Friday, November 19, 2010

The Joy of Biking DC

Bike share station in DC's Eastern Market
I spent much of my Halloween weekend in DC on a bike.  I was in DC to run the Marine Corps Marathon on Halloween, my first time ever attempting 26.2 miles, but on the days leading up to the race, I couldn't stop myself from punching it down those DC avenues on my rental, swerving from from one multi-lane avenue to another.  Pedaling around our capital city was an exhilarating experience.  Yes, my virgin marathon began with a little bit of telltale tightness in my hams, but it was worth it. (Yes...I finished the marathon.  The whole experience running MCM was thrilling...It certainly will not be my last 26.2!)
Surprisingly lucid thinking in DC

Short and sweet though my time was, I have now run and biked the District enough to become convinced that DC just might be the perfect city for both activities.  It is also the perfect city for rallying, which I did (along with the sign-bearer at right) that Saturday at Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity. That's an aspect of DC's virtues that requires travel of that more noumenal variety (the kind that tends to gum up Proper Scale enough), so I'll avoid it for now.

As for biking, never before have I traveled so happily down trafficky streets and avenues.  The thought dawned on me quite fast that this was not my typical urban biking experience.  I had to pause a moment to ponder about what made DC feel so different...

Pennsylvania Avenue
Was it the wide avenues?  Perhaps the generous amount of pavement everywhere in the District allows enough traffic slack to grant the cyclist some breaks to get in and out of traffic lanes easily, but (with the exception of Pennsylvania Ave. at left) you take your life into your own hands down many of these.  Let's put it this way, you need to be comfortable with clearances just inches between yourself and moving vehicles.  The thing that made a positive difference in my experience getting around on a bike in DC, as compared to my experience in Boston and Jerusalem, is hard to tag (in Charlotte, people, I don't even try). But this I noticed was something I appreciated about DC's Avenues: they run enough interference on faster traffic (due to congestion produced by plentiful merging points and intersections) to keep traffic at an even keel and closer to cycling speeds, while at the same time offering longer stretches of uninterrupted travel, which make both cyclists and drivers happy.  For cyclists, stops are just as annoying as for drivers in the grid; in fact, even more so, since having to stop at an intersection means breaking your hard-gained momentum, which is what allows you to stay at travel speeds matching the traffic alongside you.  Staying at these higher speeds allows you to safely share the road with vehicles, and, in fact, take command of a lane when necessary.  These kind of sharable arteries, with highly pedestrianized urban street fronts, are rare here in the States.  But DC is thick with them!  Because they are everywhere, traffic tends to be evenly distributed.  Even if they mess with your sense of orientation, these wide streets have a certain predictable pace, almost a kind of ordered, lolling behavior, that the cyclist picks up on intuitively and can use to his or her advantage. 

Approaching Eastern Market
Was there a difference also in the amenities?  That signature bikeway on Pennsylvania Avenue is a joy to ride down, certainly.  Some of the world-class city offerings, including the Capital Bikeshare program, were there, and I am sure these do much to encourage bike travel in DC. The bikeway network, on the other hand, was the limited-run variety rather than the comprehensive kind.  But I noticed that the bike lanes that do exist are actually necessary and do go a long way to make a difference, especially when they are actually needed to create some clearance for the cyclist to bypass backed up traffic, therefore granting the bike mode a coveted edge (and also allowing the cyclist to stay off the sidewalks to bypass such conditions).  Some of these lanes, as in the busy narrow streets in the Eastern Market area, make very obvious why bike travel in DC has long gained the favored mode status for many locals.

While planners like me riding around DC might quibble that the bike lane network is patchwork at best, I would say that not all the conveniences and provisions for bike travel across greater distances in the city are really needed.  Sure, judged by mere infrastructural capacity, DC's travel split on the surface is still skewed heavily toward the automobile.  As the images on the blogosphere today betray, New York today and, certainly, Portland are doing somersaults over our capital on this score. But DC has a whole lot of other pluses and lessons for improving bike travel.  Some of these may even obviate the need for the white stripes and pavement dedications.

A very sane cyclist observes an outdoor performance of the Pirates of Penzance unfolding at Eastern Market

Of course, the key ingredient making DC special is L'Enfant's grid.  It is, to be brief, a difference of amenity inherent to city form. When it comes to biking, city form is the first thing bike-supportive planning should think carefully about. Too few of us spend time thinking about it, although we deal with it implicitly if not directly in design.  When you are working with the right fabric, maybe you don't need the Portlandian exuberance with bikeway infrastructure.  DC seems to teach that maybe these solutions should be implemented only when they are actually necessary.

After a couple weeks mulling over my experience, I have slowly come to the realization that, in fact, L'Enfant's grid just might be peerless in its advantages for integrating multi-modal transportation effectively in heavily traveled districts ("might be peerless" ....I'm not yet ready to claim it outright, though I'm tempted).  The advantages that make bike travel special in DC are also the same advantages that make travel of all other modes there effective.  L'Enfant did DC a huge favor not only in giving the heart of DC wide, Parisian-style rights-of-way but in designing radial avenues that lace across DC's grid diagonally with respect to the rectilinear infill grid, giving DC plenty of what I call (as I've modified for my private odonomy on this blog) "Grand Avenues".   Grand Avenues help everyone.  They help motorists, cyclists, pedestrians, buses and even the underground subways with stations leading out to them (I'll explain why later).  Even when the pavement stops, Grand Avenues may still continue for pedestrians (such as across the rolling lawn of Capitol Hill for the pedestrians headed from the Eastern Market area to the Rally to Restore Sanity at right).  A city's Grand Avenues, it seems, get inside the heads of its citizens.  They seem to amplify the pulse and vitality of the city with what they connect.

Bike parking at our national public forum
DC, unlike every American city I know, splits traffic flow with avenues (instead of simply channelizing it to them).  It disperses and modulates traffic flows enough to make wide surface streets sharable between cyclists and vehicles.  All those skewed intersections simply multiply travel options.  In the cases where it doesn't, and the traffic is simply too thick and relentless to allow the cyclist the direct route option, the cyclist often has the option to navigate quieter local streets that circumvent the artery traffic. 

Previously, the precedents presented by places like Copenhagen and Portland led me to believe that the urban design challenge was to find ways to claim more pavement for the bike.  But DC seems to have taken the opposite tact, brazenly maximizing surface provisions for the automobile instead.  With all its rights-of-way, L'Enfant's city seems to have passed a sweet spot.  Instead of corralling and flagellating it, avenues here seem to placate traffic behavior, letting it switch often and lead more directly to its destinations. Sure, radial avenues intersecting at odd angles with the grid insert even more intersections than needed into it (maybe these serve a good purpose we're not appreciating?), and often these are the skewed kind of intersections that imagination challenged DOT's detest (and don't allow you to design, that's for sure!).  But, ...I rode a bike in DC, and I can't remember the last time I had as much fun on a bike...

No comments: