Unlocking Bicycle Neighborhoods in Washington, DC - Doug Barnes

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Unlocking Bicycle Neighborhoods in Washington, DC

I brace myself as I see another article on bicycling in the Washington Post. I’m expecting press coverage of bicycling akin to what I have documented in a previous post. In separate opinions Washington Post columnists didn’t want to see bicycles either on city streets or on its sidewalks. I guess that means bikes and their riders should float like angels above the traffic leaving the roads and walkways to cars and pedestrians.

But finally in a recent article the Washington Post is beginning to catch up with the bicycle boom. The title of a recent article asks the question,
“Is biking stressing you out? Here’s how planners are trying to make things better.” The article has a clear pro-bicycle tone, and makes the point that it is important to connect neighborhoods severed by major thoroughfares. Another article even gives guidance on how to get around by bike on for events during the inauguration day of Donald Trump. This article from Dr. Gridlock states “Biking is a good option for inauguration and the Women’s March, but there will be challenges.”

The first article stresses that the neighborhoods in Washington, DC are ideal for bicycling. The traffic is slow because of 25 miles per hour speed limits. The streets sometimes are narrow so cars and trucks are accustomed to waiting for other vehicles to pass before proceeding down the street. Cars and trucks pass slowly through the neighborhoods expecting to have to wait and stop for obstacles. This means that on these streets bicycle pass motorists with few problems. Generally everyone is courteous.

Stop sign in quiet neighborhood and busy instersection with bike.
Four Way Stop Sign and Four Lane Intersection, Washington, DC
Photos by Doug Barnes
Unfortunately, this is not true of other city streets. Most neighborhoods are severed by busy streets. Streets named after states such as Massachusetts or Wisconsin Avenue. These roads are 4 lanes with speed limits of 35 miles per hour. The traffic lights are timed so that cars can breeze through most traffic lights when traffic is light. Many commuters use these arterial roads. Going and coming from work they are impatient. During my bicycle commuting years I rode straight down Massachusetts Avenue, easily keeping up with cars. But for most people unaccustomed to riding in traffic on these busy thoroughfares can be a daunting affair. As a consequence, for all but the most fearless bicyclists such roads serve to cut off local neighborhoods from one another.


Washington’s District Department of Transportation has recently published a map to make this point. As can be seen from the image, the safest streets that can be ridden by children are locked into city neighborhoods. The green areas are considered low stress areas for bicycling.  More experienced cyclists of course can ride between neighborhoods.  In order to attract less experienced riders, ways need to be developed so that they can transition safely from one neighborhood to another .

Green areas on map are safe for Children to bicycle in Washington, DC
Map by District Department of Transportation and revised by Doug Barnes
The Washington Post in its article on bicycling in city neighborhoods makes the following point concerning what is revealed by the map.
The problem: Areas that offer comfortable rides are often cut off from one another by high-stress roads that don’t have a convenient, safe crossing. That leaves what planners call islands of safe cycling routes, which often don’t lead anywhere and make biking to school, work or the store unrealistic for most children and adults…Providing comfortable connections appears to be particularly important in attracting more women and older riders, planners say.
The map is not perfect. The Washington Area Bicyclist Association later in the article points out some of the sites on the map deemed as safe could really be improved. As a case in point the L and M Street bicycle lanes, among the first in Washington DC, dangerously mix cars and bicycles at intersection and almost invite parking by delivery trucks in bile lanes. Stay tuned as I will have a post on this in this issue in the coming month.

Recently there is an initiative by the Natonal Park Service to connect regional bicycle trails. A recently formed non-profit organization called the Capital Trails Coalition will be coordinating the effort to connect the region’s trail. Connecting trails is a good idea, but connecting neighborhoods is also important. Not only are the major arteries in Washington, DC a barrier to bicycling across neighborhoods, but the main streets crossing four lane thoroughfares are often quite crowded. It is good to see that the DDOT after concentrating on downtown bicycle lanes is now beginning to expand their reach to safe bicycling in the neighborhoods.

Truly safe bicycle corridors connecting both neighborhoods and regional trails is an idea whose time has come. 

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