The fast-moving traffic whisked uncomfortably close to Amy Ginsburg the first — and only — time she biked from her home to run an errand on nearby Rockville Pike.
“One big truck with side mirrors and I’m done,” said Ginsburg, 53, who heads Friends of White Flint, a group working to make the Montgomery County community more walkable and bikeable. “I hate driving, and I would love to be out of my car. There’s just no easy way to ride your bike.”
Like most American suburbs, Montgomery’s 500 square miles were built on cheap gas and asphalt. The automobile ruled, rendering most roads inhospitable to all but the most intrepid cyclists. But as those streets choke on traffic and environmental concerns continue to grow, Montgomery officials are wrestling with whether they can develop the kind of robust bike culture that has taken hold in Arlington, the District and cities such as Portland, Ore.
Once a primarily urban phenomenon, integration of bikes into local transportation systems now happens beyond city limits. Suburbs of Chicago, Minneapolis and Indianapolis, to name a few, have upgraded bike lanes, off-road trails and other infrastructure.
“They all stopped thinking about biking as this special thing. It’s now an integral part of transportation,” said Bill Nesper, a vice president for the League of American Bicyclists.
Part of the bike surge reflects the growing urbanization of suburbia, where town centers and other developments with city-like density and street grids are becoming more common. Bethesda, Rockville and Frederick have all earned “bronze” citations from the league for accommodating cyclists. They rank behind “silver” Alexandria, Arlington and the District, but Montgomery County officials hope that will change soon.
The goal, officials said, is to connect a system left fragmented by years of ad hoc planning in which riders can sail along for miles on bike lanes or off-road trails only to hit dead ends — or intersections with wide, high-speed roads that are exceedingly difficult to cross.
The county earmarked nearly $170 million in its recently approved six-year capital budget to improve and expand the bike network in downtown Silver Spring, Bethesda, Wheaton and elsewhere. Millions more bike-enhancement dollars are included in road construction projects. The planning board will soon begin revising Montgomery’s bike master plan, focusing initially on the Shady Grove and Great Seneca areas north of Rockville, which are expecting a surge of new housing and commercial projects over the next decade.
Officials cite Capital Bikeshare’s success in Montgomery as evidence of cycling’s potential here. Since its launch nearly two years ago, riders have logged more than 60,000 trips. But in a county of 1 million people that was designed for automobiles, even those who support the push for bike-friendliness have their doubts about its potential.
“I’m not particularly sanguine about how much change we’re really going to make. We’re still working on getting cars to stop for pedestrians,” said Montgomery County Council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large).
“Are we going to turn every portion of Montgomery County into a bicycle-friendly place? That’s going to take a long time. We’re so behind the world.”
As a form of transportation, biking in the United States barely registers compared with other countries. Just 0.6 percent of commuters — about 786,000 people — travel to work by bicycle, according to census data. In the bike-friendly District, about 15,000 people, or 4.5 percent of the working population, bike to their jobs.
By contrast, 36 percent of all work and school trips in Copenhagen are by bike, according to the Cycling Embassy of Denmark, a public-private organization that promotes cycling.
In Montgomery, an estimated 2,400 stalwarts bike to work. But officials say they are focusing not on increasing commuter trips but on the thousands of shorter jaunts made by car each day: to drop off children at school, take the Metro, visit the post office or shop.
Forty percent of all trips from home — by car, bus, bike or foot — are two miles or less, according to federal surveys. Converting a fraction of those excursions from car to bike could make a significant difference in traffic and sustainability, cycling advocates assert.
“A big part of this is about trying to capture more utilitarian bicycle trips,” said Montgomery County Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson, an avid biker.
That means making the county more accessible to frustrated bikers such as 27-year-old Hamza Khan of Germantown, who attends a mosque about 21/2 miles from his apartment. Khan, a Democratic fundraiser, said he would love to shed excess weight by biking the 10 to 12 minutes it would take to get to the mosque. But the roads won’t accommodate it.
“Getting around on my bike is pretty much a no-go,” Khan said. “It’s a beautiful area, and it should have bike lanes.”
Montgomery leaders say more bike amenities are a must if the county wants to draw millennials and empty-nest boomers who seek alternatives to cars. “It is now a required part of the conversation,” Council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) said.
Such talk distresses advocates for more and better roads to serve automobiles. Between plans for bike amenities and the network of express bus lanes (bus rapid transit) approved by the county council last year, car-focused groups say they fear drivers will get squeezed.
“Montgomery County doesn’t have a lot of roadway to take away from motorists,” said Lon Anderson, AAA Mid-Atlantic’s government and public relations director. “When you have some of the worst congestion in the United States, if you’re not going to add car capacity, at least don’t subtract from it.”
Other critics contend that although improved bike infrastructure may make a difference in the more urbanized “downcounty” region (Silver Spring, Bethesda, Wheaton), it is unlikely that many upcounty residents will make even close-to-home trips on bikes.
“They’re going to the grocery store. They’re going to the dry cleaners,” Council member Craig Rice (D-Upcounty) said. “To do that and ride back on a bicycle isn’t realistic.”
Officials who say there is a large, untapped contingent of would-be cyclists out there cite research by Portland State University that divides the population by attitudes toward bicycle use, starting with a small (4 percent) “strong and fearless” segment that is comfortable riding in any traffic or road conditions. The largest group (56 percent), dubbed “interested but concerned,” is open to biking more, if only they felt safer on the roads.
It is this group that Montgomery wants to reach.
“Even putting in short pieces of high-quality infrastructure might give people a sense of ease about the rest of the trip,” said Council member Hans Riemer (D-At Large), who cycles on Rockville Pike for his commute from Takoma Park to council offices in Rockville.
On June 6, Riemer convened the second annual Great MoCo Bicycle Summit, which featured a family-friendly ride from Bethesda’s Elm Street Park to the Silver Spring Civic Center. The county has also launched a bike safety ad campaign.
Late last year, Montgomery’s first buffered cycle track was installed along Woodglen Drive in North Bethesda, where the off-road segment of the Bethesda Trolley Trail is interrupted. The two-way track, protected from the parking lane by a three-foot buffer zone with flexible posts, could be extended about a half-mile to the White Flint Metro station.
Bikers would like to see something similar in downtown Bethesda, where the Trolley Trail and the popular Capital Crescent Trail come within two miles of each other. To make it easier for riders to get from one trail to the other, advocates are pressing for a “road diet” on Arlington Road north of Bradley Boulevard — cyclist jargon for eliminating one of the four vehicular lanes to create a bike lane.
Plans for the proposed Purple Line light-rail project include a new east-west hike-and-bike trail parallel to the tracks, linking downtown Bethesda to the Silver Spring Transit Center. But downtown Silver Spring — where a 20-foot bike lane that dead-ended into a curb was once dubbed “the stupidest bike lane in America” — remains a no-go zone for many cyclists.
There are funds in the capital budget for a Silver Spring Green Trail, an off-road path along Wayne Avenue from Fenton Street to the Sligo Creek hiker-biker trail. Also on the books is money to begin a segment of the Metropolitan Branch Trail from Montgomery College in Takoma Park to the Silver Spring Transit Center, at which point the trail continues to Union Station.
The bike master plan was last revised a decade ago. The update will focus first on the Great Seneca Science Corridor along Interstate 270, home to Shady Grove Adventist Hospital, Johns Hopkins University-Montgomery County Campus, the Universities at Shady Grove and companies such as Human Genome Sciences. The plan will provide for bike lanes to link workers and residents to stops on the first phase of the proposed Corridor Cities Transit project, a bus rapid transit line that would connect the Shady Grove Metro station with the Metropolitan Grove MARC station in Gaithersburg.
Planners are also creating a “stress map” that will categorize every street and road in the county according to the degree of difficulty it causes bikers.
Montgomery officials say they want to do a better job reaching out to lower-income and minority residents, who historically have been underserved by bicycle amenities. In some communities, bike paths are seen as symbols of displacement and gentrification.
But bike advocates insist that residents in the county’s less-affluent eastern half would be more inclined to ride if the right investments were made in bike lanes and off-road trails.
“If the county can create good bike infrastructure in areas that already have the bones for it, like Silver Spring or Bethesda, you’ll start to see more bicyclists out on the street,” said Dan Reed, a Silver Spring urban planner and blogger.
“And folks in other parts of the county will ask, ‘How can we do that here?’ ”