Why D.C.’s Bike Deserts Matter
Elevation DC has a great feature today on a concept that's not often discussed: bike shop deserts. A group calling itself the Black Thumb Collective is providing free bike maintenance to communities east of the Anacostia River to address the complete lack of bike shops there, akin to the food deserts we hear so much about.
On the one hand, this shouldn't come as a huge surprise. Wards 7 and 8 are underserved by all kinds of retail, as I documented on these maps. City-provided functions like libraries and tennis courts can be found throughout the city, but don't go looking for a farmer's market or university or sidewalk cafe or full-service grocery store in most east-of-the-river neighborhoods. Until disposable income in these areas rises, there won't be many specialty retailers opening up shop there.
But on the other hand, this is arguably where bike infrastructure could do a lot of good. As Planning Director Harriet Tregoning frequently points out, D.C.'s high housing costs can be offset by low transportation costs if people aren't reliant on cars. But paying for multiple bus rides per day isn't cheap either, and it can be terribly time-consuming. For people living in certain east-of-the-river neighborhoods, a bike commute downtown would be under four miles and save considerable time and money. It's just tough if there's nowhere to go when you get a flat tire.
The map above shows roughly where D.C.'s bike shops are located. The bike desert is not limited to wards 7 and 8; it also extends into Ward 3 (where incomes are higher and cost is less of an issue) and wards 4 and 5 (where the desert is really just as dire as in 7 and 8).
In theory, Capital Bikeshare could help compensate where bike shops are lacking. The $75 annual membership could be prohibitive for some people, although the cost is still much lower than transit commuting if rides are kept under half an hour. The trouble is that the bike shop deserts are also Bikeshare deserts. (See the map of Bikeshare docks below.) Sure, no one has to travel miles to get to the nearest dock, but a bikeshare system doesn't really work if you have to go more than a few blocks—particularly if the nearest dock is empty and the next-closest one is another half-mile away.
The final ingredient, of course, is bikeable roads. The Anacostia Riverwalk Trail is a great resource, but some of the thoroughfares in wards 5, 7, and 8 are downright scary to bike on. The city might find it hard to justify investments in bike lanes, particularly at the expense of car lanes, when so few people in the area are biking. But perhaps with that investment, as well as the work of people like the Black Thumb Collective, more people in these neighborhoods will find biking to be a viable option, and the desert will begin to recede.