Taking its Pole: D.C.?s bikes are squeezed out of secure parking.
Taking its Pole: D.C.?s bikes are squeezed out of secure parking. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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When one of David Gossett’s cases makes it to the U.S. Supreme Court, he arrives there dressed to the nines on his Surly Cross-Check bicycle. He first argued before the court at age 34 and won. As a bike commuter, his success is less notable.

The multideck parking garage at Lafayette Center, where Gossett works as a partner with Mayer Brown, spans two buildings and has room for 500 cars. For bikes, there’s a single rack that holds 10 at most. Situated in a corner of the garage, the old iron structure is often stacked beyond capacity. One bike last week was locked to a rickety sprinkler pipe; another was secured to a trash can outside.

Gossett, now 39, eschews lawyerly terms when discussing the two-wheel parking crunch. “It sucks. It sucks,” he says.

What’s worse, Gossett’s office complex is amid a marketing campaign encouraging people to “Burn Calories Not Gasoline.” A 6-foot billboard at the entrance to the parking facility declares try biking daily to work. Another sign closer to the bike rack has fluorescent illumination to make it easier to read.

“It’s more than a little ironic,” says Gossett.

The attorney says his firm has “repeatedly complained” about the problem to building management. An on-site property manager with Cassidy & Pinkard Colliers declined to answer questions about bike parking and referred comment to the corporate headquarters.

An executive in charge of the property management group said in a telephone interview this was the first she had heard of the problem. “[A bike rack shortage] at Lafayette Center? Oh. So that was good to know,” says Laurie McMahon, senior vice president and principal at the company. “We can put another one there.”

A few hours after the call to McMahon from Washington City Paper, Gossett’s firm learned management would install additional racks. Happy about Cassidy & Pinkard’s new equipment? “Yeah, sure,” Gossett says.

The shortage extends well beyond Gossett’s building south of Dupont. It’s pervasive throughout the District, and it’s a common complaint among cyclists, bike shop workers, and activists. “Locking a bike up in D.C. is notoriously problematic,” says Tripp Phillips, an employee at City Bikes . “If someone wants to steal it, they’re going to get ahold of it.…There aren’t enough really secure locations. You’ll see a lot of bikes put on railings.”

Phillips, who lived for years in bike-friendlier Europe, insists that D.C. streets are swelling with cyclists these days, and sales show it. According to the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, which cites a Census Bureau survey, there was a 100 percent increase in bike commuting from 2004 to 2006—in all, about 6,000 riders driven to the saddle by high gas costs, packed Metro trains, or some sort of scourge of passive commuting.

Eldon Boes, a 67-year-old U.S. Senate staffer, says he loves the thrill of riding as fast as most cars get from Point A (in his case, Alexandria) to Point B (the bike rack inside the Hart Senate Office Building).

But despite racks that can hold about five dozen bikes, Boes still needs to get there early. “If I have a doctor’s appointment or something like that in morning and come in as late at 9:30 or 10 or later, you can’t park inside and lock to one of those racks. You almost have to go to one of the racks outside,” he says.

Unlike the 24-7 security at Hart, the bikes locked on sidewalk fixtures outside congressional buildings are left to the elements and the thieves, says Boes, a senior energy adviser to the Senate Agriculture Committee. He has seen several front or rear tires missing from those that didn’t make it into the garage.

There’s a similar crunch in upper Northwest, says Austin Hollar, a 28-year-old film producer who rides from Columbia Heights to StoryHouse Productions on Wisconsin Avenue NW three or four times a week. “They’ve got a bike rack in the parking garage in the basement of the building.… It’s small, but it’s usually full,” says Hollar. When there’s no room inside, he has to lock to any metal fixture he can get his hands on and risk being reprimanded for parking in front of the office.

“Sometimes the building will object to locking bikes to the railings. They go around and try to find out whose it is and ask them to move it,” he says. Hollar doesn’t blame the hypocrisy on the employees telling him to move his bike; they’re just following orders, he says. Officials with the building management company, Carr Properties, and the garage management, Atlantic Parking, did not return phone calls asking for comment.

Hollar says the city should step up, especially in busy intersections and retail corridors, like the one he works in.

Mike Goodno, the District Department of Transportation’s bike specialist, says the city has installed 800 new bike racks in the past five years. The increase is part of a 10-year, $50 million bicycle master plan. DDOT also encourages businesses to offer more parking and will go to buildings to advise property managers on the purchase and installation of racks.

A step beyond friendly outreach would entail busting those that fail to allocate 5 percent of their parking spaces for cars to bicycles, as required by D.C. zoning code. Gossett’s building, for instance, should legally have three times the space it currently has for the two-wheelers. But Jim Sebastian, DDOT’s bicycle program manager, says he has to rely on citizen complaints to keep real estate companies honest; city inspectors are rarely part of the equation.

“We don’t have the resources” for that level of enforcement, Sebastian says. Other cities, especially on the West Coast, allocate more money to alternative transportation. Seattle—which Bicycling recently rated as one of five “still the greatest” cities (D.C. was “most improved”)—recently committed $240 million to its 10-year plan. Seattle biking advocate David Hiller, a former District resident, blames the discrepancy on D.C. being “a substantially poorer city” with larger problems like crime to tackle first.

Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells, bike commuter and promoter, knows that argument well but blames the bureaucracy as a major culprit. He says he’s unsure if the city can handle the influx of cyclists. “Well, I think there is a lot of lip service by DDOT and others in the executive branch how we’re going to go to biking,” he says via cell phone while riding his bicycle down Pennsylvania Avenue.

“We’re making some progress, but as you can see, there is almost a disbelief that we are going to create infrastructure that is not just for pedestrians and cars, and that roads are not going to have to suffer the inconvenience of having bicycles,” he says, “but we are actually going to make way for them.”