The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Faced with bike lane delays, D.C. bikers pedal on

Advocates continue to push ahead, saying safety is their top priority

A closure sign inexplicably blocks the entrance to a newly installed bicycle lane on Pennsylvania and North Carolina avenues SE last week. Motorists seeking parking must now look elsewhere. (Courtland Milloy/The Washington Post)
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Looks like D.C. bicycle advocates have hit a snag in their plan to conquer the roads. City officials recently shelved both a proposed bike-friendly overhaul of Connecticut Avenue and a planned makeover of K Street that originally included bike lanes.

Bike lane opponents in other parts of the city have been hoping that something might be done to slow the biker juggernaut.

A manager at Frager’s Hardware store on Pennsylvania Avenue SE said the bike lanes and a dedicated bus lane there were installed on the block without any notice. The store’s on-street loading zone and all the parking spaces on that block were gone overnight.

On a recent drive through the area, cars were parked in the bus-only lane, while other vehicles blocked a through-lane on Pennsylvania Avenue. A Frager’s customer with the trunk of his car open kept an eye out for passing cars while he stood in the street loading bags of fertilizer. A pizza business that had been set to open earlier in the month no longer had on-street parking spaces and remained shuttered.

There were no signs instructing motorists that parking in bus lanes was allowed during “non rush hours.” Some store employees had heard it from parking enforcement officials. Neither were there signs telling motorists that they would be ticketed $150 for blocking the bus lane during rush hour.

Bike advocates say they aren’t trying to hurt local businesses and that city officials should do a better job communicating with business owners. They say they just want to make biking and walking safer, and there can be no compromise when it comes to that. Despite the setback with the bike lanes on Connecticut Avenue and K Street, the advocates are determined to realize their vision of a bike-friendly nation’s capital.

The way D.C.-area bicycle advocates see it, by 2050 — the bikers’ own timeline — a densely populated D.C. region will be intimately connected by sustainable modes of transportation, primarily networks of bicycle trails. By then, they expect that the D.C. area’s car-centric residents will be out of gas.

“We envision a multimodal transportation system for the District that gives people an array of options to get from Point A to Point B, quickly, every time they walk outside their door,” Jeremiah Lowery, director of advocacy for the Washington Area Bicyclists Association, told me. “We call it the ‘15-minute city.’ If someone wants to bike safely from Takoma Park to the Navy Yard, they should be able to.”

The multimodal system puts emphasis on affordable, reliable and rapid public transit, such as buses and subways, along with lots of walking paths, Lowery said.

What about cars, I asked. I am “car-centric,’’ a term that bike advocates make sound like a psychological disorder.

“No one is completely taking them out of the picture,” Lowery said.

Caitlin Rogger, deputy executive director of Greater Greater Washington, would certainly like to see a whole lot more of us out of our cars.

“There are too many people walking around in D.C. to let this be a car-centric city,” she said. “Cars and human beings don’t really mix very well. We just don’t have enough room for everyone to be in cars, so you have to find ways to make those other modes of transportation more attractive.”

Rogger sees a multitude of economic benefits. By expanding bus service instead of parking spaces, she envisions low-income residents being able to apply for jobs that are currently out of reach.

“I want D.C. to enjoy a thriving recovery, and I think that is totally possible if we focus on quality of life, affordable housing and mobility equity,” she said. “That’s what’s going to attract people to the city. I think we need to look to other cities that have successfully managed to convert car trips to transit, walking and biking. London and Paris are the shining examples of that.”

For her, the delay in putting up bike lanes on Connecticut Avenue was a disappointment, not a defeat.

“It is an unfortunate signal because we had this commitment to build out the cycling network, and to put this off now is a signal to everybody that the commitment isn’t what it was before,” she said. “But I would like them to get back on track pretty quickly because we are in danger of backsliding.”

She noted that during the coronavirus pandemic, America’s driving habits seemed to have worsened. Bicyclist and pedestrian deaths from car crashes are on the rise. “Now we have to work twice as hard to get that genie back in the bottle,” Rogger said.

D.C. bike lane plan splits residents, businesses as city’s network grows

Greater Greater Washington describes itself as a volunteer-driven nonprofit organization “that brings people together online and offline to discuss, organize, and advocate for an inclusive, diverse, growing Washington, D.C. region where all people can choose to live in walkable, urban communities.”

And the organization does have a sphere of influence.

“We want to live and work in places with sidewalks, bike lanes, and frequent transit; with grocery stores, parks, and plenty of housing choices at attainable prices; that is accessible and welcoming to people of all income levels and backgrounds,” the website says.

WABA is the region’s premier bicycle lobbying and educational organization. It has been a driving force behind a phenomenal increase in bike lanes, street “calming” measures and even street closures in the interest of making the roads safer for bicyclists.

Lowery, the WABA advocacy director, said he was not surprised at the “pushback” on the K Street and Connecticut Avenue plans.

“There are bound to be some folks who have questions about how it affects their businesses and everyday lives, and a lot of those questions are valid,” he said. “As we continue to build out the protected bike lanes, we have to be prepared to answer those questions.”

However, he added, “We should not be sacrificing safety for anything. Safety is the number one.”

Lowery said he envisions a city where there is a significant network of free buses, where Metro is fully funded, reliable and frequent, and downtown living is affordable, convenient and safe.

“What I say to the car-centric people is this: Come join us,” he said (after leaving your car at a Metro parking lot and taking public transit the rest of the way in, Lowery adds.) “We are trying to make it more convenient for you, too.”

He and Rogger were certain that as efforts to attract 15,000 new residents downtown proceed, D.C. will soon become too congested for automobile traffic. If it isn’t already.

“My take on people who are car-centric: You want to be ready,” Lowery said. “This is the future. You have to be ready to welcome the future. You are not being excluded from the future. You are included. But so are other people, and that’s the way it has to be if we are going to design a city for everybody.”