Lack of infrastructure at the heart of bicycling debate


To the editor:

As a casual biker, I’ve been following the ongoing discussion about riders’ adherence to rules, but I feel that a larger issue is being lost in the discussion. The population of bikers in Alexandria is growing faster than infrastructure — bike lanes and bike racks, for example.

According to census figures, Alexandria has gained more than 18,000 residents since 2000, a 14-percent increase in population. A good number of those new residents are bound to ride bikes at least occasionally.

And the population is only growing. The 1,900 units to be built in the Potomac Yard development alone could account for a couple of thousand new residents.

Meanwhile, the number of places that those bikers want to go also is growing. Website assigns a score between 1 and 100 to cities and neighborhoods indicating how convenient and safe it is to walk or to ride bicycles. Scores at the low end of the scale mean an area is car-dependent, while scores approaching 100 indicate a walker’s (or biker’s) paradise.

Alexandria as a whole has a score of 65 and a bike score of 48. The three highest-scoring neighborhoods — the areas around King Street Metro station, Old Town and Braddock Road Metro station — have walk scores higher than 80 and bike scores higher than 60. These numbers suggest that there are some great pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods in the city to walk in, but they aren’t quite so friendly to bike through or to.

We live in a car-optional area. Some people seem to get by just fine without owning a car. They primarily walk, bike or take Metro to get around, maybe occasionally using a service such as Zipcar if they need four wheels for a specific trip. Others rely on a car for even the shortest commutes and errands.

I choose to own a car, but I can pretty easily get around using other modes of transportation, including a bicycle. The ride from my home, which is near Braddock Road, to my office near Dupont Circle is a distance of roughly nine miles, and more than eight miles of that commute is either on a street with a bike lane or an off-street bike path. Coupled with that, my office added a shower around 10 years ago and secure bike parking 18 months ago.

I’m lucky, but I also benefit from riding through the areas along Commonwealth Avenue, Potomac Yard and Crystal City — places that were developed with bicycles at least in mind. Older, more established neighborhoods that weren’t originally designed to efficiently handle large numbers of bikes seem to be areas that are becoming places that people want to arrive at on a bicycle.

City planners and designers are trying to keep up with the increase in bikers. I have loosely participated in the design process to improve Alexandria’s parks and have seen that bike racks — and lanes that separate pedestrians, bicyclists and cars — are among the issues that they are studying. These features don’t always get top priority, largely because of available funding, but the need for them is at least recognized.

Jeff Speck, an urban planner and author of the book “Walkable City,” tells an anecdote about the mayor of Charleston, S.C., who “woke up one morning, slapped his head and said, ‘Oh my God, I am the chief designer of my city. I need to start making decisions that make my city more beautiful and functional in a more holistic way.’”

Admittedly, there are bike riders who don’t follow the laws, just as there are pedestrians who jaywalk across streets and car drivers and their rolling stops in residential neighborhoods. People being more mindful of others can address some conflicts, but the mayor and city council providing the resources to accommodate the growing number of bikers is just as important.

Alexandria is changing, and we can do our part to make it a better place — whether it’s bicycle riders being more mindful of how they portray the riding community or by all of us insisting that the needs of bicyclists be addressed as part of the future planning for the city.

– James Thompson

(Photo/File Photo)