Friday is Bike to Work Day, and organizers of the event in D.C. expect at least 12,000 riders to participate. That’s more than double the number who turned out in 2006.
If that growth sounds remarkable, it’s no surprise to anyone who’s been on the District’s streets lately, particularly the ones that have been retrofitted with lanes that separate cyclists from city traffic.
Just how popular has cycling become here? On his regular ride to work in Foggy Bottom, Bryce Pardo, 27, won’t even take the 15th Street cycle track — the on-road bike lane lined with pylons — because of a new problem: “It’s so crowded. There are trains of bicyclists.”
As of 2010, 3.1 percent of D.C. residents surveyed by the Census Bureau reported that biking was their primary mode of transportation to work. While still low, that represents a 169 percent jump from 2000.
As longtime D.C. bicycle advocate Peter Harnick put it, “You’re not a freak if you do it anymore.”
One huge contributor to the surge in cycling: the September 2010 launch of Capital Bikeshare, which has put more than 1,000 hard-to-miss red rental bikes on the streets, accounting for nearly 2 million trips to date.
What may turn out to be an even bigger factor going forward, however, is the city’s strategy of separating bikes from car traffic. Jim Sebastian, who oversees biking and pedestrian programs for the District Department of Transportation, credits several recent projects, including the 15th Street cycle track and the median bike lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue, with attracting a wider variety of cyclists. “It’s not just people in Lycra,” he said.
The key to the success of these two routes is that there’s something other than a stripe of paint between cars and bikes. “It forces cars to be more aware of bikes and know where to expect them,” said seasoned cyclist Martin Thomas, 39, who has altered his commute route to include 15th Street and wishes there were more separated lanes.
He’s in luck. DDOT is slated to install an eastbound bike lane on L Street this summer. A westbound lane on M Street is about a year away.
Riders can expect several other protected lanes too, especially after Washington was selected last month as one of six U.S. cities to take part in the Green Lane Project. Funded by the Bikes Belong Foundation, a nonprofit working to make cycling safer, the project aims to promote these modern bikeways.
Separation requires new traffic patterns that can frustrate everyone on the road initially, said Daniel Hoagland of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. He recalls how confused people were by the changes on 15th Street in 2009. Drivers parked in the bike lanes, pedestrians walked in them, and cyclists zoomed in both directions (despite markings indicating traffic was one-way).
These days, most drivers and riders navigate the street with ease, and a recent survey completed as part of DDOT’s Bicycle Facility Evaluation showed that 84 percent of neighborhood residents support the current setup.
Hoagland predicts people will get the hang of the patterns more quickly as these separated lanes pop up across the city. Maybe they’ll all be riding on them soon, too.
Washington is ahead of many American cities when it comes to bicycling infrastructure and support, but advocates say a few obstacles remain for riders. Projects underway aim to help get us over those hills.
Lanes and Trails
The L Street cycle track being installed between New Hampshire Avenue and 12th Street NW this summer, followed by one on M Street next year, will represent a huge improvement for east-west bike travel. But neither will go far east enough to connect with the Metropolitan Branch Trail (which still isn’t completed between Union Station and Silver Spring), the H Street corridor or across the Anacostia River. More cycle tracks, including one on First Street NE, are on the horizon.
Do you have a place to lock up your bike? Not always, says DowntownDC Business Improvement District’s Ellen Jones, who’s obsessed with finding more bike parking to meet demand. “We’re trying to add 25 bike spaces a year, but there’s a tsunami we’re experiencing,” she says. Downtown has 534 racks, but she suspects that number needs to double.
WMATA also recently acknowledged how key bike parking is by adding racks to several stations. And the system’s first Bike & Ride facility (an enclosed structure with space for more than 100 bikes) opened Tuesday at the College Park Metro station.
City cycling requires confidence that many people lack. So WABA and BikeArlington have launched Two Wheel Tuesdays, a weekly event at 7 p.m. that tackles topics, such as navigation, handling intersections and fixing flat tires, that can make folks apprehensive about biking.