The Shifting Cycle

Better infrastructure development is inspiring more social connections among a fast-growing wave of cyclists using bicycles for daily commutes.


Cycling in Northern Virginia
Photo courtesy of hans engbers/

“Get your damn toy off the street!”

A half-ton sports utility vehicle had just passed a guy riding a bike, legally, on the street, and had angled over close enough that the vehicle’s side mirror brushed the bike rider. That’s when the SUV passenger yelled out this ugly observation to the rider, loudly and just inches from his head.

That ugly and true incident happened five years ago in a community that claimed to be bike friendly. And it illustrates two common themes in the growth of the biking community anywhere: educating the car-driving public and making cycling safer.

Those dark ages of cycling have mostly come to an end in Northern Virginia—mostly, but not entirely—fueled in part by the wildly popular 22,000-member Capital Bikeshare program, launched here in 2010, that has put more cyclists on the street who may have not considered cycling as a form of transportation.

It’s such a success that it has made the Metro-D.C. region comparable with historically bike-friendly cities like Amsterdam in the resources it makes available and the number of commuters who ride bicycles.

Riding a bike has quickly evolved beyond just a good way to exercise on a sunny weekend. It’s taken a permanent place as a rational, reasonable, cheap and environmentally friendly way to commute to work in Arlington—one of the most densely populated counties in the country with more than 9,000 people per square mile—and in Fairfax County, and in the especially car-traffic averse D.C. district.

Bike riding has not only changed the commute picture in a significant way, it has changed the way people think about bikes and bike riders, changed the culture of driving a car everywhere and defined a social meet-up culture of its own in the process as infrastructure developments respond to the quickly growing demand to make bicycling more available and safer.

Over the last three years, more social events like Valentine’s Day parties, pub crawls, coffeehouse meetups and flashmob Twitter events have all been centered around bicycling.

These social rides— like the Saturday morning rides sponsored by The Bike Lane in Reston, the Lunch in Shirlington rides every Sunday, a bike prom sponsored by Belgium Brewery, the Kidical Mass ride in Arlington for casual family rides and other rides sponsored by bike shops like Freshbikes, Revolution Cycles and Tri360—have become another social outlet for riders and the mobility-curious who aren’t necessarily in it for the exercise.

Captial Bikeshare
Photo courtesy of Tupungato/

DC Bike Party, a loose collection of friends who bike, sponsors many events each year for their social group, including a Rock n’ Roll Ride, where about 700 participants ride for seven miles through the district with a mobile jukebox playing as they ride and live bands at the end of the ride; and the Valentine’s Day event where the dress code called for wearing lingerie or something red along with a bike helmet. These events, they state on their webpage, are not races but are about “free expression to celebrate the presence of a party wherever we are.”

Another group is Babes on Bikes, focusing on women who are home with free time in the middle of the day to ride, according to president Marla Schnall. The group of about 30-40 active members started out with just one ride a week on Friday, but expanded to regular rides to three times a week. The group rides Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays generally on the W&OD trail out of Arlington, with a special social ride every year in May. It’s a loosely structure group of friends that is “pretty self-sustaining,” Schnall says. “We don’t have a growth plan, it’s just what happens naturally,” she says. “We tend to catch people at a certain stage of their lives—retired women or stay-at-home moms with school-aged children.”

She says that the women talk as they ride, and that is an important part of the group’s philosophy. “The online discussion through our website is a forum for logistics and things like that,” she says, “because we really want to have our social interaction while we are riding.”

People want this alternative, and have come to expect this alternative, because it’s part of not just their lifestyle, but a common way of getting around that beats the hassle of sitting in some of the nation’s worst car traffic or waiting on delayed metro trains.

Cycling as a social commuter alternative has become demystified over the last two years, coming down off the pedestal of an outlet for the hard core fitness freak. And that is a good thing. “A lot more folks are coming to the idea that if they have a relatively short trip, bikes make more sense from an economic standpoint then from the standpoint that used to exist that bikes are environmentally friendly or health nut kind of thing,” Shane Farthing, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA), says. “Those are secondary now. It really is just another form of transportation.”

He says part of the reason for the growth and interest in biking is simply the cost and time differential. “My commute is three miles east-west across downtown D.C.,” he says. “If I were to take a car to do that it would take twice as long as it would for me to take a bike. And I would end up having to pay $12-$15 to put that car somewhere at the end of the trip. So my decision to ride a bike wasn’t something like being in a class or an outreach program. It was about choosing the most sensible transportation choice.”

He says the reason that people think about biking more is, in part, due to the Capital Bikeshare program. “Because now you don’t even have the barrier of having to figure out what sort of bike you want to buy,” he says.

David Goodman, bicycling and pedestrian programs manager for Arlington County, and an architect specializing in urban design, cites the bikeshare program as well (“It’s sort of like the gateway drug to get people bike riding.”). But he sees the evolution in bicycling locally as more about the infrastructure, bringing in protected bike lanes or the “new and improved version of providing bike facilities on the street.”

“For a lot of people that four foot space carved out of a road for a bike lane was good enough,” he says. “But we are trying to design facilities—with eight-foot bike lanes for example —for people who are not currently riders.”

The problem with that design change is data collection. There are new bicycling commuters who are not self-identified as riders, he says, which makes it challenging to understand what they want. “But what we have heard from people who live here, and from national surveys, is that the only way that these new groups of people are going to ride their bikes is if they are protected from car traffic.”

Goodman says if more people feel safer riding their bikes more often, that feeds into a virtual cycle of safety in numbers. “And research has shown that the more people riding in a community, the safer riding becomes,” he says.

Bikers in protected bike lanes tend to follow the law better, instead of “fudging it around the edges” getting through traffic, he says. “There is a lot less ‘winging it’ when you have legitimate protected facilities that link up to each other, with stop bars and turn signals and all of that regular traffic control things you see for cars,” Goodman says, “and that makes driver less upset.”

But as the bicycling community grows, urban planners need to go to the next level of planning. “The next step, instead of just squeezing in space in existing streets, is reconfiguring the street space, which means reevaluating the size of travel lanes and the landscape strip and sidewalks and parking,” he says.

But for every element in the streetscape, there is a constituency to appease, he says. “We are just sticking our toe in that water now and really don’t have a strategic plan for taking that on.”

One thing that Arlington county has that the district and Fairfax county don’t have is scientifically gathered data about bicycling, coming in the form of an electronic counter program— an array of 30 counters set in the ground on the trails collecting data about bike usage 24/7 that helps quantify the commuter use of the trails.

What county administrators have found using that program is that bike traffic mirrors highway traffic, with surges in the morning and evening, giving further credence to the transition that bicycling has made from recreation to transportation. “That kind of information is starting to have an impact on internal policies now,” Goodman says. “Biking has been proved to be a primary form of transportation for a significant number of people, and this data supports that we have to maintain these trails to the level that we maintain our streets.”

Bruce Wright, chairman of the Fairfax Advocates for Better Bicycling (FABB), a bike commuter since moving to Reston in 1979 and a board member of WABA, says that the county has a bicycling master plan that they worked on for four years, with plans for the Tysons area completed in 2011 and a county-wide bicycle master plan completed in 2012.

Even though he has seen the use of the Washington and Old Dominion trail (W&OD) surge “exponentially” in the last couple of years, the county has not offered the resources to deal with that change. “There is a budget issue as the tax base decreased because of the recession,” he says. “But I think a bigger issue is the mindset of using bicycling as a viable means of transportation because most people see it as a recreational thing. So when you are talking about devoting resources to bicycling it becomes a kind of chicken and egg problem because the county doesn’t encourage it and citizens don’t see people out on the streets during the week doing it.”

He says the problem in the county is that urban planners find it difficult to design bike facilities in mixed use developments that are surrounded by big roads – in a sprawling 407-square-mile county of a million people. “So what we end up having are pockets of places that try to be pedestrian-bike friendly that you can’t get to,” Wright says.

He says that what FABB is trying to do is focus on the activity centers – metro stations and bus stops – with bike lanes and bike facilities to come first at the Silver Line Tysons stop. “But we are relatively new at this, and don’t have the expertise to get things done right,” Wright says.

Bike parking and trail design are not codified in the county yet, he says, even though the county has had bike parking guidelines in draft form for five years. “So it’s a tough transition from being a car suburban area to a more bike friendly place.”

As the commuter side of things continue, and more inexperienced riders try out this method of commuting, there is still more work to do on harassment laws in Virginia.

Farthing says that they have always worked on protectionist legislation but that it’s not needed as much as it was 15 years ago. Part of the reason is bike lanes that have been designed to “calm” traffic. And part of it is just the numbers of cyclists out there riding now. “As long as you keep coming into contact with multiple bicyclists in a day, you just can’t maintain that level of crazy,” he says. “For the most part, it’s the actual day-to-day interaction that matters more than what is written in the books.”

Farthing says that new bike trails are being investigated in the area, following rail easements or in some cases following power line corridors that can provide linear stretches from say, Union Station up through Silver Spring. “But by and large,” he says, “we are looking at how do the developments change the population densities, how are we connecting people where to live to where they work and where they want to get on non-work days by bike,” he says. “And the network build out is the closest thing—those bike stations with metro or bus stations—that need to be connected by the infrastructure. That is the sort of build out that is needed, a kind of network build out and not just a linear build out of the trail.”

Cycling Safety

• Text while riding.
• Talk on a cell phone while riding.
• Be in the wrong lane or misjudge the lane.
• Ride side by side and take up both lanes.
• Ride against traffic.

• Look out for pedestrians walking side by side and taking up both lanes.
• Watch for joggers suddenly u-turning on a bike trail.
• Drive defensively and use common sense.
• Be predictable. Be
engaged. Ride in a straight line.
• Don’t ride on the sidewalk unless it’s
permitted and not during heavy pedestrian traffic hours.
• Follow the rules of the road for bikes and obey traffic signals.
• Get involved in a
bike club.

Northern Virginia Cyclist Crashes
Photos courtesy of Alemon cz/ (Man); advent/ (Coffin); Ideas_supermarket/ (Crash); Denis Barbulat/ (Crutch); memphisslim/ (Sign).


Cyclists and the Virginia law

Happy Trails

Cycling Groups in Northern Virginia and D.C.

Wronged on rights

(May 2014)