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By The Way
Detours with locals. Travel tips you can trust.
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I biked to the airport. Here’s what it was like.

For an hour and a $3.85 bike-share, I assuaged a little climate guilt before a recent flight out of D.C.

(Natalie Compton/The Washington Post; Washington Post illustration)
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At the bottom of your list of concerns on a stressful travel day may be the environmental impact of your trip. A million things take priority in the name of getting to your destination.

But if you’re like me, as natural disasters grow more terrifying every day, climate change is becoming a higher priority in your travel planning.

After the pandemic started and planes were grounded, I was wracked with guilt over my old frequent-flier lifestyle. Now travel is back, and I’m still feeling bad about flying.

I recently noticed my home airport — Reagan National Airport just outside D.C. — had public bike parking near its parking garage. I get around primarily by bike, but it never occurred to me to bike to the airport.

I decided to do the 7-mile ride via bike-share along the Mount Vernon Trail for the sake of my carbon footprint. Plus, the price was a steal ($3.85, to be exact) compared with skyrocketing prices for Uber rides to airports. Yes, you can take public transportation to the airport, but for me, it’s a schlep to the nearest Metro station where trains only come every 20 minutes on weekends.

Before you say it, I will say it for you: Biking to the airport does not offset a lick of damage compared to the environmental cost of taking a flight. But since the U.S. economy’s biggest source of greenhouse gases is transportation, if I can take one less car ride, isn’t that worth something?

If you’re curious to try biking to the airport yourself, here are some takeaways from my experience.

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Navigating a bike-share

Theoretically, you could ride your own bike to the airport and lock it up somewhere with the hope that no one would steal it. I didn’t want to risk that, so I planned to use a bike-sharing program.

If you’re unfamiliar with the bike-share concept, bike rental stations are positioned around cities to use for a small fee. In the D.C. area, Capital Bikeshare is the main system. You rent one through a digital kiosk at the docking station or through an app (the company’s itself or sometimes a partner’s like Lyft). Once you pay, you can bike around as you please, and when you’re done, you can return it to any station with available docks.

These bikes are not nimble by design; they’re bulky since they have to endure wear and tear — and so people don’t toss them in their cars or in rivers. They are heavy to pedal up hills, so you’ll need to be mindful of the route and your physical endurance before heading to the airport. Capital Bikeshare has added electric bikes to its fleet, but I went with the old-fashioned version.

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How to pack

When packing to bike to the airport, you have to practice minimalism, ruthlessly trimming down your belongings so you’re not weighed down like a human version of the “Beverly Hillbillies” truck.

You can’t pull this off with traditional luggage, which may deter a large swath of the traveling public from giving this a shot. But if you can swap a wheeled suitcase for something more nimble, you’re back in business.

My packing looked largely the same as it would if I was getting a car ride to my flight. I went with my usual duffel bag that could be smashed into the bike’s front storage rack. Instead of my go-to leather travel purse, I fit my laptop into a borrowed backpack. It felt more “Tomb Raider” than “Up in the Air,” adding to the sense of adventure.

Safety considerations

There was a major flaw in my plan: I didn’t have a helmet for the ride. I know you should always wear a bike helmet. There’s no doubt about the fact that helmets save cyclists’ lives, plus I’m clumsy.

But the idea of wearing a helmet for the ride, then carrying it around the rest of my trip — through three cities, four flights, a train and a bus ride — sounded impractical. A compromise may be getting a foldable bike helmet that would take up less room in luggage.

Daylight was another big concern. My trip took place well before sunset, but I wouldn’t have attempted the ride if my flight was at night. I have biked the trail in the evening before, and there are few lights, making it a very dark trip. To watch out for obstacles along the way, I would have to pack and mount my own bike light to the rental.

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Dealing with the elements

Except for the hardcore (and maybe the Danish), biking to the airport is a fair-weather transportation option. Snow and rain would 100 percent distract me from my greenhouse gas focus.

Armed with SPF 45, I set out on a frigid February afternoon with a wind advisory. The gusty resistance made the trip more effortful, but the challenge appealed to me from an adventure perspective. I love being outside, being active and experimenting with travel styles.

My Google Maps route directed me by some of my favorite parts of the city, leafy parks and groups of tourists. It also took me alongside extremely loud, busy roads and over an even louder bridge. Eventually I hit the paved Mount Vernon Trail, a path that doesn’t initially have signs for the airport but does indeed take you right there. The trip wasn’t entirely scenic, but it was mostly fun.

Halfway into my trip, I felt like I do every time I fly: parts of me were sweaty and swampy, while the rest of me was freezing. I pictured my future self crammed into an economy seat headed across the country looking windswept.

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Arriving at the airport

My airport ride did not wrap up in a clean or concise way.

Airport signs on the trail appeared as I approached National Airport, eventually signaling me to leave the trail for another path to a parking lot. In the distance, a brown sign read “To Airport Terminals and Bicycle Parking” with an arrow pointing to a ramp leading underground. It turned out to be a tunnel — illuminated but creepy — that allowed pedestrians to bypass the busy freeway. Plunging into its depths freaked me out, but on the other side were the Capital Bikeshare docks.

About an hour and less than $4 later, I had made it to the airport with an hour and a half to spare before my flight.

I thought the journey would end there — I thought wrong. Once I docked the bike and followed the sign for the airport, I realized there wasn’t a very clear path inside. The bike-share dock is located at the base of the airport parking garage, without a proper sidewalk to guide the way. I walked up a ramp meant for cars, and felt I must be doing something wrong. But no one stopped me, so I kept walking.

At the mouth of the parking garage, an attendant gave me directions through the lot to Terminal B.

5/10 would recommend

By the end of my ride, I felt happier and more energized than when I left for the airport. That may have been from the sense of pride from accomplishing something new and something a little nice for the planet. Or it may have been basic physiology.

Exercise is good for your physical and mental health, and I had just exercised — albeit leisurely — for an hour. Whatever the case, I sashayed my way to TSA PreCheck with a sense of accomplishment and an endorphin rush.

But for so many reasons, biking to the airport isn’t for every trip or traveler. I can’t imagine doing this trip with kids, with an injury or illness, for an early-morning flight, or in a city where there isn’t infrastructure for cycling. When it makes sense, I’ll bike to the airport again, whether it moves the needle for global warming or just my guilt.

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