Bicycling in the United States has long been seen as the preserve of a dedicated bike community (though actual cyclists are quite varied). However, these unprecedented times may be pushing it toward becoming an activity embraced by a wider set of individuals. Even before the pandemic, the Washington, DC-Maryland-Virginia (DMV) region was already positioned to increase bicycling, as numerous local governments were planning a major expansion of biking infrastructure. Since March of 2020, biking has surged in the region—and in much of the country and around the world—while measures such as closed and slow streets capitalize on the need for safe, pleasant outdoor spaces. Yet some local activists feel that the DMV has not used the pandemic to expand biking infrastructure as much as it should, at least not compared to such cities as London and Paris.
With many forms of exercises restricted, bicycling surged across the DMV during the pandemic. Quieter streets, at least in the early days, made the activity seem much safer. “With the pandemic we’ve seen a huge increase in walking and biking,” David Anspacher, Transportation Supervisor for Montgomery Planning, told me. “People just want to get out.” Once biking becomes a habit, new enthusiasts are “with us for life.”
In Arlington, Virginia, biking during the pandemic has seen “anywhere from 25 to 40% surges on different trails at different times,” said Henry Dunbar, Director of Operations, Active Transportation, Arlington. While complete statistics for the region are hard to come by, the Rails to Trails Conservancy counted “a 200% increase in… people walking and biking on off street trails” last summer, said Garrett Hennigan, Community Organizer of the Washington Area Bicycle Association (WABA). More bicyclists can be seen everywhere, with whole families biking together, children in tow. Bike shops are having trouble keeping shelves stocked.
The question is whether this surge will lead to a permanent increase in bicycling or, as traffic returns, will prove a temporary flash.
How to build a great bicycle network
To maintain the equity, recreational, health, and environmental benefits of biking beyond the pandemic, better infrastructure is needed. Only if they feel safe and comfortable will a large chunk of the public continue to bike. “Those communities that are willing to change their infrastructure usage and make safe biking infrastructure are the ones that are going to grab and keep that mode shift we’ve seen during the pandemic,” said Dunbar.
The gold standard of bicycling infrastructure is protected lanes, completely separate from car traffic and also from pedestrians. These have been shown, in multiple studies and in cities from Amsterdam to New York, to be the most effective way to increase bicycling. Under current conditions only a small number of individuals—the “strong and fearless” plus “enthused and confident”, constituting only about 8% of the population—will bike. By contrast, in most American urban environments, upwards of half the population, the “interested but concerned,” won’t ride a bike for fear of traffic. Separate bike lanes not only encourage people onto bikes, they also make drivers more careful. “Protected bike lanes have reduced crashes and severity for all modes,” including walking and automobiles, while increasing bike ridership, Everett Lott, Interim Director for the District Department of Transportation, told me.
Closing selected streets and otherwise slowing traffic is another powerful way to increase bicycling comfort. During the pandemic, the region has experimented with shared streets that limit access to local vehicles and lower speed limits. Restaurants have added outdoor seating to allow safer dining and provide a pleasant experience during moderate weather.
With the best bicycle paths and protected lanes often in the most affluent neighborhoods, equity in biking is a huge issue. Fortunately, jurisdictions in the DMV all have aggressive plans to bring better streets, along with protected bike lanes, to underserved neighborhoods, and are at least beginning to implement some of these plans.
Prior to the pandemic, jurisdictions across the DMV had done an admirable job forging ahead with biking networks. “Most of the region’s governments had pretty aggressive plans for creating more safe places for biking and walking, aggressive plans for new trails, aggressive plans for new protected bike lane networks,” said Hennigan. Following is a brief analysis of three key jurisdictions with relatively developed bicycle networks and plans: Arlington, Virginia; Montgomery County, Maryland; and the District itself.
Prior to the pandemic, Washington, DC already had a successful collection of separated bike lanes, following up on its pioneering creation of a bikeshare network back in 2008. The District is ahead of every state in the union in commuting by bicycle at 5%, or over 18,000 residents.
Building on this, in 2019 the District pledged to install 20 more miles of separated bike lanes by 2022. In the midst of the pandemic, “we are on target and are on schedule,” Lott told me, pointing to 4.15 miles of protected lanes constructed in the plague year of 2020, bringing the current total to 16.6 miles. Hennigan added that “DC has quite a few interim or tactical projects, which they now plan to become permanent. Basically, plastic posts being converted to concrete curbs.” The unknown brings fear, but “if you show people” tangible changes, “then they can start to see the benefits.” The ultimate vision is a 72-mile network by 2040, per the city’s Move DC plan, Lott explained. To fulfill the goal of equity, these will cover all eight wards, from affluent to underserved communities.
The pandemic also saw the implementation, in June, of a 20-mph speed limit on local roads, making life safer and more comfortable for bicyclists. While the reduced speed limit was already planned as part of the city’s Vision Zero program, the pandemic certainly demonstrated the need for such a measure and might have made it easier to implement.
The pandemic also led to the inauguration of DC’s slow streets program, some 27 miles friendly to pedestrians and outdoor dining. “Slow streets were really intended for one main purpose,” said Lott, “to allow people a safe place to get out and congregate outside of their homes.” Still, taking streets away from automobile dominance sends a message to bicyclists that the streets are meant for all.
The pandemic has also spurred street closures in three parkways in DC that provide a haven for bicyclists: Beach Drive in Rock Creek Park, as well as roads in Fort DuPont and Anacostia Park, the latter two encompassing underserved communities. This has provided recreational biking and walking, along with plenty of fresh air and exercise, during the pandemic.
Still, Hennigan pointed to failure to implement “some of the bigger ideas” suggested by a committee to reopen DC, especially, “repurposing curbside lanes on major streets for safer biking and walking.” Temporary solutions done with inexpensive materials could, if popular enough, then become permanent. In the context of the pandemic, with “more people hopping on bikes and the demand for that soaring, it’s hard not to see that as a missed opportunity,” said Hennigan.
In 2015, Arlington had a 5% share of commute trips, a quadrupling from past decades, according to the 2019 Master Transportation Plan, Bicycle Element, with about 3% of K-12 students biking to school. The county has come an enormously long way, yet still has a long way to go.
As of 2019 Arlington had 2.9 miles of protected bike lanes, with gaps in the bike network. Indeed, 64% of residents surveyed want more protected lanes, with 45% concerned about safety on the streets, indicating great potential for growth in biking if infrastructure is improved. To fill in the gaps, the county is busy implementing a low stress bicycle network, with 75% completion planned by 2025 and 90% by 2030. Dunbar estimates and additional mile and a half added in 2020. The plan is based around seven primary bicycle corridors (PBCs) that will run roughly north-south and six that will run east-west, forming a comprehensive grid. These routes will connect destination and transit areas. The idea is to make biking welcome for younger, older, and less confident people.
The county already has an excellent parks network for recreational riding (and other purposes), the “Arlington Loop,” consisting of the Custis Trail, the W&OD Trail, the Four Mile Run Trail, and the Mount Vernon Trail, together which can get bicyclists near many Arlington destinations. Arlington’s compact development, due to its longstanding smart growth policies, makes it easy to ride a bike and to connect with bus and rail.
Dunbar explained that Arlington has continued to add protected bicycle lanes that were in the plan during the pandemic. “We added three sections just this last year, on Clarendon Boulevard, Potomac Avenue down in Crystal City, and then extending Wilson Boulevard.” He also pointed to “game changing infrastructure like the Long Bridge project” and to projects that have greatly expanded the protected network in Rosslyn and Crystal City.
There is also an innovative project to help kids get to school on Carlin Springs Road, taking a lane of traffic to increase pedestrian and bike access to two elementary schools. And streetscapes, for instance on Wilson Boulevard, have widened sidewalks and outdoor dining. As the pandemic lifts, “If Arlington wants to keep that streetscape used for mobility, they have an opportunity here to do that,” said Dunbar. Still, he pointed out that bike advocates “would like to see more direct connections.”
Montgomery County, starting from behind, built its first protected bike lane in the Pike District in 2016, followed in subsequent years by Silver Spring and Bethesda. Hennigan pointed out that protected bike lanes on Bethesda’s Woodmont Avenue began as a temporary experiment and became so popular that they are now permanent.
For the future, Montgomery County has developed one of the most ambitious set of plans for a protected bike lanes in the country. The 2018 Bicycle Master Plan calls for “a highly-connected, convenient and low-stress bicycling network,” with access for “all members of the community.” When completed, “the 1,125-mile network of bikeways” will encompass “585 miles of side paths, 174 miles of trails, 130 miles of bikeable shoulders, 95 miles of separated bike lanes and 49 miles of neighborhood greenways.” The plans use the latest technology to gather data measuring bicycle safety and comfort. Currently, 16% of potential trips are considered low stress, with plans to raise that to 50%. The master plan also calls for abundant and secure bicycle parking at all major transit stops, as well as business and residential locations.
Prior to building protected lanes, Montgomery County did have notable recreational bike trails that travel through parkland in Sligo Creek and Rock Creek Park, as well as the Georgetown Branch Trail, the latter two extending to the heart of Washington, DC.
In response to the pandemic, the county has created a variety of shared streets. Anspacher pointed to temporary neighborhood greenway projects, notably between Aspen Hill and Glenmont, with the ultimate vision of lowering speeds to 20 or 15 miles per hour. These connect Glenmont Metro to downtown Wheaton and Silver Spring. Other important greenways closed to car traffic are in Bethesda, Silver Spring, and parallel to Flower Avenue in the east county. Hennigan described these programs as “tremendously successful on weekends and holidays,” but added that it “doesn’t stitch together into useable a network.” A complete protected biking network is in the plans, but there is still a long way to go.
Is this a new era of bicycling?
Much of the answer to whether bicycling becomes a new normal or reverts to its former level of adoption depends on the infrastructure available post-pandemic. If protected bike lanes, slow and closed streets, and bicycle or hiker-biker trails combine to form a safe and comfortable network, far more people will maintain the biking habit, and new ones will join, reducing traffic congestion and pollution. Still, Lott sees biking as only one among many options that provide people choices: “the more we can reduce carbon footprint the better, but what we recognize is that bicycling may not be the mode for each and everybody, so we have to provide different options.” He mentions rapid bus as an option among many choices to “reduce the reliance on single-occupancy vehicles.”
For Hennigan, the DMV is part way there, but it needs to maintain the effort. In a region with numerous authorities, cohesion is an issue. “Different governments work on different timelines, with different priorities,” explained Hennigan. Furthermore, sprawling counties, such as Fairfax and Prince Georges’, have less of a commitment to complete bicycle networks.
To many activists, the DMV—like most or all-American cities—has fallen short of the dramatic change in bike infrastructure prompted in such cities as London, England; Paris, France; and Bogota, Columbia. During the pandemic, Paris, for instance, quickly announced plans to roll out some 650 kilometers (404 miles) of new separated bike lanes, while Bogota created an 84 kilometer (52 miles) emergency bike network and announced plans to add 280 more kilometers. “Those numbers are so different from scale we’re talking about in” the DMV, said Hennigan.
In the United States, only New York City is comparable to these international biking gems—it had already created 480 miles of segregated bicycle lanes and had added 67 miles of streets closed to traffic during COVID-19, along with 18 new miles of temporary protected bike lanes. A safe cycling network in the DMV, for all its progress, is far from complete. Still, the region has begun the journey down that long trail toward making bicycling a transit mode comparable to the automobile.
So will the pandemic begin a new era in which the bicycle becomes the new norm, rather than an outlier in a car-dependent world? Dunbar hopes so: “What we are encouraging people to do right now is explore how they can use their bikes for trips beyond the commute. We all know that the way to capture this and keep it is to provide that safe infrastructure.” Hennigan points to a Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments regional poll that “at least 60% of people want to be walking and biking more,” including folks “all the way out to Prince William county.” The future is in the hands of local government—and of the people it represents. “It really depends on what we continue to prioritize,” said Hennigan. “If our regional governments say, ‘let’s keep making driving as easy as possible’,” then “we’ll see that. If instead our governments double down on the idea that people want to bike and walk,” then “that, too, will materialize.”