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D.C. tries fencing off bike lane from auto traffic

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 14, 2009; B01

"Dooring" is the usually painful and sometimes expensive experience that occurs when someone in a parked car opens the door in the path of a bike.

It's one of many common and unpleasant encounters between drivers and cyclists as they struggle to coexist on narrow city streets originally designed for horse and buggies.

In an attempt to minimize the conflicts, the invisible line that separates drivers and cyclists on most busy urban streets has been defined by more than a half-mile of yellow posts on 15th Street NW, in the District's first attempt at walling off a bike lane from cars.

Following the lead of Paris, New York, Montreal and dozens of other cities, Washington and its bicycling mayor are reclaiming a piece of the road for people who travel on two wheels instead of four. The city also plans to expand the number of bikes in its SmartBike rental program from 100 to 1,000, and make them available at 100 locations.

The city has 43 miles of bike lanes, and thousands of cyclists use city streets every day. Creating a safer environment is expected to encourage others, reducing traffic congestion and the District's carbon footprint. Peak-hour cycling doubled in the region from 2004 to 2009, according to a survey by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

"A large part of the reason I moved to Shaw and pay D.C.'s high taxes was because of the ability to bike or walk to work," said Paul Harrison, who commutes by bike from his home on O Street NW to a job at Connecticut Avenue and T Street NW. "The 15th Street bike lane and other new bike lanes in the neighborhood clearly show that the city's public space is open to bikers, walkers and cars."

The 15th Street bike lane extends from U Street south to Massachusetts Avenue, a four-lane street with a single lane of parking in most blocks. The bike lane is closest to the curb, and cars are permitted to park in the second lane from the curb, outside the yellow Flexposts that mark the bike lane.

The bike lane is designed for southbound cyclists, and auto traffic on that portion of 15th Street is one-way-only northbound. When cyclists head north, they share the right lane with cars.

Under District law, when a lane is 11 feet wide or less, cyclists are allowed to occupy the entire lane rather than stay to the right side, said Jim Sebastian, the transportation planner in charge of the District's bike program.

"If you're hugging the right side, you risk getting doored or encouraging people to pass when there's no room to," Sebastian said. "Taking the whole lane may inconvenience some people, but it's less dangerous for both the cyclist and the driver."

He said 15th Street was selected for the first separate bike lane after a traffic survey showed that it had fewer cars than it could handle.

Many cyclists say they welcome the bike lane on 15th Street NW, but some have complained about its design. They say it does not slow cars and confuses some bike riders.

Sebastian said the city hopes to develop dedicated bike lanes on at least four streets, two running north-south and two running east-west. He mentioned M and L streets as possible candidates.

A citywide network would be welcomed by Dana Mellerio, who rides to work in Southwest Washington from Alexandria.

"Riding on the sidewalks of D.C. is simply not an option, and riding in the streets can be quite hazardous," he said. "Two weeks ago, I was a block from my office. Without warning, a car made a right turn in front of me into an apartment complex (not seeing me), causing me to go down hard on the pavement."

The sanctity of bike lanes in the District is often violated, but lanes sealed off with Flexposts can't become a convenient spot for double-parkers.

"Delivery trucks love bike lanes because that's a place they can pull over," said Brian Hennessey, who lives in Northwest Washington and bikes thousands of miles a year. "And they know police will never give them a ticket."

If cars and bikes are to find happy coexistence, bike lane advocates say, planners will have to connect the dots on pieces like 15th Street to provide seamless safe passage for both.

When Bob Lukes moved from Wisconsin to a place near Catholic University, in Northeast Washington, he first thought Rock Creek Parkway looked like a great way to commute by bike to his job in Rockville. He discovered otherwise.

"It's not a park," Lukes said. "It's an interstate, dangerous and stressful."

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