Carv­ing out lanes for com­mutes on 2 wheels

The prob­lem for bike com­muters in Mont­gomery County: The area was built for an auto life­style

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY BILL TURQUE

The fast-mov­ing traf­fic whisked un­com­fort­ably close to Amy Gins­burg the first— and only — time she biked from her home to run an er­rand on nearby Rockville Pike.

“One big truck with side mir­rors and I’m done,” said Gins­burg, 53, who heads Friends of White Flint, a group work­ing to make the Mont­gomery County com­mu­nity more walk­a­ble and bike­able. “I hate driv­ing, and I would love to be out ofmy car. There’s just no easy­way to ride your bike.”

Like most Amer­i­can sub­urbs, Mont­gomery’s 500 square miles were built on cheap gas and as­phalt. The au­to­mo­bile ruled, ren­der­ing most roads in­hos­pitable to all but the most in­trepid cy­clists. But as those streets choke on traf­fic and en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cerns con­tinue to grow, Mont­gomery of­fi­cials are wrestling with whether they can de­velop the kind of ro­bust bike cul­ture that has taken hold in Ar­ling­ton, the Dis­trict and cities such as Port­land, Ore.

Once a pri­mar­ily ur­ban phe­nom­e­non, in­te­gra­tion of bikes into lo­cal trans­porta­tion sys­tems now hap­pens be­yond city lim­its. Sub­urbs of Chicago, Min­neapo­lis and In­di­anapo­lis, to name a few, have up­graded bike lanes, off-road trails and other in­fra­struc­ture.

“They all stopped think­ing about bik­ing as this spe­cial thing. It’s now an in­te­gral part of trans­porta­tion,” said Bill Nes­per, a vice pres­i­dent for the League of Amer­i­can Bi­cy­clists.

Part of the bike surge re­flects the grow­ing ur­ban­iza­tion of sub­ur­bia, where town cen­ters and other de­vel­op­ments with city-like den­sity and street grids are be­com­ing more com­mon. Bethesda, Rockville and Fred­er­ick have all earned “bronze” ci­ta­tions from the league for ac­com­mo­dat­ing cy­clists. They rank be­hind “sil­ver” Alexan­dria, Ar­ling­ton and the Dis­trict,

Mont­gomery County of­fi­cials hope that will change soon.

The goal, of­fi­cials said, is to connect a sys­tem left frag­mented by years of ad hoc plan­ning in which rid­ers can sail along for miles on bike lanes or off-road trails only to hit dead ends — or in­ter­sec­tions with wide, high­speed roads that are ex­ceed­ingly dif­fi­cult to cross.

The county ear­marked nearly $170 mil­lion in its re­cently ap­proved six-year cap­i­tal bud­get to im­prove and ex­pand the bike net­work in down­town Sil­ver Spring, Bethesda, Wheaton and else­where. Mil­lions more bike en­hance­ment dol­lars are in­cluded in road con­struc­tion projects. The plan­ning board will soon begin re­vis­ing Mont­gomery’s bike mas­ter plan, fo­cus­ing ini­tially on the Shady Grove and Great Seneca ar­eas north of Rockville, which are ex­pect­ing a surge of new hous­ing and com­mer­cial projects over the next decade.

Of­fi­cials cite Cap­i­tal Bike­share’s suc­cess in Mont­gomery as ev­i­dence of cy­cling’s po­ten­tial here. Since its launch nearly two years ago, rid­ers have logged more than 60,000 trips. But in a county of 1 mil­lion peo­ple that was de­signed for au­to­mo­biles, even those who sup­port the push for bike-friend­li­ness have their doubts about its po­ten­tial.

“I’m not par­tic­u­larly san­guine about how much change we’re re­ally go­ing to make. We’re still work­ing on get­ting cars to stop for pedes­tri­ans,” said Mont­gomery County Coun­cil mem­ber Nancy Floreen (D-At Large).

“Are we go­ing to turn ev­ery por­tion of Mont­gomery County into a bi­cy­cle-friendly place? That’s go­ing to take a long time,” she said. “We’re so be­hind the world.”

As a form of trans­porta­tion, bik­ing in the United States barely reg­is­ters com­pared with other coun­tries. Just 0.6 per­cent of com­muters— about 786,000 peo­ple— travel to work by bi­cy­cle, ac­cord­ing to cen­sus data. In the bike­friendly Dis­trict, about 15,000 peo­ple, or 4.5 per­cent of the work­ing pop­u­la­tion, bike to their jobs.

By con­trast, 36 per­cent of all work and school trips in Copen­hagen are by bike, ac­cord­ing to the Cy­cling Em­bassy of Den­mark, a public-pri­vate or­ga­ni­za­tion that pro­motes cy­cling.

In Mont­gomery, an es­ti­mated 2,400 stal­warts bike to work. But of­fi­cials say they are fo­cus­ing not on in­creas­ing com­muter trips but on the thou­sands of shorter jaunts made by car each day: to drop off chil­dren at school, take the Metro, visit the post of­fice or shop.

Forty per­cent of all trips from home— by car, bus, bike or foot— are two miles or less, ac­cord­ing to fed­eral sur­veys. Con­vert­ing a frac­tion of those ex­cur­sions from car to bike could make a sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence in traf­fic and sus­tain­abil­ity, cy­cling ad­vo­cates as­sert.

“Abig part of this is about try­ing to cap­ture more util­i­tar­ian bi­cy­cle trips,” said Mont­gomery County Plan­ning Board Chair Casey An­der­son, an avid biker.

That means mak­ing the county more ac­ces­si­ble to frus­trated bik­ers such as 27-year-old Hamza Khan of Ger­man­town, who at­tends a mosque about 21/2 miles from his apart­ment. Khan, a Demo­cratic fundraiser, said he would love to shed ex­cess weight by bik­ing the 10 to 12 min­utes it would take to get to the mosque. But the roads won’t ac­com­mo­date it.

“Get­ting around on my bike is pretty much a no-go,” Khan said. “It’s a beau­ti­ful area, and it should have bike lanes.”

Mont­gomery lead­ers say more bike ameni­ties are a must if the county wants to draw mil­len­ni­als and empty-nest boomers who seek al­ter­na­tives to cars. “It is now a re­quired part of the con­ver­sa­tion,” coun­cil mem­ber Roger Ber­liner (D-Po­tomac-Bethesda) said.

Such talk dis­tresses ad­vo­cates for more and bet­ter roads to serve au­to­mo­biles. Be­tween plans for bike ameni­ties and the net­work of ex­press bus lanes (bus rapid tran­sit) ap­proved by the County Coun­cil last year, car-fo­cused groups say they fear driv­ers will get squeezed.

“Mont­gomery County doesn’t have a lot of road­way to take away from mo­torists,” said Lon An­der­son, AAA Mid-At­lantic’s gov­ern­ment and public re­la­tions direc­tor. “When you have some of the worst con­ges­tion in the United States, if you’re not go­ing to add car ca­pac­ity, at least don’t sub­tract from it.”

Other crit­ics con­tend that although im­proved bike in­fra­struc­ture may make a dif­fer­ence in the more ur­ban­ized “down­county” re­gion (Sil­ver Spring, Bethesda, Wheaton), it is un­likely that many up­county res­i­dents will make even close-to-home trips on bikes.

“They’re go­ing to the gro­cery store. They’re go­ing to the dry clean­ers,” coun­cil mem­ber Craig Rice (D-Up­county) said. “To do that and ride back on a bi­cy­cle isn’t re­al­is­tic.”

Of­fi­cials who say there is a large, un­tapped con­tin­gent of would-be cy­clists out there cite re­search by Port­land State Uni­ver­sity that divides the pop­u­la­tion by at­ti­tudes to­ward bi­cy­cle use, start­ing with a small (4 per­cent) “strong and fear­less” seg­ment that is com­fort­able rid­ing in any traf­fic or road con­di­tions. The largest group (56 per­cent), dubbed “in­ter­ested but con­cerned,” is open to bik­ing more, if only they felt safer on the roads.

It is this group that Mont­gomery wants to reach.

“Even putting in short pieces of high-qual­ity in­fra­struc­ture might give peo­ple a sense of ease about the rest of the trip,” said coun­cil mem­ber Hans Riemer (D-At Large), who cy­cles on Rockville Pike for his com­mute from Takoma Park to coun­cil of­fices in Rockville.

On June 6, Riemer con­vened the sec­ond an­nual Great MoCo Bi­cy­cle Sum­mit, which fea­tured a fam­ily-friendly ride from Bethes but da’s Elm Street Park to the Sil­ver Spring Civic Cen­ter. The county has also launched a bike safety ad cam­paign.

Late last year, Mont­gomery’s first buffered cy­cle track was in­stalled along Wood­glen Drive in North Bethesda, where the of­froad seg­ment of the Bethesda Trol­ley Trail is in­ter­rupted. The two-way track, pro­tected from the park­ing lane by a three-foot buf­fer zone with flex­i­ble posts, could be ex­tended about a half-mile to the White Flint Metro sta­tion.

Bik­ers would like to see some­thing sim­i­lar in down­town Bethesda, where the Trol­ley Trail and the popular Cap­i­tal Cres­cent Trail come within two miles of each other. To make it eas­ier for rid­ers to get from one trail to the other, ad­vo­cates are press­ing for a “road diet” on Ar­ling­ton Road north of Bradley Boule­vard — cy­clist jar­gon for elim­i­nat­ing one of the four ve­hic­u­lar lanes to cre­ate a bike lane.

Plans for the pro­posed Pur­ple Line light-rail project in­clude a new east-west hike-and-bike trail par­al­lel to the tracks, link­ing down­town Bethesda to the Sil­ver Spring Tran­sit Cen­ter. But down­town Sil­ver Spring — where a 20foot bike lane that dead-ended into a curb was once dubbed “the stupi­dest bike lane in Amer­ica”— re­mains a no-go zone for many cy­clists.

There are funds in the cap­i­tal bud­get for a Sil­ver Spring Green Trail, an off-road path along Wayne Av­enue from Fen­ton Street to the Sligo Creek hiker-biker trail. Also on the books is money to begin a seg­ment of the Metropoli­tan Branch Trail from Mont­gomery Col­lege in Takoma Park to the Sil­ver Spring Tran­sit Cen­ter, at which point the trail con­tin­ues to Union Sta­tion.

The bike mas­ter plan was last re­vised a decade ago. The up­date will fo­cus first onthe Great Seneca Science Cor­ri­dor along In­ter­state 270, home to Shady Grove Ad­ven­tist Hos­pi­tal, Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­sity-Mont­gomery County Cam­pus, the Uni­ver­si­ties at Shady Grove and com­pa­nies such as Hu­man Genome Sciences. The plan will pro­vide for bike lanes to link work­ers and res­i­dents to stops on the first phase of the pro­posed Cor­ri­dor Cities Tran­sit project, a bus rapid tran­sit line that would connect the Shady Grove Metro sta­tion with the Metropoli­tan Grove MARC sta­tion in Gaithers­burg.

Plan­ners are also cre­at­ing a “stress map” that will cat­e­go­rize ev­ery street and road in the county ac­cord­ing to the de­gree of dif­fi­culty it causes bik­ers.

Mont­gomery of­fi­cials say they want to do a bet­ter job reach­ing out to lower-in­come and mi­nor­ity res­i­dents, who his­tor­i­cally have been un­der­served by bi­cy­cle ameni­ties. In some com­mu­ni­ties, bike paths are seen as sym­bols of dis­place­ment and gen­tri­fi­ca­tion.

But bike ad­vo­cates in­sist that res­i­dents in the county’s lessaf­flu­ent eastern half would be more in­clined to ride if the right in­vest­ments were made in bike lanes and off-road trails.

“If the county can cre­ate good bike in­fra­struc­ture in ar­eas that al­ready have the bones for it, like Sil­ver Spring or Bethesda, you’ll start to see more bi­cy­clists out on the street,” said Dan Reed, a Sil­ver Spring ur­ban plan­ner and blog­ger.

“And folks in other parts of the county will ask, ‘ How can we do that here?’ ”

BILL O’LEARY/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Bikes parked un­der the tracks at theMetro sta­tion in Sil­ver Spring. Some in Mont­gomery County want to make county roads more friendly to bi­cy­clists.

BILL O’LEARY/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Mont­gomery County’s first ded­i­cated bike trail opened in 2014 alongWood­glen Drive in North Bethesda. The lanes could be ex­tended about a half-mile to the White Flin­tMetro sta­tion.

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