Flickr/Elvert Barnes

On M Street, the city has compromised rider safety, placed private interests above public, and let parking rule the day.

For the most part, Washington, D.C., has done a good job in recent years of improving accommodations for bicyclists. Capital Bikeshare is enormously popular, bike commuting has increased, and a 1.4-mile protected downtown cycle track on L Street was recently completed. But in its efforts to build a companion track on M Street, the city has made a controversial decision that sets three very bad precedents in one fell swoop.

A little background. The M Street cycle track (a semi-protected type of bike lane known to enhance rider safety) is planned to run between 14th and 28th streets [PDF]. The problem occurred between 15th and 16th streets. Currently, that section of the street has four lanes: two moving lanes flanked by parking lanes on both sides. Initial cycle track plans reconfigured this to three lanes plus the bike lane:

Courtesy District Department of Transportation

Now for the point of contention: the prominent Metropolitan AME church didn't like this plan at all. It would lose street-parking spaces (a few spaces during weekday events and all of its diagonal parking, which takes up two lanes, on Sundays) and felt the flow of traffic on this block would suffer greatly. So the city revised its plans and downgraded the cycle track to a common painted bike lane on this block alone:

Via Greater Greater Washington.

The church pastor and the city's department of transportation consider this fix a win-win. It may indeed be the only realistic solution to a difficult problem. But it still sets three regrettable precedents for D.C., and all cities hoping to established balanced transportation systems.

Compromising Public Safety

Rider safety in general increases as bike lanes are protected from car traffic, and that remains true for cycle tracks in particular. A 2011 study led by Anne Lusk of the Harvard School of Public Health found that rider injury rates in Montreal were 28 percent lower when cyclists traveled in cycle tracks compared with regular streets.

One of the regular streets included in the study was the continuation of a cycle track. That's an important detail, because it makes the research more germane to what D.C. is doing on the 1500 block of M Street: i.e., merging a cycle track into a regular mixed-traffic bike lane.

Now, DDOT says riders won't merge with regular traffic for very long, and points out that right now there's no bike lane on the street at all. That's true. But the cycle track will encourage new riders (in the 2011 study, the Montreal cycle track had 2.5 times as many riders as regular streets), some of whom might not have experience in mixed traffic — or be expecting to get some.

Placing Private Interests Over Public Ones

The Metropolitan AME has been around since 1886 and remains an important D.C. institution. Many church members felt they hadn't been involved in the bike lane discussion, and community dialogue on public projects is critical. It's easy to sympathize with the city's decision to grant an exception in this case.

The problem is that preferential treatment to one private entity — for reasons good or bad — will invite intransigence from others. That's already happening on M Street. After learning about the church's reprieve, Nicolas Triantis, owner of the nearby Camelot strip club, told the Washingtonian that he too opposed the cycle track and planned "to give DDOT a call."

It may seem easy to answer the calls of a church and ignore those of a strip club (though some no doubt find Camelot a religious experience). But every example of appeasement will encourage many more attempts to subvert public interests for private gain. Far, far better to address concerns before the plans are released.

Letting Parking Rule the Streets

Merchants and private institutions can complain that a bike lane will impact traffic flow, but if the plans reach the point of public release, that means this impact has been studied and, if it exists, mitigated accordingly. So at the end of the day the situation comes down to street parking. And we all know people go crazy for street parking.

Here's how crazy: everyone could have what they want if the city got rid of about eight parking spots on the north side of M Street (across from the church). Eight spots. Removing those would leave room for two traffic lanes and one parking lane plus the cycle track. On Sundays, when diagonal parking in front of the church takes up two lanes, there'd still be room for a travel lane and the cycle track.

Eight parking spaces. Yet that option doesn't even seem to have been on the table. Perhaps it was and other M Street buildings opposed it too vigorously; retailers, for one, often misperceive the impact of street-parking on business. In any event, the importance of those eight spots has been placed above all else.

So there it is: one decision, three unfortunate precedents. 

For what it's worth, D.C. seems content with the revised plans, and in fairness to the city, there are few models for those at the vanguard. If nothing else, the situation serves as a good practice point for the many other U.S. cities expanding their bike systems at the moment. Rather than wait until they're faced with a similar choice, these places can start considering what they'll do if and when they are.

Top image: D.C.'s L Street cycle track, via Flickr user Elvert Barnes

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