Passions ran high but attendees behaved civilly at a public meeting organized by the District Department of Transportation on Saturday, held to discuss a contentious planned bike lane that would run through Shaw.
Since last year, urban-planning officials have floated the idea of installing a protected lane going north and south somewhere from 5th to 9th streets NW, and between Florida and Pennsylvania avenues NW. When the study made headlines, so too did local churchgoers’ sentiments that the lane represented an existential threat to their religious establishments. In particular, members of the United House of Prayer, at 601 M St. NW, raised a clarion call against potential bike lanes in part because they would limit parking spots nearby.
Some members also felt that the lanes signified the latest effort by newer residents to push them out. Those concerns culminated in a heated meeting at the Shaw library in October, which authorities closed down an hour ahead of its scheduled conclusion because the room it was being held in had exceeded the safety capacity.
But this weekend, the scores of residents, cyclists, and churchgoers who attended the community meeting at public charter school KIPP DC’s 421 P St. NW campus evidently saw fewer sparks fly. Starting with an hour-long “open house”-style display of five alternatives for the bike-lane study, followed by a presentation on them, the meeting eventually evolved into an outpouring of opinions and arguments during a period for public comments. Many spoke for and against the bike-lane plans, but no single option emerged.
That’s not to say one won’t by the time DDOT expects to close public comments on Mar. 15. The agency reported on Saturday that before the meeting, it had already gotten more than 2,000 emails in addition to over 1,100 petition signatures, and held nearly 40 sessions with stakeholders, about the planned bike lane.
DDOT also made clear that public feedback is one among several metrics it’s weighing to determine whether and where a bike lane through Shaw may go: Its priorities include creating continuous protected bike lanes that connect neighborhoods, ensuring multi-modal transit options, and minimizing parking impacts.
“This project is getting a lot of attention [and] it’s a lot bigger than a bike lane in Shaw,” explained DDOT Director Leif Dormsjo at the meeting, citing Mayor Muriel Bowser‘s Vision Zero initiative to eliminate all traffic fatalities and serious injuries in the District by 2024. “It’s about access and safety.”
If the planned alternatives “do more harm than good, then no-build is always an option,” Dormsjo added.
That’s precisely what those opposed to installing a bike lane according to the four “build” alternatives—three of which entail 6th Street NW and one of which entails 9th Street NW—have continued to argue. On Saturday, officials of UHOP remarked that their church and other religious institutions in the area risk losing access (and, in effect, business) if DDOT constructs a protected bike lane that would encroach upon current parking spots.
“Our view has not changed, but we come in peace,” the second UHOP representative who commented said. “We’re not going to let someone’s pastime destroy our lifeline.” Members of the audience applauded at his words.
A speaker who identified himself as William drew a line between racial expolitation, colonialism, religion, and development, hitting notes that resonated with bike-lane opponents. “This is not simply about bike lanes; this is about the suburbanization of poverty,” he explained. “We intend on keeping the bibles and the land.”
Others had perhaps more-practical objections to the planned lane. “You’ve got parks; go ride in the parks,” a woman who said she’s a member of Mount Zion Baptist Church said. “That’s why they put them there.”
The question of what a bike lane is for repeatedly came up on all sides of the discussion. A man who said he owns a local business in the study area described biking as “not a pastime for me—it’s a way I get around [and it’s] not a one-day-a-week thing.” A woman identifying herself as a Ward 2 resident who moved from Ward 8 and gave up her car said she “strongly encourages bike lanes on 6th Street NW for safety, not for pleasure,” receiving raucous applause. Then, an apparent Ward 6 resident said D.C. should provide infrastructure based on current behavior: “You’re not going to stop people biking, so you might as well build” a lane.
Exactly which alternative DDOT selects after the public-comment period for the study concludes next month remains up-in-the-air. Still, Dormsjo said DDOT would provide “supporting evidence” for the options as they get refined. “The more feedback you provide us, the better public servants we can be to you,” he said.
Photo by Andrew Giambrone