A parking deck atop an interstate highway might seem an incongruous place to learn bicycle skills, but that’s where eight students, four instructors and two instructor trainees met one sunny recent Saturday. There were two classes being taught — one introductory, the other in “Confident City Cycling” — by the Washington Area Bicyclist Association.
“A lot of people ride bikes as kids, and they ride bikes on vacation, and so when they start to ride bikes to get around the city, they don’t think about it,” said Daniel Hoagland, WABA’s education coordinator, one of the teachers on hand that day. “That works for some people. But it’s never going to work for a larger swath of the population.”
The garage that WABA uses regularly for classes in Arlington County is over Interstate 66 at North Quincy Street. It’s adjacent to the Custis Trail, one of the region’s busiest bike corridors, and in the jurisdiction widely hailed as the area’s leader in encouraging another way to travel.
“Whether you’re visiting, going to dinner here or you work here or live here, our goal is to make it a great environment to walk and bike,” said Dennis Leach, the county’s transportation director.
That’s why the county — along with the District, Alexandria and Montgomery County — pays WABA to hold cycling classes in the spring and fall.
“Having these classes enables the adult to get used to biking again and get them out taking trips,” said Chris Hamilton, Arlington’s commuter services bureau chief.
Hoagland and his 40 part-time instructors teach people to ride “with the most knowledge and forethought, and to bring their entire perspective and attention to it.”
The instruction is not about the bicyclist alone, he noted. “Everything from where you position yourself in the lane to the body language you use communicates to drivers. You can actually prevent crashes and influence driver behavior.”
“It’s when bicyclists do things that are unexpected and act unpredictably, I feel, that the conflict arises.”
Enrollment is steadily increasing, Hoagland said. “A lot of folks have had a bad experience out there. A lot of them don’t know if it was caused by their actions or not. They just had a close call, and they want to know what they do to prevent that from happening.”
“We get a surprising number of people who are here because their boyfriend or girlfriend made them,” he added, chuckling. “I don’t dig too deep on that one.”
In addition to helping teach people to bike, Arlington has added routes to make biking safer. The county has “about 50 miles of off-street trails, 36 miles of bike lanes and 78 miles of recommended street routes,” Leach said. “We’re also going to be doing our first protected bike lane in Pentagon City and Crystal City.”
In the District, the first local jurisdiction to create protected lanes, a new one recently opened on M Street, boosting the well-used “cycle tracks,” as they are sometimes called, on 15th and L streets and Pennsylvania Avenue, all in Northwest.
Such efforts remain essentially local. With the notable exception of Capital Bikeshare, there’s little coordination between cities and counties on bicycling projects or in data gathering.
“One of the things we’ve been asking for years is that our regional governments actually do some real, robust counting of cyclists and commuting patterns so they can more sensibly invest in building the network to meet demand,” WABA President Shane Farthing said in an e-mail, “but that hasn’t happened on anything approaching a regional scale yet.”
Arlington put automated counters on its bike trails that show how many people ride those routes. “It’s a big number,” Leach said. “Just on the Custis Trail, heading into Rosslyn, we’re talking on average 1,800 to 2,000 bike trips per weekday. When you look at the 15-minute increment graphs, they’re mostly commute trips.”
Arlington bike commuters are so dedicated that hundreds arrived in Rosslyn on May 16 for this year’s rain-swept Bike to Work Day. “To have 400 people come out in the pouring rain is really a testament to the fortitude of some of the bikers,” Hamilton said.
Arlington’s counters don’t report where trips begin and end. “The best origin and destination data that we have comes off of Capital Bikeshare,” Leach said. That system, which has 31,000 annual members and provided 273,000 trips last month, monitors every bike rental through its computerized docks.
“One of the interesting things we learned from the Capital Bikeshare membership survey is that because they have this new option, people are making one-way trip decisions,” Hamilton said. “Somebody might go downtown in the morning on Metrorail and might return on a Capital Bikeshare. We find that people are making more impromptu trips, and they’re shopping and eating more locally as a result.”
Together, Arlington and the District launched Capital Bikeshare in September 2010. Since then, Alexandria and Montgomery County have joined. College Park was set to introduce it, but expansion is temporarily stymied by the bankruptcy of the Canadian company that makes the bikes and stations.
The bankruptcy has already limited the CaBi bikes on the street, which dropped from 2,628 in March to 2,549 last month.
For veteran bicyclists such as Hoagland, though, the most important thing about the bike-share program is that its bright red bikes are conspicuous. Seeing people who clearly aren’t Lycra-clad bicycle zealots on CaBi two-wheelers, he said, “is totally normalizing an activity that used to be so fringe.”
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Mark Jenkins is a freelance writer.