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Biking in the District: Is It Really Convenient?

By District of Columbia Bar

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BikeLane1.7Penn.Avenue.NW_.WDC_.15April2011
Photo: pedbikeimages.org / Elvert Barnes

By Andrea Ferster, 42nd President DC Bar

There has been a dramatic surge in biking in the District of Columbia, earning our city plaudits as “the new U.S. bike city to watch.”[1] With that come changes: to transportation infrastructure, to the applicable legal framework governing liability in the event of accidents, and to attitudes and behavior.

Bicyclists in the District have adopted bike riding as a way of life. Value-based reasons to use a bicycle for downtown transportation include: Increased exercise/fitness, engaging in a sustainable mode of transportation, reducing your personal carbon footprint, and personal pleasure/fresh air are all good reasons to jump on a bike instead of a cab or car. 

For me, using a bike as my primary mode of in-town transportation has been an important way to keeping my life in balance, particularly last year, when I was trying to manage my solo law practice while I served as D.C. Bar president.

A key game-changer in the convenience of in-town biking was the roll-out of Capital Bikeshare, D.C’s wildly popular bike-sharing program. Started in 2010 as the first commercial bike-sharing program in a major U.S. city, DC’s Capital Bikeshare has now grown to more than 1,700 bikes and nearly 200 stations, with 8,000 trips a day across D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. [2] 

During my year as bar president, I jumped on a “CaBi” at the Capital bikeshare station near my office three or more times a week and zipped downtown on a dedicated bike lane to attend D.C. Bar meetings or related events.   

For trips between downtown and near-downtown locations, bicycling is faster and cheaper over any other form of downtown transportation, including taxicabs, Metrorail, Metrobus, or the D.C. Circulator. Membership in Capital Bikeshare is a mere $75 per year, with no per use cost for trips under a half hour.  And many employers negotiate subsidies for their employees so that the annual cost is much lower. They are also set up for one time uses as well. 

Whether you are in private practice or a salaried employee, time spent in traffic can be directly translated to lost income or personal time, not to mention the toll on your mental health. In the last decade, the city’s bike lane network has increased by over 300%.[3]

Using the dedicated bike lanes on G, L , M, 13th,  and 15th Streets, and Pennsylvania and New Hampshire Avenues, with more planned, bicycles can skim by the cars creeping along without fear of being broad-sided or “doored.” [4] 

Multiply those daily time savings by your hourly rate and you will realize that the annual time saved can allow you to accomplish more at work and/or free up time for your personal life. If you use Capital Bikeshare frequently, as I do, the savings can add up to thousands of dollars and hundreds of hoursper year. 

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority now accommodates flexible use of bicycles with other modes of public transportation. Capital Bikeshare allows you to ride a bike during the workday even if you don’t ride your own bicycle to work. If you do use your own bike, Metrobuses and the D.C. Circulator are all equipped with bike racks and bikes are allowed on the Metrorail system during non-peak hours. 

Challenges to biking -- weather, safety and fashion – are easily navigated. I don’t bike in the rain or the snow, but otherwise, the cold or heat is perfectly manageable for short trips during the workday. Capital Bikeshare bikes are low to the ground with adjustable seats, are easily balanced, and have front and rear flashing LED lights that are powered by movement. The Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) offers classes in confident city cycling.[5]  

Fashion is also no obstacle: I can wear a skirt comfortably, and CaBi bikes have gear guards so that you don’t risk getting your cuffs chewed by the gears or have to wear trouser clips.

And then there’s the helmet conundrum. D.C. does not have a mandatory helmet law for adults.  According to WABA, mandatory helmet laws can decrease ridership, since “If you’re not allowed to ride a bike without a helmet, often that means you won’t ride a bike.”[6] 

All the same, the first of many wise pieces of advice that D.C. Bar President Tom Williamson gave me when I was president-elect was: always wear a helmet.   Helmets don’t prevent the things that cause a crash, but they do offer a last line of defense when things go wrong.[7] 

If dangling a bike helmet from your wrist doesn’t fit your professional image, don’t let that dissuade you from either riding a bike or wearing a helmet. Thanks to D.C. lawyer turned entrepreneur Debra Zuzin, who designed a stylish helmet tote bag that is easy to carry on a bike, you can carry a helmet in a bag that complements your work wardrobe.[8] 

Even the fear of “helmet hair” is no longer an impediment to biking.  There is now an airbag "helmet" that resembles a fashionable collar worn around the neck, which inflates instantly during a crash.[9]  

So come join the most sensible, sustainable, and fun way to navigate the streets of D.C.