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Opinion D.C. needs more bike lanes, and fast

A bicyclist navigates their way along Connecticut Avenue in D.C. on Nov. 1. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)
5 min

A previous version of this editorial misidentified Legation Street NW as an avenue. This version has been corrected.

Washington-area roadways are famous for their ability to instill fear. Try negotiating the confusing noodle soup of I-395-695-295 on any given rush hour. Or the curve-a-thon section of the Capital Beltway just east of Interstate 270.

For sheer terror, however, hop on your bike and ride up Connecticut Avenue NW. When you encounter a parked car or other obstacle, you’ll have to merge left. Do so at your own mortal risk. Should you alight on the sidewalk, tensions await. “I have been walking my dog on Connecticut Avenue and have the bicyclists shout at me, ‘Get out of the way, old lady,’” said a local at a District Department of Transportation (DDOT) planning meeting.

“‘Stress,’” according to an understated DDOT planning document, “is evident for cyclists” along the busy roadway.

Relief lies just up the pike. DDOT is at work on a plan to install bike lanes and pedestrian upgrades along the 2.7-mile segment of Connecticut Avenue between Calvert Street NW and Legation Street NW. The changes will affect drivers of the 30,000 to 32,000 vehicles per day that ply the upper part of the corridor, and DDOT expects about 7,000 vehicles per day to peel off onto nearby roads, including Reno Road NW. Protected bike lanes on each side of Connecticut Avenue will hug the curbs; dedicated turn lanes will be installed, along with pedestrian islands; no-turn-on-red rules are also part of the plan — a key measure to protect pedestrians minding their own business in crosswalks.

Critics assail various parts of the blueprint, questioning whether adjacent routes can handle the diverted traffic and wondering whether enough cyclists will fill the protected lanes — DDOT’s long-term goal is 3,000 cyclists per day on the route — to make the undertaking worthwhile. “The numbers just don’t bear out,” says David Krucoff, a resident of the corridor and a 2022 candidate for the Ward 3 D.C. Council seat. The project, says Mr. Krucoff, is “for the potential benefit of the few to the detriment of many.”

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Parking is another perennial concern. The DDOT plan will eliminate more than 300 parking spaces along Connecticut Avenue, an inconvenience for residents, say critics, and a threat to the survival of merchants. (Lee Mayer of says the actual number of lost parking spots will be 469.) “The small businesses that make Connecticut Avenue livable, walkable and vibrant will, in their own words, be so challenged that they might have to close,” reads a “Save Connecticut Avenue” petition that has gathered more than 2,400 signatures.

Apocalyptic warnings about the impacts of bike-lane construction are common to roadway-rehab debates across the country and the Washington region. Residents of the city of Alexandria three years ago raised heated traffic-congestion objections to a plan to modify Seminary Road. The city plowed ahead with the project, which converted a four-lane roadway into a three-lane configuration with a center turn lane, bike lanes and other improvements. A recent evaluation of the project found that crashes have plummeted; “extreme speeding” has been reduced; traffic volumes have trended downward, except for eastbound during morning peak times; diversion to nearby streets doesn’t appear to have occurred, and though pedestrian volumes dropped by 22 percent, bike ridership jumped 75 percent during peak.

Should anyone be surprised that cyclists flock to byways where they feel protected? A wide population of residents, research has shown, are willing to dump other modes of transportation for bikes under the proper conditions. In a June community meeting, DDOT Bicycle Program Specialist Will Handsfield said the cycle track on 15th Street NW, which debuted in a different format in 2009, now conveys 400 to 500 cyclists per hour during peak periods — a higher per-lane volume than the three adjacent car lanes, which collectively host about 1,200 vehicles. “When we do these facilities that have really excellent bike accommodations, we can actually increase the overall capacity of a road,” said Mr. Handsfield.

The benefits come in the form of healthier people, greater safety, a cleaner environment and more attractive public spaces. As for the impact on local merchants, a 2021 study found that bike-lane and pedestrian projects generally have “positive or non-significant economic impacts” on surrounding retail establishments. “Safer streets are good for business,” says Colin Browne, communications director for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association.

But safer streets don’t build themselves. Construction of the bike-lane project on Connecticut Avenue won’t be complete until sometime in 2025, about five years after DDOT published a comprehensive assessment of the corridor’s traffic patterns. To secure buy-in from the avenue’s neighbors, DDOT held about 50 meetings as of last spring with residents, “institutional users” and community associations. That all that outreach was needed explains, in part, why similar routes around the region remain car-commuter raceways. “Stress maps” show just how far the region is from connecting a genuine network of accommodations enabling cyclists to get from point A to B without having to jockey with SUVs and delivery trucks.

The District in 2019 pledged an aggressive campaign to install additional protected bike lanes; by the end of 2021, it had 24 miles of these accommodations. The build-outs, furthermore, should lure cyclists away from the turf where residents don’t want them: According to data cited by Mr. Handsfield, the volume of bikes on sidewalks dropped by 80 percent after one of DDOT’s projects — delivering a precious pedestrian-cyclist bickering dividend.

When it comes to laying plans for bike lanes, the watchword for regional governments should be: Pedal faster.

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