This summer my family took an “Our Nation’s History” tour of Washington DC, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. (We’ll have to go back another time to hit New York City and Boston.) While we traveled about from museum to historic site to the next museum, I took notes on our own transportation experiences as well as watching and snapping photos of what others were doing around us.
All three cities are crazy when it comes to using a car. They’re pretty similar in many ways in terms of public transportation. But the differences in bicycling are probably the most striking. And the most visible indicator that I’ve noticed about whether we’ll be seeing people on bikes or not? (I wouldn’t have guessed this if you’d asked me before our trip.) It’s the presence of a bike share program.
That’s not at all to say that the bike share program is what leads to increased bicycling in a city. But I think it’s an easily seen indicator of whether the City government is at least giving a nod to bicyclists. So the bike share is a symptom, not a cause. But it’s a symptom that seems to speak pretty clearly to what’s going on at a deeper level.
In my opinion, the A#1 driver of whether or not people will be on bikes in any given community is the local culture and attitude towards bicycling as a means of transportation. If there’s a commonly held believe that bicycling is silly, dangerous, or stupid, then people won’t want to get on one in the first place, the local government won’t build the infrastructure for it, and the local businesses won’t provide parking or other accommodations for it. But in a community where there’s at least a nugget of pro-bicycle believers, that community of bicyclists will advocate for better infrastructure and for bicycle friendly businesses.
In Washington DC, we saw a range of bicycle infrastructure, from two-way cycletracks (both along the side of the street and right down the center of one) to regular bike lanes as well as multi-use paths along the side of the road. There weren’t as many bike lanes as I would have expected to see in a city of this size, and the density of bicyclists wasn’t as frequent as I would have expected. But there were still a healthy number of people out using a bicycle, many of them using a Capital Bikeshare bicycle.
The bike share program in the DC metro area is pretty incredible. It’s vast (over 350 stations!), it’s easy to find out which stations have bikes or parking available and which don’t, and they have a non-membership option for people that want to use a bicycle for a single trip. I also like that all bicycles are equipped with front and back lights. They run day or night, making the bicyclist stand out even during the day time.
We saw the same bicyclist and motorist behavior in Washington DC as most places we’ve visited. Bicyclists often rode in the door zone (either because that’s where the bike lane was or because there was no bike lane at all). And motorists frequently used unsafe behavior in the presence of both bicyclists and pedestrians when making both right and left hand turns. (Left hand turns were the worst. People would pull directly in front of oncoming traffic, only to find a family of 5 block their way. They’d stop, but only just barely. And they’d manage not only to freak us out in the process, but to block the oncoming traffic as well.)
We stayed in an apartment rental just over a mile northwest-ish of the National Mall. Between tourists, business folks, and dog walkers, the sidewalks were very crowded at all hours of the day. So I was a little surprised to realize that the bicycle infrastructure solution along several blocks of Massachusetts Avenue (and some of the connecting streets) was a multi-use trail. The trail certainly wasn’t one of the busiest of sidewalks that we walked on, but considering the number of tourists using the area who might not think to watch for bikes on the sidewalk, it did seem like a suboptimal solution.
The number of cars and pedestrians creates a fairly chaotic experience for bicyclists in the center of Washington DC. But the variety of infrastructure that we saw, and the number of bicyclists still brave enough to hop on a bicycle and duke it out with the cars, gives a sense that things are going to continue to improve. As much as I’d like to have seen more consistency in bicycling solutions, the fact that the local Streets engineers are willing to test out a variety of options to see what works best in each location is a very positive sign.
Fort Collins has a population density that’s about one third of Washington DC’s, but we’re growing quickly. What better place to learn lessons for our own community than in ones that are dealing with today what we might be facing 30 or 40 years down the road.
Probably the thing that I would have liked most to see in Washington DC was a greater uniformity of bicycle facilities as a means of creating a more intuitive system for bicyclists, motorists and pedestrians. Given that we’re still relatively small and growing, this is something that we should be keeping in mind in Fort Collins as we continue to build out our system. Hopefully our Bike Plan creates a good foundation for a consistent system, but as we continue to execute that Plan, this is something we should be mindful of.
I’d love to hear from DC residents what they think of these two-way cycletracks. They look like an accident waiting to happen to me.
Where we were staying, there were very few quiet neighborhood streets.
Of all the things I saw in DC regarding bicycling, the bike share program was probably the best. No matter where we went (even when we were taking the Metro down to Mount Vernon) we saw bike share bikes out and about. As Fort Collins builds out our own local bike share program, we’ll want to look to others like Capital Bikeshare to get ideas on how to create a safe, comfortable, and flexible system that tourists and residents alike can enjoy.