In Washington, options open up for commuting on two wheels

March 1

In a pressed jacket and tie, Luis Crouch looks more like a man who has stepped out of a black Town Car than someone who just hopped off the seat of a bicycle.

But the economist, 61, prefers biking when he’s going from meeting to meeting inside the Beltway.

“I’ll take a bike rather than a taxi or the Metro,” said Crouch, who found himself at BicycleSPACE on Seventh Street NW one recent afternoon. Three of the spokes on his bike had busted, so he stopped by to see one of the mechanics at the shop.

Crouch says the local biking scene has improved in the past few years, elevating D.C.’s standing as a city where pedaling from place to place isn’t just possible, but even enjoyable. “It’s better than London, worse than Amsterdam,” Crouch says of Washington’s bikeability. “Somewhere in the middle.”

BicycleSPACE is one of the hubs at the center of a growing movement toward making D.C. a better place for cyclists. General Manager Jordan Mittelman, 33, says he’s noticed a difference in just a few years. “It’s come a long way,” Mittelman said. “There are efforts to put in more bike lanes, cycle tracks that are protected from traffic, and there are more trails coming in as well.”


Mechanics work on bicycles recently at BicycleSPACE in Washington. (Adrienne LaFrance/For The Washington Post)

The local attitude toward biking has warmed, especially in the half-decade since the sturdy red bicycles of the Capital Bikeshare program (and before that, SmartBike DC) first began appearing in the District. Washington is now one of the top cities for biking in the United States, according to the League of American Bicyclists, which says the population of commuting bikers in D.C. jumped 82 percent between 2005 and 2011.

A rented bike is something of a gateway vehicle, says Mittelman. It’s what got him back into biking. He got hooked once he realized that a 45-minute bike ride from Bethesda to the University of Maryland campus in College Park was far more pleasant than taking the trip in a car.

BicycleSPACE also lends its bikes to anyone who wants to join the groups that meet for social rides throughout the week. The brightly painted store, which opened three years ago, hosts at least seven rides a week for bikers at a variety of comfort levels. “Our rides are meant to be inclusive, so we encourage anybody and everybody to join us,” Mittelman said.

On weekends, BicycleSPACE leads a hilly weekend ride through Anacostia and low-intensity casual rides in the District. The Cupcake Ramble ride offers a somewhat counterintuitive mix of activity and indulgence — participants ride a little, eat cupcakes, then repeat — and the shop’s full-moon nighttime rides have brought out crowds of up to 1,000 people, Mittelman says. One of the best-known weekly rides is the Seventh Street Social, a Thursday evening outing that includes a tour through the city and music blasting from a trailer-stereo that Mittelman nicknamed “the monkey wagon.”

“It’s kind of like an organ grinder,” Mittelman said. “We’ve got a whole big playlist and it’s very loud and you hear it coming. It adds to the fun.”

These days, the bicycling scene in Washington is as much social as it is physical. Along with regular bike rides and yoga classes, Mittelman and his colleagues organize field trips to sporting events like D.C. United and Nationals games.

Elsewhere in Washington, the biking scene is similarly blossoming. A co-op called the Bike House runs twice-weekly clinics in Bloomingdale and Mount Pleasant, where volunteers will fix your bike and teach you about maintenance and tune-ups. (The co-op takes a break in the winter and begins its work again in the spring.) The group DC Bike Party organizes regular rides, each with a designated theme that has bikers show up costumed. After riding, DC Bike Party takes its revelry off the roads and into area bars.

Interactive graphic

Find out how Capital Bikeshare has grown.

The Washington Area Bicyclist Association also has several events scheduled. In March, the National Women’s Bicycling Forum will take place in Washington. And alleycat races, which began as competitions among bike messengers, are routinely organized in D.C.

Stefanie Winzeler is organizing one such race — it’s more of a scavenger hunt, she says — that’s set for March 15. A similar event last October raised money for Collective Action for Safe Spaces, a nonprofit that fights street harassment. Winzeler, 29, says bicycling events in Washington tend to offer warm welcomes to newcomers.

“The D.C. cycling community has an advantage over other cities, in that we have a growing community of people running cycling events and a fresh flow of people moving into the city, looking for ways to meet new people,” Winzeler said in an online chat.

Winzeler said it’s the community of D.C. cyclists who gave her the nudge she needed to start biking to her Capitol Hill job from Columbia Heights each day.

“If it wasn’t for my community of friends, I would still be stuck in the tunnels riding the Metro,” she said.

Back at BicycleSPACE, Mittelman said that once people realize how easy it can be to bike in D.C., they’re happy to abandon cars and trains. There’s nothing like seeing the city from behind a pair of handlebars, he said.

“Just that feeling of community you get,” Mittelman said. “It’s not possible on the Metro or in a car. You’re at a pace where you can take things in. It’s a beautiful city. On a bike, it’s almost an adventure every time.”

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