Solving Cities

Four ways Washington D.C. is becoming a bike-friendly city

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How did D.C., a city with almost zero bicycle infrastructure, become a bike-friendly city? Here are four ways they made it happen.

In 2000, Washington D.C. had only three miles of bike lanes. Now it's one of the most bike-friendly cities in the U.S.

From 2002 to 2009 D.C. bicycle commuters increased from 2.2 percent to 3.3 percent. And from 2007 to 2010 there was 80 percent increase in bicycle riding.

What's with the drastic transformation? The Dirt reports on a recent event at the National Building Museum where D.C. bicycle and city planning experts explained how the city has evolved into a more bike-friendly city.

Here are four ways D.C. has improved and increased biking in the city (and tips for wannabe bike-friendly cities):

1. Making the easy changes first.

To become a bike-friendly city it's important to start with the easy changes to get the wheels turning.

Jennifer Toole, ASLA, a landscape architect who is the lead designer of D.C.’s bike network, said she started with the “easy stuff first.” In this case, these were the streets that had additional capacity. “We went stealing space all over the city.” Toole said this “worked well for the first 50 miles.” However, it’s now becoming harder because space has become limited.

What's the point of having an awesome bike-sharing program if there aren't enough bikeable streets?

2. Increasing biking accessibility.

If biking means dodging cars, most people will avoid biking no matter how many bike racks and bike storage centers the city has. By increasing the number of bike lanes in D.C. from three miles in 2000 to now more than 50 miles, the city is working to make it easier, and safer, for bikers to use the streets. The district also added 1,600 bike racks since 2000 and a slick new bicycle center outside Union Station. And some of the new bike lanes aren't just painted lines on the street:

New dedicated bicycle lanes that are somewhat separated and protected from car traffic have dramatically increased ridership by 18-20 percent and brought many new types of riders on the road. “There are now riders heading to metro stops and more women, older folks,” [Toole said].

The “cycle track contra flow” bicycle lanes set up on 15th street northwest increased the number of bicyclists by 40 percent.

3. Connecting bicycle infrastructure to transit.

Bikes are not the only answer to transportation issues in cities, but they are an important complement to other forms of transit. D.C. has recognized this and is working to make biking a part of the larger transit network.

[Jim] Sebastian [of the D.C. Department of Transportation] added that the district has been experimenting with innovative lanes (15th street and Pennsylvania Avenue), integrating bicycle networks into other plans, and connecting bicycle infrastructure into existing transit networks. As a result, bicycle to metro station connections have increased 60 percent between 2002 and 2007.

4. Bike-sharing program

In 2008 D.C. launched a bike-sharing program, Capital Bikeshare, and it has quickly become the largest bike-sharing program in the nation. The popular program already has more than 10,000 members.

The program has 110 station with a total of 1,100 bikes throughout the city. And like Zipcar and other car-sharing programs, after you become a member, you have access to all the bikes throughout the city. And if you use it for less than 30 minutes, your ride is free.

By no means is the city perfect when it comes to bicycles. The cities still has plenty of bike-related issues to resolve.

“The connectivity of the network needs to be the focus in the future.” Toole said it’s not uncommon for new networks to suffer from these issues. “Networks don’t come immediately connected.” However, this next phase of expansion and connectivity “won’t be as easy.” She said the city should explore adding colors to lanes like many cities do. “The use of color is more expensive but other cities have used color in interesting ways.” Green, which is the preferred color, should be used in locations where conflicts occur. The district should also invest more in “traffic calming measures,” which can really help in one-way side streets.

Still, the city is certainly a good model of how to become a bike-friendly city.

Photo: Eric Gilliland/Flickr

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Tyler Falk

Contributing Editor

Tyler Falk freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was with Smart Growth America and Grist. He holds a degree from Goshen College. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure