The center bike lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue are a key spine of Washington's downtown network. Courtesy of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association

The city’s pioneering bike-share program and growing network of lanes was key. So is “human infrastructure.”

Cycling has taken off in the American capital. Nearly 17,000 cyclists regularly rode their bikes to work in Washington, D.C. in 2016, according to Census estimates, which is about 5 percent of the city’s commuters. That’s nearly triple the “mode share” it had in 2006, putting it in second place on the list of top biking cities in the U.S., just behind famously gear-friendly Portland, Oregon.

In absolute numbers, D.C. is still a dwarf compared to, say, New York, where 48,000 people pedal to work every week (which is only one percent of commuters there). But D.C.’s growth has exploded since the city piloted one of the country’s first modern bikeshare programs, and started building an ambitious network of bike lanes.

Cycling numbers may keep climbing, with the recent boom in private companies spreading “dockless” shared bicycles around the city. But there’s no guarantee. Bikes may be a passing trend in a young and transient city. And as housing becomes less affordable, the bike’s advantages as a mode for everyone may have diminishing returns, even as lanes expand.

What shaped D.C.’s bike renaissance? How can it maintain its progress from here?

The planner: Build infrastructure for everyday people

When Jim Sebastian joined D.C.’s Department of Transportation in 2001, the city’s master bike plan hadn’t been updated since the 1970s. But with downtown densifying, gas prices peaking, and traffic worsening, “people wanted more bike facilities,” Sebastian, now the associate director for planning and sustainability at DDOT, said.

To hatch fresh bike plans, Sebastian and his colleagues traveled to famously bike-friendly European cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen. One takeaway from over the pond: treat cycling as an activity for everybody rather than some specialized hobby for everyone else to drive around. “This whole idea of ‘the cyclist’ is almost passé,” said Sebastian. “What we've got is people on bikes.” Treating them accordingly meant building lanes that help everyone feel safe, not just the Spandex-clad few.

In 2010, DDOT carved out two key spines of what would become a downtown cycling network: the center bike lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue and a protected cycle track on 15th Street. This created safe routes for day-trippers near the National Mall and forged a path for daily commuters in neighborhoods close to the urban core. Their effect on biking can be felt throughout the city. “Once some people ride on a separated lane, it gets their confidence up and they become able to ride on unprotected lanes or just the streets in the city,” Sebastian said.  

Another key project gave an option to commuters who might want the option of, say, riding a bike to work, but taking Metro home. Capital Bikeshare, one of the first modern bikeshare programs in the United States, was launched in 2010, drawing about 115,000 trips in its first year. It ballooned from there: By the end of 2017, the program celebrated its 19 millionth trip.

Meanwhile, the city continued to expand bike lanes at about five miles per year. Some neighborhoods have seen their cycling commute share increase to over 20 percent. With 80 miles of bike lanes built since 2000, the city has a goal of expanding to 136 miles by 2040, the majority of them fully protected.

The advocate: D.C. built “human infrastructure”

It takes people to change behavior, according to Nelle Pierson, a longtime D.C. bike advocate—not just infrastructure, not just policy, but feet on the ground, hands on the handlebars, and faces on the sidewalk. “You have to have a network of people who are showing you that this is normal, and connecting you to the knowledge to overcome barriers to access,” she said. She cites Adonia Lugo’s concept of “human infrastructure” to describe the constellation of repeated small interventions that it takes required to get more people on bikes.

In some cases, this comes from the top. Pierson credits the work of Mayor Adrian Fenty between 2007 and 2011 for dedicating time and resources to make bike plans work. Every day, city politicians have to balance a diversity of citizen interests, including those in direct competition to bikes, like protecting parking spots and road space. But Fenty helped push the lanes through, Pierson said.

Some advocates worry the current mayor, Muriel Bowser, isn’t as strongly committed as previous administrations to making D.C. a bike city. They’ve stepped up their work in the meantime: As a former outreach and events coordinator at the Washington Area Bicycling Association, Pierson created initiatives to reach people beyond the urban core where lanes were getting built, especially in lower- income neighborhoods and suburbs. No program drew more acclaim than Women and Bicycles, which uses workshops, rides, and mentoring programs to draw women to cycling. Pierson said that stubborn perceptions, especially surrounding gender, take concerted effort to dislodge. But the cycling gender gap has decreased: In 2006, women made up less than 30 percent of the city’s bike commuters; today they make up nearly 42 percent.

From left to right: Jim Sebastian, Nelle Pierson, and Sterling Stone.

Capital Bikeshare also helped universalize the image of cycling for more District residents, Pierson said, by opening up convenient rides for suited professionals, students, and baristas alike. Now, the District is charting new frontier in open-access cycling, with a six-month trial for five new “dockless” bike-sharing companies. About 1,850 shared bikes are sprinkled around D.C. streets., unconstrained by stations or docks, but still rentable by smartphone or pre-paid account to all. Pierson, who is now working as the director of external affairs for Jump, one of the companies involved in the pilot, believes dockless bikes can speed up the spread of cycling to more neighborhoods and new riders. “This is where we all benefit from the competition,” she said. ”Everyone is seeing this.”

The shopkeeper: Bikes are still a cultural battlefield

Clearly, the city has succeeded in getting more bodies on bikes. But there’s one standout statistic that shows D.C.’s cycling boom isn’t reaching everyone: In 2015, only about 2 percent of black commuters biked to work, compared to 8 percent of whites. And surveys show that the city’s black residents are less likely than other groups to view bikes as an ideal mode of transport.

The reasons for this are complicated, and touch on job barriers, class perceptions, and social norms. Sterling Stone thinks it also has something to do with D.C.’s rapid gentrification. “It goes beyond bikes,” he said.

Stone is the executive director of Gearin’ Up Bicycles, a nonprofit shop that refurbishes used bikes to sell and trains local kids as bike mechanics. Bike commuting began to gain prominence in the late 2000s, when an influx of Millennials arrived, he said. Once known as the “Chocolate City” for its majority-black population, D.C. rapidly gentrified during this period, displacing many longtime black families. Bikes became a symbol of the D.C.’s changing demographics, said Stone, who is black and a Pittsburgh transplant himself. New lanes became a rallying point against gentrification for many residents of color. That potent symbolism delayed projects like a protected bike lane in a gentrifying neighborhood, which was vigorously opposed by a local black church.

The city has a ways to go to address the needs of communities of color. African American youth have been especially overlooked, according to Stone, even when riding a bike is a rite of passage for other kids growing up in the city. That doesn’t mean they’re not interested in biking, though. In 2012, as part of the Boys and Girls Club summer program he ran at the time, Stone took a group of local kids a a build-your-own-bike workshop. It was the smash hit of the year.

“It’s still the first thing I hear about when I see the kids,” he said. The idea gave root to Stone’s store, which sits in a former church in the neighborhood of Eckington, near the recently rehabbed Metropolitan Branch Trail. But of the 67 bike shops in the greater Washington region, there are none in the predominately African American Wards seven and eight. This year, Gearin’ Up received a grant from the city to run bike repair clinics  in neighborhoods without access to shops.

Stone is encouraged by these kinds of partnerships, but he still worries about the future. The question in his mind is, who will be around by the time a bike network is complete? “It’s hard to tell,” he said. “A lot of the families are already gone. The young people in my store likely won't be counted later if they can’t afford to live here… even though [it’s where] they learned to bike.”

Displacement touches on race, income, housing access, and many thorny issues—which is to say, it goes way beyond bikes. At the very least, Stone said, if D.C. were more proactive about extending cycling amenities into diverse neighborhoods that aren’t already saturated with Millennials, they might carry less baggage—not to mention reach more people of color. “Advocates are starting to see where there’s more need for infrastructure,” he said. “Once we have a bike trail in one part of the city, people start to say, ‘I want that in my neighborhood, too.’”

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