The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How a downtown bike lane has become a political headache

A cyclist uses the eastbound L Street lane, to which the M Street lane is supposed to be a westbound companion. (Matt McClain/For The Washington Post)

The longstanding plan to build a new crosstown bicycle lane separated from traffic has pitted two influential factions against each other and has turned into an epic political headache for Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D).

In the works in various forms since 2010, the M Street NW cycle track is intended to be a westbound analog to the eastbound-only facility on L Street NW that opened between 12th and 22nd Streets last year, separating cyclists from auto traffic more definitively than plain painted bike lanes thanks to plastic bollards.

Though the L Street lane involved removing dozens of parking spaces, and plenty of people complained about the inconvenience to drivers, bicycling advocates have hailed the facility and downtown life seems to have adapted just fine about 10 months later. Problem is, the M Street bike lane runs past a prominent downtown church — Metropolitan AME, between 15th and 16th streets — and church parking battles enter a whole new realm of hard-knuckle politics.

Signs of the church backlash emerged in May, when Metropolitan members attended a community meeting on the latest plans and objected to the notion that it would eliminate parking spaces on its block, badly needed for Sunday services and special events. The tenor of the debate, according to an account posted on the WashCycle blog, was heated and included this comment: “When slaves built our church, they were not thinking about bike lanes.”

On Thursday morning, WAMU-FM report Martin Di Caro reported on the latest developments as the lane lurches toward construction in the coming months — including that the protected lane would not, in fact, be protected on the 1500 block, as it passes Metropolitan AME. Pastor Ronald E. Braxton told Di Caro that the solution was a “win-win” for cyclists and churchgoers, but the vocal bike lobby does not see it that way.

So now we are amid the backlash to the backlash. A sampling of the Twitter outrage:

Now, it should be noted, it is not at all clear whether the decision to delete the protected lane from the 1500 block is final. The Greater Greater Washington web site published drawings Thursday that looked awfully final, but transportation department spokesman Reggie Sanders told me Thursday the situation is “kind of fluid.”

“It’s a very sensitive issue,” Sanders said.

I was unable to reach anyone at Metropolitan, which is one of the oldest and most storied black congregations in the city and counts among its members many influential folks including D.C. Council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large). No one picked up the phone in the church office Thursday, and no one was at the church when I dropped by this afternoon.

So with the extremely vocal cyclist community now up in arms, and with Gray trying to delicately balance his political support as he decides whether to seek another term, will Hizzoner heed the backlash to the backlash. And if he does, will there be another backlash?

Update, Aug. 16: The transportation department confirmed in a Friday blog post that only a standard painted bike lane will be included on the 1500 block, because the more ambitious design “would have had an impact on church operations … and limit the ability to accommodate special events at the church along with routine activities.”

“Metropolitan AME has a large congregation and has been an important institution on this block since 1925,” the department added.

Update, Aug. 19: Metropolitan pastor Ronald E. Braxton released the following statement:

I want to applaud the city for trying to accommodate the concerns of all of its citizens.
It was apparent to the city once they heard the concerns of the church that the 1500 block of M Street was the most narrow part of M street, so the city tried to address concerns of the church. While we had concerns about parking spaces, they were not the only concerns.  Metropolitan pays tens of thousands annually for our members, visitors and others to park in nearby garages.  Because of the many events that occur in the church and the flow of traffic, the city decided  not to limit the flow of traffic to two moving lanes at any given point in time.
It would be one thing if the Metropolitan congregation—many of whom are longtime District residents—gathered only one or two hours on Sunday mornings.  But that is not the case.  Metropolitan has 175 years of service to the Greater Washington community.  It is open seven days a week and at any given time during the week, it is host to significant events.   Some of these events are church-related, such as funerals,  the distribution of food for seniors,  and feeding homeless people. But others reflect our work as a national and international gathering place and host of major events that are important to our city and our nation.  When these events occur in the life of the church, it is almost impossible for traffic to get from 15th Street to 16th Street.  The District took all of this into consideration and came up with a solution that allows it to meet the needs of the bicyclists, the church, the safety of pedestrians and the flow of traffic in an important corridor in our city. We think this is a win-win for all involved in our community.