Is Georgetown Missing Out on the Bike Lane Boom?

Photo by AJfroggie.

Monday night, DDOT finally began construction of the long awaited separated bicycle lanes (or “cycletracks”) on L St. from the West End to downtown. This will hopefully precede another lane to be installed on M St. from 29th to Thomas Circle. This will bring improved biking facilities right to the threshold of Georgetown, but not through it. Will this mean that Georgetown will miss out?

For those unfamiliar with these types of bike lanes, the parking lane is moved one lane away from the curb, and the bike lane is installed with barriers between the parking lane and the curb. Studies have shown how dedicated lanes like these can cut cycling injuries by up to a half. And when lanes like these have been installed on 15th St. and Pennsylvania Ave., bike traffic along those routes skyrocketed while the impact to car traffic has been negligible.

The new lanes on L and M will provide a very much needed east-west route for bikers. However for Georgetown bikers, the lanes are tantalizingly close, but not close enough.

The L St. lane will travel eastbound from 25th (by Trader Joe’s). That means that if someone wants to bike from Georgetown to the lane, they will probably have to travel on M St.and Pennsylvania Ave.

GM is a confident city biker, but even he gets seriously unnerved trying to ride on M St. and Pennsylvania Ave. This gap between the heart of Georgetown and safe separated bike lanes will discourage people from riding bikes to Georgetown. But what can we do about it?

The answer is clear: extend the lanes into Georgetown. DDOT should build a eastbound cycletrack from the Key Bridge all the way down M and then Pennsylvania to 25th. The westbound lane should be similarly extended from 29th all the way to the Key Bridge.

Fitting the lanes will be a challenge. GM’s first response would be to simply remove the parking altogether. There are only about 200 parking spots on M St. Eliminating them would have a small effect in a neighborhood with 3,800 parking spots in parking lots, and thousands more off of M and Wisconsin.

But M St. already eliminates parking during rush hour. And this would conflict with the lane. One possible way to compromise would be to eliminate just the parking on one side. Then we could build a two-way bike lane.

Ultimately we should have as a goal reducing M St. to two lanes of traffic in each direction. This will allow us to widen the sidewalks and add these bike lanes.

In the short term this would exacerbate traffic. But just as new highways lead to more people driving, reduced capacity ultimately leads to fewer people driving. In the meantime we could make the situation much better for the majority users: to wit, during the weekends, M St. at Wisconsin carries 3,300 pedestrians an hour. That’s more than twice the number of cars on M St. at the same time. Yet we crowd those thousands of pedestrians on a few square feet of sidewalk and give drivers six full lanes, all because we’re too afraid of what might happen if we have the courage to reduce road capacity for once instead of expanding it.

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19 Comments

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19 responses to “Is Georgetown Missing Out on the Bike Lane Boom?

  1. Brad Altman

    M Street is already enough of a challenge with curbside parking, double parking of delivery trucks and left turns at Wisconsin Ave. Bike lanes will only be a diaster. Put the bike lane on another east/west street such as P or K.

  2. Nemo

    Bike lanes are a great idea in general, but the stretch of “L” Street between the intersection with Pennsylvania Ave. eastbound through New Hampshire Ave. to about 20th Street is a nightmare of congestion morning and evening. If a bike lane is installed, presumably on the south side of the street, parking on that side should be completely eliminated, not just moved away from the curb; that would simply compress the already narrow traffic lanes and worsen the situation. The 15th Street bike lane works very well because the street is so broad — at least six lanes, curb to curb — and it is seldom, if ever, as congested as “L” Street is during rush hour.

  3. Topher

    @Brad:
    I agree that delivery trucks would pose an additional challenge, but my main point is that the utility of on street parking on M St is not enough to justify keeping it. It’s highly visible, but it’s essentially a bait and switch. It’s like a nice spacious window booth in a restaurant full of cramped tables in the rear. The vast majority of people coming to Georgetown don’t park there. There are much more beneficial ways we can use that space.

  4. MLD

    Nemo, the plans for the cycletrack are getting rid of parking on that side of L completely. L also has rush hour parking restrictions so parking would not be in effect during morning and evening anyway.

    Considering the reaction to most transportation changes in Georgetown that are perceived as taking something away from cars (improving bus service/routes, streetcars, bigger sidewalks), I am not surprised that DDOT has avoided wading into the muck on transportation projects there.

  5. Paula Product

    I don’t find the Penn/M approach to Georgetown as intimidating on a bike as some (understandably) do, but it never ceases to amaze me how skinny and overwhelmed by pedestrain traffic the sidewalks of M St. are. Added sidewalk capacity seems like the primary need. As for a bike lane, I’m not sure how great it would be – at least for bikers. Squeezing one next to an overcrowded sidewalk would seem inevitably to lead to people walking in the bike lane (as they often now do in the street when it’s possible). Bike-ped conflicts in that scenario would likely be more frequent than ped-car conflicts now — bikes are quiet, so pedestrians are more likely to step out without noticing them, or caring much if they step in the way of a 200 person/bike combo going 12mph, vs. a 5000lb car rolling at 30mph.

    Oddly, I think that adding a bike lane in place of a parking lane on M would probably do more to speed car traffic. Cars pulling in and out of spots (and drivers searching for spots, or pausing in the mistaken belief that a car is about to pull out of a spot) are a significant “drag” on car (and bike) traffic moving along M. A pylon-separated bike lane would more clearly indicate there’s no parking on that side, resulting in smoother “flow” of cars. As for double-parking of trucks, etc., I don’t know if there’s empirical evidence on this, but it seems liek there’s somewhat greater reluctance to double-park next to one, as compared to double-parking next to a row of cars.

    For be it for me to advocate speeding the flow of cars through M St., but it seems like a dedicated bike lane might do just that. If the benefit were safing cycling, and easier walking on M due to wider sidewalks, that seems like a win for car-drivers, bikers, and walkers, at a relatively small cost in lost parking spaces – spaces which, as Topher writes, aren’t especially useful, because even though they’re not too cheap, they’re rarely available.

    Grabbing one of these M St. spots is kind of like shopping for a Camry and suddenly winning a raffle for a Lexus. It feels like a windfall – you get a nicer car than you thought, and it’s “free.” But you realize you can’t count on winning a raffle every time you need to buy a car, so it doesn’t change your planning for next time. And by the time you pay the taxes on your winnings, and deal with higher costs for insurance and repair down the road, the “free” Lexus may cost you about as much as buying the Camry for cash. It’s nice if it happens to you, but you don’t don’t want to plan your life (or your street) around it.

  6. Q street already has heavy traffic from students and bike commuters heading from Georgetown to DuPont. Putting a lane on Q or O would be greatly beneficial to the biking communit.

    M street would definitely be contentious. Biking in Georgetown is definitely dangerous without a bike lane which is surprising considering the amount of bike shops.

  7. RNM

    Insert standard diatribe about how Topher is all about a “war on cars” and restricting traffic flowing through Georgetown.

    Ultimately, we live in a historic district built long ago when a horse lane was more common. It has great amenities but also inherent issues. We have narrow sidewalks, but as someone who has walked those for 20 years…it just isn’t that big of a deal. With draconian neighborhood parking restrictions, which I might point out were not in place when I moved here…it is already difficult to invite people in to visit. Next we are supposed to chop up the and congest the already congested travel lanes to award the few bikers at the expense of the many drivers?

    In a perfect world, we could have wide sidewalks, bike lanes, parking and roads to drive on. However, we don’t live in a perfect world. Any way you slice it this is a proposal to congest traffic. It is more about belief in how people should act and less about dealing with how they do act.

    I also still have yet to see a bike rider stop at a single Stop sign in all my years here…well other than “Christian Warrior” the clearly mentally disturbed gentleman with the washboard abs proselytizing much of the time on Prospect St. Funny, it is the crazy rider who follows the laws…and that is why creating a lane specifically for the scofflaws seems so silly.

  8. Dizzy

    I would generally be in agreement, but looking long-term, is there enough room for expanded sidewalks AND bike lanes AND dedicated streetcar/bus transit lanes on M? If not, bike lanes are the most obvious candidate to be moved up or down a block.

  9. MLD

    @RNM

    “In a perfect world, we could have wide sidewalks, bike lanes, parking and roads to drive on. However, we don’t live in a perfect world.”

    …so we should let cars take precedence?

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  11. Nemo

    On-street parking on major thoroughfares in commercial and entertainment districts is an anachronism dating to horse and buggy days — it should be eliminated. DC might lose some parking meter revenue if it were eliminated permanently on “M” Street and Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown, but wouldn’t such an action free up sufficient space to broaden the sidewalks AND build a bike lane? Moreover, through traffic would not be affected, which should please the motoring community. If people do insist on driving to these destination neighborhoods, they should be prepared to park in garages, and if there are no garages available, there’s always Metro.

  12. FWIW, I made this proposal, along with David Patton who works for ArCo transportation planning, but lives in DC, as part of the Dutch ThinkBike workshop in DC in Nov. 2010.

    We made the point that a cycletracks on M and L if extended from the Met Branch Trail would connect many trails, especially if the cycletrack was extended through Georgetown on M Street to and across the Key Bridge.

    Technically this was outside of the geographical scope of our little 2 day visioning session and we didn’t have enough time to develop the idea, which we called the Cross-Town Connector.

    It would have made for better connections to Met Branch Trail, through the city, to Rock Creek Trail, Custis Trail, and the Capital Crescent Trail and through Custis to W&OD.

  13. I found the slide from the presentation.

    Bikeway connection possibilities of cycletracks on L and M Streets NW, Downtown DC

  14. Adriana

    If only we’d gotten a Metro stop here back when that was for open discussion, we’d have less traffic and more room for bikes.

  15. The Georgetown Transportation Study demonstrated what is obvious through observing M street traffic – the congestion is caused by the car-car conflicts (mainly intersections) not by an insufficient number of car lanes.

    Adding a car lane to M street would do nothing to ease congestion. And removing a car lane would do nothing to worsen it.

    The way to reduce car congestion is to remove car-car conflicts: remove the left turn from eastbound M to northbound 33rd and don’t allow southbound 34th street traffic onto M street. That removes the main car-car conflicts (except for M & Wisc) that cause backups.

    My only hesitancy about bike lanes on M is the same as Dizzy’s – it seems like we can have any 2 out of 3 on M: (1) bike lanes, (2) streetcar/bus lane and (3) widened sidewalks.

  16. Dizzy

    @Ken Archer

    The way to reduce car congestion is to remove car-car conflicts: remove the left turn from eastbound M to northbound 33rd and don’t allow southbound 34th street traffic onto M street. That removes the main car-car conflicts (except for M & Wisc) that cause backups.

    This echoes demands that I have heard made by many West Georgetown residents: these are our residential streets and we’re tired of having other people use them to get to/from other places.

    The problem is that adding restrictions like what you propose is antithetical to the notion of a complete street grid. The reason why 34th Street is such a catastrof**k right now is because that is the most direct way to access Key Bridge for a huge swath of area. With M being the traffic sewer that it is, the less time you can spend on it, the better. Personally, when I’m coming from parts north, I generally do Foxhall to Canal and bypass Georgetown, but if I’m already in Georgetown with the car for some reason, it really the most logical option.

    The solution isn’t to add further restrictions that will simply move – and worsen – the traffic sink. It is to unplug it by facilitating more connections, such as by making streets two-way and by evening out the light timing (right now, the lights prioritize moving people along M, but if you took Key Bridge onto M, you pretty much have to be going somewhere in Georgetown or due north, else you’d have taken Whitehurst).

    Yes, that means that some of the precious residential streets of Georgetown may see more through traffic. But such are the wages of living in an urban area – and Georgetown IS a central, urban area, no matter how much some people may try to euphemize it as an “urban village” or whatever else.

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