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Q&A With Bob Levey
Tuesday, November 23, 1999

Bob Levey
Bob Levey
Craig Cola/washingtonpost.com
"Levey Live" appears each Tuesday at noon Eastern time. Your host is Washington Post columnist Bob Levey. This hour is your chance to talk directly to to key Washington Post reporters and editors, local officials and people in the news.

Ellen Jones
Ellen Jones
Bob's guest today is Ellen Jones, the Executive Director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA), a nonprofit advocacy organization founded in 1972. The WABA promotes commuter biking and improved conditions for riders.

Prior to her position at WABA, Jones was a management analyst at the Federal Highway Administration. She holds a Masters degree from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin.

Here is a transcript of today's session:

Simon Dixon, Washington DC: Do you think we'll ever see Rock Creek Park closed down for cars on a more permanent basis as it is now on weekends?

Ellen Jones: That's WABA's goal and the goal of thousands of Washington area residents who have formed a coalition called the People's Alliance for Rock Creek (PARC). Bicyclists, runners, gardners, equestrians, all types of Rock Creek Park lovers are urging the National Park Service and the government of the District of Columbia to conduct a test weekday closure of the section of the Park (Beach Drive north of Brandywine) that is currently closed on weekends. This will help the decision-makers to find out what effect, if any, such a permanent closure would have on the surrounding neighborhoods, general traffic flow and the quality of the Park experience. You can help by urging Mayor Williams and Rock Creek Park Superintendent Adriene Coleman to conduct this test.

Arlington: Ellen and Bob,

Greetings, and thanks for having a chat about my favorite pastime. My topic of conversation is near and dear to every bicyclist's heart: Stop Signs on bike paths -I'm not talking about red lights or car stop signs here-.

I admit it -- I don't stop. It's such a pain to come to a complete stop, robbing you of precious momentum, that I just don't do it. And, I notice, no one else does too. Case in point -- the half-dozen or so stop signs on the bike path as it goes by National Airport. It is easy to see at least a hundred yards up the ramps to see if cars are coming, yet still we are directed to "stop and dismount".

I know why the signs are there, and I admit that I feel a twinge of conscience whenever I simply slow down, see if a car is coming, and then blow through it -- but I still do.

Heck, as far as I'm concerned, cars should have the stop sign, and wait for us.

Your thoughts?

Ellen Jones: Safety involves cyclists, motorists and, on trails, all the other users of the trail.

Yes, there should be warning signs for motorists and trail users at intersections with trails.

Herndon, VA: Ms. Jones, I know you promote and encourage use of the bicycle as an alternative way to commute. But isn't the bicycle really hazardous both to the rider, car drivers and pedestrians? What is your position on bicycle couriers in downtown DC? Several times I have experienced bikes zooming past me on the sidewalks missing a collision by inches. And we have all seen the bikes weaving in and out of traffic, running red lights, and going the wrong way on one way streets. So I'd appreciatre your addressing the safety issue. Thanks.

Ellen Jones: Bicycles are considered to be vehicles in every jurisdiction in metropolitan Washington. As such they are required to observe all traffic regulations.

Enforcement of traffic laws for motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians in downtown Washington should be a priority for the Metropolitan Police Department.

We area beginning to see a few traffic officers on the street during rush hour. We need more. Chief Ramsey has acquired 400 bicycles for the Department this year and we salute him for it. The experience in other major U.S. cities with bicycle mounted police has been really great. Bicycle mounted police have higher arrest rates than other police. in U.S. cities

Singapore: I ride a bike in the D.C. area -I'm in Singapore on business- and I ride on the road, not a so-called bike path. Motorists often yell at me to "ride on the path!" but I refuse.

First of all, bike paths -- the few we have in the Metro area -- are really multi-purpose paths, clogged with bikes, 'bladers, baby strollers, joggers and walkers. So riding a bike more than 10 mph is a disaster waiting to happen. I typically ride at at 15 to 18 mph, hitting more than 22 mph in sprints. A bike path is out of the question.

Second, bicycles are legal street vehicles in the Metro area except on freeways, the beltway and similar restricted roads, right?

I ride to the right, use hand signals, wear bright colored or reflective clothing, stay in single file when I'm riding with others and have two rear view mirrors on my bike. Sorry that I can't go 55 mph like the nutballs in cars, but I still have a right to the road.

Americans may consider bikes toys -they are not in Asia, as you know- but I refuse to get off the road!

What's your take on the road vs bike path controversy?

IronVic in Singapore

Ellen Jones: Congratulations! You get an A-plus for doing all the right things.

Faster bicyclists should be on the road. While we are pushing for more trails, we have to keep pushing for better on-road conditions for bicyclists to make that a safe option for cyclists riding at you speed.

Bob Levey: Rules for allowing bikes on Metrorail were recently liberalized. How is this working?

Ellen Jones: Metro now allows bikes on without a permit all day Saturday and Sunday, 10am-2pm and after 7pm on weekdays.

We have heard some complaints from Metro about bicyclists using the escalators instead of elevators. WABA has asked Metro to do a better job of informing cyclists about the rules. Signs are needed at the escalator entrances informing cyclists (and others) about the location of the elevator entrances.

But the big picture is that the number of cyclists using Metro has jumped something like 200% since the permit was dropped.

Bob Levey: Carl Bernstein (of Watergate fame) became quite famous for detaching the front wheel of his bike and bringing it into the office with him, as a way to discourage thieves. Do you recommend this? Do you think stuffy workaday Washington is ready for cubicles that contain bike wheels as well as fax machines?

Ellen Jones: Secure bicycle parking at workplaces is a big issue.

If an office can't handle a bike in the work area there are other options that will provide security. NPR has a bike room in their building on Massachusetts Avenue that has a special security card that only registered commuters can obtain. Some companies in Arlington have installed bike "cages" or lockers in their parking garages for commuters.

Bob Levey: About sweat---if I ride my bike to work, my shirt will turn into a soggy mess within about a mile. That won't do if I have to look crisp and businesslike later in the day (believe it or not, newspaper slaves have to worry about such things). How can I ride a bike to work and also carry a spare shirt along with me? I don't have enough hands....

Ellen Jones: My husband has perfected the "wrinkle-free" commute using dry cleaning bags.

Take your neatly folded dress clothes and roll them up in the bag. They will then slip easily into your panniers or backpack and arrive fresher than you will at the office. (Try taking a bar of soap and a hand towel for personal clean-up if a shower isn't available.)

Bob Levey: Helmet laws.... What's your position on them? Should the same laws apply to kids and adults?

Ellen Jones: Everyone who operates a bicycle should wear a helmet. WABA supports the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute (BHSI) which looks at helmet construction, helmet use and helmet laws nationally and internationally. Check out their website www.bhsi.org

The main benefit of helmet laws is the educational effect that such a law has in a community.

Bob Levey: Could you please clear up the law about riding on the sidewalk in downtown D.C.? Legal? Illegal? Legal in some parts of downtown but not eothers?

Ellen Jones: Bicycling on sidewalks is not allowed in the central business district of DC. Roughly, that is the area south of Florida Avenue, east of 24th Street, west of North Capitol Street.

Bob Levey: Bike theft is incredibly common. The lovely and talented Lynn Ryzewicz, who's producing this show, even had her bike SEAT stolen last week! Obviously, locks are a good idea, but can you offer additional hints to knock the thieves out of business?

Ellen Jones: A high-quality U-lock that you use to lock your rear wheel and frame to a secure object is a must. You may even want a second lock to secure the front wheel as well.

Take anything off your bike that someone else could take - lights, computer, quick release seat and/or front wheel.

A special note - bike racks at Metro stations are designed to be used with a padlock. If you can manuver your bike into one of those racks (not all bikes can be) using a padlock on the metal tongue located in the metal basket makes your bike almost impossible to steal. Commuters who regularly bike to Metro should take the time to perfect this since Metro bike racks have very high theft rates.

Washington, DC: Do you know of any employer programs that compensate bicyclists in a way similar to Metrochek? At my work, I can pay $25-month for a parking space -great deal--usually close to $200-month!-, or get $65 worth of Metrocheks a month, but I would rather be given $50 for general upkeep of my bike -batteries for headlights, tune-ups, etc-. Are there any DC employers that do this? It seems like bicycle commuters should be rewarded with discounts, not drivers.

Ellen Jones: I don't know of any employers in the area who give cash benefits to cyclists.

If you are a Federal employee the funds that your agency makes available for Metrocheck can be used to improve bicycle conditions at your worksite - parking, showers, lockers. The Federal Employee's Clean Air Incentives Act is a pretty straigtforward piece of legislation that spells this out.

If you work in Arlington County or the City of Alexandria, your employer can get matching funds from the local government to make bicycle improvements at the worksite. WABA is proposing a similar measure in D.C.

Bethesda: Ellen, please tell us about progress on the Metropolitan Branch Trail. When will it be completed? Will it ultimately provide a feasible way for folks who, say, have access to the Crescent Trail in Bethesda to commute downtown?

Ellen Jones: We just cut the ribbon on the first 0.9 mile segment to be completed last month.

We are working with DC government to get the trail in on 1st and 2nd Streets, NE. Montgomery County is moving forward with planning for the trail in Takoma Park.

If you live in Bethesda you can already commute downtown on the Capital Crescent Trail. But, yes, the two trails will connect in Silver Spring forming the "Bicycle Beltway" of our dreams.

VA Commuter: Do you have any information on when the Mt. Vernon trail ramps will be completed? They have done a decent job for accomodating cyclists during the construction but the last few weeks have been terrible. This is especially true for early morning commuters who must navigate the piles of gravel during darkness.

Ellen Jones: In a meeting with Park officials a few weeks ago, they were expressing confidence that the ramps will be done by Spring 2000.

Germantown, MD: I love to ride my bike. When I was in college, I routinely rode from Beltsville to College Park - about 5-6 miles one way. One thing that I quickly noticed is the problem of right-of-way. As a bicyclist, I was expected to ride on the road. But most roads don't have adequate shoulders - such as Rt1. After a few near accidents, I decided to ride on the sidewalks. This led to several arguments with pedestrians, who believe that bikes belong on the road. This seems to be a lose-lose situation for bicyclists. I would love to see bike lanes or even adequate shoulders on the major roads. Any suggestions? The situation no longer applies to me, since I have moved, but I am sure there are still students braving Rt 1 in Prince George's County.

Ellen Jones: There is good news on Route 1. The Maryland State Highway Department has agreed to accomodate bicyclists on this important road. Accomodation will probably be a striped wider shoulder. The Maryland Bicycle Advisory Committee will be having a meeting on December 1 to talk about this and other Maryland cycling priorities. We'll get the details posted on our website in the next 24 hours.

Bethesda,MD: Hey Bob, Please let a few others ask Ellen questions you chat-hog! Ellen, do you feel that it is dangerous for me to ride my unicycle along 495 in the morning on the shoulder? It cuts my commute time in half. Mike Erhart

Ellen Jones: I think it could eliminate your commute altogether.

Silver Spring, MD: Route 29, north of Univ. Blvd., is a notorious bottleneck for car traffic. What would alleviate it is bicycle traffic but this area doesn't even have sidewalks! I see many area residents -usually orthodox jewish- who creep along the banks next to the roads, just to get to get to crosswalks. Off road bikers actually ride on the median strip here because it is safer.

Is anyone home in Rockville that sees bike commuting to SS station as a possible solution, deserving of some sidewalk support?

Ellen Jones: Route 29 is a Maryland state road. See my comments about the Dec. 1 meeting of the Maryland Bicycle Advisory Committee.

Alexandria, VA: How's the bike theft rate on the Mall? My local bike shop claims it's "The Bike Theft Center of the Universe."

Ellen Jones: I think there is pretty stiff competition for that designation.

There is a real lack of bicycle parking on the Mall considering that is a recreation destination for a lot of folks. The Smithsonian and the Park Service could do a lot to make this situation better.

Washington, DC: I've been comuting by bike for the last seven years and I'm very interested in the new Metropolitan trail that starts at Union Station? Where did the land from the trail come from? Where does it end in Silver Spring and what route does it take? Will it connect w- the Capitol Crescent trail and when will the rest of the Capitol Crescent trail be paved.

Ellen Jones: The Metropolitan Branch Trail will be a hybrid trail. There will be segments of the trail that are on-street bike lanes with improved sidewalks adjacent to it. There will be off-road paved segments in the railroad corridor just north of Union Station in the Eckington area off of New York Avenue and through the Fort Totten area. Negotiations have yet to be completed in both areas.

Funding for the trail came from the authorization of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), thanks to Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton. The District government has identified matching funds from D.C. highway dollars.

Gaithersburg: Hi Ellen!

The Potomac River between Montgomery and Fairfax is a major obstacle for everyone. Any thoughts about a cyclist-pedestrian crossing here? Since there is basically no chance for any additional road crossings in the foreseeable future, such a facility might actually get more people out of their cars.

Ellen Jones: Unless Gregg LeMond becomes President I don't think that the cost of such a proposal would ever be acceptable.

Bob Levey: I'm a great believer in common sense, and here's what my common sense tells me: the days of commuting by automobile in and around Washington are coming to an end. More and more people are sicker and sicker of gridlock. They will try commuting by bike, and by the thousands, they will grow to love it. Am I making sense on such a broad scale, or am I just hoping and fantasizing?

Ellen Jones: I'm with you, Bob, and so are the people in this area that made 400,000 trips by bicycle last year.

Bob Levey: Many thanks and happy trails to our guest, Ellen Jones. Be sure to join us next Tuesday, Nov. 30, when our guest on "Levey Live" will be Dr. Peter Holbrook, chief medical officer of Children's Hospital. We'll discuss the health of kids--and also my annual fund-raising campaign on behalf of Children's Hospital. Dr. Holbrook will appear from noon to 1 p.m. Eastern time. If you prefer more of an anything-goes show, we've got that, too--"Levey Live: Speaking Freely." It appears each Friday from 1 to 2 p.m. Eastern time.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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