District residents have kept relatively calm, navigating the cones and hard hats, as the city tears apart vital commuter routes this spring. In just the past few months, the Department of Public Works (DPW) has closed a bridge on Massachusetts Avenue and chopped up Military Road and Calvert Street in Northwest Washington. The result has been gridlock in Woodley Park and other normally serene residential neighborhoods.
Drivers have vented some frustration in under-the-radar mumblings, and, once at work, swapped shortcuts to downtown like recipes at the water cooler. But all that willingness to go with the flow went into the ditch when the city moved to include bike lanes in its new construction plans.
The Washington Post’s Dr. Gridlock set off the wave of kvetching last month when he reported that not only was DPW doing construction on three major roads simultaneously, it was planning to install bike lanes along the western part of Calvert Street NW that would squeeze the road to two lanes between Connecticut and Cleveland. Gridlock quoted DPW acting chief of highway operations John Payne, who attributed the bike lanes to the power of the neighborhood’s two-wheeled lobby. Payne told Gridlock, “The bicycle community is very strong in that area.”
The funny thing about Payne’s statement is that it seems no one but DPW had heard a word about the Calvert Street addition until Gridlock’s story. Even D.C.’s supposedly omnipotent bike lobby was taken by pleasant surprise, says Laura Middleton, vice president of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA). “None of us knew about this,” she says.
For its part, DPW could not have predicted the thrashing it would take. Payne’s statement touched a commuter nerve, inciting bristling debates in community meetings and in a local e-mail newsletter, DC Story. Outraged drivers said that DPW better put the brakes on the bike lanes on Calvert or the temporary bottleneck created by the construction will become a permanent one. Greg Jones wrote in to DC Story to decry the perceived lack of public input on the bike-lane installation, and criticize the sneaky bike lobby for the commuter-paralyzing coup. “I find it amazing that, at a time when major D.C. streets are approaching gridlock (at least during peak times), something like this could even be seriously considered, much less implemented. And all to benefit a segment of the commuting public that regularly and routinely violates virtually every traffic regulation on the books. It’s mind-boggling!” Indignant bikers fought back, defending their right to ride, legally or not, and throwing a few jabs of their own from the environmental high ground.
WABA executive director Ellen Jones says that contrary to Greg Jones’ belief, the public actually had plenty of opportunities to chime in on the bike lanes22 years ago. She says bike lanes for Calvert Street have been in city plans since 1975, when a District study found that Calvert Street not only could but should accommodate lanes for bikes; the District has just now gotten around to implementing that conclusion. “In 1975, WABA was very active in that plan, so yeah, we’ll take credit,” she says.
The new bike lane will extend the one that already exists along the south side of the Duke Ellington Bridge (which bikers now term “the bike lane to nowhere”), connecting it with Oyster Elementary School and providing better access to Rock Creek Park recreational trails. While Jones is happy to take credit for the new addition to the District’s approximately 1.5 miles of bike lanes, she says DPW should be applauded for moving to extend the lane. When plans to overhaul Calvert Street came down the pipeline, Jones says, DPW’s unofficial “bicycle coordinator,” Gilbert Williams, reminded transportation planners that the bike lanes were on the books, and the planners put them in accordingly.
“We need a lot more bike lanes than just this one, but it’s a good one,” says Jones. “This is a real chance for us to give the Department of Public Works a pat on the back.”
Williams says DPW is committed to improving the quality of life for people who live here and that it makes sense to extend the existing lane on Calvert because lots of bikers use Rock Creek Park.
While Williams realizes that the bike lanes aren’t entirely popular, the alternativea four-lane commuter highway past a public elementary schoolwill not exactly boost residents’ quality of life, he says. Accommodating commuter traffic all the time, he explains, “is not in the city’s long-term interest. It’s the city’s plan to try to alleviate a lot of traffic, and we’re trying to get people to switch to other forms of transportation. We in the industry know that we cannot just keep building roadways and accommodating more traffic….We need to accommodate alternatives, and bicycles are one of those.”
Elected members of the ANC around Woodley Parkalready cranky about the messy construction going on along Calvertwere in no mood to hear about the city’s dreamy transportation philosophy when DPW officials attended the ANC’s monthly meeting April 28. Residents told officials they were unhappy that they hadn’t been consulted. ANC Chairman Phil Mendelson says the residents were not amused to learn that the bike lanes will reduce street capacity by 50 percent. He says the ANC is now reviewing DPW’s plans and debating whether to take any action. Hopefully, tempers will cool by the time the issue gets settled so that bikers who use the new route can feel safe and secure in their proprietary lane on Calvert.CP