Without bike lanes, riding slowly in traffic takes nerves of steel.
While most drivers behave courteously, a few treat a slow-moving bicyclist as an unnecessary interloper on the pavement. Cars approach too closely, horns are honked and some drivers even yell.
But because riding takes one-fourth the energy of walking the same distance, cyclists that have the option of riding slowly sweat very little and arrive at their destination feeling refreshed. This is the promise of bicycling.
On the other hand, riding quickly elicits fewer honks but generates sweat. I tend to ride faster when there’s no bike lane because I don’t have nerves of steel. In conversations with my noncycling friends, I have been told — in almost as many words — that cyclists who do not make a visible effort do not deserve a place on the road.
This is contrary to the law and contrary to our goal to increase bicycling and walking. Unless residents have the option of riding slowly on our roads, only the strongest and bravest of us will ride. The promise of bicycling will not be realized.
What concerns me most is the anger, on and off the street. In a recent online discussion with my neighbors, a few chimed in with very negative views of bicycling. One even stated that cyclists “riding slowly in the middle of a busy road [were] seemingly daring an annoyed motorist to hit them.”
At the same time, positive replies were sent to me privately, presumably to avoid becoming a target of further vitriol. In this situation, democracy becomes “shout-ocracy,” and only the angriest voices are heard.
Public figures who favor improved bicycle lanes seem hesitant to wade into the caustic public debate. Indeed, City Councilor Paul Smedberg was recently quoted in the Alexandria Times suggesting that Old Town’s streets may be too narrow for bike lanes or cycletracks. “The types of things other, more metropolitan areas are doing that people would like to see here, the infrastructure restraints don’t make that possible,” he said.
Because the city’s transportation network was built around automobiles, most people own and drive cars. I worry that our leaders have mistaken all that driving for opposition to bicycling.
This is a false dichotomy. Many drivers support bike lanes because they get the bicycles out of the way of the cars. The problem, as I see it, is that angry voices are so dominating the debate that perception is out of step with reality: A majority of our neighbors support bike lanes.
Consider this: Nationwide, annual miles driven have been falling since 2006. The peak car-buying demographic — once ages 35 to 44 — has increased to 45 to 54. One-third of young people — aged 16 to 24 — do not have a driver’s license, the highest percentage since 1963.
Scientific polling shows that most people favor more bike lanes. In a recent Washington Post poll, 67 percent of Northern Virginians and 57 percent of District residents favored Washington’s push to expand bike lanes on major roads. Also in favor were 61 percent of Republicans and 68 percent of Democrats.
Results were sliced and diced by location, politics, race, gender, income and age, but support for bike lanes never fell to less than 50 percent. This result is not unusual. It has been replicated elsewhere.
It is time to recognize the will of the people. For example, proposed bike lanes on Cameron and Prince streets are needed to coax bicycles off of crowded King Street and to calm traffic on those one-way speedways. These lanes have been proposed by urban planners at the Virginia Tech graduate school here in Alexandria and have the support of the bicycling community, members of the city’s transportation commission, and the traffic and parking board as well as city staff.
Let’s recognize that the many voices supporting bike lanes represent a majority view. Let us roll up our sleeves and work to make the promise of bicycling a reality.
- The writer is a member of the Alexandria Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee.