Housing Complex

Why D.C.’s Bike Deserts Matter

bike desert map

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.

cabi locations

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.

First map by Aaron Wiener, with bike image from Shutterstock; second map from the D.C. Geographic Information System

  • NE John

    I have heard that a bike shop will open at the new Monroe Street apartments along the MBT. So Ward 5 might join the civilized world soon.

  • Kevin

    Not that they're mutually exclusive, but it seems to me the focus should be on building bike lanes and trails. Make it easier and safer for people to get where they are going and they'll bike more...and need bikes and maintenance. Bike shops will follow.

  • http://distcurm.blogspot.com/ IMGoph

    Of course, one of the things you have to look at is the areal unit problem here (this is where thinking like a geographer helps). The fact is that this analysis is limited to things that fall inside the boundaries of DC, and ignoring the possibility of things that literally lie on the other side of Southern or Eastern avenues.

    There is a bike shop just east of the Capitol Heights station - Maryland Park Bicycles. If the proximity of the Daily Rider shop to Trinidad allows one to say that Trinidad is not in a bicycle shop desert, for example, then the proximity of Maryland Park Bicycles would allow one to take neighborhoods at the far eastern corner of the city off the list of places not served by a bicycle shop.

    Humans create artificial lines on the landscape, and then we sometimes forget that arbitrary boundaries created by those lines keep us from seeing some things.

    tl;dr - always look across the state boundaries when talking about "deserts" of any type (food, bike, etc.) in DC.

  • Petworthian

    There is a great free bike repair clinic/bike shop at Annie's Ace Hardware 1240 Upshur (just off of GA Ave) every weekend it isn't bitterly cold. There are always tons of people. It is staffed by volunteers and and Annie's donates space for the clinic to operate. Really great thing for the neighborhood!

    This link has some more info about it:

  • Fearing Dystopia

    Ditto -- loudly -- Kevin's point: Lots of people bike downtown from the Ward 5 "bike desert" because the Metropolitan Branch Trail provides safety from motorized vehicles from Brookland to Capitol Hill.

    And that "desert" does have secret oases in the form of a free bike clinic held in conjunction with the weekly-in-season Brookland Farmers Market and the Mount Rainier Bike COOP, just minutes from Woodridge.

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  • fongfong

    Not that I frequent it, but Hudson Trail in Tenleytown has a full service bike shop. I won't say it is as community oriented as my friends at Bicycle Space - best to say it exists. Also, many upper NW folks head out to Bethesda, where there are two shops, or up Connecticut to City Bikes, right off the Capital Crescent Trail.

    Yes, more are needed East of the River, where cycling is a challenge.

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