There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
In her pre-pandemic life, Katherine White would commute from her home on Capitol Hill to her office in Georgetown on her bike every weekday. The route would take her down East Capitol Street NE and past the U.S. Capitol Grounds. From there, White would choose, based on the pedestrian density, to either head toward one of the wide walking paths to get to the base of the hill or thread through the bollards and ride down the parking area.
“I just felt really calm,” White says of her regular trips past the Capitol. “It felt almost like being on a bike trail, just because you didn’t have the threat of vehicles behind or around you much.”
On the weekends, White, 35, would bike to Hains Point or over to the National Mall with her family. Each outing took her through the Capitol Grounds. She never grew tired of the view, even after making the near-daily journey for seven years.
“It’s just sort of breathtaking every time you ride by,” White says. “And I just remember, every time I would do it, I just would kind of pinch myself a little bit. I got to ride past this gorgeous old building.”
In the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection in which Donald Trump supporters stormed the Capitol to violently protest the outcome of the presidential election, the building and its surrounding streets have been fenced off to cars, bikers, runners, and pedestrians. Instead of tourists admiring the famed symbol of democracy, National Guard members direct people away from the building. On Jan. 28, Yogananda Pittman, the acting chief of U.S. Capitol Police, announced that the fencing may be a permanent fixture.
“In light of recent events, I can unequivocally say that vast improvements to the physical security infrastructure must be made to include permanent fencing, and the availability of ready, back-up forces in close proximity to the Capitol,” she said in a statement.
The decision faced immediate backlash from local residents, who believe people who live in the District are being punished for the actions of out of town insurrectionists and the lack of preparation from security officers on Jan. 6. The fence forces cyclists like White to take routes that make them feel less safe on roads less hospitable to bikers and pedestrians. Residents also lose an open space unlike any that exists elsewhere in the city.
“I do feel like the fence is security theater,” White says. “I do feel like the fence is really going to punish the people who live and visit here a lot more than it’s going to actually protect anyone.”
Greg Billing describes his response to the news of a permanent fencing around the Capitol as a “very profound sort of gut reaction.” That there would be a fence around the “most iconic symbol of democracy in the world,” as he calls it, is the antithesis of democracy.
Prior to the pandemic, Billing, the executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association since 2015, would bike near the Capitol anytime he had meetings across town from his Petworth home. He enjoyed the respite from cars, however brief. Now, many cyclists have to use either Constitution Avenue or Independence Avenue, two large roads that Billing says are “really hostile to biking.”
He predicts some people may stop biking altogether due to the fencing.
“The people who feel comfortable riding on anything that’s basically up to an interstate, they’ll ride anywhere, and they’re fine. What we’ve been doing over the last decade is trying to lower the stress levels, so that people who don’t have that same sort of fearlessness feel comfortable, and the streets around the Capitol, some of them are really not comfortable and are very high stress,” Billing says. “And what that will mean is it will be a decrease in safety for some people, or people will just stop biking. And that’s also a problem because people who don’t bike then are probably going to go back to driving or taking a ride hailing vehicle that adds another car to the road. Those things all have consequences when we make biking less safe and less inclusive.”
Billing, who moved to D.C. in 2009, also believes the issue boils down to statehood and local control of the city. Cyclists on social media have asked the District Department of Transportation for assistance in creating more protected bike lanes, but it is unclear what unilateral actions that city could take—if any—to improve the roads directly adjacent to the Capitol Grounds without approval from the Architect of the Capitol, Billing says.
City Paper reached out to DDOT to ask if the agency has plans to create more protected bike lanes or alternative routes due to the permanent fencing around the Capitol and was told the mayor’s office would be responding. A spokesperson from the mayor’s office replied with a video from Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Feb. 1 press conference in which Bowser spoke about lack of transparency from Congress and the city’s desire to reopen the Capitol Grounds.
“Our perspective from the city is obviously we want our institutions to be safe,” Bowser said. “We want our lawmakers to be safe, but we don’t want the Capitol Grounds to be closed down, and certainly don’t want this movement [to] creep onto D.C. streets and D.C. neighborhoods.”
Wilson Trawick, a 25-year-old Capitol Hill resident, moved to D.C. in early 2018 from Florida. He started biking about half a year later. His boyfriend has a car, but Trawick prefers getting around town by bike. That way he doesn’t have to worry about parking or traffic.
One of his favorite times of the year to bike is during daylight savings. Trawick likes to stop and watch the sun set behind the Capitol, illuminating the clouds above the dome in bright red and pink.
This past year, because of the pandemic, he hasn’t been biking as much past the Capitol but still hangs out with friends on the grass near the Capitol Grounds. It’s the closest thing Trawick has to a yard.
“It’s our public space,” he says. “It’s our backyard, since we don’t have one.”
Unlike Trawick and others working from home, Robb Dooling still has to make regular bike commutes to work. The 30-year-old H Street NE resident is an essential worker for the U.S. Department of State, and his bike commute used to be a straight shot down Maryland Avenue NE and then the National Mall.
He still hasn’t figured out his new route, but he describes his current commutes as “longer, complex, and less safe while contending with frustrated drivers.” His bike commutes have gone from a net positive for his mental health to a net negative, he adds. Dooling is deaf and uses a cochlear implant. When he bikes, he likes to turn his cochlear implant off, but he keeps it on now that he’s biking on less familiar roads with heavier traffic.
It’s added stress to his work commute.
“I used to enjoy quiet rides past museums and greenery on the National Mall, but the new routes pushing me into downtown expose me to many more drivers, intersections, and potential crashes,” Dooling says. “Each bike commute also feels more grim while I am passing barbed wire, armored vehicles, and rifles.”
For Christmas, White received a GoPro camera as a present, and a few days later, she decided to take her two young children around for a bike ride. She mounted the camera on her handlebars and recorded herself biking up the parking lot next to the U.S. Capitol and across the Capitol’s East Plaza and later published the video on Greater Greater Washington.
She may never be able to capture the same footage again.
Less than two weeks later, White repeated the trip. Except this time, the fenced off area took her to Constitution Avenue, where she rode “white-knuckled” down the street alongside “impatient drivers.” At the intersection of First Street and Constitution Avenue NW, an SUV attempted to go around her. White let out a few curse words.
She hopes that any solution the city comes up with includes some sort of wide, comfortable, and protected path for bicyclists.
“If we’re going to get a permanent fence,” White says, “we should get a permanent bike lane.”