Until May 20 the District of Columbia had 1,200 miles of roads and three miles of bike lanes along them. On that historic date President Clinton took to the barricades as a way to block passage of motor vehicles in front of the White House. The capital had its bike lane mileage upped to 3.25.
I've pedaled this stretch of wide, newly liberated Pennsylvania Avenue a half-dozen times already, becoming giddy in both the joys of urban carlessness and the companionship of fellow bicyclists also savoring the rare zing of it all.
We were hieing over this suddenly unmotorized ground for different reasons. Some looked to be in need of cyclotherapy, the open-air treatment prescribed for former car addicts in the first cold sweat of auto withdrawal. Others were commuters grateful for a quarter-mile of truced travel amid front-line combat with passing tons of well-oiled metal.
All of us there -- including strollers, rollerbladers and a few noontime joggers -- understood that the banning of motor vehicles was due to no sudden presidential elevation of legpower over horsepower. It was White House security, the fear that some day one of the 23,000 cars and trucks that pass by would brake and bring on Oklahoma City II. We bicyclists had only a day or so of freewheeling pleasures before defenders of America's car culture -- a k a defenders of dirty air, traffic-jam seething, containerized movement -- came in with predictable moans. Much of the media did its part by stripping the gears of facts. The New York Times reported that the president's decision "bans traffic in front of the White House." An adjectival phrase was missing: carbon monoxided traffic. Other forms of traffic -- foot and two-wheeled -- had their space gloriously respected.
The Los Angeles Times couldn't see over the steering wheel either, reporting that this part of Pennsylvania Avenue was "closed to vehicles." Two-wheel vehicles don't count in the land of unfree freeways.
This flat-tire reporting reflects the hold -- as in stranglehold -- that cars enjoy. It's as if all sentient life has ceased to exist in front of the White House because smoke wagons have been rerouted. Washington's power lobbies -- the gun lobby, the oil lobby -- are weaklings compared with the undisputed king of the road, the highway lobby. Can anyone recall a president or member of Congress declaring that America has too many cars and enough pavement?
About the closest Congress has come to voicing a bother or pother about cars was passing an obscure amendment to the Clean Air Act of 1990 called the Employee Trip Reduction bill. It is intended to reduce air pollution, decongest streets during crawl hour and lower energy use by limiting the number of single-driver commuters. Employers are required to report to the federal Environmental Protection Agency how workers commute and the company's plans to increase car-pooling or travel by public transportation.
Hostility to the law was such that four years after its passage only one state -- California -- had a program in place. Compliance elsewhere was spotty or ignored. A May 1994 New York Times story reported that "employers are screaming" about the law. In Washington, screams from car-happy businesspeople are again being heard. The White House ban on motor vehicles, it is being claimed by gloomists, is an assault on the city's commerce. Delivery trucks must find new routes. Tour buses, which played descriptive tapes while hauling the awed masses past the mansion, have lost a highlight of the passing scene. Businesses may flee to the burbs. Office rentals could be lost. One business leader shuddered: Washington is now "at considerable risk."
The quarter-mile land grab is a threat even to the salvation of souls. A new prohibition on street parking near St. John's Episcopal Church across Lafayette Square from the White House prompted its minister to despair that his flock would seek the Lord elsewhere. Why, it's the new age of martyrdom: Christians tortured by having to walk a few blocks to church.
Car addicts and cities that supply the daily fix are taking it hard. They need a high-octane fact: Study after study confirms that car-free zones and pedestrian malls are boons, not banes, to a city's commercial and communal life. Some self-empowered time on a bicycle on a bike lane -- before the White House or anywhere -- could be a moment of needed reflection for those now in a boil. It's a given that commuting by bicycle can clear the head as it clears the way.