Bike commuting in D.C.: From the suburbs, it’s not so easy
By Lenny Bernstein,
I am jolting down the C&O Canal trail, smiling to myself as the front tire of my bike spits flecks of mud on my shorts and shirt. I enjoy a good mud bath as much as the next guy, but this morning the source of my satisfaction is that occasional whooshing sound to my left as I head south to work in Washington.
It is the sound of traffic that I’m not in. A little farther east is the bus I’m not riding, and beyond that the Red Line Metro train I’m not taking.
For two days last month, the Friday before Memorial Day and the Tuesday after it, I tested the idea of commuting to work on my bicycle. Prompted by national Bike to Work Day, which attracted more than 10,000 riders in the D.C. region May 18, I decided to get off my butt and on my bike to see if this could work for me.
It’s impossible to miss the increasing number of people cycling to and from work these days, doing their bit for the planet, saving money and, of course, getting some exercise. The number of bikes on the road in the District has increased about eightfold in less than 10 years. I think we can agree this is a good thing.
But here’s what the bike-to-work advocates never seem to emphasize: This works well only if you live fairly close to your job. It’s another matter entirely if you live in the suburbs and work downtown, as I do. According to the Household Travel Survey conducted in 2007 and 2008 by the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board, the average bike commute is just 3.9 miles, and bicycles account for only 1.1 percent of commutes that cross the District line.
It is precisely 17 miles from my front door to The Washington Post, according to the Cateye Velo 5 cycle computer strapped to the handlebar of my Scott hybrid. I bought the bike a year ago, an impulse purchase if ever there was one, at a time when I was sure I soon would be riding to work. I’ve ridden it exactly three times since.
Nevertheless, I’m not too worried about the physical exertion necessary to get to my desk. My recent weekend runs have been in the 12- to 15-mile range, so I’m sure I can bike a few miles farther.
I do have other concerns. I have no idea how long the ride will take. (It turns out to be about 90 minutes door to door, plus a quick shower. I was late to work both days.) Eleven miles are on the rocky, sandy, bumpy canal trail; it would be easy to fall. A flat tire seems a very real possibility. I haven’t changed a bike tire in perhaps 20 years. I don’t even have a hand pump, just some pressurized carbon dioxide capsules and an adapter that the kid at the bike shop told me would be easy to use.
But it is easy to push these worries to the back of my mind as I settle into the joyous rhythm of riding. The route to work is almost completely flat or downhill. The backpack containing my work clothes is not heavy, and after a couple of miles on paved road, I soon have the canal trail almost to myself, especially on the Friday before the holiday weekend, when Washingtonians have deserted their city.
Soon there are periods of almost total quiet, save for the crunching of my tires on the canal path. I pass a few hikers, runners and cyclists heading north, plus geese, dogs and a heron. I stop to look at an owl that three hikers are observing.
I am burning perhaps 1,250 calories and not a molecule of fossil fuel. The ride costs me nothing. Really, is there a better way to commute?
In truth, there is no good way for me to get to work. On some days, the trip can take a solid hour by car, more if there are serious problems on the road, and paying nearly $250 a month to garage an eight-year-old dented Honda downtown is ridiculous. The 10-mile bus ride down River Road to the Friendship Heights Metro station, followed by the ride on the Red Line to the Farragut North station, costs less but takes 1 hour 15 minutes minimum. Sometimes the bus just doesn’t show up. And don’t get me started about problems on the Red Line.
The canal trail joins the paved Capital Crescent Trail, and my ride smooths and picks up speed as the downhill becomes steeper. Then I cruise under the Whitehurst Freeway, where I have sat fuming in traffic countless times, and up a short rise onto K Street.
A cyclist is about as welcome on K Street as a federal subpoena. But instead of calling in their attorneys, the endless line of stalled motorists in the two lanes at 27th Street NW, utterly unaware that I even exist, simply quash me against the steel guardrail. After a couple of close encounters of this kind, I decide to ride between the two lines of cars in the eastbound lanes, which is dangerous and just plain dumb. (On a third ride I decided to go up and around Washington Circle instead of through the tunnel beneath it, which was much safer.)
Conditions improve at 21st, where K Street adds a third lane separated by a concrete median. But with cars turning in and out of this service lane, switching lanes to maximize speed and stopping to let off passengers, and with buses stopping and delivery trucks parked in traffic, K Street is a nightmare. I use all three lanes before I turn left into the relative safety of the bike lane on 15th Street.
It’s not illegal to cycle on K Street. It just feels that way.
It is Friday evening and the city is nearly empty. So too is the Farragut North Metro station, where I have mistakenly entered on L Street. It’s about 6:15 and I know I can’t put my bike on the train until 7 p.m. But I’m trying to catch a 7:15 bus at Friendship Heights. Surely the station attendant will show me some mercy.
Not a chance. Faster than you can say “single-tracking,” she is out of her booth to make sure I don’t enter, hand me a pamphlet that contains the rules and send me to the K Street side. About 6:50 I approach the attendant there and ask for a little leeway to catch a 6:55 train, so I can make my bus. I point out that the purpose of the rule is to keep bikes off crowded trains. Tonight, clearly, most cars are nearly empty.
No way. “The policy is the policy,” she says.
I catch the 7 p.m. train and get to Friendship Heights at 7:12. The elevator is out (another Metro policy is that anything you really need won’t be working), and I take my bike up the two escalators, arriving on the street at 7:19. My bus is gone. I wait a half hour for the next one, put my bike on that handy rack in the front and head home.
Total time since I left my desk is nearly two hours. Unless (until?) I’m ready to ride both ways, or leave my bike overnight and ride it home, this is my fate. (In fairness, I catch a break on Tuesday, when the bus is running late and I manage to board before it leaves.)
Is this a better way to commute? Let me know what you think.
Also at washingtonpost.com
To read previous MisFits columns by Bernstein and Vicky Hallett, go to
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9,288 Number of bicycle commuters in Washington 10,000+ Number of riders in the D.C. region who participated in last month’s national Bike to Work Day 3.9 Distance in miles of the average bike commute in the region 3.1% Portion of commutes that are made by bike in Washington Sources: U.S. Census 2010 American Community Survey; Washington Area Bicyclist Association; Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments 2007-08 Household Travel Survey