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Gear Prudence: I’ve always been a pessimistic person and constantly dwell on the worst case scenario in every situation. I’m not looking forward to 2017. Here’s a hypothetical that I worry isn’t too far-fetched: What if D.C. was forced to immediately remove all of its bike lanes? What would happen to bicycling in the city? —Dour Outlook, Optimism Missing
Dear DOOM: Dystopia is so hot right now, and it’s neat that you’ve found a way to incorporate the loss of bike lanes into our hypothetical impending disastrous future. And here GP thought the worst thing that could happen was complete nuclear annihilation of the planet, not something as horrifying as the removal of 70-something miles of stripes of white paint. It’s pretty unlikely that bike lane removal is high on the list of anyone’s priorities, but let’s indulge the possibility that, as part of some larger infrastructure program, the bike lanes of D.C. must be removed so our roads can be Made Great Again. What would happen to bicyclists? Nothing. At least at first.
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Most D.C. cyclists have already had to contend with the temporary closure of a bike lane (most of the time due to construction) and have learned to live without. This isn’t the same as the loss of the entire network, but it’s a good reminder that the stripe on the road isn’t the sine qua non of cycling itself. Bike lanes help demarcate space on the road for cycling and thereby make it safer. Their absence would increase the likelihood of closer interaction with motor vehicles, and for a lot of cyclists this would be pretty dissuasive. The increase in bike lane miles has correlated with an increase in bicyclists, so it wouldn’t be surprising if their removal correlated with a reduction in numbers. Many cyclists, having been bitten by the cycling bug (note: not an actual bug), would carry on despite a more dangerous ride, but GP suspects that the disappearance of bike lanes, and especially protected ones like those on 15th Street or Pennsylvania Avenue, would cause many people to reconsider their decision to ride. Trails, slower streets, and sidewalks would remain compelling alternatives, but not sufficient to prevent some drop-off in the numbers of cyclists.
Where would these former bicyclists go? They’d crowd your bus. Or take up your parking space with their newly purchased cars. Or stand on the left on the escalator to the Metro because cyclists know nothing of escalator etiquette and no one writes an escalator advice column to answer their escalator etiquette questions. The remaining cyclists would also suffer reduced protection. Not just from the lack of dedicated space, but also because there’s a “safety in numbers” effect whereby more people on bikes makes it safer for everyone. Bicycling would carry on (it always does) but it’d definitely be less appealing. —GP