When I last came here, in the dark final days of George Dubya, the Rough Guide of the time advised that “given the traffic, few visitors will actually want to brave the DC streets on a bicycle.” Since then, like much of the partly-civilised world, the city has started to respond to the wishes of those who want to get around without spending half their days in metal boxes. In fact the Capital Bikeshare website proudly proclaims the city as one of the US’s most bike-friendly.
I’m not entirely convinced by that claim, given my experience in Portland last year, and in Philadelphia later on this trip. But it’s not too bad. Drivers tend to have more patience with bicycles - or maybe that’s the effect of the Obama Bikes, also seen with drivers giving Boris Bikes a wider-than-usual berth in London. The way traffic lights work in the US – green, amber, red, red, red, green - Stop All Ways signs at many crossroads and the laws on yielding to pedestrians and bikes at crossings do a good job of keeping the mostly sofa-coloured cars and bigger vehicles down to a reasonable speed when you do have to wobble out in front of them.
At first glance the Obama Bikes (I don’t know if anyone else calls them that. If they don’t, I think they should) look like a slightly flimsier version of the Boris Bike. Don’t be fooled, they’re just as solid. The hire scheme is run by Mia Birk’s Alta Planning in partnership with local government in both DC and Arlington VA, with natty red and black bikes provided by Bixi. They are, like the Boris Bikes, beloved by tourists, who career wildly around The Mall and the parks surrounding the Presidents’ memorials on them like they’re on their childhood Choppers.
The hire scheme is just like that in London – register as a member for a set period, then hop on a bike. The first half hour of each ride is free, then the fee escalates rapidly the longer you keep the bike out. Membership for less than a week is available via the bike stands themselves, and a 72-hour period costs just $15. If you’re clever enough to always find third gear first time (the rotate-shift works the wrong way to logical types like me, used to twisting up to change up and down to change down) and find a drop-off point before your 30 minutes is up, that’s all you’ll pay the whole time you’re signed up. Up to an hour is $2. After that, it’s $8 per half hour, so find a docking station fast.
If you know you’re going to need a bike longer than half an hour, you can also cheat. Ride past a docking station, hop off and dock your first bike. Wait just a minute and hire another one from the same docking station. It’ll start your rental clock all over again. I did this the morning I went for brunch in Dupont Circle - easily no more than half an hour’s ride on my own bike, but more like an hour with just-got-out-of-bed legs, no food in my tummy and a route that wasn’t quite as bike-friendly as I’d hoped. In the downtown area, dropping off your bike is fairly simple - head for a Metro station, and roughly three quarters of the time you’ll find a docking station very close by. Otherwise there are new docking stations being added all the time – yellow stations on the online map were installed fewer than 30 days ago, and the app Spotcycle will find the nearest station and tell you if there are any parking spaces when you type in your nearest junction (I Street and 4th SE, for example).
Frankly, it’s a bit of a mess.
This is one of the Capital Bikeshare maps showing what sort of facilities are about:
There’s no real network to speak of unless you live near the city zoo, and even then it takes you on a picturesque route. The best bits are the routes marked in black – these are (on two or three roads) slightly separate on-road tracks, like this one taking up a lane of NW 15th from Pennsylvania Avenue level with the Treasury building north to beyond Dupont Circle-
-or the one carved out of the middle of the road down Pennsylvania Avenue almost all the way to the Capitol Building. To turn on or off it anywhere but the beginning or end, you revert to being a pedestrian:
Mostly they’re a marked lane, narrower than a typical traffic lane, on the far right of the road but outside any parking areas. This isn’t actually as bad as it sounds, because the markings for parking are wider than they are in the UK. Anything smaller than a Hummer fits with space to open the door almost as wide as possible without another vehicle taking it off or a cyclist flying over it. (That said, there is some truly awful parking. If you can’t manoeuvre the thing, don’t drive it.) The cycle lanes are a decent width, about 1.5m, on the outside of this. That means that when the lanes stopped (which they did, frequently), I was in roughly the place I’d choose to ride anyway, and the roads in DC are generally wide enough that drivers can happily let you stay that far out without them being inconvenienced. The downside is that parking is important, so manhole covers are further out – right in the middle of the perfect line for a bike to take. Bigger vehicles in general also mean the potholes and general wear are worse, so a well-padded bum (or a Brooks saddle and suspension) is useful when there are bumps you just can’t avoid.
Red lanes are shared facilities. The Mall and the roads around the memorials are marked as red lanes. On The Mall you can also ride on the one-way roads fairly safely, as the cars and school buses are going at a crawl with drivers looking for somewhere to park, but the paths along both sides of the roads for the whole length are shared use. They’re very wide - and to be honest, you’re more at risk of being hit by a jogger trying to get their circuit in before the end of their lunch hour than an errant tourist on an Obama Bike - but there are a lot of people using that space.
Around the memorials, it’s easiest to walk. Lincoln and Jefferson are reached via steps anyway, so lock the bike to the Sheffield stands provided very nearby. But the FDR and MLK Jnr memorials are walk-through parks, through which you’re not allowed to even walk a bike. Instead you have to lock up by the roadside and wander in, then back out to collect them again afterwards – while walkers can flow from one to the next around the Tidal Basin far more easily. You can also use a red route to cross the bridge over to Arlington, but most bridges have signs asking cyclists to walk across them. So much for shared space.
Pale blue routes are equivalent to the roads marked in yellow on London’s bike maps. They’re not marked on the roads, but they’re quieter and often signposted as good choices to various destinations. SW 4th Street is a good example of this kind of route, NW 19th and 13th not so much, being uphill and full of Right Turn Must Turn Right junctions.
The Beltway and the urban freeways are a no-no, obviously. Unlike the North Circular and even bits of the A3, there aren’t even shared use pavements alongside that you can use. The normal roads are more direct anyway.
The rest is a free-for-all. The blue route up NW 13th takes you through a quiet circular junction called Logan Circle. Even the lycra-clad road warriors stuck to the right of such would-be roundabouts and made use of the numerous traffic lights to navigate the junctions. Others, like me, used the crossings to cut straight across the park areas in the centre. Dupont Circle, a lovely place to use as the basis for a day’s wandering, is the M25 miniaturised. I watched a good hour all told from the numerous traffic islands and couldn’t work out how to get all the way around in a car, never mind on a bike, without clinging to the sides and crying for my mum.
The simplest route from Dupont Circle to Union Station is down Massachusetts Avenue. It’s signed as such for cars. But it’s a four-lane-each-direction urban motorway, with lots of those frustrating Right Lane Must Turn Right lanes, and you *really* need your wits about you and the ability to ride faster than I can even on my own bike. I peeled off and ended up following a quieter but much longer route towards the back of the White House then along E Street via a few detours.
This is probably why, the whole time I was in DC, I only saw three types of people on bike. I saw lots of road warriors, in full lycra on superfast drop-handlebar bikes. I saw lots of lower class lads riding all manner of mountain and all-terrain bike while nattering on their phones, hopping pavements, going the wrong way down one-way streets and everything you see Posse* riders doing in London. I saw lots of tourists flying about, some more in control than others, on Obama bikes. Actually, I lie – I did see one couple with matching Dutch-style powder blue bicycles, but they were walking them along the pavement on Pennsylvania Ave. I saw some beautiful traditional bikes locked securely to lampposts and railings in Dupont Circle, but they were easily outnumbered 50 to one by MTBs and racers.
The bike share scheme and the huge amount of shared space along the Mall are really good to see, but for a scheme used by so many tourists the lack of docking stations in that area seems odd. Otherwise DC really needs to work on joining up what network it’s got. Its drivers are surprisingly patient and the already wide lanes means there’s plenty of space even in the downtown area where bike lanes could fit, or where turning lanes could become yield-to-bike through routes. It also desperately needs more cafes; I’ve never been anywhere supposedly bike-friendly that has so few places to hop off and fortify oneself – and at times I needed it.
You can see the routes that Sam took in DC here
*Also known as cycle ninjas. From The Raging Peloton, Iain Sinclair (definition about halfway down)