About two years ago, Christopher Jerry says, a bike lane appeared on 25th Street SE.
“It’s a steep hill—not really steep, but steep. One day, I saw some lines painted there, indicating the bike lanes,” says Jerry, who lives on T Street SE in Ward 7. “They were doing it in such a way that was going to eliminate 80 percent of parking on one side of the street. On that particular street, people use both sides of the street to park their cars. Not everyone can park in the alley.”
Jerry, a rail-maintenance-planning technician for Metro and the vice president of the Fairlawn Civic Association, alerted his neighbors—who, he says, hadn’t been told the bike lane was coming. “I got in contact with all the residents on that street and said, ‘They’re taking your parking away and putting in a bike lane.’”
Unsurprisingly, those living on the block were not pleased. A compromise was struck: The bike lane was redesigned to let cars keep parking on both sides of the street. And according to Jerry, the bike lane has been beneficial; it now forces people to park their cars less haphazardly.
Jerry makes it clear that he’s not personally opposed to bike lanes. “My position is, I’m for bike lanes where bike lanes are wanted and where they work, and I’m not for bike lanes where they’re not wanted and where they don’t work,” he explains. But that inclusive view may not be shared by his neighbors. “For a lot of people, it crystallized....The Fenty folk—why are the gentrifiers pushing bikes? ‘We don’t use bikes, we don’t like bikes,’” he says.
For getting around the District quickly and cheaply, it’s tough to beat a bicycle. Even a leisurely-paced ride will take you from, say, Columbia Heights to the National Mall in less time than a trip on the S2 bus—especially since you won’t be waiting for the bus to show up. There’s no pollution, and you get some exercise while you’re on the way to wherever you’re going.
Then there’s the astounding difference in cost. Car ownership can rack up, on average, more than $9,000 in insurance, payments, and gas per year; that’s not accounting for emergency repairs. The average cost of a new car sold in America is just over $29,000. The Colnago EPS racing bike given to former Mayor Adrian Fenty by the Italian cycling company in 2010 retails for around $12,000. Which means a new car could cost more than double what’s essentially the Maserati of bikes—and at least 30 times as much as more plebeian rides, which generally retail from $400 to $1,000. Still aren’t convinced bikes are affordable? Get on Craigslist, where used bikes regularly run as low as $150—if not lower. Buy a car for $150, and you may have to pedal it, too. Even riding Metro can get expensive fast, with one-way fares beginning at $1.50 (for buses) and $1.70 (for the subway).
So how did this most egalitarian mode of transportation come to signify for so many D.C. residents a very specific caricature: the rich, white, gentrifying newcomer?
There are a few easy signs that developers, real-estate brokers, new residents, city planners, and other agents of gentrification have their eyes on a particular neighborhood. A new condo building pops up, for instance. A bar suddenly seeks a change in its liquor license to set up a sidewalk patio. Or, out of nowhere one day, a bike lane gets painted on the street, like on 25th Street SE. (And, thanks to the incremental nature of the District’s bike-infrastructure projects, it not only appears out of nowhere, but it seems to lead to nowhere, ending mysteriously a few blocks down the road.)
Bike lanes in D.C. seem to come with an extra emotional charge, a legacy of the way they were installed—rapidly, and without much notice to or input from the people nearby—under Fenty and his transportation czar, Gabe Klein. Fenty and Klein were largely well-loved by people who didn’t, for the most part, look or act like those who’ve lived in D.C. longer. The white-striped lanes became a powerful visual implication that change was coming; they looked like a welcome mat for newcomers.
Polls during last year’s contentious mayoral race found that D.C.’s longer-term residents overwhelmingly supported Gray, while newer arrivals favored Fenty. And opinions on bikes and transportation followed that split.
You don’t have to be a cultural-studies professor to see why the dichotomy appealed to pundits. The political significance of bikes can’t be fully understood without a nod to their supposed opposite: cars. Anyone with access to a Bruce Springsteen album knows there are deep veins of American culture where four wheels signify freedom, adulthood, and maybe even America itself. Those who shun automobiles, by extension, shun all of those things. Like grown-ups playing kickball or attending Twitter-fed snowball fights, such a rejection of traditional adulthood seems like the realm of the privileged.