Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
Record-breaking bike ridership is cause for optimism among D.C.’s cycling supporters.
For all the talk of Metro-pocalypse, last week’s first surge of service cuts for a year-long Metrorail maintenance plan in Washington, D.C., did not result in transportation catastrophe.
WMATA reported a 25 percent drop in boardings along many reduced-service sections of the Orange and Silver Lines in Fairfax and Arlington counties in Virginia. Car counts stayed flat on many corridors and highways. Perhaps most promising, the number of bike commuters went way up throughout the metro area.
Make that way, way up: Monday through Wednesday, automated counters stationed throughout Arlington County showed increases of two-wheeled traffic up to 94 percent* compared to June 2015 (see the chart below, provided by Bike Arlington, a county-supported cycling initiative).
And though the first surge of service cuts (which will last through June 16) only directly affects service in the Virginia suburbs, bike commuters within D.C. city limits also turned out in higher numbers. According to Kimberly Lucas, a bicycle and pedestrian program specialist for the D.C. Department of Transportation, the 15th Street cycle track saw its highest-ever recorded ridership last Thursday, with a 29 percent increase in cyclists compared to June 2015. The Metropolitan Branch Trail in Northeast D.C. also saw a significant uptick. Lucas, who helps manage Capital Bikeshare, says that program also saw a spike in rentals, helped by a special $2 single-trip fare announced just before SafeTrack (as the Metro maintenance plan is called) began.
It’s still too early to tell if Metro’s service cuts are driving these leaps in bike ridership. This is only a week’s worth of data, and a week that happened to have gorgeous weather.
Still, these numbers suggest that there’s region-wide interest in cycling in the face of major changes to rail service. And that’s cause for optimism among local cycling officials and advocates, who have been furiously building support for commuters as Metro’s services decline. Alongside enhanced purchase offerings, Capital Bikeshare is increasing the number of bikes and corrals available. Bike Arlington and the Washington Area Bicycling Association are offering rush-hour group rides, “bike buddy” pairing programs, and educational seminars as an effort to push fed-up Metro commuters toward bikes instead of cars.
“We’re not interested in making Metro riders into diehard cyclists,” says Daniel Hoagland, the programs director at WABA. “We just want them to see biking as a tool in their toolkit that they can use without being afraid.”
In that sense, SafeTrack is a golden opportunity for D.C.’s bike community. Research shows that major shifts in context, such as moving homes, can drive people to make lasting changes to their transportation patterns. SafeTrack could have the potential to do the same over the next year, and hopefully beyond, says Lucas.
“This is going to shake people out of their habits,” she says. “For people who are interested in biking, but didn’t have that last push to try it as their everyday commute, I think this will encourage that change.”
Of course, switching from train to bike is easier for some commuters than others. Riding from northern Virginia into Northwest D.C. isn’t too hard, with plenty of separated lanes on surface streets and bridges crossing over the Potomac. By contrast, for large swaths of further-out Northeast D.C. and much of Prince George’s County—which will both be affected by the next “surge” of service cuts beginning, June 18—bike infrastructure is scant and disconnected. When trains stop running for 16 days along eastern portions of the Orange, Blue, and Silver Lines, “there probably aren’t going to be many folks taking on cycling in New Carrolton and Largo,” Hoagland says.
But plenty of folks will have their commutes disrupted by that surge—some of the most economically vulnerable residents in the D.C. metro area, in fact. If ever there’s been a time to push for more bike facilities east of the Anacostia River, it’s now. According to Hoagland, WABA has been working with DDOT to install some temporary bike facilities in those neighborhoods. Longer-term, he hopes SafeTrack’s inconveniences will force jurisdictions that haven’t seriously invested in bike infrastructure—namely, Prince George’s County—to start moving faster.
Until then, bike advocates are crossing their fingers that turnout among cyclists remains high as SafeTrack stretches on and the summer turns muggy. “If we have a lot more people out there riding and seeing the need for more and better-planned infrastructure, people can start contacting their representatives to say that this is a benefit,” says Henry Dunbar, the program director of Bike Arlington. For all the inconveniences, “there are many silver linings about this period.”
*This post has been updated to reflect accurate bike count numbers provided by Bike Arlington.