Brandon Todd and cyclists from Ward 4 ready to roll downtown from Petworth on Bike to Work Day.  Image by the author.

Welcome to the first installment in Behind the Handlebars, a series where I’ll be riding and chatting with cyclists from around the region to learn more about why cycling is important, the pros and cons of our current bike infrastructure, safety and tips for new riders.

Ward 4, which DC Councilmember Brandon Todd represents, is full of bike commuters. Still more simply pass through the ward on two wheels every day on their way downtown from places like Takoma Park and Silver Spring. But what does Todd actually think of bicycling?

Todd himself is a casual cyclist, planning a community ride around his ward each fall that includes neighborhoods like Petworth, Brightwood, Crestwood and Shepard Park. As a member of  the council’s Committee on Transportation and the Environment, Todd  has supported bike-friendly infrastructure like adding the rubber curb stops to the bike lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue to prevent cars from making U-turns mid-block, a common cause of accidents in the bike lanes’ early days.

On the third Friday each May, thousands of cyclists across the country take to the streets of Bike to Work Day. There are pit stops and celebrations throughout the metro area celebrating all things cycling.

I had the opportunity to talk with Todd about his views on biking in the District, infrastructure, and safety ahead of this year’s Bike to Work Day festivities. Then, on Friday,  we rode to work together with other cyclists from Ward 4. I’ve transcribed our conversation below.

Rolling down 14th Street in Columbia Heights. 

Behind the Handlebars: Why is cycling important to you?  

Brandon Todd: It is important that our government facilitate cycling because it brings a whole range of public benefits to the District and its residents. By making it easier to safely bicycle around the city, we encourage residents to engage in physical fitness, enhancing overall public health.

Cycling also reduces traffic congestion and offers a number of environmental benefits. By getting people out of cars and onto bikes, we lower emissions that contribute to smog, warm the climate, and, during very hot and humid days, can have a deleterious effect on air quality to the point where it negatively impacts the health of vulnerable populations like children and the elderly.

Cycling also offers a quieter, more intimate experience with your surroundings. In a car, I think you miss a lot of things going on around you, and cycling offers a fresh perspective on neighborhoods that you thought you knew very well.

BtH: What type of bike do you ride?

BT: I am a proud user of Capital Bikeshare. The service is so innovative and convenient. I credit Capital Bikeshare with opening up opportunities for cycling to thousands of people who would not have considered it before. It has been a game-changer for cycling in the District.

BtH: What advice do you have for folks who are new to riding in DC?

BT: First and foremost, always wear a helmet. It is a fundamental of bike safety, especially in a city where drivers are still getting accustomed to an increased presence of bikes on the road. It is unfortunate that you see so many cyclists not taking this basic precaution.

Second, always be aware of your surroundings. When riding in bike lanes or on the street, always be aware of car doors that may open, vehicles not obeying traffic directions, pedestrians jumping in front of you, or any number of unexpected things that can happen. You must remain laser-focused on your surroundings to stay safe and be able to react quickly to any possible dangers that may arise.

However, do not be paralyzed by fear. The District is a wonderful place to ride a bike, and I have found drivers are increasingly aware of and deferent to cyclists.

BtH: How often do you get out on two wheels?

BT: I do not get to ride as often as I’d wish. As a means of exercise, I prefer running. But I try to get out on the bike as often as I can. Every year I lead a bike tour of Ward 4 with the Washington Area Bicyclist Association and residents. We tour the neighborhoods and discuss improvements to bicycle infrastructure. I encourage residents to join me next time we ride!

BtH: Tell me your thoughts on the bicycling infrastructure in our region.

BT: I think we are seeing a lot of progress on making our infrastructure more bike-friendly. From the creation of bicycle lanes and paths in their various forms, to the increased presence of bike racks and bikeshare stations, to making our public transit system more able to accommodate bikes, we are seeing a real renaissance of cycling in the District. I work closely with the District Department of Transportation, and I can tell you they are committed to finding creative solutions suitable to the District’s unique needs that will continue to enhance bikeability. Although we are on the right track, more work is always needed as our city continues to grow and change.

The author with Brandon Todd, Mayor Bowser and a cycling supporter at the Freedom Plaza pit stop at the end of their ride. 

BtH: What can our region do to improve the experience for cyclists?

BT: As efforts to facilitate cycling in the District move forward, safety has to be top of mind. Our government is committed to Vision Zero, the effort to reduce transit-related fatalities and serious injuries to zero by the year 2024 through more effective use of data, education, enforcement, and engineering.

To improve the experience for cyclists, we need to continue the excellent work that has been done through Vision Zero. Although improved infrastructure is certainly a critical component of this, I think education is key. We need to provide better education to both drivers and cyclists, as well as pedestrians, about how to share transit spaces and coexist safely.

BtH: Anything else you'd like to add?

BT: I want to thank advocates such as the Washington Area Bicyclist Association for their engagement with the community and our government on this critical issue. Their advocacy has been central to the recent progress we have seen, and I look forward to continuing to work with them on bicycle-related policies and programs.  

About our ride:

A group of six cyclists, mostly daily bike commuters, joined Councilmember Todd for the Bike to Work Day Ride, including myself. We started at the Capital Bikeshare station just south of the Georgia Avenue-Petworth Metro station on New Hampshire Avenue. With Councilmember Todd on a Bikeshare, we rode down Spring Street to 11th, and cut over to 14th on Kenyon.

Along the way, the cyclists pointed out various road features like bike boxes at intersections and special bike signals, as well as recent improvements like the new portion of the 14th Street bike lane, and issues that could use more attention - like vehicles using bike lanes as loading zones and unclear signage. We made a right on Florida, then picked up the 15th Street protected bike lane.

At one red light on 15th, the line of cyclists reached back half a block. Todd commented that if we had a protected lane like the one on 15th that went from Petworth to the Wilson Building, he’d ride to work every day. We continued the ride, turning onto Pennsylvania Avenue and ending at the festive Freedom Plaza Pit Stop.