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A conversation with WABA about biking in Washington

Gregory Billing at Bike to Work Day 2015, speaks with D.C. Council member Elissa Silverman (At-large) at the Freedom Plaza pit stop. (Courtesy of WABA)
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Bicycling has become a popular trend in Washington. In the last decade the city has become a bike mecca, with a growing bike-sharing system of more than 300 bike stations, more than 69 miles of marked bike lanes and nearly five percent of working residents commuting by bike.

We spoke with Greg Billing, the new executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA), about the state and future of bicycling in the region. Billing, previously the group’s advocacy coordinator, told us about the organization’s vision to help make Washington a more bike friendly city, the need for investment in bike infrastructure, such as connecting bike trails and protected bike lanes, and greater enforcement of traffic laws to reduce collisions. Following is an edited transcript of our interview.

What is the state of bicycling in Washington?

We are at a really great place as a region for biking. Biking is popular, more people want to do it, more people are supportive of it, and more people are trying to make it easier and accessible. So it’s a good time.
But building infrastructure, changing the streets and making them safer doesn’t happen overnight. An example is the Rock Creek Park trail, which is a constant frustration for everybody in the community and WABA has been working on that since the early ’90s. We are very excited to see some of the construction to start this fall and within the next two years the whole trail will be rebuilt and repaved. Transportation budgets and decisions are made over many, many years and you have to have an organization such as WABA to stay involved and engaged in those processes or else compromises are made and often bicycling is one of those compromises.
We are starting to see snippets of a region that really is built for bicycling. Bikeshare provides a great example of that. The fact that you can pick up a Capital Bikeshare bike in Columbia Heights and bike all the way downtown or all the way to the Capitol in a space completely separate for bicycling is a game changer.
A decade ago people would give you a strange look if you said you are biking to work. Now it is just common place and more people are doing it, more people know co-workers or friends or family who bike to work. In the next five to 10 years it is going to be kind of expanding access to that kind of infrastructure. We really have to build safe protective dedicated bike infrastructure. When we build spaces that are completely separate for bicycling, people bicycle.

What are some key projects that would make the region more bike-friendly?

The opening of the Anacostia Riverwalk trail through Kenilworth (Aquatic) Gardens is going be a game changer in the trail network. It connects 40 to 50 miles of trails in Prince George’s County to the trails that exist in the District and have been this missing gap for two decades. That will allow people from many of the (Prince George’s) communities along Route 1, as far as Greenbelt access all the way to downtown on trails. It is going to be unbelievable.
In the same regard, the Capital Crescent trail will connect the District and Montgomery County. And by the time the Purple Line project is done—a light rail system that will connect New Carrollton and Bethesda, with trains running by 2021— we  should have completed the Met Branch trail from Union Station to Silver Spring. We will have the ability to bike from D.C. to Silver Spring to Bethesda and back to Georgetown. That is another great gap that exists in our trails.
But really trails only get you so far. The places we often want to go are on the streets. So really it is about building networks of dedicated protected bike lanes on our streets. D.C. has great plans of where to build them. So what we will be looking for in the next few years is a strong step forward to building networks. We now have great working examples of this infrastructure. But we can’t just build a bike lane here and a bike lane there and expect it to serve any real transportation purpose. It has to be built as a network that is connected.

Should we think of bicycling as another mode of transportation? 

It helps everybody if we think of biking as transit, especially bike sharing. When we build a Metro system, we build tracks, we build stations, and we buy rail cars. And that’s how it all works. The same thing with bikeshare. We build bikeshare stations, we have the bikes, but we need the tracks which is the protected bike lanes. We need the places on the street for people to ride.
When you get into the weeds of looking how much a single Bikeshare bike costs it seems expensive. But they are built differently, they are built to sit outside, and they last years— a $300 bike doesn’t. You are talking about hundreds of bicycles for $3 million.  But even still, we are about to build some really expensive infrastructure. The new South Capitol Street (Frederick Douglass Memorial) Bridge, which is going to have some fantastic bike and pedestrian accommodations, is going to be a $700 million bridge. That is a lot of money.  We have to put some of that expense in perspective.
We are working on a short five-year plan for D.C. looking at some long protected bike lanes. For $5 million you can build about 25 miles of protected bike lanes and put another 200,000 District residents within a quarter mile of a protected bike lane. That is cheap transportation– the type that encourages people to ride– a third more of the city that doesn’t have access to it now.

Tensions between drivers, cyclists and pedestrians have escalated in recent years. Can’t road users just obey the laws and get along?

People are significantly more aware of bicyclists and pedestrians on the street. We still have a ways to go for sure, but on average it is getting better and that is reflected in some of the data. For example, the number of crashes that involve bicyclists is increasing, but that also tracks with the increase in bicycling. They are less severe, and the fatality rate is coming down. A lot of this is going to be dependent on everybody playing into a safety culture of our streets. You should not die or be significantly injured going about your daily business.
There was a really great study that came out a couple of weeks ago out of Colorado. They asked how people got around, ‘do you follow the law or not.’  They found that everybody breaks the law and actually the rates at which people break the law are equal. It doesn’t matter how you get around. But interestingly they found that the reason people cited for breaking the law when they drive is out of convenience. We drive faster and we run lights because we are trying to get places faster.  The reason cyclists said that they broke laws was erring on what they believe was a safer way to operate. Many people do it because they feel safer being in front of all the vehicles where they are seen.
At the end of the day everybody breaks the law and that’s not right. And we should be enforcing the laws, but we also feel very strongly that the enforcement should follow vision zero priorities and enforce the behavior that causes people to die and people to be seriously injured. When you shift focus to those types of behavior, it is often about distracted driving and speeding and driving under the influence. Those are some of the highest causes of fatalities of pedestrians, bicyclists and drivers.
The cyclist rolling through a stop sign on Capitol Hill is annoying, but the cyclists blowing through a red light in Chinatown and almost hitting people, that is the type of behavior that we would like to be prioritized in enforcement. We want to weigh all road users and all behavior and target the ones that significantly injure and kill people and you are going to find when you do that that the data suggests that bicyclists are annoying but aren’t the problem.