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Opinion Doctors can make bicycling safer in D.C.

Bicyclists ride in a bike lane in D.C. (Keith Lane/For The Washington Post)

Wyn Dobbs is a medical student at George Washington University.

When Pierre L’Enfant envisioned the nation’s capital, he wanted to create a physical reflection of the new country’s ideals. He modeled D.C. partly on his European homeland, where many of the most impressive structures, such as Versailles, were reserved for royalty. D.C.’s grand avenues and open spaces, however, were intended to be enjoyed by everyone.

L’Enfant’s vision for accessible public spaces was only partially realized. More than a century later, this vision was undermined by the United States’ car-centric transportation system, which exists at the expense of other forms of transit. Cycling is particularly affected because in most places, bicyclists share the road with cars. Unlike with many U.S. cities, the density of D.C. makes cycling a feasible commuting option. However, less than 5 percent of D.C. residents bike to work.

I used to wonder why so few people cycle in D.C. Biking has been my preferred form of transit since I moved to the area nearly eight years ago. As a medical student, I have cycled up to 60 miles a week through busy streets to get to clinics across town. From saving money on gas and parking to integrating exercise into my commute, the decision to bike to work was an easy choice for me; that is until I realized the risks of biking on the road.

In the fall of 2021, I was biking on H Street NE when my tire got caught in the streetcar rails, and I was launched into moving traffic. Luckily, I ended up with only a few scratches, but this experience was the impetus I needed to take a harder look at general cycling safety across the city.

Someone had been killed because of that same H Street defect a few years ago, and another cyclist died on the route I take to work. I learned one of the reasons people are nearly 10 times more likely to drive than bike in Washington: It’s safer to use a car.

Biking here is dangerous, but it doesn’t have to be. As a medical student and recent master’s of public health graduate, I’ve learned the importance of designing systems to promote better health, and D.C.’s cycling system could use a lot of improvement.

The best way for D.C. to protect its cyclists is to give them the dedicated space they need to commute safely. The city needs protected bike lanes, which provide physical separation between bikes and cars. Protected bike lanes have been proved to reduce fatalities in cities across the country, and their very presence would promote cycling, a purported goal of the D.C. city government. However, there are sparingly few protected bike lanes in the District. Of the 1,100 miles of public streets in D.C., only 24 miles are protected bike lanes.

D.C. has the finances to make the necessary investments in safe cycling infrastructure. The city recently reported a $576 million revenue surplus from fiscal 2021. It just doesn’t have the will.

Transit advocates need key allies who have been essential in all other health-related issues: physicians. Physicians are vital stakeholders who help spotlight issues from gun violence to the opioid crisis. For D.C. to return to its equitable ideals set out by L’Enfant, physicians will need to add their voices.

Physicians have long served as advocates for important public health issues. In the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, doctors play a vital role in advocating for effective ways to control the spread of the virus and combating misinformation surrounding the disease and its treatment options. Coordinated campaigns from physicians also laid the foundation for Food and Drug Administration regulation of flavored e-cigarettes, which posed a particular danger to youths. A similar campaign could be envisioned in which doctors lobby the D.C. Council for more protected bike lanes to make the city safer. Even using social media to highlight the importance of driver awareness and bicyclist safety would make an impact.

D.C. has taken steps to support equitable transportation, but more is needed to reach the goal of zero deaths on the roadways. With the help of physicians across the city, this overlooked public health issue could be addressed, providing health benefits to all D.C. residents.

Safer streets for bicyclists will translate into cleaner air, less roadway congestion and reduced traffic noise for everyone. Perhaps D.C. can take another look at its European roots and do more to mirror the cities of Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Barcelona and Paris, where the streets have been redesigned to make bicycling a safe and easy alternative to the car.