How D.C. blazed the bike path
“Every city’s bike culture is a little bit different,” says Greg Billing, advocacy coordinator at WABA. “I think where we really excel is kind of how commonplace it is.”
WABA has been around since 1972, long before bike sharing captured the imagination of city planners. The organization helped lobby for bikes to be allowed on Metro during non-rush hours and to close Beach Drive to car traffic on the weekends. Now it’s offering adult biking lessons and safety instruction while continuing to lobby for more bike lanes and infrastructure.
Sebastian says part of what made Bikeshare such a success, which now drives the creation of more infrastructure for all riders, was a strong community of cyclists and a healthy regional trail system. League of American Bicyclists president and Virginia resident Andy Clarke also points to the District’s bikeable fabric of gridded streets and long boulevards.
Projects such as the installation of a two-way cycle track in the median of Pennsylvania Avenue helped show the District’s dedication to putting cyclists on an equal footing with motorists, Clarke says. The rate of bicyclists along the iconic street tripled after the track’s installation.
But the popular cycle-track is also home to a familiar battle between the two groups. Bicyclists complain that cars, often cabs, complete dangerous U-turns across bike lanes without looking. Accidents involving bicyclists along the corridor went from nine in the previous four years to 16 during the first 14 months after the lane’s installation. Police have made efforts to warn and ticket offending drivers, but the problem persists. Enforcement was one of the city’s weak areas, according to the league’s annual bicycle-friendly ratings.
D.C. Police Department Commander James Crane agrees that there has been a learning curve for his force. “We’ve had to educate our officers that it’s usually not the biker failing to yield the right of way.”
Incidents between bicyclists and motorists, as well as between bicyclists and pedestrians, are increasing, a problem that has not gone unnoticed in the media or pro-smart growth sites such as Greater Greater Washington. Even as incidents increase, Jason Broehm, a member of the D.C. Pedestrian Advisory Council, says fatalities are decreasing. Safety measures such as high-visibility crosswalks, longer pedestrian intervals that give walkers a head start crossing the street before a light change, and photo enforcement have helped road users be more aware of each other.
Sebastian and Crane and groups such as WABA are working to curb the rising number of accidents as biking becomes more popular. In 2004, there were 284 bike crashes, according to data from DDOT, compared with 582 in 2011. The intersection at 14th and U streets NW had nine accidents from 2010 to 2011, the highest number of any in the District. However, the number of new bicyclists, as measured by the number observed at a given point during peak hours, continues to outpace the growth rate of accidents.
Sebastian doesn’t just want more new riders, he also wants those new cyclists coming from all over the city. David Daddio, then a master’s student in planning at the University of North Carolina, took D.C.’s Bikeshare to task last year for its many underutilized stations. He estimated that 13 percent of the stations as of 2011 received fewer than 18 total trips per day. Many of these were in Southeast Washington. As Bikeshare puts more stations here and in the city’s suburbs, critics point to these numbers in opposition.
Sebastian insists that scaling back in one part of the city is not an option. “Bikeshare is a citywide phenomenon, and it will continue to be as we expand.” He says those areas where the bike community is not yet self-sustaining is precisely where DDOT needs to double its efforts, hence projects such as the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail, which will connect the Tidal Basin to the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. Bikeshare, whose majority of users are young, white, male and employed, also offers discounts on its $75 annual membership fee for low-income riders.
Sebastian’s vision for a biking community that includes all of the city is shared by Veronica O. Davis, founder of Black Women Bike. “As a biking community, anytime a new person gets on a bike, we need to celebrate that,” says Davis, who started the group after a young black girl outside a housing project exclaimed upon seeing Davis, “Mommy, Mommy, it’s a black lady on a bike.” The group has 800 members. According to the League of American Bicyclists, these women are part of the fastest-growing population of bikers nationally. In 2009, African Americans took 461 million bike trips, a 100 percent increase from 2001.
Though Davis has her own bike now, she says she started riding on a Bikeshare bike and that for many people, the hefty red bikes can offer a gateway to a new lifestyle. She hopes that as the program expands, more diverse users will flock to it. Current users reported saving $800 annually in travel costs.
Sebastian takes Metro and Bikeshare to work most days. His own bike, he jokes, isn’t as meticulously maintained as the Bikeshare bikes. Looking at the city’s biking boom and Washington’s spot as a national trendsetter, Sebastian says, “I don’t know if I would’ve picked D.C., but my job is to make D.C. more bike-friendly.” Now, with the growth of groups such as Black Women Bike and D.C. Bike Party, a monthly “party ride” around the city, Sebastian says, “you don’t need the government anymore to tell people to ride their bikes by building facilities and promoting riding Bikeshare. It’s happening. People are bicycling because it just makes sense.”
Leah Binkovitz is a freelance writer who lives in Bethesda. To comment
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