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Locked and overloaded: D.C.’s bike racks can’t keep up with demand

Every rack was packed. And all of the meters and street signs in sight were already sporting Kryptonite locks. The only spot left was along one side of a tree box.

“So we had to share,” Hambric said as he detached his frame from Lord’s. (They’d latched the two together, and then locked up to the metal railing.) Hambric, a Bloomingdale resident, explained that coming up with such creative solutions is just part of being a cyclist in Washington, “where bike parking is at a premium, and demand has outstripped supply.”

The city’s cycling infrastructure is lagging, added Lord, who lives in Shaw: “Some places have racks, but they only have one or two of them.”

Two decades ago, when there were only one or two racks in all of downtown, these complaints would have seemed nuts. But now D.C. has a different reputationand a lot more cyclists.

According to new Census Bureau data, 3.1 percent of Washingtonians regularly commute to work by bike (up from 1.2 percent in 2000). That number is expected to grow exponentially in the coming years, as the maxed-out Metro system and gridlocked streets persuade more folks to saddle up.

D.C. will get a preview of what the future could look like this Friday, when the region celebrates Bike to Work Day (see box). All of those bikes need to go somewhere.

“Bike parking is not the sexiest topic in transportation, but we believe strongly in it,” says Megan Kanagy, the capital projects manager for the Downtown DC Business Improvement District, which launched a three-year push to boost its rack count last fall. In 2012, the neighborhood had 500 racks. By 2015, it’ll have close to 1,000.

“We don’t see this as three years and we’re done,” Kanagy says. “Then we’ll start over. Our goal is to saturate the area with bike racks so you don’t need to think about it.”

For the project, Downtown DC has partnered with the District Department of Transportation, which is constantly collecting suggestions for where to put more racks. Anyone is welcome to call 311 to suggest a spot. Kim Lucas, the department’s bicycle program specialist, says DDOT has put in more than 2,000 racks over the past 10 years (in addition to the 1,000 or so it’s facilitated through business improvement districts).

“We respond to demand and try to predict need,” says Lucas, who notes that wherever there’s new development — like on the 14th Street corridor — there are cyclists.

Capital Bikeshare should, in theory, lessen parking demands. But at the most popular destinations, there’s the problem of “dock block.” That can end up forcing folks to take their own bikes, Lucas adds.

Haven’t noticed many new racks lately? That’s because the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, which had been installing them, ended its contract with DDOT nine months ago. (The work was outside of the group’s core advocacy mission, WABA’s Greg Billing says.) Just last week, a new contractor began installing racks to tackle the backlog of 100 requests that accumulated.

Picking the right spot for a bike rack can be tricky. The ideal location is in front of a given destination, Kanagy says, because cyclists aren’t so different from drivers: “Even though they’ve biked in from wherever they came from, they still want to park as close as possible.” Considering D.C.’s bike theft stats, that’s just as much a matter of security as one of convenience.

But there are limits on where bike racks can go. Some sidewalks are too narrow, or are crowded with cafes, parking meters and trees. Others are impossible to drill into. Several racks that were scheduled to be installed on Chinatown’s old brick sidewalks are currently sitting in Kanagy’s office.

When a traditional U-shaped black rack isn’t feasible, planners turn to alternatives, such as those bike corrals that replace a car parking spot in the street.

In other words, planning bike parking is something of an art. Nowhere is that truer than in the Golden Triangle. In recent years, Leona Agouridis, executive director of the neighborhood’s business improvement district, has overseen the installation of hundreds of racks, including six distinctive ones that won design contests. (The first was the rack that spells out “Bike Here” by the Dupont Metro.)

“It’s public art that has a function,” Agouridis says. “It changes the scale of the street, and adds color, whimsy and character.”

And it helps make D.C.’s skyrocketing number of bicycles a beautiful thing.

Bike to Work Day Details

You’ll have to strap on your helmet and get on the road (or trail) really early if you want to make it to all 79 pit stops scattered around the region Friday ( Most of the events — which feature refreshments, giveaways and general bike bonding — are in the morning. But there are a few afternoon events too. (And Crystal City is hosting cyclists every morning this week 7-9 a.m.) The website has complete details as well as info on commuter convoys, tips for improving your skills and more.

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