Protected bike lanes: a plush solution for a pedestrian problem.

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 corridorsometimes 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.

Protected bike lanes at GWU campus in Foggy Bottom

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).

Protected bike lanes at GWU campus in Foggy Bottom

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.

Protected bike lanes near The United Church and GWU campus

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:

Protected bike lanes near The United Church and GWU campus

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.

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11 thoughts on “Protected bike lanes: a plush solution for a pedestrian problem.

  1. Stephen Padre

    We have an interesting parking situation with one of the several churches within spitting distance of our house. I’m kind of torn about what they do, and I may be the only one with some irritation about it (I don’t hear anybody else in the neighborhood complaining). On Sunday mornings, driving parishioners park in a driving lane along New Hampshire Ave. – a major thoroughfare through this part of the city – taking out for a block or two a whole driving lane. To me, that is just plain illegal, and aren’t Christians bound to the secular law of the land (Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s)? They also park in no-parking spots (right under stop signs, etc.). But I also get why – there just aren’t enough spots in this dense residential neighborhood (even when the Padres take their car to church in a different neighborhood). This doesn’t really happen around St. Stephen’s, and both are close to Metro stops as well. I’m guessing the church near us has more suburban members

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      You raise good points while looking at it from the perspective of churchgoers monopolizing parking during the one day a week, overriding normal restrictions. And, yes, unless there’s special signage indicating temporary exemptions on Sunday mornings, it’s illegal. (And such exemptions are very very unlikely.) Chances are the church has simply been doing this for quite some time, though the parking struggles ramped up in recent years as the neighborhood’s aggregate level of car ownership increased, so parking was harder to find. Congregants took risks at the beginning by parking illegally, but, knowing it was short-term (just a few hours on Sundays) and wasn’t inducing major headaches for traffic ((keyword is “major”), nobody enforced it and it settled into a pattern.

      I think there’s a push and pull: we certainly “render under Caesar” by not assuming religious sovereignty supersedes that of a nation, but an overly capitulatory view toward the state can indeed encourage the state to run roughshod over the church. Churches have greater rights than just about any other institutions, not just First Amendment but the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA, from year 2000, which enshrines the right for churches to locate basically anywhere–doesn’t have to be commercial or institutionally zoned areas. The short-term nature of the parking around you probably hasn’t prompted too many to complain. So it continues.

      I try to describe what I think the ideal striping of G Street NW would have been. Frankly, the 7th Street NW restriping (one-way northbound) in the Petworth neighborhood seems like a great compromise for accommodating bikes one-way without squandering all the coveted on-street parking.

      Reply
      1. Stephen Padre

        Moving the bike lane in front of our house on 7th is a whole other story. I think it’s more dangerous to me as a pedestrian now. And the narrower driving lane is more dangerous to drivers. Well, people in DC always had problems driving properly, and now it’s even harder for them.

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirt Post author

          Yeah, it’s very difficult to craft the perfect balance. The narrower driving lane probably IS more dangerous to drivers…in that it forces them to drive more slowly and to be more situationally aware. Kind of like when the DPW builds “bulb-outs” at corners to make the during radius smaller, which means cars are forced to slow down that much more when making right turns. https://dirtamericana.com/2018/10/steering-stanchions-bethlehem-corners/

          But yeah, I can see why putting the bike lane right up against the curb is less than ideal for pedestrians. While the buffer protects them from getting “doored” by cars (I’ve been smacked while on a bike from a driver opening her door), the safer configuration turns it into “a chute” for bikes and they cruise on through at high speeds. And pedestrians are no match for fast-moving bikes.

          Nobody said urban choreography was easy.

          Reply
  2. Jeffrey Jakucyk

    Dedicated parking for churches is one of the most blatantly wasteful uses of land out there, since it’s only needed for about two hours a week, or 1.2% of the time. Also, that side of the street looks like it had all of 11 parking spaces beforehand. If we assume that everyone respects the two hour limit that was previously in place (feeding the meter to extend your time is technically illegal in most jurisdictions) that means only a half dozen cyclists need to use the bike lanes per hour to better utilize the space than parked cars. It will certainly look empty, in much the same way that a bus lane looks empty when there’s only one bus every minute even though it’s carrying more *people* than the same lane full of cars. Parked cars ARE empty, so no sympathy from me.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      You’re on-point with the reference to dedicated parking for churches. Few land uses are more fatuous than the phenomenon common in the Midwest inner city: a largely depopulated (blighted) area, where a church sits at one corner of what used to be a busy intersection. And, across the street or catty-corner (where a mixed-use building probably once stood) is the parking for the church. The church was able to purchase a second corner lot that gets near zero use because the land was worth nothing in 1985 when the transaction took place. And now, as many inner cities repopulate, the act of redeveloping the parking site assumes the appearance of trying to uproot a church that may be one of the most consistent institutions in the area. Backlash is likely.

      I’m not sure this situation in Foggy Bottom is analogous, and you no doubt can see why: the land here is not cheap, The United Church featured here has little actual off-street parking (about six spaces is all they can justify given the value of land, and I wouldn’t want them to have more), and the spaces in front of the church–now claimed by the protected two-way bike lanes–were never dedicated. Anyone could park there. Metered. Though free on Sundays, when the congregants would use it. I suspect the meters got most of their use through visitors to the IMF Monday through Friday. And if the construction near IMF ends and those off-street parking directly opposite the street from the church ever open back up, the congregation at The United Church doesn’t have much cause for complaint. After all, the IMF is a ghost town, the students generally don’t have cars, so the parking is free for the taking on the one day they really need it.

      Seeing your argument regarding the numbers (half-dozen cyclists in an hour), this is why I didn’t fully condemn the shiny new protected bike lane on G Street NW. I merely conceived of a compromise for Sundays so that the congregants to this church aren’t driven away because they generally can’t find parking close by. And I still have my doubts that this investment was really satisfying a widespread demand. It seems all too often that cities build bike infrastructure for clout–possibly to get blue ribbons from bike advocacy organizations–rather than genuinely trying to address need. If traffic engineers upgraded a random road based more ease of upgrades (rather than genuinely addressing demand on a road that needed a fix), they’d be out of a job before long, for wasting money. It makes me think way back in the mid 2000s, when I had to test the safety, continuity, and efficacy of bike lanes in Philadelphia as an intern, at a time when two white stripes and a bike symbol were all anyone ever considered for bike infrastructure. Philadelphia was one of the leading cities for per-capita miles of bike lanes, but a sizable portion came from areas like this: https://goo.gl/maps/KKRGTihPhoe1Fk446 Island Avenue and Bartram Avenue and west Passyunk Avenue–hugely industrial areas with little to no demand for biking, but the City striped them up anyway and I was forced to assess them. It just seems indulgent to me, and shows very little regard to unintended consequences.

      I’ll try to revisit the G Street NW area sometime when GWU has class in session to see if gets good use from the students. And I’ll eat my words if the IMF parking on the opposite side of the street opens back up for the congregation to use.

      Reply
      1. Jeffrey Jakucyk

        Many streets don’t need to be as wide as they are, so putting in some bike lanes is a good way to diet them and give some options, even if the rest of the network isn’t there yet. Besides, you can’t gauge the demand for a bike lane by the number of cyclists fighting traffic just like you can’t gauge the demand for a bridge by the number of people swimming across the river.

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirt Post author

          Having conversed with some members of this church earlier today, this is turning into a spicy enough topic that I’ll be exploring a “sister subject” in my upcoming blog post.

          I don’t entirely disagree with you, and your points are generally the right ones to advance this argument–they’re the hardest ones for opponents to effectively rebut. A few years ago, when a public forum allowed this church to voice its opinion on the planned protected bike lane, the congregants I talked to admitted that there wasn’t really any situation where they’d likely be convinced to support it. They did, however, raise the viable concern that the City chose their side of the street to convert to bike lanes, as opposed to the side adjacent to the International Monetary Fund. And the IMF, with far, FAR deeper pockets–not to mention plenty of underground parking–handily generates a David/Goliath dichotomy that might apply with a church filled with mostly elderly congregants. That said, it’s only a little over 20 feet extra that United Church members have to walk to get those spaces next to the IMF, which almost certainly will soon be available again.

          This isn’t the greatest example of “screwing the little guy”. It remains the PUBLIC right-of-way, and it remains the right of the city to provide or eliminate on-street spaces exactly as it sees fit. I just fear that, over the long-term, an overly cavalier attitude toward chipping away at on-street parking could choke the most efficient type of urban parking space, to the point that a certain subset of pro-city suburbanites may eventually say “Screw it–it costs too much to park in the city” and will opt for suburban amenities in a quasi-urban setting, which are becoming increasingly plentiful as suburbs urbanize as well.

          Reply
  3. James Semmelroth Darnell

    I’ve been a member of this church since 2006. The parking situation has gotten increasingly worse on G Street, especially since the bike lane was put in. The “parking” across the street at the IMF is a misnomer. It hasn’t been available for the general public in the past ten years – with the IMF citing security risk, even though their pre-schools playground fronts the sidewalk. While I get that we aren’t the only stakeholders in the neighborhood, we are a major stakeholder, and one of the oldest institutions in Foggy Bottom and were here long before GW. It’s not just two hours a week that we spend – but also multiple 12-step groups, performance group rehearsals, deliveries, volunteering and service for the Foggy Bottom Food Pantry.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Thanks for sharing. I clearly wrote this article with the assumption that the parking on the other side of G Street NW (the spaces closest to the IMF) would eventually become available to the church. If what you say is true, and they are not and never will be available, this definitely seems like a situation where the installation of a protected bike lane has forced one entity to absorb most or all of the negative consequences. And that entity is, of course, The United Church. I’m sorry to hear this, and it seems reasonable that the IMF could organize some sort of shared arrangement with the church for weekend use, since I’m pretty confident there are very few people coming to the IMF on weekends (either Sunday service or the Saturday Food Pantry). Being at least somewhat well versed in security standoffs, there’s no situation where they can use “security risk” as a viable excuse, unless they have a monitor standing outside screening every car that parks along G Street to make sure it’s authorized. And I don’t believe they have this, given that they have underground parking that undergoes a separate security screening.

      As much as I want to support good bike infrastructure, this definitely seems like a situation where one of the parties affected really got the short end of the stick.

      Reply

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