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Bicycle program makes District easier place to get around, residents say

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 26, 2010; 10:51 PM

It wasn't easy for Kate Jordan, a 30-year choreographer who lives in Logan Circle, to give up her beloved Volkswagen Beetle.

But after moving to the District from Philadelphia two years ago, Jordan said she quickly discovered that it was far easier to get around the city on her bicycle, a choice, she said, that gets easier by the day.

"I am finding which roads have the bike lanes and choosing my paths like I would with a car," Jordan said. "On a couple streets, it's now like the morning rush-hour commute on the bike lanes."

District officials are reporting a surge in the use of bicycles to commute or for recreation, helping Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) realize a key goal as he prepares to leave office in January.

With the city adding bicycle lanes and storage facilities in recent years, officials say more residents are discovering that getting around the city on two wheels is becoming safer and easier and is even adding a bit of coolness to a city that has long battled its stuffy reputation.

"A lot of what we're doing is back-to-the-future type stuff," said Gabe Klein, the city's transportation director. "People are demanding more and more, and we are just trying to give it to them."

According to census data, the number of Washington residents who commute to work by bicycle has nearly doubled, to 2.2 percent, in the past 10 years. Official hourly "bike counts" conducted by the D.C. Transportation Department suggest much of that growth has occurred since 2007. An average of 72 bicycles now pass 18 designated counting stations during an average "peak hour."

But residents and city officials say the statistics do not tell the full story of how quickly District residents are taking up bicycling for fun or their primary mode of transportation.

Jordan said that mini-bicycle backups are becoming the norm during the morning rush on routes such as 14th Street NW.

Many outdoor bike racks downtown are at capacity during the day, a scenario that replays itself at night at racks near some popular bars in Northwest.

And officials say they are stunned by the immediate popularity of Capital Bikeshare, a network of 1,100 communal red bicycles scattered around the District and Arlington County for residents and tourists.

"There are a number of things coming together very quickly to cause bicycling to go up in the District," said Michael Farrell, a planner at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. "And I think much larger increases are very possible and even likely in the District."

Part of the trend, Farrell said, can be traced to shifting demographics and a nationwide trend of more urban residents shying away from cars. But Farrell and community leaders say much of the credit goes to Fenty and his predecessor, former mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), for devoting resources to make bicycling safer and more convenient for residents.

With Williams and Fenty both avid cyclists - the former mayor recreationally and the current one competitively - the District has undertaken one of the most ambitious efforts in the country to promote the use of bicycles.

In 2005, Williams oversaw the completion of the Bicycle's Master Plan, which called for bike lanes, bicycle parking spaces and "more bicycle-friendly policies."

Fenty, a triathlete who can pedal 40 kilometers, about 25 miles, in little more than a hour, aggressively moved to implement the plan, believing it was a key linchpin in his effort to make the District a "world-class city."

Similar to his drive to build turf athletic fields for students and $500,000 dog parks, Fenty tested transportation officials' ability to build top-flight bicycle amenities.

"We would give him ideas, and he would say, 'Can this be the best, and when can you get it done?' " Klein said.

Bicycling advocates are lobbying Mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray (D) to reappoint Klein as transportation director.

In the past decade, the District has constructed about 50 miles of bicycle lanes, including the recent completion of segregated lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue connecting the White House to the Capitol.

The bike lanes persuaded Liz Casey and Mary Kirby, both 23, to test their luck Saturday at biking from U Street to the Mall, the first time either had ridden in the city.

"I've lived here four years, and I think the city is petrifying to bike in, so I am pretty scared," said Casey, who moved to the District from Pittsburgh. "But we heard 15th Street had a bike lane, so we are going to use that."

A year ago, the city also opened a $4 million bicycle-storage facility for commuters at Union Station. And about 1,500 bike racks have been added to streets since 2002.

The city is also finalizing rules requiring developers to include bike-storage facilities in all newly constructed housing and office buildings.

But the District is making its biggest splash with its bike-sharing program, the largest of its kind in the nation. Capital Bikeshare, which launched in late September, can trace its origins to a pilot program started in 2008. Operated by Clear Channel and called Smart Bike, that program consisted of about 100 bikes.

Klein said Fenty immediately "fell in love" with the program and started pushing last year to expand it.

"The mayor would have nothing less than the biggest and best in the United States," Klein said.

Under pressure to deliver, local transportation officials quickly discovered that neighboring Arlington was already in talks to launch a bike-sharing program.

After putting up $6 million, largely funded through a federal grant, the District was able to latch onto Arlington's contract and create a universal system modeled after one in Montreal, Klein said.

For an annual membership of $75, or $5 for a daily membership, members can unlock a bicycle at any of the 100 stations in the District and 14 in Arlington. When finished, a rider can drop off the bicycle at any station.

The first half-hour of every trip is free. (Usage charges averaging $1.50 per half-hour apply after that.)

Jim Sebastian, director of the Transportation Department's Bicycle and Pedestrian program, said the system has 4,700 annual members, a number growing by "30 to 40 a day."

Officials had estimated 6,800 members by the end of August, prompting them to begin plans to expand the program in the coming months.

"It's absolutely plausible to have 10,000 bikes in 10 years," Klein said.

Emily Hanawalt, 33, said she uses Capital Bikeshare to commute to work downtown from Bloomingdale and around town on the weekends.

"I love it. It makes the city smaller because everything is in reach," Hanawalt said. "Normally, getting from Columbia Heights to Dupont is a pain cause you have to change trains, but now I just hop on a bike, and you're in Dupont in seven minutes."

Dennis Cohodar, 37, owns his own bicycle, but said a one-day membership in Capital Bikeshare convinced him to become an annual member.

"I live in a townhouse and don't have to carry this up and down the steps, and I don't have to chain it up," Cohodar said. "This makes so much sense. Why didn't they think of this five, six, seven years ago?"

Andy D. Clarke, president of the Washington-based League of American Bicyclists, said the District still has a long way to go to catch up to Boulder, Colo., San Francisco, Portland, Ore., and other West Coast cities that promote bicycling.

But Clarke said the District and New York have moved into the "top tier" for short-term gains in launching cycling-related initiatives. Under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, New York has installed 250 miles of bicycle lanes. On Tuesday, the city issued a request for proposal for private companies to provide a bike-share system similar to the District's.

"It's something [Fenty] can look back on with some pride," Clarke said.

Although he wins high marks from cyclists, Fenty's efforts to promote cycling might have played a role in his loss to Gray in the Sept. 14 Democratic primary.

In less-affluent parts of the city, bicycle lanes became a symbol for the perception - which Klein said is unfair - that Fenty favored predominately white neighborhoods in Upper Northwest.

Others have complained that the Fenty administration didn't involve community leaders before deciding where the bicycle lanes or bicycle-sharing stations would be located, highlighting concerns that the mayor was arrogant and detached.

"In some places where [the bike-sharing stations] ended up, the first anyone found out about it was when they were put there," said George R. Clark, chairman of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, which advocates for historical preservation.

But Chad Vale, 23, said programs like Capital Bikeshare are a reason he moved to Petworth from Connecticut Avenue.

"I now can get around anywhere without a car," Vale said after he dropped off a bike at the Dupont Circle docking station. "This is what makes D.C. great."

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