Those casual cyclists, who might also ride their bikes to shops and restaurants, really do exist: “Our BID is only 43 blocks, and we have 350 bike racks. A lot of them are full every day. Bicycling’s really exploded here,” says David Suls, of the Golden Triangle Business Improvement District, near Farragut North and Dupont Circle. Ensuring that less-hard-core riders feel safe will encourage them to use their bikes more frequently.
WABA, in partnership with DDOT, has begun education outreach east of the Anacostia River to teach riding, repair, and rules of the road. The organization will hold a total of nine clinics in an area that’s home to some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods—neighborhoods that could stand to benefit the most from access to and knowledge of a cheaper mode of transportation. The clinics regularly see about 30 people, and the series wraps up next Sunday.
“It’s been very successful,” says Billing. “Most of the responses we’ve gotten have been, ‘Wow, thank you so much; this is a blessing. We want to bike to school; we want to bike to work. I couldn’t afford to do this without you here.’ It’s just been incredible, the support we’ve received.” Many areas, especially east of the river, don’t have easy access to bike shops, and the clinics help make cycling seem more within reach. “Taking a step back a little bit, the fact that bike lanes became such a heated issue during the election meant that it’s an actual issue now,” Billing says. “Before, bikes used to be a very fringe discussion.”
Perhaps the strongest attempt to harness the bicycle’s democratic qualities is being made by Black Women Bike, a group whose mission is simply to make the reality described by its name more commonplace. “It’s a community that’s really been hidden. It’s not just there are more black women riding, but there are more people riding,” says Allyson Criner, a member who uses her bike for commuting and exercise. “As far as what our group is doing...I think a lot of us joined because it was refreshing to see, ‘No, we’re not the only ones.’” Criner, who says many of the group’s conversations revolve around sharing safety tips, is adamant that the city should increase the number of bike lanes.
All signs point to cycling’s becoming a viable way to get around D.C. for all kinds of people. And a burgeoning corps of bike riders will need more infrastructure, whether it’s racks to lock up to, or stripes on the road, or lanes physically separated from traffic by bollards. Strip away the cultural codes that we’ve attached to bicycling, and it’s revealed as a fast, efficient, and affordable way to move about a city. Maybe all the acrimony is just a growing pain.
The question is, how tenaciously will those cultural codes hold on to our imaginations?
“There’s still a perception out there that bikes don’t belong on the road, shouldn’t be using road space, that bikes are for kids. It’s kind of all false. We’ve got people who can’t afford cars...the amount of money people spend to have a car is expensive, and Metro is expensive,” says Billing. “It’s not a silver bullet, but it’s pretty darn close to it. It solves a lot of issues. It’s a painful process and it takes a lot of political will to get there. To change the culture takes time.”
Indeed, time has proved itself the most effective balm in healing bike lane-related angst. Look at the 15th Street NW cycle track: Over a year after its completion, it’s not only packed with riders, but the clamor about the parking spaces that had to be removed to put it in has entirely died down. The 15th Street lane is successful because it’s physically separated from traffic by bollards and a line of parked cars. It runs between several areas of high activity. Riders can connect to various other lanes from it. It’s the same story with the Pennsylvania Avenue cycle track. And the next lanes to be laid down by DDOT, the crosstown L and M Street routes, will look similar. The vitriol surrounding biking in D.C. may have damaged its reputation, but has done nearly nothing to stop its expansion.
“We’ve got to that point in those cities where we want to be proactive about people cycling and that public space is more valuable than giving you a parking space for perpetuity. I think that’s good,” Clarke says. “It’s uncomfortable to go through it, but it’s part of the evolution and process that shows communities are serious about increasing cycling....It will be uncomfortable for a little while, but people will be look back on that and say, ‘What were we so worked up about? How can I get bike lanes on my street?’”