The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mapped: How hard it is to get across U.S. cities using only bike lanes

There is a maddening bike lane in downtown D.C., on one of our nightly commutes, that disappears abruptly with no obvious logic. And it's at least entertaining to envision possible scenarios for why this may have happened. The city ran out of bike-lane paint. Or maybe the crew that striped the lane became suddenly incapacitated or distracted. Maybe they took a lunch break — Busboys and Poets entices nearby — during which it started to pour and so no one could finish the job.

Bike commuting throughout the city is often like this: cobbled together out of a bit of bike lane here, an unprotected shoulder there, a scrap of sharrow and some silent pleas that cars won't run you over. Bike lanes occasionally appear and vanish multiple times on the same street. Sometimes they last just a few hundred feet. It feels as if someone striped the city with dozens of quarter-mile commutes in mind.

Zoom out, and to a cyclist in D.C., this is the street grid:

We made that map to help illustrate what city streets look like to someone on a bike. Using city data, we've mapped bike lanes and bike rights-of-way where street markings indicate that cars must share space with bikes ("sharrows"). We haven't included off-road bike trails or "bike routes" that typically include wayfinding signs through neighborhoods but no street markings. The city continues to stripe new bike lanes — although reportedly at a lower rate than before — but that map represents the most recent inventory available on the city's open-data portal (are we missing anything? then update your data!).

If we add in off-road trails that exist separately from the city's street network, like the one that runs through Rock Creek Park, the picture looks like this:

That map has more connections, but the larger pattern remains: This network is disjointed and incomplete. We'd never build a street grid that looks like this and expect drivers to navigate the city through it. But this is the reality for cyclists, and it may help explain to other people why cyclists have such a hard time staying out of the way — off the shoulder, off the sidewalk, out of traffic or car lanes. It's quite literally not possible to travel between many points in the city using only cycling infrastructure.

This isn't a critique of the District (nor an argument that cyclists should have dedicated space on every road in the city). It takes time to create this infrastructure, especially when every lane is a potential political battle. But as we think about what cities need to enable cyclists, and why cyclists behave today the way they do, it's useful to recognize that a cyclist has a much more circumscribed experience of the city than a driver does.

While we were at it, here is what a comparable map looks like in Boston:

And in Miami-Dade County:

And in Seattle:

Update: Want more bike maps? We've got a whole quiz full of 'em!