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Cycling Advocates Fear D.C. Is Hitting Brakes On Building Infrastructure

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The 15th Street cycle track is the type of bicycling infrastructure that advocates want D.C. to build more of.
WAMU/Martin Di Caro
The 15th Street cycle track is the type of bicycling infrastructure that advocates want D.C. to build more of.

After a banner in year that saw the District add nine miles of bike lanes, 2015 is unfolding on a down note for bicycle commuters.

There are no plans to open a major cycle track in the city this year, and while the District Department of Transportation intends to close some gaps in the existing network of protected or buffered lanes, safety advocates argue failing to grow the network will miss an opportunity to exploit the popularity of bicycling in Washington.

Tuning into the “network”

When Mike DeVoll, 28, moved to Washington four years ago to work as a political consultant, he started commuting by bus. He soon tried Capital Bikeshare, which turned out to be his “gateway drug” to buying his own bike.

But what clinched his decision to commute by bicycle was the completion of the M Street Northwest cycle track, which cuts west through downtown and connects with the 15th Street Northwest cycle track.

He uses both protected lanes daily to get from his home in Logan Circle to Arlington. “It makes it hard not to ride to work because you are protected the whole way,” DeVoll said.

“My girlfriend’s office is moving to right off M Street. She is not a bike for transportation person at all, but she is starting to say she might try it because there is a protected lane there,” he said.

A national survey by the advocacy group PeopleForBikes underscored the importance of feeling safe in encouraging bicycling.

Fifty-four percent of U.S. adults said bicycling was a convenient way of getting around and 53 percent would like to ride more often, the survey said. However, more than half feared being hit by a car and forty-six percent said they would be more likely to ride a bicycle if they were physically separated from traffic.

“One in three Americans rode a bike last year, so the question is why aren't those people riding bikes for transportation? The number one concern is safety. People just don't feel safe riding on the street,” said Greg Billing at the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA), an advocacy group.

DDOT plans

The District Department of Transportation’s bike planning office expects to add seven miles of bike lanes in Washington this year, but only a few blocks are considered part of a protected or buffered cycle track.

DDOT plans to finish the last block of the existing 1st Street Northeast cycle track outside Union Station, add another block to 4th Street Northeast between M St. and Florida Ave. near Union Market, and plug a few other holes in the existing network of protected lanes.

The rest of the projects slated for 2015 may be classified as regular bike lanes: painted white stripes adjacent to vehicular traffic. Washington has about 70 miles of bike lanes, but only five miles are protected from traffic, in some cases by plastic flex posts: 15th Street, L Street, M Street, and Pennsylvania Avenue downtown, 1st Street Northeast, and 6th Street Northeast.

DDOT’s bike planners were not available for an interview, but the agency has pointed to the growth in bike commuting – now about five percent of weekday work trips in D.C. — as a sign its work is paying off. But the riding public — and some legislators — contend the pace of progress is too slow.

“If you're really going to have a bike culture here, and if you are going to invite people who are otherwise not cyclists, you really need to have a connected network,” said Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), who commutes by bike.

“I don’t think they are moving fast enough. As I come down Connecticut Avenue, I have no protection. It is a nightmare, especially during rush hour. And I breathe a big sigh of relief when I get over to a bike lane or a cycle track,” she added.

WABA’s Billing said DDOT’s internal structure slows down project delivery.

“Many of the big projects for biking are handled by a single team of folks, and they are hard-working employees who have made an extraordinary effort to make biking what it is in the city, but we need the entire agency focused on project delivery,” he said.

“We have a bike planning team, but we don’t have a bike engineering team. We don’t have a bike construction team,” Billing added. “Projects need to quickly move out of planning into project management and into contracting with the engineers being involved.”

As part of its MoveDC proposal, DDOT is planning to build a large network of cycle tracks all over Washington, but at the current pace it would take years, even decades, to finish.

Economic benefits

Bike commuters are not alone in wanting better, safer infrastructure. The business community is with them.

“We know from an employer and an employee point of view, in terms of attracting the kinds of workers you want, and retaining them, bicycling comes up more and more often,” said Ellen Jones, director of infrastructure and sustainability at the Downtown Business Improvement District, who said off-street bike parking is becoming a common request.

Retailers and restaurants also understand the more bikes on the street, the more business they will receive, said Jones, who once worked in bike advocacy.

“We know it is very important in order to meet an ever-increasing need for travel in downtown, the only way to we are going to meet that demand is through high-capacity modes of transportation: bicycling, walking, transit. We have to be able to accommodate and give priority to those high-capacity modes or we are going to become gridlocked.”

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