How D.C. blazed the bike path

Written by Leah Binkovitz

As New York was busy installing its brand-new bike share stations earlier this year, D.C.’s Capital Bikeshare program clocked its 4 millionth ride. It was a Wednesday evening at the peak of rush hour when the milestone journey began from a station outside the State Department.

Washington, in all its geeky glory, beat every other major American city in establishing a premier bike-sharing system. When Boston, Chicago and San Francisco decided to try the trend, they turned to D.C. for guidance. And the District continues to set the standard, with its experiments using protected green lanes, programs to reach out to new riders and efforts to integrate the bike plan into a broader transit strategy.

Bike commuters wait for the green light at the intersection of 15th and Massachusetts Avenue in Northwest. Bike commuters wait for the green light at the intersection of 15th and Massachusetts Avenue in Northwest. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

Embracing bike-friendly policies might seem logical for a modern metropolis, but Washington was resistant to early efforts. In 2009, then-Mayor Adrian Fenty led a polarizing push for bike lanes, including the District’s first against-the-traffic, protected lane on 15th Street NW. In light of the city’s significant economic strains at the time, his enthusiasm was seen by some as a frivolous pursuit. Now it is regarded as visionary. Mayor Vincent Gray’s recently released Sustainable DC plan calls for 75 percent of commutes to be made by public transit, walking or biking by 2032. It’s now 50 percent.

There will be bumps along the way. Despite mayoral support, new bike lanes draw opposition, as in the case of the cycle track along M Street. After members of the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church complained about losing parking, the city decided in August to drop a section of the lane. Instead, bicyclists have to merge with car traffic for the block between 15th and 16th streets.

But as more residents opt for two wheels instead of four, the opposition to accommodating cyclists is fading. Bike sharing is rapidly taking hold in the suburbs, and regional planners are expanding options and road access for riders.

The man responsible for coordinating the District Department of Transportation ’s bike plans says he fell into the city’s bike culture out of necessity. “My story is not that much different from a lot of people’s stories in D.C. who discover bicycling,” Jim Sebastian says. “They discover it’s quicker, it’s more convenient, it’s cheaper and it’s more fun than driving or taking the train.”

Sebastian, who is helping coordinate for the first time all of the District’s master transit plans as part of the moveDC project,became the District’s bike program coordinator in 2001 and helped bring bike share to the city, first with a pilot program called SmartBike D.C. in 2008, then partnering with Arlington County to launch the Capital Bikeshare system in 2010.

Today, with the swipe of a credit card, residents and tourists alike have access to more than 1,800 bikes. They can become members of the system for a single day ($7), a month ($25) or a year ($75). The program encourages short rides between stations and rapid turnover. There are usage fees for every trip longer than 30 minutes. Keeping a bike for a day costs members $70.50 and non-members $94. There are 176 solar-powered stations in the District, 59 stations in Arlington, eight stations in Alexandria and, soon, 51 stations in Montgomery County.

Under Sebastian’s watch, the District has added more than 50 miles of bike lanes and 2,500 bike racks, and has more than doubled the number of people on the streets biking. But he’s not done yet. In addition to overseeing the growth of Bikeshare, which is managed by the company Alta, he’s also partnering with DDOT to complete the 20-mile Anacostia Riverwalk Trail, now 60 percent done, and the M Street cycle-track.

“He has been a real moving force behind gaining acceptance of bicycles here in the District of Columbia,” Gray says. “We’re very fortunate to have him working with us, because it is not just a job to him, it is a commitment, and that’s a big difference.”

Right now, bikes represent 3.3 percent of total commutes, Sebastian says. But he expects it to hit 5 percent by 2015.

Bike advocates such as Sebastian and the Washington Area Bicyclist Association also insist commuting isn’t their sole focus. Short trips to the grocery or library, or a recreational ride along the water, are the sorts of things they say that Bikeshare can facilitate better than Metro and buses. Indeed, a 2013 member survey showed that seven in 10 users had used Bikeshare for social activities or to run errands.

“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.

A station of D.C.’s Capital Bikeshare near Farragut Square on 17th and K Streets in Northwest. A station of D.C.’s Capital Bikeshare near Farragut Square on 17th and K Streets in Northwest. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

A bicyclist uses the center bike lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue. A bicyclist uses the center bike lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

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.

A bicyclist rides along 15th Street in Northwest which offers separate bike lanes and vegetation. A bicyclist rides along 15th Street in Northwest which offers separate bike lanes and vegetation. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

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
on this story, e-mail wpmagazine@
washpost.com.

 
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