News & Politics

What Does It Take to Change a Bike Lane?

DC officials modified a planned bike lane to accommodate church traffic. The owner of a nearby strip club would like the same.

Photograph by Flickr user Joe Flood.

Cycling advocates were set off earlier this week when the DC Department of Transportation announced that one block of a long-anticipated bike lane along M St., NW would not have the same protection as the rest of the planned 1.4-mile route. Instead of being separated by bollards and moved away from car traffic, the lane between 15th and 16th streets will run alongside cars.

The reason for this sudden one-block change? Complaints from the Metropolitan AME Church, which argued that the proposal to eliminate parking on one side of the street and remove one travel lane would have impeded the large crowds that flock to its services.

But the church wasn’t the only entity along M St. to complain about the bike lane earlier this year. Camelot Show Bar, a strip joint a few blocks down, also voiced its opposition at public meetings. And Camelot’s owner, Nicolas Triantis, was surprised to find out that DDOT is redesigning the bike lane to accommodate other occupants along the affected corridor.

“In a word, yes I am concerned—very concerned,” he tells Washingtonian in an email. During a meeting on the bike lane in May, Triantis told city officials he worried that installing the bike lane would cause his employees to be late to work.

“The point is pure-and-simple,” he adds in a phone interview. “Gridlock has been increasing. Not now, it’s August. Congress is out.”

Triantis says he is not anti-bike. In fact, he says, he rides plenty near his home outside Annapolis.

But for everyday cyclists in DC, the larger issue is that a private entity—in this case, Metropolitan AME—was able to convince officials to alter plans for a public project along one block, even though there were plenty of similar complaints from other community members. The M St. bike lane, slated to run between 14th and 28th streets, is meant to be the westbound companion to the lane along L St.

“It’s not just bike infrastructure, it’s any project,” says Greg Billing, the advocacy coordinator for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. “The ability for any landowner to opt out of public projects is not a great precedent to set.”

Metropolitan AME isn’t just an ordinary landowner though. The church opened in 1886—the congregation goes back another half-century—and hosts large events throughout the week. President Obama and former President Bill Clinton have attended services there. And even with the on-street parking, the church still shells out $25,000 to nearby parking garages to accommodate its parishioners arriving for busy events.

“The District took all of this into consideration and came up with a solution that allows it to meet the needs of the bicyclists, the church, the safety of pedestrians and the flow of traffic in an important corridor in our city,” the Rev. Ronald Braxton, Metropolitan AME’s pastor, says in an e-mail statement.

Cyclists, though, feel their needs were not addressed. Bike advocates frequently say that physically protected bike lanes are the best conduits to encourage ridership, and having a one-block break on one of downtown DC’s busiest corridors inserts an unsafe stretch into an otherwise secure route. When the bike lane is finally installed in October, the 1500 block will place cyclists in a painted track between parked cars and moving cars without any physical barrier.

The last public meeting on the M St. bike lane was in May, when Metropolitan AME and Triantis voiced their opposition. “It’s hard to appeal a decision that wasn’t made in any public process,” Billing says.

Pedro Ribeiro, a spokesman for DC Mayor Vince Gray, says the decision to modify the bike lane rested entirely with transportation officials, though the mayor’s office did ask DDOT to deal with the complaints raised earlier this year.

“After the contentious public meeting in May, the mayor’s office did ask if we could work constructively to find a solution,” says Sam Zimbabwe, a DDOT associate director who oversees the city’s bike program. “We think we did find a compromise that can work for everyone.”

Zimbabwe also says that aside from the alteration across the street from the church, no other changes have been made to the bike lane’s design. But it’s possible he might be hearing more complaints from entities along M St. that don’t want to see a protected bike lane on their doorstep.

“I wasn’t aware that AME got an exception,” Triantis says. “I’m going to give DDOT a call to see what’s going on.”

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.