Willie Nelson was right: There’s nothing more American than the open road. For a bicyclist’s purposes, in downtown D.C., the closest you can get is the 15th Street NW cycletrack.
A cycletrack, after all, is no ordinary bike lane. Separated from vehicular traffic either by plastic poles or a strip of car parking, it feels safe and protected—a space for cyclists alone. They’re a common feature on streets in bike-friendly cities like Amsterdam and Berlin, but American towns have been much more reluctant to set aside that much right-of-way for two-wheeled transit (it’s one method of putting too-wide streets on a “road diet”).
In the year and a half it’s been in operation, the 15th Street route has become a central artery for north-south bike traffic. Getting on at Euclid Street NW, a cyclist can head downtown—against the flow of northbound-only auto traffic—and cruise straight south until the lane takes a small jog on K Street NW, before breezing right past the most powerful buildings in the world. Even the celebrated two-way bike lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue NW can’t rival their utility—while it’s a wonderful thing to have space for bikes on America’s Main Street, the average Washingtonian needs an expressway from Columbia Heights to the Mall more than a dedicated lane from the White House to the Capitol.
Creating the city’s first contraflow cycletrack, of course, was no joyride. The District Department of Transportation first put down a 14-block section heading south from U Street to Massachusetts Avenue in late 2009, after years of working to get abutting property owners on board. Finding that cyclists were using it to go both north and south, they separated it into two lanes, like a real street. Meanwhile, DDOT had to get National Capital Planning Commission and Commission on Fine Arts approval for the whole thing, and hash out with the National Park Service and Secret Service how to extend the lane past the White House—a considerable accomplishment, given the kind of security that neck of the woods requires.
After a year of operation, the track had already started to show results. Surveys showed a 40 percent increase in bicycling on 15th Street, and a 60 percent decrease in the proportion of drivers exceeding the 25 mile per hour speed limit on the road. Nevertheless, the cycletrack was slandered in the pages of The Examiner: “Business owners are angry over the District’s new bike lanes, which are taking up dozens of valuable parking spaces along 15th Street Northwest,” a story blared in December, before proceeding to name exactly one actual business owner who had an issue with the lanes.
Transit geeks rallied to the cycletrack’s defense, deconstructing the story bit by bit (another business owner, whose employee was quoted, spoke out enthusiastically for the lanes.) It turned out that a couple of parking spaces outside The Examiner’s offices were among the few that were sacrificed to install the cycletrack—likely, the real business that had an issue with the change was The Examiner itself. The rest of us, though, are sold.