Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.
Before the holiday break, the Washington Examiner published a poorly-researched article about bike lane opposition. But instead of jumping onto an anti-bike lane revolt, DC press and opinion leaders quickly saw through the rhetoric and put forth a more nuanced and sensible reaction.
As other cities, like New York, struggle with fiery opposition to bike lanes, DC can hope to travel down a more level-headed road, where cyclists, drivers and all stakeholders are able to work together to make roads safer and smoother for all.
The article, by Hayley Peterson, focuses on the 15th Street, NW cycle track’s extension into downtown. Peterson talks about objections from “business owners,” but only one of the three opponents quoted is actually a business owner. One thinks bikes should be on the sidewalk, which is actually illegal in that area, south of Massachusetts Avenue.
Later, the real owner of one of the businesses objected to the article, saying they actually eagerly support the lane. That employee was actually talking about parking meters, not bike lanes, which are of course different things. The article complains about the loss of parking spaces, but it’s very few.
To their credit, other members of the DC press corps immediately had a very skeptical reaction. Recognizing the poor reporting on display, TBD’s Dave Jamieson writes that “it just sounds like some unorganized and specious grumbling.” And Mike DeBonis noted on Twitter that some of the parking spaces in question were actually in front of the Examiner offices. Perhaps there’s an ulterior motive behind the piece?
Plus, officials from the Downtown BID gave quotes in support of the lane. Ellen Jones said that property owners were involved in the planning. The lanes have been discussed in community meetings and with stakeholders for over a year. When discussing plans for a number of cycle tracks in March, DDOT Bicycle Program Manager Jim Sebastian said that “it seems quick, but we’ve been working on this for a while.”
Another article by Peterson, published on the same day, compares DC to New York, which is experiencing a stronger “backlash.” In that piece, too, Gerri Widdicombe of DC’s Downtown BID says, “I know in New York they are having a bike lane revolt. I don’t think we’re there yet.” In fact, it’s unlikely DC will ever have the level of rancor on display in New York.
It’s not clear how much of New York’s “revolt” is widespread negative public sentiment versus the objections of relatively few amplified by hostile press outlets. On Staten Island, the local paper claimed that because people speed on a road, the city should remove a new bike lane, and Mayor Bloomberg bowed to that pressure, as well as some from Hasidic leaders in Williamsburg against “scantily clad cyclists.”
A bike lane on Prospect Park West in Brooklyn has worked well and gained many supporters, but drawn opopsition including the family of Senator Chuck Schumer and some hostile columnists, though without success thus far. New York’s first cycle tracks, on 8th and 9th Avenues, have gained community support for extensions after a bit of initial opposition.
Certainly any bike lane could upset some people, as have a few lanes in DC. A responsible Department of Transportation listens to the complaints and tries to design lanes to alleviate them as much as posible, but that doesn’t mean they should remove the lanes if some modifications will address legitimate concerns.
For example, after some 15th Street residents complained about the large yellow pylons possibly reducing the curb appeal of houses, DDOT switched them to more widely-spaced, shorter white pylons when modifying the lane to two-way operation.
Still, cycling advocates inside and outside government benefit from having as many supporters as they can get beyond just regular cyclists and business groups. That motivation underlies WABA’s Resolution to Ride Responsibly, which asks cyclists to pledge to be good riders.
The resolution generated some backlash of its own, largely over a tone which seemed to imply all cyclists need to do better as opposed to emphasizing that most cyclists are already riding responsibly. But WABA is right that the “scofflaw cyclist” stereotype is interfering with further advocacy.
The biggest reason Peterson’s critique flopped was that the impact of the 15th Street lanes was ultimately very small. As DC moves ahead with more bike lanes, like those on L and M Streets, NW, opposition may grow.
DDOT can best blunt that by working with stakeholders and keeping the public well informed about plans instead of keeping details secret until the last moment, and cyclists can also build support by acting collaboratively with drivers and pedestrians, on the road and in public meetings.
Update: Edited the post to clarify that sidewalk cycling is not illegal everywhere, but is illegal south of Massachusetts Avenue downtown, which is the area that the Strayer campus director was talking about.