How Washington, D.C., Built a Bike Boom - City Lab

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.

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