Photo by cobalt123 on Flickr.

In outer-ring DC suburbs designed without them in mind, a surprising number of brave souls are getting around by bike, willingly mixing with cars and trucks on busy, fast highways.

Upon my return to Silver Spring from Philadelphia for the holidays, I found myself driving much more than I’m used to in the course of Christmas shopping.  While I anticipated a lot of car traffic, I’ve also been pleasantly surprised to see bicyclists everywhere I go, on roads nobody would consider bike-friendly.

Inside-the-beltway suburbs, while far from an ideal environment for bikers, are still a cyclists’ paradise compared to sprawling outer-ring locales. Closer-in neighborhoods have relatively narrow streets and boast short distances between places of interest, while farther-out suburban areas were designed under the assumption that everyone would have a car.

I have nothing but respect for these hardy individuals I observed over the past week (all photos by the author):

Bicyclist Heroes, Route 50 & Pickett Road, Fairfax, Va.

A couple in matching coats tries to cross Route 50 at Pickett Road in Fairfax City. It took me three light cycles to make a left turn here, but they had to wait much longer for a right-turning driver who’d stop for them.

Bicyclist Hero, Dobbin Road & Route 175, Columbia, Md.

A bicyclist waits between trucks and SUVs to cross Route 175 at Dobbin Road in Columbia, a massive intersection bordered by the even bigger Columbia Crossing shopping center. This is probably the most inconvenient bicycling environment imaginable: fast roads, no sidewalks, and nearly every building is on a hill and facing away from the street, making each trip a long, tiresome trek.

Bicyclist Hero, Rhode Island Ave & Route 1, Beltsville, Md.

I found this bicyclist at the intersection of Rhode Island Avenue and Route 1 in Beltsville. Unlike the last two examples, the streets here aren’t as broad. But since it’s a mile north of the Beltway, this intersection can get very congested. Rhode Island Avenue also doesn’t have sidewalks for much of its length, meaning bicyclists don’t have a choice but to “share the road.”

I have happily pedaled around Philadelphia and the District for a year and a half now, but I haven’t enjoyed many forays outside the city. Arlington, for all of its bike lanes, is quite hilly and has some really confusing intersections. The Capital Crescent Trail is pretty, but frequented by super-serious, capital-B Bicyclists who thought nothing of shoving me or my 12-year-old brother out of their way when we biked it last summer. Nor have I had a pleasant time biking in downtown Silver Spring, where the bike network is so lacking that a route on Cedar Street was once declared the “Stupidest Bike Lane in America.”

When the District can’t build its planned bike lanes, it’s hard to believe that surrounding suburban communities will do much better. It is heartening that Montgomery County, Alexandria, College Park and even Columbia are trying to join Capital Bikeshare or looking to start bike sharing programs of their own. Yet these remain, for the most part, inhospitable places to ride a bike, discourage their residents from choosing a healthier, greener, and much cheaper way to get around.

Despite unsympathetic drivers, spread-out communities and unaccommodating infrastructure, a considerable number of outer suburbanites get around by bike. Better planning and simple policy fixes are needed so that a safe, enjoyable experience awaits those who choose to take to two wheels.