Dana Goldstein writes about biking in Washington:
In Washington, D.C., since 2000, the number of cycling commuters has risen by 50 percent to encompass 5 percent of all workers. Indeed, the city is becoming a national leader in decreasing traffic and pollution by encouraging cycling. In mid-May, the city rolled out a bike-sharing program called SmartBike, in partnership with, of all companies, Clear Channel Outdoor, the division of the radio giant dedicated to open-air advertising. For a $40 annual membership fee, SmartBike members can rent bikes at 10 kiosks throughout the city for up to the three hours at a time. Since 2000, the District has installed 700 bike racks and spent $10 million on paved bike trails. Public buses here even feature bike racks for fatigued riders looking to avoid the hills.
But Washington and other American cities can do a lot more for cyclists, starting with making roads safer by decreasing gridlock. In New York state, Albany lawmakers thumbed their noses at city bikers (and the global warming crisis) when in April they rejected Mayor Michael Bloombergâ€™s plan for congestion pricing in New York City. The policy would have taxed drivers for bringing their cars into midtown and downtown Manhattan on weekdays, clearing valuable street space and providing much-needed funds for public transportation. Cities should also do much more to ensure that safe bike paths and bike-sharing opportunities are available in every neighborhood, not just where the well-heeled live and work.
For a District resident, I live pretty far away from most of the action in the city; friends poke fun at me for basically living in Maryland. And yet, I’m only 3 or so miles away from downtown Washington, and once the metropolitan branch trail is built, I’ll be able to get to the center of the city faster by bike than by Metro, which is itself much faster than a car (from where I live, it’s not even close). That’s one of the beauties of density–there’s a lot of stuff close by, so close that you don’t really need to take a car, especially if there are convenient alternatives.
But often, the alternatives aren’t that convenient. The morning view from my building in Brookland is instructive. It’s actually a busy little corner of the city, given the smallish number of people who live in the neighborhood. I can see the Red Line passing every few minutes, handling some 30,000 to 40,000 inbound trips daily. I can see MARC trains on the way to Union Station. There are heavily used buses that travel west from Brookland to Columbia Heights, Adams Morgan, and over to Connecticut Avenue, and there are tons of packed shuttles ferrying riders from the Metro station to the Washington Hospital Center.
All of the buses and shuttles passing through come to an abrupt halt when they hit Michigan Avenue, on which a steady stream of Maryland traffic stops and goes every morning, at a snail’s pace. But as impressive as that column of cars is, it doesn’t contain that many people–it’s just that automobiles take up a lot of space.
So we have a relatively small number of people, many of whom could probably get to a Metro or MARC station without too much difficulty, moving slowly and inefficiently on city streets and impeding the progress of more efficient buses and shuttles. At some point, you have to ask yourself, does this make any sense?
Imagine instead a world where the city established dedicated bus and bike lanes, free from automobile traffic. Imagine that drivers who did want to come into the city had to pay a daily toll, and that the proceeds of that toll went toward increased bus, streetcar, and rail capacity in the city and out into the burbs. Does it not seem that everyone, drivers included, would get where they were going a lot faster? That those without cars would enjoy greater mobility, and that the metro area as a whole would spend a lot less on gas?
Automobiles just weren’t made for the kind of urban density one finds in the District, and it’s incredibly inefficient to just give the streets over to them. At some point, a city reaches a threshold at which it needs to say that cars are welcome, but they’re going to defer to people using other modes of transportation, because we simply can’t afford to accommodate the parking and road space occupied by thousands of single-passenger motor vehicles.
And in a way we should feel discouraged, because as obvious as this seems, one of the few cities in America to be well past this threshold failed to adopt the congestion charge that would help fund big expansions in other alternatives. But the combination of high gas prices and infill development leading to increased neighborhood walkability may eventually turn the tide.