A collective cheer went out from Washington area commuters a little over a week ago as plows worked overtime to clear the region’s most significant snowfall in years, but the plight of one group of travelers went largely unnoticed: bicyclists.
Life had returned to normal for drivers, Metro riders and other transit users, but the daily commute was still a treacherous trek for many cyclists.
“Snow packs snow into ice, and it’ll sometimes be weeks before they’re actually able to ride again because [the bike trails are] never taken care of. They’re never plowed,” said Shane Farthing, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association.
Farthing said some jurisdictions hire contractors to plow the paths, but it’s inconsistent.
“Sometimes, folks will take the sweeper out and sweep the bike lines, sometimes not. It’s so hit or miss,” he said.
Tens of thousands of people in the Washington region get to and from work by bike — a recent study ranked Washington second to New York in the percentage of car-free households. Farthing’s group is working to shine a light — and a plow or snowblower — on the issue.
Many cyclists rely on a virtual network of riders for news about what has been plowed or partially cleared and which roads to take in lieu of trails.
Robert Piretti, 28, of Vienna used Instagram to help map his commute to his political communications job in Arlington County after the snowstorm.
Piretti, a regular on local bike forums, usually rides the Washington & Old Dominion Railroad Trail all the way to his office, but he could use only part of the trail because the rest was covered in snow.
“I had to take pretty dangerous roads today just to get to Falls Church,” said Piretti, whose wife drives the family car to work.
“Some people just don’t have the luxury to have a car, and I’m just disappointed after a week that I can’t get to the trail and use it as it’s really intended.”
Directions from the photo-sharing site — where a fellow cyclist had posted photos of an alternative route — took Piretti through Dunn Loring and Vienna and then back onto the W&OD Trail. At a coffee club in Shirlington on Wednesday morning, he swapped snow biking war stories and told a fellow cyclist there was a rumor going around that a snowblower might be used to clear the snowiest sections of the W&OD.
It was true.
Chris Pauley, director of park operations for the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, said the most recent storm marks the first time the agency’s snow blower has been used on the trail since it was bought three years ago. He said a five- to seven-member crew is assigned to the “45-mile endeavor.”
“We’ve been out all week working on the snow,” he said.
“We try to get as much snow off the trail as we can. We recognize it’s a commuter artery for the region, and we do want to help.”
The W&OD Trail is delicate. Pauley said the agency doesn’t plow it for fear of damaging the gravel. And what the snowblower doesn’t get, he said, “Mother Nature takes care of for us.”
But Mother Nature can be a biker’s worst nightmare.
Sometimes the snow melts, and sometimes ice forms in its place. Fortunately for Grace Pooley, she had her helmet.
“I hit a couple of snowy patches, and I was trying to be really careful, but there was this one ice patch on Michigan Avenue on the sidewalk. I totally lost control of my bike and slid head-first into a tree,” said Pooley, a 19-year-old Catholic University sophomore who uses the Anacostia Northwest Branch Trail to commute to school and her job in Chinatown from her home in Edmonston, in Prince George’s County. “It was just scary.”
Nearly every cyclist has a story about a huge pile of snow that blocked the sides of the road or a bike lane after a storm. But now, through social media, Flickr and blog posts, they’re getting the attention of officials.
Pete Beers, a suburban outreach bicycle ambassador for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, said the Virginia Department of Transportation received numerous inquiries in response to a blog post he wrote about blocked paths.
“They’re kind of starting the process and clearing out a lot of those things,” he said.
Beers said he’s realistic and understands the roads have to be cleared first.
“I know there are a lot more people who drive than ride,” he said. “It makes sense to clear the roads first. It makes sense to have a balanced, structured approach.
“I think what most of the bike advocates in the area want is just some sort of formal plan that says: Clearing the trails is important, access to the trails is important. The bike trails and the paths in this area are more than just a recreational facility.”
In many places, officials said they just don’t have the resources. Take the Montgomery County’s parks department, which has more than 200 miles of trails.
“There’s not an easy solution,” said spokeswoman Melissa Chotiner. “It would be a massive undertaking.”
Jim Sebastian, a transportation planner with the District Department of Transportation, said he and his team spent 12 hours last weekend clearing bike lanes, as well as the Metropolitan Branch Trail, with small plows.
“I think people have come to rely on bikes as a form of transportation more and more in the District,” he said. “This is how people get to work, to appointments, to restaurants and local businesses.”
Sebastian said his team waited for plows to make at least one pass before clearing bike lanes.
“People were definitely ready to get back in the bike lanes,” he said, adding that it doesn’t matter what the weather is like outside. “People get in their routine, and they rely on it.”