City Desk

What Kind Of Cycling Is D.C. Good For?

Bicycling magazine has ranked D.C. number four on its list of best cities for cyclists, a nine-place leap for the city, which ranked at 13 last year:

There is no clearer evidence of the urban-cycling revolution sweeping the United States than in the nation’s capital, where ridership jumped 80 percent from 2007 to 2010. The District opened the country’s first automated bike-share system, constructed separated bike lanes on key downtown corridors—including the stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue linking the White House and Capitol Hill—and installed more than 1,600 bike racks.

The sole commenter really, really disagrees, though:

Has anyone doing the voting/ranking actually ridden in DC? We moved to the DC area in part because of the number of bike trails and perceived bike friendliness, but the reality is far less rosy. Awful traffic, badly fractured bike corridors and overcrowded off-street multi-use paths that cross multiple major intersections far too often make anything other than simply trying to commute to work an exercise in futility. The reality is, if your aim is to commute by bike, the infrastructure is good enough to make most commutes under six miles as fast by bike as they are by any other mode of transport (including by car), however cycling for recreation (especially if you're aiming for serious fitness) is just not all that great. And urban and suburban sprawl make getting to good training roads nearly impossible. The people working to make things better are certainly trying and strides have been made, but head to: and you'll see that there is only one road bike route listed that even crosses into the beltway. Then check out: for 'after work' rides – of which, only three actually enter the district. Maybe I'm spoiled from riding in New England, Chattanooga, TN and Gainesville, FL – all much less populated area, but having also ridden some in Portland, the culture in DC just isn't even in the same league.

I mostly use my bike for commuting/getting around town quickly, but this take on recreational bike use brings up a good point: What kind of cycling are we talking about here?

Photo by nevermindtheend via Flickr/Creative Commons Attribution Generic 2.0 License

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  • TM

    These two commenters are speaking past eachother. The magazine is clearly citing the District itself for doing more to encourage casual and commuting biking. The commenter is complaining about the fact VA and MD isn't well designed for long distance riders. I can't really comment on his concerns other than the fact that I don't really care that much about the concerns of long distance riders. True, I would love it if it were like Germany and bikers like him could ride a train straight to some beautiful mountain trail, but it's not high on my priorities nor should it be high on the city's either

  • Martin

    This is nuts and way off..."however cycling for recreation (especially if you're aiming for serious fitness) is just not all that great."

    There are literally hundreds of miles of bike trails accessible from downtown DC. All along the waterfront, down thru Virginna all the way to Mount Vernon, up the C&O (more off road), up through rock creek park, and, lastly, an beautiful three-mile-ish loop on the Potomac for people that want to do track training. DC is great for bike work outs. The writer clearly doesn't know the district well.

  • RT

    Martin, the commenter is just another true hater. The long-distance cycling here is excellent.

  • Brook

    That dude is way off. DC's goal is not to provide long distance cyclists a private training ground. Its for commuting and running errands to help lesson traffic.

  • Andy

    I can see where the commenter is coming from to a certain extent. Trails like Mount Vernon or W&OD are nice for general recreation, but they're not ideal for race training as they are quite bumpy from tree roots and often quite crowded. The only good place I've found for that sort of training is Hains Point, which gets repetitive. The best roads leading out of the city that I've found are MacArthur Blvd and Beach Drive. I'd love to know of other routes that are good for getting out for 40 to 80-mile rides. I don't have a car, so driving the bike out of the city for a workout isn't really an option.

    But really what could the District do to improve this? There is limited land and the place is pretty well built-out, so there's not a lot of room for dedicated cycling areas. For any long-distance cycling, the onus is on MD and VA governments.

    One complaint I do have about DC's commuter cycling network, however, is the quality of the roads. I love the separated bike lanes on 15th Street, but the road is so uneven and potholed that I take other streets without bike lanes just to keep from damaging my wheels. And that's not the only one in poor condition. I worry about screwing up my racing bike every time I try to get from Bloomingdale to Hains Point for a workout.

  • Martin

    Hains Point, that is what it is called!!! Thanks Andy.

    If you rip around the city a lot, you realize there are four real threats to riders that the district could do something about.

    1. Cops are generally suspicious of serious riders. Remember the dude that got hit by a truck and got four tickets (some for things that weren't even illegal). He wasn't even serious...he was on a bike-share.
    2. Cab drivers. They suck.
    3. Bus drivers. They suck less than cabs but have much bigger vehicles, and they still kinda suck.
    4. Drivers that do not look before opening their doors. The city should put up signs that reminder drivers to look when opening a door street-side.

  • oboe

    "Has anyone doing the voting/ranking actually ridden in DC? We moved to the DC area..."

    In other words: "To those who say biking in DC is great, I say 'What BS!' I moved to Springfield, VA recently, and biking here is terrible."

    Perhaps someone should point out to them that "the DC area" is not "DC".

  • Mario

    You guys are wimps. Getting around a congested city is tough...for EVERYONE! DC is a breathing CITY not a training ground or a bicycle utopia. Many areas are becoming densely populated, and on any given day there are hundreds of commuter and tourist busses, tons of heavy equipment from the never-ending construction projects, thousands of tourists, and tens of thousands of pedestrians...all competing to get from A to B. Throw in the volatile weather and I'd like to know how every street can be manicured to accommodate a ridiculous "race bike." (I’m personally very glad that our streets are race bike unfriendly.) Just take it as it comes--and be sure to get better wheels--and you'll be a lot more content.

  • Manuel

    I wouldn't expect an actual city to be good for long distance training. If I go 10 miles in any direction from my present location in DC, I'll be outside the city. Real cities have a high population density that makes them efficient and are therefore too congested for serious long distance training. With normal street riding, I rarely go more than 1/4 mile before having to stop at a light or stop sign. So was the magazine's ranking for the city or the metropolitan area? As far as I'm concerned DC is great for general utility cycling. Nothing is very far from anything else. The hills are doable and there are a lot streets with slow traffic. And all that was true before they painted all these bike lanes that often just encourage drivers and inexperienced cyclists to do stupid things.

    I also agree that the trails are too congested for serious training. There are no cyclist only trails and they will always draw a large number of pedestrians and parents with strollers and toddlers in good weather making them useless to anyone who wants to bicycle for fitness or go any faster than the lethargic pace of 10 mph. I'm a slow overweight cyclist and the trails can even be a drag for me when they get crowded during nice weather. Gravelly Point is particularly bad around this time of year. If I want a long ride and the freedom to put some power into the crank beyond doing flat loops at Hains Point, I know I'm going to have to get outside of DC and find some suburban or even rural roads that have a little space between intersections.

  • ben

    Here's a question for the serious cyclists out there: Frequently, when driving along MacArthur Blvd., where there is a bike path running parallel to the road, I see serious-looking cyclists riding on the road, on the edge of the white line, ignoring the bike path. This is annoying to drivers, and seems more dangerous, but is there a reason, from a cyclist's point of view? Smoother pavement on the road, maybe?

  • Andy

    Ben, the road is smoother than the bike path on MacArthur and with the two bike lanes on the same side of the road, it can be more dangerous as a fast biker to come around a turn and run into a group of bikers going the opposite direction than it is to have a car come up on you from behind. I can imagine it would be annoying for drivers though.

  • Crickey7

    There is no "bike path" on MacArthur. There is a multi-use path for everyone from strollers, to walkers, to cyclists who prefer to go at a leisurely speed. It's narrow and it has hairpin turns, the surface is in poor repair, and portions often have obstructions such as gravel, sand or fallen vegetation. The law wisely does not require a cyclist to ride on it.

    Riding a bike on that path at speeds greater than, say 10-12 mph is simply dangerous. Most of the bikes on that road are going twice that speed. What you are asking is that, for a few seconds (if that) of your convenience, cyclists stop using a transportation resource they have a fully equal right to use, and put their lives in unnecessary danger. You should ask all the other drivers who are clogging MacArthur ahead of you to stop using that road as well, since their use has a similar impact on your convenience. And, of course, the same applies to your use of the road, since it inconveniences those behind you.

  • Kaid Benfield

    The commenter is so wrong that I don't know where to start. I don’t commute by bike at all and ride only for fitness and training, 2-3 times per week. I have my choice of out-and-backs and loops from 10 to 45 miles from my house in DC, most of them pretty awesome (the best are variations on Beach Drive or MacArthur Blvd), which is why they are immensely popular with serious riders. I am constantly forming impromptu pacelines and camaraderie with the other riders and frequently see people I know. And then there’s the Potomac Pedalers bike club, with whom I rode for years, doing circuits all over the beautiful MD and VA countryside. The writer could stop at any local bike shop and learn everything she needs to know.