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In what is now considered one of America’s top bicycling cities, with an estimated 4 percent of commute trips taken by bike, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) is rolling out its 2016 construction plans, hoping to build on the momentum of recent years.
But bicycling advocates are labeling the plans to add 6 miles of bike lanes “modest,” and they say slow progress toward meeting the city’s long-term goal of 75 miles of protected bike lanes is risking the District’s reputation as a leader in the field.
Only about one mile of protected bike lanes, or cycle tracks, are planned. Cycle tracks are the most popular among bike riders because they are somewhat shielded from traffic. In a city with more than 70 miles of bike lanes, only 6 miles are protected by parked cars, flex posts, or curbs.
After building a record 9 miles in 2014, DDOT built only 4 miles last year. But the agency says total miles are not the only measure of creating a successful bike infrastructure.
DDOT has 21 bike lane projects scheduled for construction at a cost of $180,000, ranging in distance from less than a tenth to three-quarters of a mile. The longest project (0.73 miles) is set for 17th Street Southeast from East Capitol Street to Barney Circle. Eight projects fill gaps of a block or two. The completion of the Anacostia Riverwalk Train extension is scheduled for later this year.
“We have to work harder to find space for bike lanes. Sometimes, having to take a parking lane or a travel lane. It does get more difficult, but I think we are making good progress,” says DDOT bike planner Jim Sebastian.
A major north-south cycle track on the eastern side of downtown remains in the planning stages, and the proposal is facing opposition from some historic black churches in Shaw who fear the potential loss of on-street parking. The project is a couple years from being realized, but represents the kind of ambitious infrastructure cycling advocates want the District to pursue.
One of the top projects for 2016 is the extension of the popular 15th Street Northwest cycle track through W Street NW north to Euclid Street along Meridian Hill Park. One piece will be completed when a major intersection project is finished at 15th, W, and New Hampshire Avenue, a retrofit of the roadway to include part of the extended two-way cycle track.
Such retrofits are a key part of the agency’s strategy, according to DDOT associate director for planning Sam Zimbabwe.
“We are working at a couple different levels,” Zimbabwe says. “We look at making small connections that may not be a lot of mileage but that fill critical gaps in the network. We are also trying to… as new development happens, bring new [bike lanes] on line.”
He points to The Wharf redevelopment project on the Southwest waterfront, scheduled for completion in 2017, where a rebuilt Maine Avenue will include a protected bike lane.
Katie Lootens, 27, was pleased to see she could bike to work after moving to the District a year ago.
“When I first learned to ride a bike for a commute it was in West Africa, so I am just happy to have paved roads,” says the former Peace Corps volunteer.
Although she is “not a cyclist,” she uses Capital Bikeshare a few times a week to traverse the mile to her downtown office, as long as she feels safe.
“If the city can expand the number of protected bike lanes, that could dramatically expand the number of places I could bike,” she says.
Shawn Sullivan, 29, another new bike commuter, also prefers cycle tracks to riding in the thick of traffic. Fortunately for him, DDOT completed the last stretch of the 1st Street Northeast cycle track, connecting it to Union Station last year.
Sullivan works nearby. Instead of taking Metro’s Red Line to his office, he rides his bicycle down the curb-protected cycle track with bright green pavement.
“It’s usually the quickest, easiest, most efficient way of getting to work,” he says. “The beauty of the protected bike lanes is that cabs and Ubers don’t pull off to the side and use that as a standing area, because that endangers riders even more.”
But bicycling advocates say cycle tracks are being built at too slow a pace. Greg Billing, the executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, points to the District’s long-range transportation plan, MoveDC, adopted in 2014. It calls for 75 miles of cycle tracks over 25 years.
“We have to pick up the pace if we are going to try to achieve that in 20 years. Building one mile of protected bike lanes per year is going to take us 80 years,” says Billing, who says the fastest way to grow bicycling is to make it as safe as possible.
Under its ‘Sustainable DC’ plan, District officials are trying to reduce the proportion of automobile trips to 25 percent, meaning the remaining 75 percent of all trips would be comprised of public transportation, walking, and biking. Billing says other cities are pursuing such goals more aggressively.
“We’re getting left behind by Chicago, New York City, Portland,” says Billing, naming just a few cities expanding cycle track networks. “New York City’s planning to build 16 miles of protected bike lanes this year. Chicago has a goal of building 20 miles of protected bike lanes a year. We’re building one.”
A survey by the Portland Bureau of Transportation found that only a fraction of people are willing to bicycle amid traffic day-in, day-out. Sixty percent would prefer cycle tracks.
“We can’t just have one mile of lanes on a journey,” he says.
DDOT says new cycle tracks take more time to plan and build than regular bike lanes, or even some of the cycle tracks installed in recent years.
“We have essentially done a lot of the easier projects where we found space between the parked cars and the driving lane,” says DDOT’s Sebastian.
“Now we are looking at more projects where we may have to eliminate a travel lane or a parking lane, or rearrange the street in such a way to fit the bike lane. That creates concerns we need to address.”
Zimbabwe says the agency understands demand for safe bicycling infrastructure is growing.
“It is incumbent upon us to be working in all eight wards to build out the bike network and make it safe and convenient and accessible for everyone who wants to ride,” he says.
American cities generally are years behind Europe in designing bike infrastructure that equitably divides the road space between cars and bikes.
“Crazy as it sounds, until recently, the national guide for bicycle facilities warned strongly against building sidewalk level bike paths, or putting bike lanes behind parked cars,” said Peter Furth, a transportation planning expert at Northeastern University.
“We ignored the 40, 50 years of experience of Europe where there are separated bike lanes everywhere, and their death rate is a fraction of ours for the same number of cyclists,” Furth says.
“On the engineering side, we’ve turned it around. Now what has to the change is the political side. Building a bike network is a revolution for a city, a major new step.”