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D.C.’s new bike lanes are going nowhere fast.
When the bike lane on 9th Street NW first appeared in front of the FBI building last year, it looked as if it were another one of those plans for federal-building safety. With cars no longer allowed to park along the curb, the new one-block bike lane could have been a ruse to deter potential car bombers or enterprising hot-dog vendors from stopping there. It certainly didn’t make much sense as a throughway: If you proceeded a block or so beyond its terminus, you’d ride right into the 9th Street Tunnel.
But District riders are used to being left short by bike lanes. For years, the only protected zones for cyclists were along Calvert Street NW, between Adams Morgan and Connecticut Avenue; a few blocks of East Capitol Street; and little stretches along 4th and 6th Streets SE. Together, the designated bikeways added up to 2.5 miles.
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This year, though, new bike lanes have been surfacing throughout the city: on upper 14th Street NW, on Kansas Avenue NW, on First Street NE, and most recently, on New Hampshire Avenue NW between Dupont Circle and T Street NW. Without fanfare or NIMBY outrage over threats to residential parking, the District’s traffic patterns are being revised.
The stunted white lines and diamonds are perhaps the most visible products of the environmentalism touted by Mayor Anthony A. Williams. Last year, Williams participated in bike-to-work day, wearing his signature bow tie and riding a 35-year-old three-speed Raleigh bike. The mayor pledged to make the city more bike-friendly, a plan that has included hiring bike-program coordinator Jim Sebastian, the first such official the city has had in about a decade. The program’s goal is to add 10 miles of new bike lanes a year.
So far this year, the city has added five miles. It may not seem like much, but given that it was averaging two miles of bike lanes every 30 years, it’s quite extraordinary, says Ellen Jones, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association.
Maarten Sengers, an export consultant who has an office at 18th and S Streets NW, recently tested out the New Hampshire Avenue bike lane on his way to a bank in Dupont Circle. “It covered two blocks of my ride,” says Sengers, a bit puzzled by the apparent randomness of the lane.
The scattered deployment of new lanes appears to mirror the District’s time-tested approach to public works—chaos, that is. But it actually reflects a carpe diem mind-set: Rather than waiting another year or two for the city to come up with a new master bike plan—the current one is 25 years old—planners have started striping in new lanes every time a feasible street is repaved, resurfaced, or repainted. Plans are in the works for more lanes, including routes across Q and R Streets between 8th and 23rd Streets NW.
This fall, the city will launch a master planning initiative to take a more comprehensive approach to bike transit. Using a computer model, bike planners will assess the “cycling comfort level” of 400 miles of city streets, evaluating everything from pavement quality to the number of trucks on the road. Once the best routes are determined, new bike lanes will be installed to link up with the others going in now. “We want to make them available whenever we can,” Sebastian says. “Our goal is 50 miles in the next five years.”
Even with 50 miles of new lanes, a future map of the new bike-friendly D.C. still might look a little disjointed, he warns, because bike lanes won’t be necessary for all the streets on a bike route. Local cyclists, though, will take all they can get. Sengers, for one, applauds even the disconnected routes—not because they make his ride any safer, but because “at least if I get hit here, they’ll know it was the car’s fault.” CP