By Roger C. Lanctot
Director, Connected Mobility
Conflict and controversy have broken out in the nation’s capital over a proposed 2.7-mile bike lane on Connecticut Avenue. On-street parking spaces in Washington, D.C. are expected to be eliminated by the plan and shopkeepers and residents are up in arms.
At the very local level the complaints appear legitimate, as business owners complain that customers will be unable to conveniently park their cars to pick up their laundry or takeout. The street carries 22,000 cars per day and the city estimates that about 100 bicyclists would benefit.
The proposed bike lane will also remove dozens of on-street parking spaces and divert thousands of cars to nearby alternative routes. The plan is part of a larger goal of adding 30 miles of protected bike lanes across Washington, D.C. by 2025.
While the immediate short-term impact is obvious and the disproportionate negative impact on car drivers is clear, relative to the modest benefit for bike riders, the addition of bike lanes and the subtraction of on-street parking is a global phenomenon. In a movement that gained significant impetus from the COVID-19 pandemic and the reduction in vehicular traffic globally, cities around the world have accelerated the promotion of two-wheeled transportation options at the expense of cars.
Making more room for bikes and less room for cars is increasingly seen as an extremely effective traffic calming measure that offers the collateral benefits of improved quality of life, including slower traffic and lower vehicle emissions. Making more room for bikes helps to reinforce lower speed limits while raising driver awareness of pedestrians and other vulnerable road users.
The U.S. has been slow to adopt this approach. But cities across Europe and elsewhere around the world have embraced the shift toward protected bike lanes in the interest of reduced fatalities and increased quality of life.
The debate in D.C. is intense with organized groups on both sides. Sadly, the opponents of the new bike lanes fail to recognize the if-you-build-it-they-will-come element. Cities like Washington, D.C., Paris, and Amsterdam see that the expansion of bike lanes is part of a process of changing driving and transportation behaviors.
The objective behind adding bike lanes is not merely an accommodation for existing behaviors — it represents a major push in favor of two-wheeled transportation and a boost in the status of vulnerable road users. The shift is arriving just in time in the United States. Highway fatalities overall are on the rise and vulnerable road users, including bicyclists, motorcyclists, and pedestrians have suffered disproportionately.
The bipartisan Inflation Reduction Act even includes money for pedestrian and cycling infrastructure. In fact, the IRA asserts that U.S. states where vulnerable road users make up at least 15% of fatalities must spend at least 15% of their federal safety funds on improvements prioritizing the protection of VRUs. More than 32 states already qualify for that mandate.
Parkopedia notes that when it comes to reducing parking spaces, Paris (-70,000) and Amsterdam (-11,200) lead the way. Paris, last year, announced its plan to add 150 kilometers of bike lanes, including 52 kilometers of pandemic-era temporary lanes being converted to permanent bike lanes.
The embrace of cycling does introduce a new set of conflicts between cars and cyclists and pedestrians and cyclists. Paris has had to rapidly come to grips with these new concerns and has added new regulatory and enforcement measures intended to “keep the peace” on the streets and sidewalks.
With highway fatalities on the rise in the U.S. and VRUs more frequently the victims of bad driving, the time has arrived for the expansion of bike lanes and the reduction in parking. All indications suggest that cities that prioritize two-wheeled transportation while deprioritizing parking will see slower, cleaner, and safer transportation behavior. That is something we can all support.
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