Pedalmania in the District

Sunday, August 16, 2009

"EVERY TIME I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race." So said H.G. Wells, nearly a century ago.

Wells would be heartened if he could visit the District today. The presence of bicyclists in the metropolitan area has been growing steadily, especially in recent years. A travel survey by the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board in 2007-08 found that 3.3 percent of District residents commuted to work on bicycles -- up 50 percent in 15 years. With bicyclists have come bike trails, bike parking and bike lanes; in the past seven years, the District has added nearly 40 miles of new bike lanes.

More good news is coming. There's progress on the Metropolitan Branch Trail connecting Union Station and Silver Spring and the expansion of cross-river bicycle access via the new 11th Street bridge. A Bike Center is set to open at Union Station in October, with guarded spots for 150 bikes, a locker room and bike merchandise for sale. This month marks the one-year anniversary of the SmartBike rental program, the first of its kind in the United States. SmartBike, with a pilot fleet of 120 bikes on 10 racks around the city, relies on a Zipcar model in which people purchase a membership to use bicycles for certain periods of time. The program has been a success, boasting more than 1,200 members who rent an average of 70 bikes on weekdays. Only one bike has been stolen.

All of these tangible improvements for the District's bikers reflect years of effort, thoughtful planning and dedicated advocates, including former mayor Anthony A. Williams, incumbent Adrian M. Fenty and D.C. Council members. Such advocacy is still needed. Bicycling in the District is not all coasting. Theft remains a problem, as does sharing the road with cars. A lack of helmets at the SmartBike racks makes safety a concern, especially as an effort builds to expand the program. The next few years will bring continued challenges -- adding new bicycle lanes, maintaining trails and encouraging developments such as cycle tracks with physical barriers to separate cyclists from traffic.

Bicycling offers wide-ranging benefits for cyclists and non-cyclists alike. It eases congestion, uses space efficiently -- 10 bikes can fit in a single car parking spot -- and offers health benefits to everyone: those who burn calories on their bikes and non-riders who also benefit from decreased pollution and traffic.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company