Heeding the Bikers’ Call

D.C. Adds New Bike Lanes, SmartBikes

Posted November 19, 2008 at 5:29pm

At 6 every morning, Clay Rogers shuts off his alarm and looks out of the window of his Arlington, Va., apartment. If the sky is clear, he grabs a Nutri-Grain bar, throws on his biking gear and makes the 40-minute bicycle ride to Capitol Hill.

He parks his bike in the courtyard of the Russell Senate Office Building, showers and changes in the Senate gym, all in time to be at his desk by 8.

“Like everybody else, gas prices had something to do with it,” said Rogers, special assistant to Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.). “And it’s an easy way to get good exercise without having to schedule time to go to the gym before or after work.”

Thanks to millions of dollars for bicycle-friendly initiatives headed by D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, more cyclists may soon join Rogers during his morning commute. Washington is constructing a bicycle transit center at Union Station, 60 miles of bicycle lanes and an eight-mile bicycle trail to Maryland. And it has already instituted a bicycle-sharing program to encourage cycling.

“We are setting a national trend,” Fenty said. “It helps you stay fit; it’s better on the environment; it eliminates congestion and saves parking spaces.”

According to the District Department of Transportation, D.C. residents are beginning to catch on. Officials counted 8,438 bicycle commuters this year, compared with 1,745 in 2004.

The 2006 American Community Survey confirms the growing popularity of biking among D.C. residents. The number of bicycle commuters nearly doubled from 2000 to 2006.

Cyclists said they decided to retire their cars for a variety of reasons.

Alan Heymann, director of public information for the District Department of the Environment, has been biking to work regularly since 2004 because cycling is good for the environment, cheaper than driving a car and “feels great.”

“As a part-time law student with a full-time job, I don’t have a lot of extra time or energy for other exercise,” Heymann said.

Fabienne Spier, a French instructor at Georgetown University, uses an electric bike to commute to work so she doesn’t arrive sweaty and exhausted.

“It takes me about as much time to go to different places from my home as if I was driving,” Spier said. “And I don’t have to park, so I feel much freer.”

Others, such as Stephanie Gresham, senior secretary for the George Washington University Department of Management, say they will never commute by bicycle because it is too much of a hassle.

“I don’t want to bring a change of clothes in a backpack,” Gresham said, “and honestly, I’m afraid I would die biking in commuter traffic.”

Nevertheless, city officials are hopeful that more Washingtonians will commute by bicycle with the proper encouragement.

Just a few blocks from the Capitol, construction has begun on the 1,700-foot Union Station Bicycle Transit Center, expected to open in spring 2009.

The first of its kind on the East Coast, the transit center will offer bicycle parking, rentals, repairs and retail accessories with a changing room and small lockers for personal items. Officials say the center will be able to hold about 120 bikes at $1 per day or $100 per year for parking.

The city is also on track to meet Fenty’s goal of installing 60 miles of bike lanes by 2015. The lanes are expected to decrease the number of bicycle accidents in D.C., where an average of 265 crashes are reported to the Metropolitan Police Department each year.

For Spier, bicycle lanes make her feel safer than biking in traffic.

“At first I rode my bike on the sidewalk, but it’s really inconvenient because you can’t continue at the same speed,” Spier said. “You constantly have to slow down and ring your bell to have people move.”

According to Fenty, Washington is now “the No. 1 bike city in the country” because it has the most bicycle lanes per capita. The city installed its 40th mile of bike lanes on Oct. 24.

“We cannot have too many bicycle lanes in D.C.,” Fenty said.

The District is also in the midst of constructing an eight-mile bicycle and pedestrian trail from Union Station to Silver Spring, Md. Known as the Metropolitan Branch Trail, the path will connect underserved regions of the greater D.C. area.

Officials say the section between New York Avenue and Franklin Street Northeast will be completed by this summer.

Finally, Washington’s bicycle-sharing program, SmartBike DC, has already attracted more than 900 members, who are averaging a total of nearly 150 trips per day. Members pay $40 a year to rent bicycles by scanning their personalized user cards at any of the 10 rental stations across the District. The SmartBike station in Dupont Circle is the most popular.

George Hawkins, director of the District Department of the Environment, commutes by SmartBike from his home near Howard University every day.

Hawkins says that the combination of bicycle lanes and rental bikes made him decide to bike to work.

“Plus, every single person who gets out of his car and on a bike is helping protect the environment,” Hawkins said.

A 2008 report by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a nonprofit that promotes walking and biking, confirms that commuting by bicycle has a positive effect on the environment.

The report says a bicyclist who commutes five miles to work four days a week avoids 2,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions each year.

Academics also confirm that bicycles can make a difference.

“Transportation is a key component of our use of fossil fuels,” said Kiho Kim, the director of the Environmental Studies Program at American University. “Anything that makes a difference is useful.”

As environmental protection continues to be a hot-button issue among Americans, Rogers expects to enjoy the company of more and more bicyclists during his commute to the Senate.

“There’s plenty of space for more bike commuters,” Rogers said. “I would encourage everyone to try it at least once.”