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About two years ago, Christopher Jerry says, a bike lane appeared on 25th Street SE.
“It’s a steep hill—not really steep, but steep. One day, I saw some lines painted there, indicating the bike lanes,” says Jerry, who lives on T Street SE in Ward 7. “They were doing it in such a way that was going to eliminate 80 percent of parking on one side of the street. On that particular street, people use both sides of the street to park their cars. Not everyone can park in the alley.”
Jerry, a rail-maintenance-planning technician for Metro and the vice president of the Fairlawn Civic Association, alerted his neighbors—who, he says, hadn’t been told the bike lane was coming. “I got in contact with all the residents on that street and said, ‘They’re taking your parking away and putting in a bike lane.’”
Unsurprisingly, those living on the block were not pleased. A compromise was struck: The bike lane was redesigned to let cars keep parking on both sides of the street. And according to Jerry, the bike lane has been beneficial; it now forces people to park their cars less haphazardly.
Jerry makes it clear that he’s not personally opposed to bike lanes. “My position is, I’m for bike lanes where bike lanes are wanted and where they work, and I’m not for bike lanes where they’re not wanted and where they don’t work,” he explains. But that inclusive view may not be shared by his neighbors. “For a lot of people, it crystallized….The Fenty folk—why are the gentrifiers pushing bikes? ‘We don’t use bikes, we don’t like bikes,’” he says.
For getting around the District quickly and cheaply, it’s tough to beat a bicycle. Even a leisurely-paced ride will take you from, say, Columbia Heights to the National Mall in less time than a trip on the S2 bus—especially since you won’t be waiting for the bus to show up. There’s no pollution, and you get some exercise while you’re on the way to wherever you’re going.
Then there’s the astounding difference in cost. Car ownership can rack up, on average, more than $9,000 in insurance, payments, and gas per year; that’s not accounting for emergency repairs. The average cost of a new car sold in America is just over $29,000. The Colnago EPS racing bike given to former Mayor Adrian Fenty by the Italian cycling company in 2010 retails for around $12,000. Which means a new car could cost more than double what’s essentially the Maserati of bikes—and at least 30 times as much as more plebeian rides, which generally retail from $400 to $1,000. Still aren’t convinced bikes are affordable? Get on Craigslist, where used bikes regularly run as low as $150—if not lower. Buy a car for $150, and you may have to pedal it, too. Even riding Metro can get expensive fast, with one-way fares beginning at $1.50 (for buses) and $1.70 (for the subway).
So how did this most egalitarian mode of transportation come to signify for so many D.C. residents a very specific caricature: the rich, white, gentrifying newcomer?
There are a few easy signs that developers, real-estate brokers, new residents, city planners, and other agents of gentrification have their eyes on a particular neighborhood. A new condo building pops up, for instance. A bar suddenly seeks a change in its liquor license to set up a sidewalk patio. Or, out of nowhere one day, a bike lane gets painted on the street, like on 25th Street SE. (And, thanks to the incremental nature of the District’s bike-infrastructure projects, it not only appears out of nowhere, but it seems to lead to nowhere, ending mysteriously a few blocks down the road.)
Bike lanes in D.C. seem to come with an extra emotional charge, a legacy of the way they were installed—rapidly, and without much notice to or input from the people nearby—under Fenty and his transportation czar, Gabe Klein. Fenty and Klein were largely well-loved by people who didn’t, for the most part, look or act like those who’ve lived in D.C. longer. The white-striped lanes became a powerful visual implication that change was coming; they looked like a welcome mat for newcomers.
Polls during last year’s contentious mayoral race found that D.C.’s longer-term residents overwhelmingly supported Gray, while newer arrivals favored Fenty. And opinions on bikes and transportation followed that split.
You don’t have to be a cultural-studies professor to see why the dichotomy appealed to pundits. The political significance of bikes can’t be fully understood without a nod to their supposed opposite: cars. Anyone with access to a Bruce Springsteen album knows there are deep veins of American culture where four wheels signify freedom, adulthood, and maybe even America itself. Those who shun automobiles, by extension, shun all of those things. Like grown-ups playing kickball or attending Twitter-fed snowball fights, such a rejection of traditional adulthood seems like the realm of the privileged.
But the idea that bike lanes are the exclusive domain of the city’s younger, whiter class is too simple a story. Like any stereotype, it has holes when you examine it closely; head out onto Beach Drive when it’s closed to cars on the weekends, for instance, and you won’t come back thinking the only people who are serious about bikes in the District are white. David Alpert, editor of the blog Greater Greater Washington, suggests the brouhaha was propped up by media outlets looking for a quick way to frame last year’s mayor’s race. “I think to some extent it became an easy shorthand for people writing about race relations and about divisions in D.C.,” he says.
“There’s a tendency of people writing or commenting on politics to make it about one thing versus another,” Alpert continues. “It’s easier to talk about politics if half the people are one side and half are on the other. Bike lanes got stuck in this place that got fit into that mold, got portrayed into fitting into that mold. People said, ‘Oh, I understand politics now—it’s about young yuppie bikers and longtime black residents.’ I haven’t ever seen that anyone give any evidence that that was the dichotomy so much as that it sounded good.”
Of course, this is D.C., where the fact that local demographics settle along color lines—many of the city’s poor residents are black, and many of its rich residents are white—only adds to the underlying tension. But even here, not every hot-button issue needs to be so starkly divisive. Not even bike lanes.
Any city moving forward with bicycle infrastructure faces a battle, according to Andy Clarke, the president of the League of American Bicyclists. Look at New York, where transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan has been vilified in Park Slope (where brownstones sell for nearly $2 million) and Staten Island (a stronghold of the white ethnic middle class) alike for installing lanes. There will always be opposition to bike lanes, and Clark says it’s nearly impossible to characterize or typify those who don’t want them—save for one kind of mind-set.
“I think it’s probably fairly predictable in being that whoever feels threatened, you’re taking stuff away from. If you’re taking away parking, or a travel lane, or a street corner, or an old rail corridor, whoever feels they’re losing something is going to get bent out of shape,” he says. “You’ve got high-class opponents and areas where people have complained about bike lanes going through poor neighborhoods. I don’t think race or class or income is the issue. I think it’s fear of the unknown and fearing losing something that you’ve had is the most common denominator.”
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Greg Billing, of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, suggests there might be a strong generational divide. “There are a lot of Latino and a lot of black riders out there, and to make it sound that it’s just a white interest isn’t true. I think it’s definitely more of a generational thing—though you do see a lot of old black guys riding bikes. I think it’s more cultural,” he says. There’s a certain rational logic to this: The average 25-year-old will have an easier time than the average 65-year-old when it comes to riding from the Mall to Columbia Heights—no matter what their age, income, or taste in microbrews.
But the nature of urban politics means bikes can’t just be written off as a matter of different strokes for different folks. For neighborhoods that have gone years without much disruption, bike lanes are an affront—and an emphatically visible one, at that. They might cost very little to put down—the approximately 1.5-mile 15th Street NW cycle track, currently the District’s fanciest, cost around $300,000—but bike lanes starkly delineate that a different way of life is creeping in.
Consider Tom Smith, a commissioner in ANC 3D, in Upper Northwest. “This is the city, but it’s not the inner city. We’re more of a suburban environment. The irony is, you’ve seen bike use expand pretty dramatically in the community. I can’t speak for the entire ward, but, yes, bike use has expanded rapidly,” he says. “I think one of the problems is that there hasn’t been a whole lot of outreach by [the District Department of Transportation] on bike issues. Mostly you find out things after the fact, and people start scratching their heads and asking, ‘Why is this being done here?’”
Smith’s ANC covers neighborhoods like Spring Valley, Tenleytown, and Wesley Heights; he and Christopher Jerry live on diametrically opposite sides of the city. But their skepticism of bike lanes is almost identical. Both say DDOT laid down lanes without giving the usual chance for locals to weigh in, which typically manifests itself in community meeting upon community meeting. Both believe that bike lanes will encroach on parking, a near-existential threat in their neighborhoods’ suburblike settings. Both ask why anyone needs the lanes, because they rarely see people riding in them, anyway. If anti-bike-lane sentiment were really about race or class, it’s unlikely that a white guy from Ward 3 and a black guy from Ward 7 would sound nearly exactly the same when they talk about the topic.
Life in the District used to be marked, in part, by the ability to reside in a suburbanesque neighborhood near the denser areas—but not so near that it felt like really living in a city. Part of that meant being able to drive downtown for work—or to shop or go to dinner—and not having to worry about where to park when you got home again. The newcomers who want bike lanes aren’t moving to the same D.C. For a lot of younger Washingtonians, bike lanes are attractive in the way that a condo in Logan Circle is attractive: Both draw in young professionals who want to live in dense, connected, and active neighborhoods with plenty of stuff to do nearby. They appeal not just to the adventurous, but also to those who find biking an easy, fun way to get around, from work to home to the bar and back again—as well as to those who want to reduce their cost of living by giving up their cars.
Bike lanes are a rejection of D.C.’s tightly held status quo. No wonder they’ve pissed people off.
Anti-bike sentiment continues to rear its head across the city, refusing to be confined by geography or demographics. Residents in Eckington, Bloomingdale, and Truxton Circle have been haggling over whether sharrows—the ubiquitous lanes with a painted symbol of a bike rider—and a protected bike lane that runs against traffic should be installed on R Street NE. The street, a direct shot to the Metropolitan Branch Trail, is currently unnavigable by bike due to a one-way block. Opponents, including some ANC 5C commissioners, claim that, between cars and delivery trucks, R Street NE is already too heavy with traffic. (That’s a frequent objection to the lanes, though studies show they actually calm down speeding and reduce traffic—as one has in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.)
“Why waste money on bike lanes? They ride bikes wherever they want to ride bikes,” says Anthony Muhammed, a commissioner on ANC 8A in historic Anacostia, referring to just about anyone—kids, adults, commuters, spandex-clad racers—who might dare to ride on two wheels. “No one enforces any bike lanes anywhere in the city.” Enforcing bike lanes, though, would actually mean keeping cars out of them, not bikes in them; cyclists are legally allowed to ride in the street all over the District.
Despite all this, cycling in D.C. has a higher profile than ever. There are more people on bikes than ever, a spike that can be attributed in part to Capital Bikeshare. The system, with its nearly indestructible bright red bikes, has made it possible for even the most inexperienced and unprepared rider to get on two wheels and go. And it’s grown rapidly. Bikeshare started in September 2010 with 49 stations; demand has since swelled that number to 110. Twenty-five more stations will be added in the next few months. Logic says that as more Bikeshare users become comfortable with riding in D.C.—and become frustrated with the system’s downsides, such as frequently empty docks—they’ll buy bikes of their own.
The actual policy battle, in fact, has mostly been won—by the folks on two wheels, not four. During Bike to Work Day festivities on May 20, Mayor Vince Gray proclaimed that he’d like D.C. to ascend to a platinum-level bike-friendliness ranking as determined by the League of American Bicyclists. (Its ranking is currently silver.) That would put D.C. on the same level as Portland, Ore., or Boulder, Colo., cities that possess substantial bicycling infrastructure—bike lanes physically separated from traffic, bike boulevards that prohibit cars, good signage for routes and trails, and ample bike parking—and consider bikes a primary mode of transit.
The city isn’t installing bike lanes as fast as it did in the paint-first, ask-questions-later Fenty days, but DDOT hasn’t shut down its bike-centric operations by any stretch. The much-ballyhooed crosstown cycle tracks on L and M Streets downtown, a cornerstone of the 2005 Bicycle Master Plan, should be in place by next spring. They’ll be physically separated facilities, like the 15th Street NW and Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes. Those lanes are critical to capturing and retaining riders who want to use a bike to commute to work—people who want an expedient way to travel to their offices but don’t want to weave through gridlocked streets.
Those casual cyclists, who might also ride their bikes to shops and restaurants, really do exist: “Our BID is only 43 blocks, and we have 350 bike racks. A lot of them are full every day. Bicycling’s really exploded here,” says David Suls, of the Golden Triangle Business Improvement District, near Farragut North and Dupont Circle. Ensuring that less-hard-core riders feel safe will encourage them to use their bikes more frequently.
WABA, in partnership with DDOT, has begun education outreach east of the Anacostia River to teach riding, repair, and rules of the road. The organization will hold a total of nine clinics in an area that’s home to some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods—neighborhoods that could stand to benefit the most from access to and knowledge of a cheaper mode of transportation. The clinics regularly see about 30 people, and the series wraps up next Sunday.
“It’s been very successful,” says Billing. “Most of the responses we’ve gotten have been, ‘Wow, thank you so much; this is a blessing. We want to bike to school; we want to bike to work. I couldn’t afford to do this without you here.’ It’s just been incredible, the support we’ve received.” Many areas, especially east of the river, don’t have easy access to bike shops, and the clinics help make cycling seem more within reach. “Taking a step back a little bit, the fact that bike lanes became such a heated issue during the election meant that it’s an actual issue now,” Billing says. “Before, bikes used to be a very fringe discussion.”
Perhaps the strongest attempt to harness the bicycle’s democratic qualities is being made by Black Women Bike, a group whose mission is simply to make the reality described by its name more commonplace. “It’s a community that’s really been hidden. It’s not just there are more black women riding, but there are more people riding,” says Allyson Criner, a member who uses her bike for commuting and exercise. “As far as what our group is doing…I think a lot of us joined because it was refreshing to see, ‘No, we’re not the only ones.’” Criner, who says many of the group’s conversations revolve around sharing safety tips, is adamant that the city should increase the number of bike lanes.
All signs point to cycling’s becoming a viable way to get around D.C. for all kinds of people. And a burgeoning corps of bike riders will need more infrastructure, whether it’s racks to lock up to, or stripes on the road, or lanes physically separated from traffic by bollards. Strip away the cultural codes that we’ve attached to bicycling, and it’s revealed as a fast, efficient, and affordable way to move about a city. Maybe all the acrimony is just a growing pain.
The question is, how tenaciously will those cultural codes hold on to our imaginations?
“There’s still a perception out there that bikes don’t belong on the road, shouldn’t be using road space, that bikes are for kids. It’s kind of all false. We’ve got people who can’t afford cars…the amount of money people spend to have a car is expensive, and Metro is expensive,” says Billing. “It’s not a silver bullet, but it’s pretty darn close to it. It solves a lot of issues. It’s a painful process and it takes a lot of political will to get there. To change the culture takes time.”
Indeed, time has proved itself the most effective balm in healing bike lane-related angst. Look at the 15th Street NW cycle track: Over a year after its completion, it’s not only packed with riders, but the clamor about the parking spaces that had to be removed to put it in has entirely died down. The 15th Street lane is successful because it’s physically separated from traffic by bollards and a line of parked cars. It runs between several areas of high activity. Riders can connect to various other lanes from it. It’s the same story with the Pennsylvania Avenue cycle track. And the next lanes to be laid down by DDOT, the crosstown L and M Street routes, will look similar. The vitriol surrounding biking in D.C. may have damaged its reputation, but has done nearly nothing to stop its expansion.
“We’ve got to that point in those cities where we want to be proactive about people cycling and that public space is more valuable than giving you a parking space for perpetuity. I think that’s good,” Clarke says. “It’s uncomfortable to go through it, but it’s part of the evolution and process that shows communities are serious about increasing cycling….It will be uncomfortable for a little while, but people will be look back on that and say, ‘What were we so worked up about? How can I get bike lanes on my street?’”