Life in the District used to be marked, in part, by the ability to reside in a suburbanesque neighborhood near the denser areas—but not so near that it felt like really living in a city. Part of that meant being able to drive downtown for work—or to shop or go to dinner—and not having to worry about where to park when you got home again. The newcomers who want bike lanes aren’t moving to the same D.C. For a lot of younger Washingtonians, bike lanes are attractive in the way that a condo in Logan Circle is attractive: Both draw in young professionals who want to live in dense, connected, and active neighborhoods with plenty of stuff to do nearby. They appeal not just to the adventurous, but also to those who find biking an easy, fun way to get around, from work to home to the bar and back again—as well as to those who want to reduce their cost of living by giving up their cars.
Bike lanes are a rejection of D.C.’s tightly held status quo. No wonder they’ve pissed people off.
Anti-bike sentiment continues to rear its head across the city, refusing to be confined by geography or demographics. Residents in Eckington, Bloomingdale, and Truxton Circle have been haggling over whether sharrows—the ubiquitous lanes with a painted symbol of a bike rider—and a protected bike lane that runs against traffic should be installed on R Street NE. The street, a direct shot to the Metropolitan Branch Trail, is currently unnavigable by bike due to a one-way block. Opponents, including some ANC 5C commissioners, claim that, between cars and delivery trucks, R Street NE is already too heavy with traffic. (That’s a frequent objection to the lanes, though studies show they actually calm down speeding and reduce traffic—as one has in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.)
“Why waste money on bike lanes? They ride bikes wherever they want to ride bikes,” says Anthony Muhammed, a commissioner on ANC 8A in historic Anacostia, referring to just about anyone—kids, adults, commuters, spandex-clad racers—who might dare to ride on two wheels. “No one enforces any bike lanes anywhere in the city.” Enforcing bike lanes, though, would actually mean keeping cars out of them, not bikes in them; cyclists are legally allowed to ride in the street all over the District.
Despite all this, cycling in D.C. has a higher profile than ever. There are more people on bikes than ever, a spike that can be attributed in part to Capital Bikeshare. The system, with its nearly indestructible bright red bikes, has made it possible for even the most inexperienced and unprepared rider to get on two wheels and go. And it’s grown rapidly. Bikeshare started in September 2010 with 49 stations; demand has since swelled that number to 110. Twenty-five more stations will be added in the next few months. Logic says that as more Bikeshare users become comfortable with riding in D.C.—and become frustrated with the system’s downsides, such as frequently empty docks—they’ll buy bikes of their own.
The actual policy battle, in fact, has mostly been won—by the folks on two wheels, not four. During Bike to Work Day festivities on May 20, Mayor Vince Gray proclaimed that he’d like D.C. to ascend to a platinum-level bike-friendliness ranking as determined by the League of American Bicyclists. (Its ranking is currently silver.) That would put D.C. on the same level as Portland, Ore., or Boulder, Colo., cities that possess substantial bicycling infrastructure—bike lanes physically separated from traffic, bike boulevards that prohibit cars, good signage for routes and trails, and ample bike parking—and consider bikes a primary mode of transit.
The city isn’t installing bike lanes as fast as it did in the paint-first, ask-questions-later Fenty days, but DDOT hasn’t shut down its bike-centric operations by any stretch. The much-ballyhooed crosstown cycle tracks on L and M Streets downtown, a cornerstone of the 2005 Bicycle Master Plan, should be in place by next spring. They’ll be physically separated facilities, like the 15th Street NW and Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes. Those lanes are critical to capturing and retaining riders who want to use a bike to commute to work—people who want an expedient way to travel to their offices but don’t want to weave through gridlocked streets.