This year marked a decade since the Capital Bikeshare program first offered its services as a convenient and affordable means of transportation for biking enthusiasts, urban professionals and others eager to avoid expensive parking tickets and bumper-to-bumper traffic on their daily commutes into the District.
While the program’s expansion throughout the D.C. metropolitan region has suggested a greater embrace for biking among those of more diverse races and socioeconomic backgrounds, some hardcore bikers, like Laurie Williams, point to infrastructural inequities that prevent her and her neighbors in Anacostia from fully enjoying such opportunities.
“I’m advocating for protected bike lanes, more bike racks, public air pumps and tools in communities east of the Anacostia River.” said Williams, a lifelong biker who played a role five years ago in convincing Capital Bikeshare to install bike docking stations, not only at the Anacostia Metro Station, but in other underserved communities.
“It’s not very safe to ride a bike in Southeast [because] you can get hit by a car or bus. It’s not like when you go to Capitol Hill or Northwest because they don’t just have bike lanes, they have protected bike lanes that keep them away from the cars,” Williams said.
While coronavirus restrictions have forced the cancellation of large biking events, Williams, a licensed and certified cycling instructor, said she has managed to accumulate more than 1,300 miles while out and about on errands and during socially distanced bike rides with one or two people at a time. Still, her experiences haven’t been obvious barriers to hassle-free rides from Anacostia to the western parts of the District, including the closure of a key trail in Anacostia in the early evening.
“It’s so hard for Black people to demand things,” Williams said. “The park closes at night but the trail over there is supposed to be [a form of] alternative transportation. Then your neighborhood doesn’t have protected bike lanes to make you feel safe. I would like to see more advocacy but I see why our people don’t do it.”
Changing of the Tide
The Washington Area Bicyclist Association and other pro-biking groups celebrated a legislative victory last month when the D.C. Council approved a Vizion Zero Omnibus bill that allocated more than $171 million toward a slew of infrastructural changes intended to curb and eventually eliminate traffic-related deaths in the District.
Key provisions of the bill, introduced last May amid a bevy of high-profile incidents, include a mandate that accelerates the completion of plans for bike and bus lanes. Owners of large residential buildings would also be responsible for providing drop-off points that prevent cars from blocking bus and bike lanes. Under the bill, contractors would be penalized for not repairing bike lanes and crosswalks after the completion of a project.
On Sept. 20, just days before the bill’s passage, Capital Bikeshare commemorated its 10-year anniversary with one free classic bike ride for all users. This deal came on the heels of the company’s support of essential workers, via a free 30-day membership, and its launch of the Capital Bikeshare for All program through which recipients of federal and state assistance could also enjoy membership at a low price.
Since Capital Bikeshare’s inception, riders have taken more than 27 million trips and membership has grown to more than 28,000, all with the support of the DC Department of Transportation (DDOT) and other partners in the area. The installation of 80 new biking stations in the District, Arlington and Alexandria, scheduled for next year, will bring the total number of stations to more than 600 that hold more than 5,000 bicycles and dockless e-bikes.
For Tommy Wells, a former Ward 6 D.C. Council member and biking enthusiast, Capital Bikeshare’s growth over the last decade represents the fulfillment of a prophecy, unfolding not only in the District but in most major American cities dealing with congestion and other traffic-related issues.
Wells recalled facing skepticism and pushback from D.C. Council colleagues and older constituents, Black and white, concerned about encroachment on their way of life when he supported Capital Bikeshare’s expansion and the subsequent installation of bike lanes in Capitol Hill and along Pennsylvania Avenue in Northwest.
Chief among people’s concerns, he said, was the perceived inconvenience to drivers and residents. Though he acknowledged that, years later, the D.C. government and local retailers have a way to go in supporting equitable access to biking, Wells said that Capital Bikeshare has played a vital role in spurring interest in biking as a mode of transportation and method of environmental sustainability.
“Biking can sometimes be associated with one culture or another but the truth is I see people of all income levels and races using Capital Bikeshare and I think that younger people especially recognize that it’s a cheap way to get from Point A to Point B,” Wells, director of the DC Department of Energy & Environment, said.
“It’s a nice, healthy way to get around but I can understand there was a time when it was still viewed as a symbol of gentrification,” he added. “It wasn’t just African Americans opposing it. I think the bike lanes made Black and white and older residents uncomfortable.”
A Community Pushes Back
In early March, just days before the coronavirus pandemic ushered in a period of increased traffic-related fatalities, D.C. Council member Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1) pulled emergency legislation adding protected bike lanes along a stretch of 9th Street in Northwest between Florida Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue.
Discussion about the project started nearly five years ago with DDOT’s launch of a study about creating a safe bicycle route along the eastern part of downtown D.C. Shortly after, the plans stalled with no clear answers from the Bowser administration about the cause. The emergency council vote, had it come to fruition, would have spurred the construction of the protected bike lanes.
However, leaders of the Missionary Baptist Ministers Conference had different thoughts. They sent letters asking that council members reject what they described as a threat to parking spaces and overall livelihood, of the historically Black churches lining the 9th Street corridor. As expressed in their correspondence to the council, the group’s qualms centered on imposition of the government’s will over longtime members of the Shaw community.
The Informer was unable to establish contact with leadership at New Bethel Baptist Church and Shiloh Baptist Church, two religious institutions located along 9th Street.
Alexander Padro, an at-large D.C. Council candidate and ANC commissioner whose jurisdiction includes an affected portion of 9th Street, shared those clergy people’s sentiments, telling The Informer that while he supports bike safety, DDOT never engaged the most affected community stakeholders.
He also posited that 11th Street, a considerably less busy corridor with fewer challenges, had been overlooked as an alternative bike route.
“DDOT wants to force the protected bike lanes down the throats of stakeholders, including businesses, that would be negatively affected,” said Padro, commissioner of Single Member District 6E01. “And the tractor-trailer entrances for the Convention Center and other buildings on 9th Street make 9th Street not the safest place to put the cycle track which defeats the purpose.”