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For many years, a small but hardy band of bicyclists has opted out of the traffic jams, and chosen to commute to work on two wheels. These days, however, they're encountering their own kind of gridlock on the bike trails surrounding the Washington region.
A preference for congested bike trails over congested roads
Even gray, drizzly weather isn't enough to keep bicyclists off the Capitol Crescent Trail, which begins in Bethesda and winds its way through seven miles of Northwest D.C. before ending in Georgetown. On weekdays, the morning traffic on the trail is usually steady with bicyclists passing in packs of five or six every few minutes.
But Tom Johnson, a lawyer from Chevy Chase, says even on the trail's heaviest traffic days, he'd rather be cycling than driving. "It saves on gas," he says. "Mentally it's great for you, health-wise it's great for you, physically. It's great."
The D.C. region has seen a large increase in the number of bicyclists in recent years, according to Greg Billing of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. So much so, in fact, that between 20,000 and 30,000 people now use their bikes to make the daily commute, according to the D.C. Department of Transportation.
"You definitely get those same sort of traffic reports, like traffic backups that you hear on the radio, with bikes," says Billing. "Four or five people in a row making their way down in the morning for work."
Sheba Farrin, a bicycle racer and a former bike messenger, says she's witnessed a huge uptick in the number of bikes taking to the city streets.
"I can sit on 14th Street in the morning, and it's a bicycle highway," Farrin says. "It's a southbound highway, it's amazing because of the contrast to the city I moved to 20 years ago."
Plans for better bicycle infrastructure underway
Farrin says the administration of D.C.'s previous mayor, Adrian Fenty, deserves a lot of credit for that change. "They did so many things to support new bicycle infrastructure in the city," she says.
But Billing says the city still has a ways to go. Once you move off the trails, the city streets -- even those with bike lanes -- can be dangerous, he says. But there may be a solution in the configuration of bike lanes, he adds, referencing those lanes on 15th Street NW as an example.
"Parking has been moved away from the curb and it floats out on the next lane over, and the bikes actually ride in the space that's created between the sidewalk and curb and the parked cars," he says. "This is the European model. This is the way that we get all of those cyclists, that 15 to 20 percent of people that are interested in cycling, this is how we get them on bikes. By making it safer for them."
Billing says he recently learned that work on similar bike lanes planned for M and L streets NW is set to begin next spring.
"What this will do is create an east/west connection for cyclists. And eventually those trails will be extended all the way out to the Capitol Crescent Trail, and all the way to Union Station, which is the end of the new Metropolitan Branch Trail."
In NoVA, the busiest bike lanes in the region
The congestion on the city's existing bike lanes and trails suggests any new options will get plenty of use. It's not uncommon to see bike convoys of eight cyclists or more riding along Pennsylvania Avenue. And that isn't even the busiest bike lane in the region. Billing says Northern Virginia's trails -- just like its highways -- tend to be among the most congested.
"The end of the Custis Trail and Mount Vernon Trail in Rosslyn tends to see a lot of traffic," he says. "And the Mount Vernon Trail all the way down into Alexandria can get pretty backed up in the morning."
The Custis and Mount Vernon Trails converge at the Key Bridge in Arlington's Rosslyn neighborhood, and that is where the worst backups occur, with riders having to stop in order to negotiate the merge that takes them into the District.
But compared to a recent study from Texas A&M University, which found that Washington area motorists sat idling in traffic for an average of 74 hours last year, a few moments making way for some fellow bike commuters can be a pretty good trade off.
[Music: "A to B" by The Futureheads from The Futureheads/"Pee Wee's Big Adventure" by Danny Elfman from Music From a Darkened Theater]