans to stop cycling to work.