Washington Lawyer

The Virtue of a Two–Wheel Commute

From Washington Lawyer, May 2010

By Thai Phi Le


Throughout early spring, “driving” commuters, who mostly sat idling in their cars for hours in an attempt to get in and out of Washington, D.C., may have had a similar thought: “I could walk faster than this.” They stared dejectedly out their windows as pedestrians and bicyclists alike gained precious blocks on their trips to and from the office. The hordes of tourists during the National Cherry Blossom Festival may have exacerbated the situation, but they also reminded people of the perks of alternative transportation. But will a few weeks of treacherously long commutes be enough to get drivers to swap out their gas-guzzling vehicles for an energy-exerting two-wheeler?

We Are Generation Sluggish
“In our lives today, one of the biggest stressors most of us have is our commute to work,” says Mark Turco, an interventional cardiologist and director of the Center for Cardiac and Vascular Research at Washington Adventist Hospital in Takoma Park, Maryland. This city, in particular, is afflicted with abnormally grueling commutes. A 2008 survey by the U.S. Census Bureau ranks the Washington metropolitan area fourth in the country’s longest commutes, and a 2009 study by the Texas Transportation Institute places the area second in auto congestion, giving reason why the drive to and from the office is often cited as the worst part of commuters’ day.

Pan over to bike trails and lanes, and the disgruntled pre-coffee morning looks people are accustomed to seeing in the District seem to disappear. “I’m outside for two-and-a-quarter hours a day. It’s wonderful. I see fox and deer and raccoons on the trail,” says Stuart Frisch, general counsel in the Justice Management Division of the U.S. Department of Justice and a bike commuter. “I’ll go down to Hains Point or around the Reflecting Pool in the morning. There’s the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Memorial. It’s really a lovely time.”

Fox and other forest creatures are well and good, but for many, commuter stress may seem like a small price to pay to have the convenience of a car. Its health risks, however, are greater than most realize. “In any metropolitan, congested area, people could have a higher risk of cardiovascular [disease due to the stress of commuting],” Turco says. “You’re exposed to air pollutants and diesel fumes that can cause a direct effect on the vascular bed of your arteries and the lining of your arteries. Blood pressure can rise and your heart rate can rise. All of those things can lead to bad events.”

But aren’t bikers exposed to those same pollutants? “The thing you have to think about is that it’s long-term exposure to air pollution [that is harmful]. You’re not exposed if you need to just ride down Massachusetts Avenue for a bit, or ride down Ninth Street before you get to a less populated area,” Turco adds. “Whatever downside we may find from our environmental factors, one thing is for sure: The exercise that biking gives from an aerobic standpoint, and from a standpoint of being able to increase your heart rate and increase your cardiovascular fitness, far outweighs the downsides.”

Drivers, on the other hand, are forced to sit in gridlock, often for hours at a time, increasing their exposure to fumes. And when their heart rates jump up? Well, that’s usually a result of being cut off or nearly rear-ending a merging car.

In addition to its impacts on heart health, research conducted by the Institute for Transportation Studies at the University of California, Irvine, revealed that tough commutes can cause people to get frustrated at work, call in sick more often, and negatively affect family life. Lawyers’ lifestyles can add even more potentially harmful risks. While studies have noted that heart disease is among the top health concerns for lawyers, they also are more prone to hypertension and ulcers than those in other occupations as a result of their high-pressure jobs. “Biking … can really reduce stress and give somebody the exercise that is needed over a lifetime to reduce the risk of underlying coronary artery disease,” Turco says.

“Mentally, I feel a lot better [after biking to work],” says John Mesirow, founder of Mesirow & Stravitz, PLLC who commutes from his home in Chevy Chase, Maryland, to his office on New Hampshire Avenue near Dupont Circle. “I can clear my head on the rides. I feel good that I’m doing something that doesn’t cost anything to get to work. I leave no footprint. It relaxes you. It allows you to think through a lot of things—some trivial, some momentous. It’s a good release.”

Reengineered to Be Weak
To receive the benefits, though, people have to actually get off the couch or out of the office, as the situation may be for lawyers—a feat harder than one would expect. The President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports reported in 2002 that about 70 percent of adults in the United States are sedentary. Why physically attend a conference when you can join the Webinar and watch without having to take a step? Want to play baseball? Pull out the video game consoles and start moving those thumbs.

“Inactivity is a huge problem, especially as physical movement is being engineered out of our lives. We have escalators and elevators; remote controls for our TVs and garage doors; e-mail, [instant messaging], and smart phones; and even battery-operated pepper grinders,” says Dr. Carol Torgan, a health scientist and representative for the American College of Sports Medicine. “The problem is that as humans, we are designed to move. We are absolutely not designed to sit at a desk and push buttons.”

Lawyers specifically were singled out as belonging to one of the least active occupations by the American Council on Exercise (ACE) in its 2006 study titled “Do You 10K a Day?” Using pedometers, ACE logged the number of steps various professionals made on average during an eight-hour workday for three consecutive days. Data showed that those in the legal community walked about two miles a day compared to the six miles covered by mail carriers.

By replacing a car with a bike on a 12-mile commute, a 150-pound bicyclist can burn more than 400 calories and keep 45 pounds of pollutants out of the air.

Cycling not only helped Frisch stay in shape but possibly saved his life years after he first started biking in 1995. During one of his rides to work, Frisch began feeling chest pain. “I was on the Capital Crescent Trail. I didn’t pass out. I was conscious. Originally, I thought I’d ride the bike to George Washington [University] Hospital. I was about four to five miles away. I got about a mile and couldn’t ride anymore,” he recalls.

A friend stopped, then a doctor biking to work, and finally a third commuter. They called 911 and an ambulance came. “I was lucky because the cardiac catheterization team was having a staff meeting that morning so they were waiting for me,” Frisch jokes.

“One of the doctors commented that the fact that I did as much exercise as I did probably helped me survive because there were probably secondary vessels that had built up to sustain the amount of exercise I was doing,” he says.

According to former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher, research has in fact shown that exercise such as biking, combined with improved nutrition, can reduce cardiovascular illnesses and deaths by 50 percent and colorectal cancer by 40 percent.

Within three to four months, Frisch was back on the bike, albeit a little more nervous. “It was scary [at first],” he says. “I had certain experiences, and I would call the doctor and ask, ‘Is this something to worry about?’ After a while, though, I just realized that what I was feeling was not a heart attack.”

Today, Frisch continues to hit the trail almost every morning around 7 and takes it from Bethesda, Maryland, to the District. As Frisch can attest to, biking certainly has its health benefits. In addition to increased cardiovascular health, people can avoid one of the nation’s leading epidemics: obesity. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) survey for the period 2005–2006 found that more than one-third of adults, or more than 72 million people, were obese in the United States.

Bike for Your Health and Mother Earth
With the continued rise in health care costs, biking could play a key role for some to help curb their medical expenses. Health Affairs, a health policy journal, reported that in 2002, obesity-related medical care spending accounted for 11.6 percent of all private health care spending, compared to just 2 percent in 1987. This translates to $147 billion a year to treat obesity-related illnesses in the United States. Yearly medical costs are, on average, $1,400 more for an obese person than someone who is of normal weight.

In the direst cases, the expense of physical inactivity and poor diets is more than just dollar signs, but lives themselves. A recent CDC study estimates that about 112,000 deaths in the United States every year are associated with obesity.

“Biking is a good exercise because it gives aerobic exercise, which [increases] heart rate and overall physical fitness, but it also does help improve muscular strength, especially in your legs,” Turco says.

For people worried that they are too out of shape, biking can actually be easy to pick up. They key is to start slow, take flat trails, and keep the distance short until the person feels ready to step it up a notch. “None of us are going to be Lance Armstrong when we’re biking, but the fact is that the more you bike, the better in shape you’re going to get. It truly is a very, very good exercise,” Turco adds.

The environmental advantages of cycling are well-documented as well. A bike can travel 960 miles on the equivalent energy of a gallon of gas. It doesn’t create additional carbon emissions, nitrogen oxides, and other toxins.

According to the Clean Air Council, motor vehicle emissions represent 31 percent of total carbon dioxide, 81 percent of carbon monoxide, and 49 percent of nitrogen oxides released in the United States. Auto emissions are the primary source of air pollution in the District and also contribute to the contamination in the Anacostia River, one of the most polluted rivers in the nation.

Caeli Quinn, cofounder and director of Climate Ride, an organization dedicated to supporting energy and climate change work through various bike programs, says “50 percent of the working population commutes five miles or less to work, yet more than 80 percent of those trips are done in vehicles. If you can find a way, and your community creates an environment where it’s safe for you to bicycle, we could create a healthier society and also take a lot of cars off the road.”

Poor air quality also has contributed to rising asthma rates, which now stands at 7.85 percent of the U.S. population. In the District alone, that number more than doubles to 19.8 percent. “Truly, environmentally and for the nation’s health and obesity issues, cycling is a natural fit and potential cure for that,” Quinn says.

Ride On, Come Sun or Snow
For many cyclists, the cold and slippery conditions of winter are enough to outweigh all the health and environmental rewards of biking. Frisch is one of those who brave the cold and bikes year-round, except when it’s icy or during a storm. In the winter of 2009, he rode more than 300 miles in January and over 400 in February. For him, winter biking only means more clothes and more lighting.

Another winter biker, Mesirow, agrees: “It’s all about layers. When it is really cold, then you start having to wear thermal undergear. It’s not a big deal.”

Many bicyclists prefer the three-layer approach—a base layer, an insulation layer, and a protection layer. The innermost layer should be a shirt that can keep moisture away, including synthetic, silk, or cashmere fabrics. The middle layer is all about warmth, consisting of sweaters or fleece shirts. The top layer keeps the wind, rain, and snow at bay. Bikers also often use waterproof windbreakers.

Other tips to layering include wearing a thin scarf that covers the head and neck under a helmet, but isn’t too long that it can get caught in the bike’s wheels. In really cold weather, some cyclists prefer to wear a face mask that covers everything but their eyes. To keep snow and slush out, buy tall waterproof boots.

In some ways, Mesirow actually prefers biking in the winter than in the summer. “In the summer, you walk out the door and it’s 80 or 85 degrees and humid. Just nasty,” he says. Biking during the non-winter months, however, is a popular choice. As winter wanes and the temperature rises, more bicyclists fill up the once-abandoned trails.

As with extremes of cold, there are tips for dealing with the summer heat, especially in the District where its humidity is infamous among both residents and tourists. Always bring water, even for short commutes. If a person is stranded with a flat tire in the sun, it will be needed. Wear light-colored and well-ventilated helmets and clothing. Most importantly, take it slow if the mercury reading spikes really high. Hot weather is not the moment to beat a personal best time home.

Rain, snow, sleet, or sun, biking continues to grow in popularity. In May 2009, more than 8,000 people from the District, suburban Maryland, and Northern Virginia signed up for the annual Bike to Work Day. (This year’s event is May 21.) Bikers now comprise 2.3 percent of all commuters, making Washington, D.C., the sixth-most active bike commuting city in the United States. The only downside is that with more cyclists on the road, the amount of accidents has increased, Mesirow notes.

Owning the Road on Two Wheels
For bicyclists, having a road war story—complete with bruises and scars—is common and a great deterrence for the faint-hearted. Fear of injury ranks among the top reasons (and/or excuses) to avoid biking, especially in the District where even driving in a protected car can be a harrowing experience.

“Forty percent of Americans said they would bike if safe routes existed,” says Quinn of Climate Ride. “We have a transportation system that is not accepting of cyclists and does not create opportunities for them.”

Molly Silfen, a law clerk for Judge Alan D. Lourie of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, agrees: “The main hurdle for me is road safety.” Her three-mile commute takes her from Woodley Park to downtown Washington, D.C. “I think it’s really bad around here. It’s a combination of the setup and drivers not seeing bikers.”

“Almost all the cases we get seem to involve drivers where bikes are just not in their field of vision,” says Mesirow, whose personal injury firm specializes in bicycle accidents. “They don’t see bikes. They don’t think about bikes. People tend to only see what they’re looking for.” He adds, “I’m a street rider, not just because it’s faster, but because I enjoy it.”

On the streets, however, he often witnesses bike accidents. “Cars turn either into or right in front of bicycles. They don’t see them, and that’s still negligence.”

To decrease their odds of getting into an accident, Mesirow urges cyclists to protect themselves and to know their rights. “The first thing is gear,” he says. While the District does not require people over the age of 16 to wear a helmet, he emphasizes its importance regardless of the law. “In all of our severe cases, the helmet is cracked. I’ve seen these things and that would have been the bikers’ heads, and they are cracked. Wear a helmet, even if you’re riding a block.”

In addition to a helmet, it’s important to cover your bike with lights, particularly when riding in the winter and at night. “All the local jurisdictions say you have to have a front [white] light and a rear [red] reflector. That is going to do you no good. I would light you up like a Christmas tree,” he says.

Mesirow has three front lights, a front light on his helmet, an LED back light on his helmet, and two powerful rear red flashing lights. “If I’m going to get hit, it’s not going to be because they didn’t see me. Lights are very important,” he adds. Some bikers also use reflective tape on their helmet and bike frame to help them stand out when a headlight shines directly on them.

Be assertive, but not aggressive, Mesirow suggests. Cyclists have the same rights to the road as motorists. In the District, they can pass cars on the left or right, in the same lane or changing lanes, or pass off the road. By law, when the lanes are narrower than 11 feet, bikers can also ride wherever they feel is safest.

“Believe me, that’s not right up against the curb. It’s called taking the lane,” Mesirow says. “A lot of people think, ‘I have to ride right next to the curb.’ That’s not the case because that tends to make you almost invisible. You can’t be bashful about moving away from the curb so that cars can see you, especially in narrow lanes.”

Silfen has begun taking up the entire lane because it makes her feel safer. Sometimes danger comes in the way of parked cars, where passengers forget to look before opening doors. “You don’t want to ride too close to what’s called the ‘door zone,’ which is three to four feet next to where cars are parked,” Mesirow says. Despite the fact that the District prohibits drivers from opening a door unless it is safe and won’t interfere with traffic, they do it all the time. “You ride right into the door,” Silfen cautions.

So what happens if there is an accident? The first step following a collision, Mesirow says, is to get proper care. “Take care of yourself. The only thing you need to do right away is if your bike is a mess, get some pictures of it or hold on to it.” Just like a motor vehicle accident, it should be reported to the Metropolitan Police Department, which saw 335 bicycle accidents in 2008. If the accident is on national parkland, call the park police who has jurisdiction over those trails.

Mesirow then recommends hiring a lawyer who can help the injured wade through any legal issues. In Maryland and in the District, a person has three years to bring his or her accident claim, while Virginia’s statute of limitations is two years. “Beyond that, it’s fairly similar to a car accident,” he says.

Putting the Master Plan Into Action
To reduce accidents and emissions while meeting its growing transportation needs, the District renewed its efforts to create a bike-friendly city through the District Department of Transportation’s (DDOT) Bicycle Program. While the first bicycle plan was adopted in 1976, it was never fully implemented. In 2000, former Mayor Anthony A. Williams gave a speech at the National Building Museum and listed five goals: hire a bike coordinator, build a metropolitan branch trail, put in at least 500 bike racks throughout the city, create 50 miles of bike lanes, and bring a world-class race to the nation’s capital.

The Bicycle Advisory Council, a 17-person committee appointed by the D.C. Council, began working with the public in November 2002 to develop the Bicycle Master Plan. While ideas were already underway, this was an opportunity to see what people believed were the greatest areas of concern. The advisory council held workshops and meetings and sent out surveys to determine priorities. It learned what bikers thought were safe areas to ride and what they considered unsafe. The public wanted more signage on trails, increased education for both drivers and cyclists, and increased enforcement of traffic laws.

“[The Bicycle Program] has several priorities. I think that’s the key to the bike program. It’s not just one thing. You have to work on several fronts,” says Jim Sebastian, the District’s bicycle program coordinator. “We call them the 4 E’s: engineering, education, enforcement, and encouragement.”

More bike racks, lanes, and trails will be built all over the District. “Our plan calls for 50 miles [of bike lanes] by 2010. We’re pretty darn close,” says Sebastian, noting that there are about 45 miles of bike lanes currently. In the new DDOT Action Agenda, released early in March, the city has set an expanded goal of 80 miles by 2012. The proposal comes with two new bike lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue, as well as lanes on I, L, Ninth, and 15th streets. On both L (from 12th Street to 25th Street) and I (from 12th Street to 21st Street), the left lanes will be converted to bike-only paths. The transformation on Pennsylvania Avenue would mean changing the center lanes going in each direction into cycle lanes, and recalibrating lights to allow for both cars and bikes to turn left using different traffic signals.

The city is also mak ing steady progress on the Metropolitan Branch Trail (MBT), an eight-mile trail that runs from Union Station in the District to Silver Spring, Maryland. Planners envision it to be entirely off-road trail someday, but currently includes on-road segments.

Already the Washington area has a widespread network of scenic trails that extends into Maryland and Virginia. Whether riding on the Capital Crescent Trail or the Anacostia Tributary Trail System, these paths offer beautiful views and safe conditions with minimal interference from cars.

For bikers like Frisch, trails are the only way to go, and the extensive trail system makes it easy for people to find alternatives to major roads. Cyclists looking to avoid streets can quickly look up a safe route on http://ridethecity.com/dc or on Google Maps, which added the cycling option in March. Critics have noted that Google Maps takes cyclists on far longer routes than necessary, and fails to include some of the local routes such as most of the MBT. People also can turn to the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA), which has staff to help design routes.

Once in the city, cyclists, like drivers, need a secure place to park, and DDOT is at work setting up bike racks. As of March, there were about 1,300 bike racks available. Bicycle parking with clear signage is already required in all office buildings with parking garage in the District, with 5 percent of spaces designated specifically for bikes. The only exception is for structures built before March 1, 1985, which are required to convert 1 percent of their parking spaces into bicycle spots. Easing the transition is DDOT’s offer to help to select, locate, and install racks for free. In most cases, the department also will provide racks at no charge. Noncompliant buildings can first be reported to Sebastian.

“Our new zoning code, which we’re writing right now, will also require showers in all new office buildings,” Sebastian says. Having showers in offices will clear yet another hurdle for bicyclists. As Mesirow points out, “Not everyone belongs to a health club or can dress casually to work. A lot of people need a place to shower. People need to be able to change their clothes.”

Another step in the Master Plan was the opening of Bikestation Washington, D.C., in October 2009 at Union Station. The covered building on the west end of the station offers secure bicycle parking, rentals, a changing room, repairs, and parts and accessories. It can house more than 100 bikes and is accessible round-the-clock for members. Yearly membership costs $96. People who ride less frequently are able to purchase monthly passes for $12 or daily $1 passes (sold in increments of 10) and receive access from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. All come with a $20 annual administrative fee. The proposed DDOT Action Agenda calls for four more bike stations.

In addition, SmartBike DC, which is in its pilot phase, is expanding exponentially due to its tremendous popularity. Much like ZipCar, SmartBike DC allows people to rent a bike, use it as needed, and return it to any one of the 10 current locations. “We were the first city in the states to launch it. One hundred bikes sounded like a lot, but now we know it’s miniscule,” Sebastian says. “We’re shooting for 1,000 bikes at 100 stations by the end of the year.”

Creating a Safe Bicycle Culture
To address bikers’ and pedestrian’s safety concerns, the DDOT participates in the annual education campaign called Street Smart, launched in 2002 and coordinated by the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board. “We put ads on bus shelters, bus backs, and on the radio,” Sebastian says. In the past year, the signs have gotten more specific, including messages such as “Yield to bicyclists while turning,” a common failure by drivers. Due to the District’s unique situation of having drivers from various states flooding the streets every day, Street Smart covers the city, suburban Maryland, and Northern Virginia.

The District also launched various programs focused on teaching children and adults how to bike safely. In the past year, it visited 12 schools and attended special events on weekends. The DDOT also partnered with WABA to create the D.C. Bike Ambassadors Program, where volunteers travel around in a trailer, distributing brochures and bicycle safety information. They also teach in bike commuting clinics and make appearances at local events, encouraging more residents to cycle for fun, fitness, and transportation.

Quinn of Climate Rider acknowledges that the District has worked hard to increase bicycle safety, pointing specifically to its bike lanes. “D.C. has made a big effort to create bike lanes within city streets, using less ‘trafficky’ streets to move cyclists around.”

Despite the progress, many bicyclists believe the District still has a long way to go before becoming bike-friendly. “[Its] transportation policies are not as bike-friendly as they could be, although they are improving under Mayor [Adrian M.] Fenty, who is an avid cyclist,” notes David Campbell, an attorney and director of trade policy at Representative of German Industry and Trade. He logged 2,000 cycling miles last year before a non-bike-related accident kept him off the trails.

Campbell compares his experience in Washington, D.C., to his time living in Germany. “Germans love to bicycle. The country’s policies and infrastructure reflect a priority in public transportation in bicycling. There are abundant bike trails throughout the country,” he says. There are even commercial establishment that cater to cyclists, including “cycling bed and breakfasts.”

Around the District, bikes are barred from the Metro trains during rush hour. Drivers disregard bike lanes and debris cover the roads, creating risky bike conditions. “U.S. public policy has the power to shape conduct. If they want to encourage greater use of cycling, for commuting and other purposes, a number of steps must be taken,” Campbell continues.

Among his suggestions are enabling biking commuters to receive financial benefits; considering progressive laws like Idaho’s “stop as yield” statute, which seeks to facilitate efficient and safe cycling; and modifying public transportation policies and infrastructure so that they can more readily accommodate bikes and a greater number of cyclists.

Silfen also points to the bicycle culture in some European cities as a possible model for the District. “They have bike lanes that are totally distinct from both the sidewalk and the road. You are out of the way of the traffic,” she says. “The problem with the bike lanes the way they’re designed here is that they’re right alongside the parking lane.”

Inevitably, a stack of cars take over or double park in bike lanes, a pet peeve of cyclists and a ticketable offense in Washington. The exception is on 15th Street, between U Street and Massachusetts Avenue, where the District has its first protected bike lanes. The lanes are against the sidewalk, and cyclists are buffered from high-speed traffic by yellow posts and a row of parked cars. The plan is to extend those bike lanes down to Pennsylvania Avenue.

Mesirow reminds riders that while some drivers are not abiding by the law or general etiquette, it is not an excuse to take advantage of their abilities to cruise through traffic unhindered by gridlock. Bikers have the same rights as vehicles, but they also have the same responsibilities. On sidewalks, they must yield to pedestrians and equally share the multi-use trails on national parkland (slower traffic should stay to the right). They are forbidden from the sidewalks in the central business district, which is bounded by Massachusetts Avenue NW, Second Street NE, D Street SE/SW, 14th Street NW, Constitution Avenue, and 23rd Street NW.

Although no longer required to register their bikes with the city, cyclists must still obey traffic laws. “Bikers who go the wrong way on a one-way street … make bikers look bad,” says Silfen. “It’s already not a good relationship between bicyclists and motorists.”

As the District makes strides to incorporate cycling into the city’s culture, the divide between cyclists and motorists will hopefully dissipate, particularly as more people reap the benefits of biking to work.

“Cycling is important to me for fitness, recreation, and functional mobility. I enjoy the freedom to choose the route, the interaction with the elements, and the ability to bypass the typical traffic snarl associated with D.C. roads,” Campbell says. “Biking helps remind individuals that society need not be beholden to the motor vehicle for every transportation need.”

“There is no doubt that bicycling makes a huge difference,” adds Quinn. “All of a sudden, you see families on the trails—mothers, fathers, and strollers. People are bicycling. It’s a remarkable change in a community.”

D.C. Bar staff writer Thai Phi Le wrote about the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in the March issue of Washington Lawyer.