FIGHTING PANDEMIC STRESS, D.C. RESIDENTS TAKE TO 2 WHEELS
As the summer sunshine glows, a resurgence of bike fever has hit the residents of the nation’s capital. Renewed interest in biking in the bright open air, after months of pandemic lockdown, has spiked demand at local bike shops, which are struggling to maintain inventories as their global supply chains hit bottlenecks.
Fortunately, for those seeking solace in the joys of recreational or commuter bicycling, Washington, D.C. — home to hundreds of miles of vaunted scenic bike trails — continues to shine as a world-class biking city, and D.C. bike shops, cycling advocates and the District Department of Transportation are all working to serve bikers’ needs.
At Big Wheel Bikes in Georgetown, Manager Ilya Dreyvitser said demand for bikes and bike gear has been the highest it has been since 1971, when the store first opened. “Since you can’t really take a bus and D.C. is only about eight miles across, then biking is the best way to get across town,” he said, “especially for someone who doesn’t own a car.”
Now, however, “there are no bikes left, factories are barely running, the shipping lanes suck and there are no components either,” he fretted. “It’s just impossible to get bikes.”
When asked about the shop’s current inventory, Dreyvitser replied: “It’s what you see here, man. It’s like 30 bikes. I mean, we have five shops and each of us is holding on to what we’ve got. Everything you see is the ‘Last of the Mohicans.’ It’s like, once it’s gone, it’s gone.” What’s more, he said, “there are a lot of repairs I can’t even finish because there just aren’t the basic parts available.”
On Grace Street in Georgetown, apparel shop, coffee bar, and cycling club Rapha D.C., which specializes in high-end, tailored bike wear, Assistant Manager Megan Norgan has “noticed a huge uptick in sales” since the summer began. “We’ve been talking with our friends in the biking industry and they’ve been so busy you can’t even imagine,” she said.
“In the month of May last year, they may have sold something like 40 or 50 bikes, but this year they sold, like, 450 bikes,” Norgan shared. “It’s astonishing. The stores are literally running out of stock.” On manufacturers’ websites, “the chance you’re going to find a bike in your size is getting slimmer and slimmer.”
For Norgan, this surge in demand is caused by residents looking for alternatives to public transit during the pandemic, along with the joys of summer riding. “People who had a lot of time on their hands and who were probably getting stir-crazy indoors … just want to get out and be free,” she said. Her daily commute by bike from Brookland to Georgetown is both the fastest commute around and the most refreshing. “You’re getting where you need to go, your blood is pumping and the oxygen’s flowing,” she said.
Bicycling is a near-mystical experience for Norgan, a longtime rider. “It’s really kind of phenomenal,” she said. “Cycling is definitely one of those things which is very singular.” She added: “It’s literally the farthest and fastest you can go using the power of your own body. There’s nothing like it. It’s really special in that way, kind of like a magical invention.
”Meanwhile, the city is working to improve D.C.’s biking infrastructure. “The Bowser administration is very proud of our progress toward making the District a safe and inviting place for cyclists,” said DDOT Director Jeff Marootian. “Just last month, we were honored with the distinction of fourth best bicycling city in the United States by the industry coalition group PeopleForBikes.” His department “remains committed to expanding our bicycling network while ensuring our entire transportation system remains safe for cyclists, pedestrians, and all roadway users traveling through the District.”
According to Marootian, the District has shown significant progress on bike infrastructure. The Capital Bikeshare system, which Marootian called “arguably the most successful bike-share program in the country,” just announced that 900 e-bikes are slated to deploy in the city by August, adding to the 5,000 bikes currently available at nearly 500 stations in the metro area.
DDOT has installed 89 miles of bike lanes in the District since 2001. Twelve miles of cycle tracks, meaning separated bike lanes, have been constructed since 2009. By the end of 2022, said Marootian, DDOT is committed to building over 20 miles of cycle tracks throughout the city, an ambitious plan that “will create a network of protected bike lanes that will allow more people to access a low-stress bicycling experience.”
Additionally, DDOT is committed to expanding bike-sharing opportunities to previously underserved communities in the city. “We are focused on making sure that Washingtonians from across all eight wards have access to Capital Bikeshare within one-eighth of a mile of their home or neighborhood,” Marootian said. “Over the next several months, we will continue to install Capital Bikeshare stations across the city with particular focus on stations in Wards 7 and 8.” Motivate, the company (now owned by Lyft) that produces bikes for Capital Bikeshare, reported that 3,402,525 rides were taken last year.
Greg Billing, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, agrees that the District is on the right track. The Capital Bikeshare program has been a “game-changer for bicycling in the Washington region,” he said, providing “access to residents, for commuters, for visitors and tourists in the city at a scale that really no other U.S. city had had before Capital Bikeshare launched.” He pointed out that the system has “introduced a whole new circle of riders to bicycling.”
Protected bike lanes, like those installed along 15th Street NW, help bikers and car drivers alike be more observant of safety concerns and of each other, Billing observed. With the return of e-bikes to the Capital Bikeshare fleet and the upcoming prospect of dockless bikes — allowing renters to return bikes anywhere — more residents will gravitate toward convenient biking options and away from automobiles. Billing also lauded DDOT’s recent efforts to reduce the cost of rentals for lower-income residents and to expand the program to disadvantaged communities.
WABA’s recent “Let’s Get Rolling!” online outreach campaign targeted residents who are new or returning to bicycling, answering basic questions about bike maintenance, riding, and trail etiquette. The goal is to keep those riders on their bikes for years to come, Billing said.
Why is bicycling so beloved? “The cycle is the most efficient form of transportation ever conceived by man. I mean, nothing else gets like 25 miles to a sandwich,” ventured Dreyvitser of Big Wheel Bikes.