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Montgomery plans new bike lanes to help cyclists during Purple Line construction

Bethesda, Md., resident Anna Irwin recorded footage of her bike ride to show what she considers to be unsafe conditions for bike riders. (Video: Anna Irwin)

Montgomery County plans to build protected bike lanes in downtown Bethesda for cyclists who can no longer use the Georgetown Branch Trail during five years of the Purple Line’s construction, an official said Thursday.

County Executive Isiah Leggett’s (D) proposed capital budget, scheduled to be released Tuesday, will include $3 million for the lanes’ design and construction, a spokeswoman said.

The four-mile trail between downtown Bethesda and downtown Silver Spring closed in September as part of the light-rail Purple Line’s construction. The trail will be rebuilt adjacent to the rail line, which is scheduled to carry passengers in 2022. The Georgetown Branch Trail is an extension of the Capital Crescent Trail, a popular cycling and jogging route that forms an arc around the densely-populated Maryland suburbs and connects into Georgetown.

Georgetown Branch Trail closes to make way for Purple Line construction

Since the wooded trail closed, cyclists say, they’ve been directed to an interim bike route along roads often jammed with traffic and pedestrians. Anna Irwin, a Bethesda resident who used the trail daily to ride to work and take her 5-year-old daughter to school, said they’ve been left riding on narrow and often crowded sidewalks and jockeying around vehicles that double-park in the few existing stretches of bike lanes. Hardened bicycle commuters are still making their way, she said, but recreational riders and particularly people riding with children, don’t feel safe.

“It’s dangerous,” Irwin said of the county’s interim bike route. “I don’t feel comfortable using it, and I especially don’t feel safe using it with my daughter on the back.”

Irwin, founder of the new Bethesda Bike Now Coalition, joined forces with the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) to advocate for a network of protected bike lanes through downtown Bethesda, since it’s the most harrowing. Their petition has garnered nearly 500 signatures in three weeks.

Esther Bowring, spokeswoman for the Montgomery Department of Transportation, said the county heard the concerns.

“It’s not ideal,” Bowring said of the route along roads. “We knew that from the beginning. There just aren’t a lot of good options for routing people.”

Delay in judge’s ruling allows tree-clearing for Purple Line to begin

She said the county first will share “concepts” of the bike lanes with the community this year to get input before designing them, and the lanes should be in place in 2019. Cyclists will have their own stretch of pavement and likely be separated from traffic via plastic posts, she said.

She said county officials are discussing with the Town of Chevy Chase the possibility of directing part of the signed bike route through town streets, which some cyclists are already using as an alternative to the trail.

Irwin, who works in marketing and communications, strapped a GoPro camera to her helmet in the fall to show what she says has become a scary ride. In a two-minute video posted on Facebook, cars stream past her daughter and her on Jones Bridge Road as they try to avoid oncoming bikes on a narrow sidewalk and repeatedly come upon motorists blocking their unprotected bike lane on Woodmont Avenue.

This map shows the closed trail in purple and the county’s interim bike route in red.

Other parts of the county’s interim route east of downtown Bethesda also are dangerous, Irwin said, particularly the narrow sidewalk along busy Jones Bridge. (Yes, Irwin says, she knows that cyclists shouldn’t use sidewalks, but doing so feels safer than riding unprotected in traffic.)

Irwin said she and WABA decided to focus first on getting protected bike lanes in downtown Bethesda because it “poses an immediate safety threat” and had the fastest and most doable solution. She said they also plan to push for a connected network of bike lanes throughout the trail corridor.