Fans of irony will deeply appreciate what happened in the Washington area on Tuesday, Oct. 26.
In Virginia, Gov. Jim Gilmore spent that morning getting french-fried by the driving public. They were upset at news reports (which Gilmore later denied) that the Springfield "Mixing Bowl" will take more than eight years to reconstruct. The issues, as usual, were traffic congestion and delays.
In Maryland, Gov. Parris N. Glendening appeared on "Levey Live," my "chat show" on washingtonpost.com. The first seven questions lobbed at the governor concerned his decision to abandon the intercounty connector in northern Montgomery County. The issues, as usual, were traffic congestion and delay.
Meanwhile, in Northeast Washington, a hardy band of about 30 people spent about half an hour riding bicycles.
Starting from Union Station, they pedaled about three miles through a brisk early wind to the campus of Catholic University. The issues had nothing to do with traffic congestion or delays -- because there was none of either. The occasion was a ceremony to mark the opening of an inner-city bike trail that will serve commuters and recreational riders alike.
It's called the Metropolitan Branch Trail. It runs for 7.7 miles, from Union Station to Silver Spring. Within a few months, the 10-foot-wide trail will be fully paved. It will serve as the final piece of a "Bicycle Beltway Within the Beltway" -- a 25-mile loop that will also include the Capital Crescent Trail and the bike paths along the Mall.
The Metropolitan Branch Trail was created by Congress as part of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century. Congress ponied up $8.5 million to buy the right of way for Metropolitan Branch and pave it and landscape its edges. The trail has won the backing of virtually every politician under the sun, notably Rodney E. Slater, the secretary of transportation.
On Oct. 26, the mood couldn't have been more positive. Eight members of Congress joined local bicycling enthusiasts for a trial spin. Among them was Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), who began his remarks with a mock-solemn face.
"Let us have a moment of silence for all Americans who are now stuck in traffic on their way to a health club to ride a stationary bike," Blumenauer said.
In case you think he talks the talk and doesn't walk the walk, Blumenauer said he often rides his bike to meetings at the White House. When meetings end, Blumenauer said, he hops aboard his bike at the same time his fellow legislators hop into cars. Blumenauer routinely beats them to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, he said.
Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.) is another member of Congress who has been bitten seriously by the biking bug. He took it up in 1991, after his first wife died. For the last two years, he has sponsored (and ridden in) a Ride With Jim along the Paul Bunyan Trail in northern Minnesota, in his district.
"[Transportation] money should be spent this way all over America," he said.
Ellen Jones, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, said the Metropolitan Branch Trail and the Beltway-Within-the-Beltway are both designed for commuters as well as sport bikers.
Surveys suggest that commuters are a growing piece of Washington's biking population. In 1994, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments found that more than 20,000 people rode bikes to and from work in the Washington area. That was up from 13,000 six years earlier. The council said the number has probably continued to increase since 1994.
The Metropolitan Branch Trail should be especially attractive to commuters because it crosses or runs along only a few streets. Bicyclists and drivers have long gotten on each other's nerves, and that tension is widely blamed for the "retrocession" of 13th Street NW.
In the late 1970s, the city government designated one lane of that thoroughfare for bikes only. The lane ran from Logan Circle all the way to the Maryland border. It was widely hailed by bicyclists as the beginning of a cycling-commuting revolution.
But the lane was sparsely used, and it was quietly returned to automotive traffic in the early 1990s. Bike enthusiasts say the 13th Street lane would have been used more if motorists weren't so hostile and confrontational toward cyclists.
Commuting by bicycle is more plausible than ever for another important reason. Most modern downtown office buildings provide racks that are at least semi-secure. And some buildings provide indoor bike storage rooms with showers. The Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center are among them.
On Oct. 26, there were jokes about influence pedaling and about the bike-partisan coalition that had won the $8.5 million bike trail appropriation. But no one laughed when Rep. Blumenauer said bike paths are the "cheapest way to build highway capacity."
And everyone nodded when Secretary Slater said that "transportation in America is more than concrete, asphalt and steel."