Never afraid to rouse the ire of urban activists by challenging their orthodoxy, I’m going to give it a try in what will remain my current stomping grounds at least a little while longer: Washington DC. Yes, even amidst all the eggheads around these parts, and despite a generally commendable urban fabric (most of DC is extremely walkable), I just cannot praise the city departments who devised this particular streetscape improvement, which I presume to be either Planning or Public Works, or (most likely) both. Streetscape improvements aren’t usually controversial, and I’ve featured other examples in the DC-Baltimore corridor—sometimes laudatory, other times simply baffling. So I think it’s okay to dole out some criticism toward a poorly conceived transportation alternative like the one in the photo below.
Presumably most readers can figure out what I’m referring to, given this article’s title. It’s the two-way bike lane hugging the opposite curb from the one where I took this photo. It’s a protected bike lane, with narrow thin stanchions (complete with reflectors) and parking stop blocks, both embedded in the asphalt along the two-foot-wide no-go zone that further buffers bikes from vehicles. Aside from complete grade separation or a cycle-track, this is about the most luxe method of protecting bicyclist from motorists (and vise versa).
The paint is fresh, the markings are clear, and it looks like a solid design. For all intents and purposes, it replicates the orientation of an actual two-lane road, scaled appropriately for tiny bike tires. I have no doubt it’s an improvement over basically all the conventional first generation bike lanes, most of which emerged as no more than two white stripes placed near either the shoulder or adjacent to the row of on-street parking. That design defined bike lanes in the 2000s. By the standards of today’s bike safety advocacy, they’re outmoded. As a result, forward thinking cities like Washington DC use far more expansive tools to define the path that belongs to bikes. And, in this instance, I think it’s a misbegotten exercise.
Before I make my case, it’s worth taking a closer look of what flanks these protected bike lanes.
The emblem on the two trash cans in the above photo should reveal, to those who recognize it, what sort of social setting these photos capture. These trash cans (and the banner hanging from the street light in the first photo) feature “GW”, which stands for George Washington University. The road in question, G Street NW, bisects the campus in a lateral (east-west) path. It also bisects the Foggy Bottom neighborhood, a settlement that predates Washington DC’s founding by almost fifty years. George Washington University (GWU), established in 1821 as Columbian College in another part of town, only relocated to the Foggy Bottom neighborhood in 1912, growing over time to university of over 26,000 students (the largest school in DC), subsuming a significant part of Foggy Bottom’s original dwellings in the process. This campus, combined with the proximity to White House immediately to the east, has resulted in institutional buildings (university and federal) serving as the defining feature to Foggy Bottom, with small enclaves of attached housing scattered here and there. It’s a busy neighborhood for federal workers, students, residents, and patrons of the arts (the Kennedy Center serves as a landmark on the western edge).
With such a dense mixture of uses, it’s no surprise that Foggy Bottom would serve as a good setting for some pedestrian/bicyclist upgrades, including these protected bike lanes. After all, GWU is a residentially oriented school, with many of students living in on-campus housing or in nearby apartments. Parking is scant, so few students can justify using cars to get around. Bikes or feet are the way to go. But one institution in particular makes a compelling case that this level of investment in protected bike lanes here probably constitutes overreach.
The handsome Gothic structure perched right at the intersection predates GWU’s presence in Foggy Bottom by at least 20 years, and a congregation has claimed a church at this site since 1833. Concordia German Evangelical Church and its associated rectory reflects the cultural practices of the German immigrant community that settled in the area in the eighteenth century; a tiny settlement known as Hamburg predated the Washington DC neighborhood of Foggy Bottom. Various denominational shifts over the last few decades have rechristened the site as The United Church (Die Vereinigte Kirche) under the United Church of Christ denomination. The building and rectory largely remain unchanged, and The United Church still offers German-language services twice a month, as well as a food pantry with a far greater reach than the neighborhood itself. (Foggy Bottom is, unsurprisingly, low poverty, although its central location attracts homeless and indigenous visitors).
As a nineteenth century building amidst a university campus mostly dating from the second half of the 20th century (or newer—much newer), The United Church is an anomaly. It doesn’t hide its pre-automobile origins.
That jumble of cars to the left of the rectory in the above photo demonstrates the problem. There really aren’t many off-street spots available to the United Church.
The church has essentially transformed a vehicle loading area into a few makeshift spaces on either side of a central lane. Probably either six or eight spaces total. And if a vehicle ventures to one of the spaces farthest from the street, there’s a good chance the the lane isn’t wide enough to maneuver easily; the car is probably pinned in.
The median urbanist would likely offer a median knee-jerk retort: “So what? It’s a city.” And I can concede the point. A dense neighborhood like Foggy Bottom, with sky-high land values, isn’t likely to offer too many off-street parking spaces or surface lots. GWU elicits a huge population, few of which are likely to own cars; university policy almost completely prohibits freshmen and sophomores from doing so. As a result, this stretch of G Street NW seems like a reasonable enough site to introduce some high-caliber protected bike lanes.
Nonetheless, the radical reinvention gives me pause. Here’s what the streetscape looked like outside The United Church as recently as October 2018. The City eliminated all on-street parking on the south side of G Street NW to build a two-way bike lane against the curb, with a protective buffer (complete with protruding bollards that should thwart most vehicles). The north side retains on-street metered parking, but it isn’t available at the moment, due to construction on the adjacent building (the headquarters of the International Monetary Fund – IMF), as seen below:
The conditions for The United Church will improve once the parking on the north side of G Street NW again becomes available. But for the time being, the absence of on-street parking nearby poses a considerable hardship for the church’s parishioners. They get eight off-street spaces, at least a few of which go to clergy and staff. Meanwhile, the street has lost quite a few spaces through its seven-block length of on-street parking, the most efficient means of accommodating cars.
Yes, I’ll confess: I’m hearing this firsthand, since I’ve volunteered at the church. So I suppose I have a bit of a vested interest in the church’s well-being. But I think one has to consider the full context: in previous generations, Concordia German Evangelical Church was the centerpiece of a heavily ethnically German enclave. Most of the congregation could walk to church, as one might expect in 1890, given the comparative limits of other transportation options. But GWU subsumed most of the area around the church—most of Foggy Bottom in general—over the last century. So The United Church’s parishioners don’t live nearby. Though some might take WMATA (the DC metro), most probably mostly commute from suburbs, and they typically only cluster around the church on Sunday mornings. Like most cities, DC generally offers free on-street parking at metered spaces on Sundays. And, like most Mainline Protestant churches, the United Church’s congregation skews heavily toward the older side. Without convenient parking, they have to hunt around for spaces in the area, often parking blocks away, forcing a long walk. And, if too heavily inconvenienced, parishioners who don’t need the German language (which is most) may decide to find a UCC church closer to them with easy parking. To some extent, the reduced accessibility is threatening the future of The United Church.
It’s not ideal, and it begs the question: does this fancy protected bike lane really get much use?
I’m not convinced that it does, though I’ll admit that I only have empirical evidence to base this judgment. These photos come from a Saturday morning in mid May, shortly before the end of the school year at GWU. Not a lot of classes are in session on Saturday mornings, so it’s hardly a representative time from which to count bicyclist users. So then it begs the bigger question: even if this plush protected bike lane receives better traffic on weekdays, is it an pivotal artery within the George Washington University campus? G Street NW bisects the campus, albeit not evenly; it’s not the equator. Prior to the redesign, it was a westbound local road (one generous lane), about seven blocks long, linking the northern edge of the White House grounds to busy Virginia Avenue NW, which in turn provides immediate access to busy thoroughfares like Interstate 66 or the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway. But G Street NW was not and has never been a heavily traveled road, certainly not compared to K Street NW a few blocks to the north. G Street NW was probably wide enough to accommodate two-way traffic at one point (two narrow lanes), but its westbound nature has a counterpart in eastbound F Street NW, striped and engineered to accommodate two lanes, which suggests that traffic demand to go east from I-66 surpasses that of the demand to go west, at least in and around GWU. Bearing these additional observations in mind, the prevailing question is, even if G Street NW receives a reasonable amount of bicycle traffic while classes are in session, is the vehicular traffic on G Street intense or dangerous enough that bicyclists need extreme protective infrastructure—so much to sacrifice seven blocks of on-street parking on the south side of the street?
Superseding all these value judgments is one that reduces the comparison to numbers: is the City accommodating more people with a two-way bike lane than restricting people by eliminating on-street parking on the south side of G Street NW? Even this metric is difficult to quantify. On a given weekday in October, when classes are in session, student bicyclists no doubt use the lanes to traverse campus, while personnel at IMF and other nearby offices use the metered parking on the north side. But, unlike most similarly sized campuses, GWU retains almost all the historic street grid. It has no campus quads and relatively few green spaces; it is an urban campus consisting of buildings poised within a campus configuration.
Busy though the sidewalks along these streets might be during the school year, in the summer and on weekends, it’s a different scene:
Demand for the parking remains high, but the bike lanes are almost completely unused. And on Sunday mornings, when The United Church and other religious institutions in the area typically hold services, their demand for on-street parking certainly surpasses that of students or any other bicyclists. Given this arrangement, could the Public Works Department or the bicycle/pedestrian planners who designed this street have forged a compromise? Through creative striping and signage, could they have hybridized bike lanes with on-street spaces, reserving the spaces for cars on Sundays—the day most meters are free—and resumed bike lanes the rest of the week? I recognize that protected bike lanes may be difficult in such a configuration, since stop blocks and stanchions prohibit cars from maneuvering inward to parallel park. But a wide, visible buffer lane between the curbside parking and the bike lanes would allow clear distinction and separation, promoting better bicycle safety than a conventional “early 2000s” striped lane, and still clearly indicating the rules of engagement that allows parking for churchgoers, including a few handicapped-friendly spaces. And then they could add signs that say “PARKING ONLY ON SUNDAYS”.
Another solution would be simply to reassess bicycle safety by prioritizing protected bike lanes where they need “the Cadillac treatment” (the irony of a car analogy isn’t lost on me). This reasoning would apply to streets where both bicycle demand and vehicular traffic is high, and travel speeds for vehicles is higher, while a lesser road like G Street NW sacrifices its protected bike lanes for something a bit more conventional: striping for one direction (westbound, like the street itself) without all the stop blocks. The trend over the last decade is to separate the bike lane by placing it right against the curb, while shielding it from car doors through a small buffer with white painted hatching. Cars then parallel park within the remaining space between the buffer and the travel lane. This approach may make it hard for bicyclists traveling eastbound, but there’s always F Street or two-way H Street for that. Maximum Pareto efficiency! A better standard than bikes-over-everything orthodoxy, which is just as detrimental to urban ecumenicalism as cars-over-everything.