As two-wheeled commutes grow in popularity, buyers look for bike-accessible homes

By Deborah K. Dietsch
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, October 2, 2010; E01

Sweltering heat this summer and early autumn didn't stop Kirk Hourdajian from his regular bike commute. On almost all weekdays, he cycles between the 14th Street condominium shared with his wife, Nairi, to his job as project manager at the Environmental Defense Fund off Dupont Circle.

"It's a convenient way to get to the office. It only takes about seven minutes," Hourdajian said, noting his cycling is intended as much for a healthy planet as for a healthy body. "I want to do my share to help the environment by using less carbon fuels as much as I can," he said.

When he isn't cycling around the city, Hourdajian parks his Cannondale hybrid, a 30th birthday present from Nairi last year, in one of three crowded bike racks tucked into a corner of the parking garage beneath his condo building. The couple does not own an automobile, but relies on Kirk's bike or Zipcars to do grocery shopping and run errands.

For apartment and condo dwellers, indoor bike storage is often unavailable unless residents are willing to make room for their two-wheelers in their own homes. Although D.C. zoning requires commercial buildings to devote 5 percent of their parking area to bikes, the law doesn't apply to residential buildings. Hourdajian succeeded in getting three bike racks installed in his condo building's garage by joining other residents to lobby the developer. Having a safe place to stow a bike at home is an important issue for many home buyers, said Brent Councill, a real estate agent with Long & Foster's Chevy Chase/Uptown office. "They always ask about bike storage and how secure it is," he said. "Most people don't want to take bikes up elevators. They want to know their bikes are accessible and secure but they don't necessarily want to live with them in their homes."

However, such storage may become more common in the District starting in late 2011, when the city's zoning laws are expected to be updated. According to a draft of the regulations issued last month, new residential buildings with 10 or more dwelling units will be required to provide three long-term bicycle parking spaces per four units and one short-term bike parking space per 20 units, with a minimum of two bike parking spaces in each case.

Montgomery County is also updating its zoning to be more bike-friendly. "We are looking for a more progressive approach to bicycle parking," said Lois Villemaire, a project manager with the county's planning department. She expects the regulations to be changed so that parking spaces for bikes would be a requirement of new multi-family housing and related to the number of dwelling units in the development. "There will also be some design requirements for bike parking in terms of specific types of bike racks," she said, noting that a complete draft of the new zoning is expected to ready for county approval in August 2011.

The number of bike commuters has doubled in the District since 2000. Now 3.3 percent of city residents bike to work, said Jim Sebastian, who manages the city's bicycle program. "The number of people who bike to work goes up every year," Sebastian said. As a result, he notes, "There have been 1,300 bike racks installed on sidewalks all over the city since 2001."

The increasing number of two-wheelers on the streets has been helped by the city's 45 miles of bike lanes, including a dedicated stretch on Pennsylvania Avenue that opened in June. Another contributor to this growth is the city's two-year-old bike-share program, SmartBike. First unveiled in Europe by the billboard advertising giant Clear Channel Outdoor, the system of self-service bike rentals was established at 10 locations in downtown Washington.

In September, a more ambitious bike-sharing network was introduced across the District and in Arlington that will eventually replace SmartBike. The Capital Bikeshare program locks bikes in racks at 49 stations until a cyclist swipes a membership card to release the two-wheeler and pay for a ride.

Growth of cycling culture in the D.C. area and other cities has awakened the real estate industry to its potential as a fresh sales tool in the currently sluggish market. Pedal to Properties of Boulder, Colo., appeals to the niche market by offering retro cruiser bikes to clients who can ride to prospective houses and neighborhoods.

From the seat of the two-wheeler, the buyer can determine the proximity of stores, schools and amenities within biking distance of a home. For houses located long distances from the agent's office, the bikes are loaded onto a van and driven to the destination where buyers can then pedal around the immediate neighborhood.

"Our concept resonates with the fact that so many cities are investing in bike paths and downtown living," said Tim Majors, an Australian entrepreneur who recently invested in Pedal to Properties. Majors's business partner Matt Kolb, a Boulder-based real estate agent, got the idea for the company in 2006 when one of his clients bypassed his services and found a deal while riding a rented bike around town. Kolb lost the sale, but proceeded to lead prospective buyers on bicycle tours of neighborhoods as a way to differentiate his business from the competition.

While the bike is the hook to attract buyers, Majors said Pedal to Properties only closes about 25 percent of its sales through bike tours. Real estate agents and buyers aren't required to cycle, but "our agents have a responsibility to point out bike-friendly features to their clients," said Majors, who admits he is not a cyclist.

So far, Pedal to Properties franchises have been established in Northampton, Mass., and Sonoma, Calif., and Majors said he aims to open 20 more locations across the country by year's end. He decided to target D.C. for a franchise after receiving a positive reaction to the Pedal to Properties concept during the National Association of Realtors convention held in the city this spring. The reaction may have been positive but no locals have yet bought into the idea. "In these tough economic times, we can't expect to sell franchises right away. Our concept isn't for everybody," said Majors. "We are waiting for the right person to embrace our healthy, green brand."

In Northampton, the "right" person for the franchise is Craig Della Penna, a former lobbyist for the D.C.-based Rails-to-Trails Conservancy who has written several books on converting unused railroad lines into walking and biking trails. Della Penna said he first drives potential buyers to properties by car. But on the second showing, "we'll tour the neighborhood on bikes. We aren't strong-arming people to ride bikes, but we are here to offer the option of doing that."

Councill said the popularity of biking for commuting and recreation cuts across generations and neighborhoods. "Half of the folks I work with are interested in biking and looking for homes close to trails and green space," he said.

Developers of new communities are also responding to increasing numbers of cyclists. "We aim to be bike-friendly by installing bike racks at many of our communities, including Ford's Landing and Old Town Village in Alexandria," said Aakash Thakkar, vice president of development at Bethesda-based developer EYA. The company is in discussions with the District Department of Transportation to add a bike-sharing kiosk at its 237-home Chancellor's Row project planned for the District's Brookland neighborhood. The developer is also installing bike racks at its Arts District development in Hyattsville and intends to create a quarter-mile hiker-biker path on the property to connect with new public trails in the area.

Residents in older suburban neighborhoods are also finding more public amenities for bikes. "We are actively working to change the perception these places are only for cars and trying to make them more bike friendly," said David Goodman, manager of the bicycle and pedestrian programs for Arlington County, where about 7 percent of residents bike or walk to work, according to a 2009 survey. The county has 24 miles of dedicated bike lanes and 43 miles of sign-identified bike routes on streets. In June, the Rosslyn business improvement district installed 10 new bike racks along busy Wilson Boulevard and N. Kent Street and is considering five additional locations in the area. About 100 bike racks have been installed in downtown Bethesda, Silver Spring and other business districts throughout Montgomery County, and more are planned for this year, according to bikeways coordinator Gail Tate-Nouri of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation.

About 3 percent of Montgomery County residents bike or walk to work, according to a 2005 census update from Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning. They have use of about 126 miles of county bike paths and 45 miles of park trails.

One of these is the emerging Bethesda Trolley Trail, planned to link Bethesda to Rockville along original street-car rights of way. Proposed portions of the trail will intersect with the White Flint Sector Plan, passed by the Montgomery County Council in March. The plan aims to make the area around the White Flint Mall more pedestrian- and bike-friendly. It calls for 9,800 new residences and about 5.7 million square feet of commercial space to be built along Rockville Pike from the mall to Montrose and Randolph Roads over the next few decades.

"People respond better to bike trails than bike paths because bike paths are still in traffic," Councill noted.

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