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Bike Lanes Open on America's Main Street

Bike lanes opened recently on Pennsylvania Avenue, the wide boulevard that runs from the White House to the US Capitol.
Bike lanes opened recently on Pennsylvania Avenue, the wide boulevard that runs from the White House to the US Capitol.

Cyclists take a spin from White House to US Capitol

America's main street has something new — bike lanes.

They were painted several weeks ago on Pennsylvania Avenue, the wide boulevard that runs from the White House to the U.S. Capitol. Recently, a group of VIP cyclists went for a test ride.

Among them were Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty and Democratic Congressman Earl Blumenhauer, from the bike-friendly city of Portland, Oregon, who pedals to his office on Capitol Hill every day.

Fenty wore the colorful racing tights of his amateur bike team, and Blumenhauer had a bike helmet on his head in the style of a World War I helmet. They cruised down the bike lane like pros.

The mayor pointed to a bike taxi, or pedicab, up ahead.

"The pedicabs are going to love these bike lanes," he said, about having a bike taxi shuttle service along Pennsylvania Avenue.

New bike lanes

The ride finished at the other end of the 1.2-mile (2-kilometer) stretch of the avenue — at Freedom Plaza — where thousands of avid cyclists rallied for more bike lanes and better safety measures. They cheered when Blumenhauer took the stage.

"These aren't just bike lanes on America's most famous street. It's an expression that what you are all about, has come of age," the congressman said. "All of you who are here burning calories instead of fossil fuel, when we're having 'drill baby drill' acted out in the Gulf, indicates the wisdom of what you're trying to do."

The only fuel being burned on Freedom Plaza was the edible kind. Cyclists devoured mounds of free bananas and bagels handed out by event organizers.

Many people said they had given up driving cars because of unpredictable gas prices, which reached record highs two years ago. Some are frustrated by gridlocked streets and choked highways. Others cited a desire to get some exercise on the way to their desk jobs.

But one thing is clear, Washington and other urban centers are filling up with pedal-driven vehicles — not only bikes and bike taxis — but also reclining bikes, hand-driven tricycles for the disabled and infant trailers attached to bikes for adults.

Embracing cycling

"America is embracing cycling," Blumenhauer said after the rally. "We're watching from coast to coast, what's happening in New York City, what's happening in Chicago. I was just in Philadelphia. Cycling has doubled in their city."

Suzanne Allen is a recent convert to pedal power.

"I just moved to the city two years ago, and I'm just amazed at how many people are on bikes here," she said. "It almost seems like it should be the opposite, that when you're out in the suburbs, there's sort of less traffic."

Here in Washington D.C., Mayor Fenty's administration plans to nearly double the 45 miles of commuting lanes in the city and create the largest bike sharing program in the United States.

More than 2 percent of workers in Washington commute by bike. That is about twice the national average. In some neighborhoods, the figure is closer to 5 percent.

More than 2 percent of workers in Washington, DC commute by bike.
More than 2 percent of workers in Washington, DC commute by bike.

Motorist concerns

Still, that is a fraction of the workers who commute by car.

Many motorists are hardly pleased that Pennsylvania Avenue has been narrowed from eight to six lanes to make space for bikes.

"We are only raising serious questions about how this should be configured and how this should be designed in a way that safely accommodates motorists and bicyclists and pedestrians too," said John Townsend, a spokesman for AAA, the American Automobile Association.

He blames much of the current gridlock in downtown Washington on the complete closure of the 1600 block of Pennsylvania Avenue, which is right in front of the White House. That was implemented in the mid-1990s because of security concerns in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing.

"The District of Columbia still hasn't recovered from that," Townsend said. "You cannot get from here to there anymore. And that's the concern. Now if you remove complete lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue, from the White House to the Capitol, would you replicate that nightmarish scenario in terms of gridlock?"

Still, many people are growing frustrated by how dependent they are on cars in their daily lives.

A study by the University of California Berkeley found that Americans spend five times more on driving than on exercising.

On his way back from the rally, Peter Harnick said he bikes to work for many reasons.

"Oh, I do it for the exercise, to fight air pollution, to save fuel. It feels good," he said. "Sometimes, it's the best part of my day."