While people in DC have been biking to work (and for work) for more than a century, the bicycle commuter movement is celebrating something of a milestone this year. It was in 1969 that the DC Council held the first hearing on bicycle commuting, and shortly after that the District installed the very first route for people biking to work.
The rise of bicycle commuting and the bike advocacy movement got its start in the mid-1960s. It stemmed from efforts that were both national and local, and then grew into a genuine lobby by 1969. Here’s a brief and fascinating history of the bike to work movement 50 years later.
The national trails and environmental movements gave bicyclists a boost
On the national stage, two major and related efforts, combined with the 1960s bike boom, helped to build the constituency for bicycle commuting. The first was the national trails movement, which led to the National Trails System Act of 1968. Before that act became law, the Washington region was lucky to benefit from federal funding and planning to build trails.
In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson called for a nationwide trails study. As part of that study, the Washington region was selected to be the model for a regional plan, and planning for an area-wide trail system began that year. Government planners invited local hiking organizations, nature lovers, and youth groups—but no cycling organizations—to participate.
The plan they created in 1966 as part of the Trails for America study identified 82 existing miles of trails in the Washington region, as well as the C&O Canal towpath. It identified enough additional miles to expand that to 130 miles in the built-up city, and 500 miles outside of it. While most of these trails were hiking trails, several bicycle trails were proposed including what would become the Rock Creek Park, Oxon Creek, Henson Creek, Mt. Vernon, Anacostia, and Northwest Branch trails.
Similar proposals for bicycle trails in the Potomac Valley were included in the 1966 Potomac Interim Report. That same year, Arlington was the recipient of one of 12 Department of the Interior grants created to build support for the forthcoming National Trails System Act. That grant was used to build the first section of the Four Mile Run Trail, which quickly became overcrowded. Around the same time, the first section of the Rock Creek Trail (then called the Shoreline Trail) was built along the Potomac River waterfront next to the Kennedy Center, which was under construction.
At the same time, the environmental movement was building towards the first Earth Day in 1970. That movement’s focus on clean air was creating enthusiasm for the bicycle as a clean alternative to driving.
In 1969, John Volpe, Nixon’s secretary of transportation, told the District’s council chairman, Gil Hahn, to explore alternatives to commuting by automobile. Then as part of the first Earth Day in DC, the “Environmental Bike-In Committee” organized a “Bike hike” on April 19, 1970 to “demonstrate the practicability of using bicycles for transportation as a solution to smog and traffic” which could be viewed as the first Bike to Work day.
The Towpath Cycle Shop organized cyclists in the 60s and 70s
While the national trails and environmental movement were picking up, local cyclists were organizing. In 1966, former CIA employee Clay Grubic opened the original Towpath Cycle Shop in Georgetown, and the store quickly became the place where bike commuters hung out. (Tragically, he was later fatally shot by his son.)
Grubic founded the Potomac Pedalers Touring Club there in 1967. When he opened the shop, he reported seeing three or four bike commuters riding home every day, but by 1970 in the midst of a boom, he reported to a journalist named Carl Bernstein that the number was up to 50 a day.
Grubic used the store to build a movement. He handed out pamphlets to customers and led letter-writing campaigns. He called cars “the big bison” and the anti-bike, pro-car policies “the bison conspiracy.” By 1969, a group of club members created the Bicycle Commuting Committee to advocate for policies conducive to bike commuting, specifically bicycle parking, bicycle routes and an end to the rule banning sidewalk cycling.
They found a receptive ear in Councilmember Polly Shackleton, who was an advocate for the poor, children, the elderly, and clean transportation. In August of 1969, she held the first hearing on bike commuting. At the time, the Post described bike commuters as numbering only “several dozen,” but the District seemed eager to accommodate more. At the hearing, about 75 bike commuters asked for several accommodations, including bikeways and that the District open the sidewalks along Massachusetts Avenue NW to cyclists during rush hour.
The hearing led to the creation of the District’s first bike route between RFK Stadium and Georgetown under the leadership of advocate Wilcomb E. Washburn. The Massachusetts Avenue plan found stiff opposition from pedestrians, but it also led the District to intervene to improve bike parking options. In 1969 the only bike parking downtown was on Hertz-owned lots that charged 50 cents a day, so the District negotiated to get 25 parking lots to create a $5/month bike parking fee instead.
At the opening of the East Capitol bike route Grubic awarded Shackleton, who had not been on a bike in years at the time, with a trophy. The two would later urge, unsuccessfully, that F Street in downtown and Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown be closed to automobile traffic to allow for safe cycling. Shackleton would become an avid cyclist.
The day after the 1969 hearing, current NPR personality T.R. Reid, then a young Naval officer who got to work by bike, organized a commuter race from Georgetown to the District Building between his roommates who drove and took the bus. Reid, riding a bike with a “boycott grapes” sign, won (there was no Metrorail then). Shackleton was there with Edie Wilkie, besashed as “Miss Pedal Power,” to congratulate him. Reid had argued at the hearing that bike commuting was fun but terrifying, and asked District leaders to make it safer.
From Potomac Pedalers to Washington Area Bicycle Association
By 1970, the city estimated that there were 1,200 bike commuters in the District.
Another hearing in 1971 led to legislation that gave cyclists the right to use most sidewalks and directed the highway department to add curb ramps to them. It also committed the District to installing 24 miles of bike route signage and 15 miles of bikeway—including narrow lanes just for bicyclists—plus a bike rack in front of the Wilson Building.
FCC commissioner Nicholas Johnson was among those to testify, complaining about the cost, safety, land use, and pollution associated with driving. In the same year, the National Park Service, at the behest of advocates like Grubic and Washburn, experimented with a one-week road diet on Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway. It eventually became a bike trail.
It was this closure that inspired Cary Shaw, with the help of Grubic, to found the Washington Area Bicycle Association (WABA) on May 1, 1972. Unlike Potomac Pedelars, it was specifically founded to improve conditions for commuters, not recreational cyclists. At the time, cyclists were concerned about verbal abuse, bus fumes, glass on the streets, unsafe storm drains, and a lack of bike parking.
WABA would address those concerns while pushing for the first bikeways plan and for hiring a bicycle coordinator at the highway department. By 1973, WABA had effectively lobbied the zoning commission to require bike parking in downtown parking garages and was criticizing the highway department for adding lanes to East Capitol Street.
From “bike-ins” to Bike to Work Day
The first official DC “bike to work day,” organized by WABA and the DC government, wouldn’t happen until April 15, 1977 at what was still known as “Western Plaza.” It boasted only 250 participants, including bike-commuting Representative Paul Tsongas. However, “bike-ins,” which served almost an identical function, had been going on for years. It was at the 1972 bike-in at the Washington Monument grounds that Shaw recruited his first WABA members.
Now 50 years, more than 100 miles in bike lanes, and another 100+ in bike trails later, more than 19,000 bike commuters are expected to participate in Bike to Work Day on Friday. The number of daily commuters in DC alone is above 13,000 people.
The incredible growth of the mode is a testament to how better facilities and better laws can induce bicycle trips. If investments like those required to match the goals and plans of MoveDC, Sustainable DC, and Vision Zero are made, it will likely lead even more commuters to leave their cars at home and bike to work.