Last week, the League of American Bicyclists (LAB) elevated DC to a Gold level Bicycle Friendly Community. This is well-deserved recognition of the progress the city has made over the last 15 years, but it should also be a reminder of how far the District has to go to become one of the top bicycling cities in the country, let alone the world.
DC has gotten far more bicycle-friendly, but there's still a lot of work to do
DC debuted at Bronze back in 2003 as part of the second class of awardees. By that time Portland, Palo Alto, and Corvallis, OR were already Gold. Davis, CA debuted at Platinum in 2006, by which time there were six Gold level cities. It took DC eight years to get to Silver, and another seven to get to Gold.
Local bike advocates can take some pleasure from the speed at which DC has climbed up the ranks. In 2006 it was tied with 44 other cities at Bronze with 22 others ahead of it, but it is now among 29 Gold level cities with only five ahead of it. 15 years later, Palo Alto and Corvallis are still Gold.
That being said, DC is still far behind other cities. Portland moved up to Platinum more than a decade ago, and Davis has been at Platinum for longer than that. Though Platinum sounds world-class, the LAB's 12 percent mode share (percentage of travelers or number of trips using a particular type of transportation) benchmark wouldn't even get a city into the world's top 50. DC is closer to 5.5 percent bike mode share.
LAB recently created a new, higher level — Diamond — that would require a city to hit benchmarks similar to average European cities, but no American city has reached that level yet.
DC can get to Platinum, but it'll be work
The District made it to Gold because of the miles of added facilities, DC Public Schools' universal bicycle education for second graders, bicycle sharing, the District's low speed limits, a large Bike to Work Day celebration, bike-friendly laws, automatic traffic enforcement, high mode share, and compliance with a recent bike plan. However, DC is going to have to step up its game to get to Platinum.
First, the city needs to hire more bicycle staff (you can find LAB's criteria here on page 7). At Gold level, LAB recommends one bicycle staff person for every 32,000 residents. For DC that would mean 20 people, which is far more than the city currently has. To get to Platinum they would need more than 30. DC will also need more staff if it wants to add the needed bicycle network mileage, bicycle recreation areas, and bicycle lanes. Additional bike facilities are needed for Washington to double its bicycle mode share, a criteria for Platinum. Staff can also help with another way to earn points toward Platinum — they could build a velodrome.
Other steps that DC can take to reach Platinum, according to the LAB questionnaire, include loosening laws that restrict the usage of electric-assist bicycles and that ban sidewalk cycling downtown. They could also pass a new law banning cell phone use while driving and work to change Metro, MARC, and VRE rules to improve bicycle access to transit.
Finally, while DC technically has a bicycle liaison within MPD, a criteria for Gold, that is not their primary job. A full-time bicycle liaison with the power to write tickets would help with enforcement (and with getting to Platinum).
It won't be easy, but there is hope for DC. Fort Collins, CO was able to go from Gold to Platinum in just five years, so it's possible for DC — with a similar effort — to get to Platinum in a similar time period.
Or will the District rest on its laurels?
Some bicycle advocates fear that rather than spurring action to hit Platinum, some leaders will see the Gold designation as a sign DC already done enough. One bicycle advocate, who had to remain anonymous, said:
We know there are a handful of council members who already think the city has done enough to accommodate people on bikes. Last week we heard a council member's staff say their ward already has enough bike lanes – which, it doesn't. The week before that we heard a council member's office express concern about all the demands bicyclists have. DC's new Gold status justifies these viewpoints. This status conveys the District has already done enough, bikes are everywhere, the lanes are striped, anyone can bike. Mission accomplished.
If you get an email from a DC elected official bragging about the designation, it might be a good opportunity to point out all the things they can do to get us to the next level, and ask them how they think the District is going to get there.