It took all of six days of the new year for Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy to resume ragging on the District’s cyclists. His latest column doesn’t quite reach the level of last summer’s declaration of war on “bike terrorists,” but the objective is all the same.
“What cyclists need is a separate network of biking roads, not bike lanes,” Milloy writes today. “Give them trails through wooded areas, away from cars and trucks. “Once they enter high-traffic areas in the city, it’s off the bicycle and onto alternative transportation. Like two feet.”
First off, golf clap to Milloy for referring to bike commuters as cyclists and not, you know, bullies, ninjas, or terrorists. But he’s actually half-correct. Milloy might not be able to block the trend of cycling becoming a more common mode of urban trasportation, but as its popularity grows, there will be a growing need for dedicated bike infrastructure. Where does Milloy blow it, though? Well, the topography for sure.
A network of pathways marked exclusively for pedalers is every modern urbanist’s dream, but in order to be effective, such a thing has to be built around the same roadways that cities are based on. Cycling to work through a pristine nature preserve away from the hustle and bustle of the motorized slog? That just ain’t gonna happen. The District is decently wooded—the arborists at Casey Trees put the city’s tree coverage at 36 percent—there really aren’t any dedicated forests outside those in designated parks. Bike trails can be great, but they’re primarily recreational, and, in the District, in very short supply. Is Milloy suggesting that bike commuting be restricted to people who live at the termini of the Capital Crescent Trail or the unfinished Metropolitan Branch Trail?
“It’s almost as if he completely disregarded the realities of time and space,” says Shane Farthing, the executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. “We have trails in the space where there are easy opportunities for them. Cities are built around transportation networks on the roads. If what he’s talking about creating an improved recreational network, that’s great. But our cities are built so we can access them by roadway.”
Farthing, who’s quoted a few times in Milloy’s column, says he believes Milloy is writing out of genuine concern for safety, but that the columnist’s proposed solutions are divorced from reality. Milloy cites several unfortunate statistics, including a December 27 incident in Baltimore in which a driver fatally struck a cyclist, and that seven cyclists were killed in collisions with cars in 2013. But rather than make the roads safer for all users, Milloy’s solution is to exile a single class.
“I don’t think that’s just posturing,” Farthing says. “His motivation is probably right, I just don’t think his solution accounts for some of the reality.”
The reality is that of the 1,392 miles of road controlled by the District, just 69 of them are specifically marked for bike usage, and range from shared-lane markings to painted lanes to physically demarcated tracks. That DC plans to install another 200 by 2040 is, in Milloy’s words, an excercise in government “audacity.” Hopefully nobody showed him Fairfax County’s bicycle master plan, which calls for 1,100 miles of new cycling infrastructure by 2040.
It would be easy to dismiss Milloy’s column as his usual curmudgeonly bluster, but building a physically separated network of roads for bikes is actually an interesting concept. Thing is, such a thing is way more complex than striped lanes and concrete barriers. But perhaps Milloy would be interested in something like an elevated bike highway like the one the architect Norman Foster is proposing for London. For the British capital, where the congestion is so bad that officials have been charging motorists to drive into the city’s core since 2003, Foster suggests building a 137-mile network of bike-only routes built above existing rail lines and streets, with on- and off-ramps spread throughout the city.
It’s no forest path, but perhaps Milloy, who’s so eager to get the bikes off his precious roads, might be persuaded to support one of the most ambitious pieces of bike infrastructure ever conceived. By locating the ramps in the right locations, a bike highway in DC could possibly deliver on Milloy’s vision of ending most, if not all, downtown rides.
There are a few catches though. Besides the obviously mind-boggling construction, a bike highway looks impossibly expensive. Foster wants to start with a four-mile test track. The estimated cost: $331.6 million. As far as transportation spending goes, the $123 million the Distrct has spent so far on the H Street, Northeast, streetcar is peanuts. But maybe DC should go for it anyway and import Foster’s idea. Residents might balk at support pillars on every block and a steady trickle of cyclists buzzing past their apartment windows, but at least the streets would be clear for Courtland Milloy’s car.
This is obviously a fantastical proposition. Bikes should have dedicated spaces on the roads, but better to install them on the streets we have now.
“That’s why we’re rebuilding them,” says Farthing.
Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.