Posted by: jdantos | December 21, 2012

Dear Washingtonian: You Make a Great Argument Why You Should Ride a Bike

L Street Cycletrack (image courtesy Zach Rausnitz)

I normally try to avoid wading into the fray of bike advocacy in the mainstream press, but this article seemed so close to a breakthrough that I felt the need to write. The author, the president of the Washingtonian magazine, basically says that a bike lane has made made it worse to drive east-west through downtown DC. Along the way, she ends up making excellent arguments for the very same bike infrastructure she apparently opposes. The answer is right at her fingertips, yet she lets it slip away. Let’s take a closer look:

I applaud our city for embracing bikes. I, too, like to bike to work on occasion.

Great! Then surely you know firsthand how easy, cheap, and fun cycling in the city can be. And, you know how bike lanes and cycletracks in DC have made it much more attractive to newbies, doubling or tripling ridership.

Ever try to go from Georgetown to Penn Quarter in rush hour? Good luck. And have you tried it lately?

Yes, the trip is pretty easy, actually. There’s a great new protected bike lane on L Street nearly the whole way, and you can safely zip along much faster than the jammed car traffic. I’m surprised more people don’t ride, especially given how bad traffic is.

I’ve sat on the corner of 19th and L and watched each evening as the backup has gotten worse and worse with the addition of the new bike lanes—and I watch as the smog from stopped cars pollutes while nary a bike goes by on cold winter evenings. Only 3% of commuters bike. More than 70% still drive or take the bus.

I agree – traffic is terrible. That’s why I think it’s crazy that so many of us still sit in it, wasting time and polluting the air. Especially when there’s a traffic-free bike lane that goes the same places you want to go, or that can lead you to a nearby transit station. L Street opened a few weeks ago, but statistics show that lanes dramatically increase ridership in a year or so.

Busy Pennsylvania Ave. cycletracks

Many of us drive, but that’s not a reason we shouldn’t change. A century ago we were at 0% car usage, and we adapted our roads to cars. Now, realizing that cars have their drawbacks, we are adapting a small portion of our roads to bicycles. Times change.

I also agree that air pollution is bad and we should do something about it. Encouraging people to take transit and ride zero-emission bikes is a great way to do it.

Are you suggesting we should take away the bike lane to reduce emissions? We have 50 years of experience adding roadway capacity, and in study after study, expanding roads leads to more driving. If you’re arguing that more driving will somehow help air quality, I’m at a loss. Traffic reaches equilibrium – and soon enough drivers will begin to adapt to L and M Streets the same way they adapt to any normal constraint on the roadway network.

One has to wonder if there is any strategy to our bike-obsessed city. Did it occur to anyone to perhaps put the east-west bike lanes on H, N, or I Streets? Streets with significantly less traffic than L or M.

Yes, bike facilities take a lot of careful planning- planning that our city carefully began 8 years ago and has been strategizing since. Also, watch your numbers – DDOT statistics could tell you that H and I Streets move the same or more number of cars than L and M. (L Street moves around 14,000 cars per day, and M Street around 10,000. H and I move between 14,000 and 15,000 per day.) H and I also carry a phenomenal number of buses – nearly a bus per minute at rush hour, or 40% of the people in 2% of the vehicles – meaning they likely carry way more people than L and M.

Is anyone measuring how many bikes use the lanes in rush hour to determine whether they warrant the increased traffic backup?

Yes, DDOT records counts periodically. In fact, they just released numbers on two bike facilities installed a couple years ago, and found that installing bike lanes and cycletracks increased bicycling by 175%. Expanding bike capacity leads to higher bike ridership… sounds kind of like, well, roads, right?

…Except that more bicycling leads to exactly the kind of outcomes you said you wanted – less congestion and pollution. So, you’re making a great case for more bike lanes.

The red light at 15th and Penn. NW, which drivers apparently should be allowed to run?

Recently I came across this signal. I assumed it meant to watch for bikers when turning, which I explained to MPD officer who pulled me over–yet I was still fined $100 for “Disobeying A Traffic Control Device.” No warning, no matter that this is not in the DC Driver Study Guide, which lists eleven other signal types.

I agree that the “Bike” symbol should be included in the DC Driver Study Guide. It’s uncommon, and drivers should learn about it. But if you saw that red light and thought it meant you could go, I don’t know what to say.

Finally, let’s keep things in perspective here. The vast majority of our city remains paved for the the nearly-exclusive use of cars. D.C. is home to 3,500 lane-miles of roads for cars, and about 60 miles of bike lanes. The L Street cycletrack is 1.3 miles of one lane – that’s less than one tenth of one percent of the total roadway network. Even the next 10 or 20 miles of bike lanes signal neither the end of days, nor “bike obsession.” Frankly, they’re a drop in the bucket.

To the author: next time you drive from Georgetown to Penn Quarter at rush hour, you’ve got some great reasons in your article here why you, and your fellow drivers sitting in traffic jams, should ditch the car and ride a bike. It’ll get you there faster, reduce air pollution, cost less, and who knows – you might have fun too.



  1. Of course, the author could have taken Metrorail from Georgetown to Penn Quarter. Oh, wait, that’s right, Georgetown residents refused to allow a Metrorail station to be located in their neighborhood. Personally, I hate driving in DC on the weekends, I can’t imagine driving cross town during rush hour. To expect traffic to be moderate when you are taking the mode with the least efficient use of capacity is inane..

  2. So glad you wrote this post, as I was paralyzed by anger when I read the original Washingtonian piece. Your response is a great reframe and presents many common-sense arguments for increased use of bicycle transit. Well done!

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