With gasoline prices approaching $3 a gallon, transportation that doesn't require crude has become increasingly attractive.
And that makes the District's program to encourage people to pump pedals instead of gas all the more welcome to those who commute on two wheels.
The city has installed 17 miles of bike lanes and 305 bike racks since 2001. The city's Bicycle Master Plan calls for adding another 10 miles of lanes and 100 racks in the coming year, according to Jim Sebastian, bicycle and pedestrian program manager for the city's Department of Transportation.
"The bike lanes are a fantastic improvement and a great start," said Sheba Farrin, owner of DC Courier, a bike messenger service. Farrin has been a bike messenger since 1991.
But the city also needs to link the lanes so cyclists can get to their destinations without being forced to bike in traffic, Farrin said. Cyclists traveling downtown on 14th Street NW from Mount Pleasant have to bike among cars from U Street to Thomas Circle, a stretch of road on the city's future bike lane list.
But bike lanes and racks are just a small part of the city's 10-year vision for bicycling. By 2015, travelers on the bike beltway that encircles the District will be able to get from Union Station to Silver Spring and from Fort Dupont in Southeast to Georgetown in Northwest without ever venturing onto roads. City officials hope that one of every 20 trips made in the District will be by bike and that every Washingtonian will live within a half-mile of a bike route or trail.
City officials also hope to restore and eliminate gaps in the 1.5-mile Watts Branch Trail in Southeast within a year. They want to begin the first phase of the Anacostia River Trail System construction project, which will includes about 20 miles of trails along both banks of the river, in the fall, Sebastian said.
City transportation officials are also hoping to open a bike station next year at the west end of Union Station that triples the available bike parking, provides security and an enclosure for bikes, and offers rentals, repairs and accessories.
Work also will continue on the $25 million Metropolitan Branch Trail, which should be completed by 2008, according to Chris Holben, the city's bicycle program specialist. The Northeast trail could replicate the success of the Capital Crescent Trail, which runs along an old railroad bed in Northwest and has spurred ridership in the neighborhoods it traverses, said Eric Gilliland, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association.
Running parallel to Metro's Red Line from Union Station to Silver Spring, the eight-mile Metropolitan Branch Trail will combine bike lanes on or alongside neighborhood streets with off-road paths. It will connect with the Capital Crescent and the Anacostia Tributary Trail System.
The Metropolitan Branch Trail project, first envisioned in the 1980s, has been beset by "delay after delay," said Gilliland, and only disconnected segments are now open.
"Eventually, when it's fully constructed," Gilliland said, "it's going to be a key component of the bike network in the region."
A section incorporated into the design of the New York Avenue Metro stop remains closed pending the transfer of land from the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority to the transportation department, followed by a property swap with Pepco, said Holben, who said he is as frustrated as bicyclists by the wait.
An expanded network of bike trails will boost the popularity of an already growing activity, according to transportation officials. Bike commuting increased 55 percent from 1990 to 2000 in the District, according to U.S. Census data, and membership in the Washington Area Bicyclist Association quintupled in a little over a decade.
"It has been proven nationally that areas with trails have more cyclists than areas without trails," Sebastian said.
Costs incurred by the city are minimal for many projects. Bike lanes are added during road resurfacing and are generally paid for by federal money earmarked for air quality improvements.
However, increased resources must be paired with raised awareness among motorists, particularly given that trails such as the Metropolitan Branch include bike lanes in congested streets, Farrin said.
Cars tend to treat bike lanes as extra space and use them for passing or double-parking, Farrin added. And where bike lanes run between traffic lanes and parking spaces, drivers sometimes park, neglect to check their mirrors, and open their car doors directly in front of bikers, she said.
Cyclists and city officials agree that bike lanes have benefits and that there is increased support for biking in the District. Bicycles can alleviate D.C. traffic and air pollution, both of which are among the worst in the nation, while providing health benefits and reducing the stress of gridlocked rush-hour commutes, they said.
They also agree with Sebastian's observation that "if you have it, people will use it."