Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Tough Road Ahead

By David G. Young

Washington DC, April 28, 2008 --  

Creative solutions to traffic problems are impossible so long as American cities enforce the undisputed primacy of the automobile.

The stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue from the U.S. Capitol to the White House was designed to be grand. Sketched out by the city's designer, Pierre L'Enfant, it was to be the widest in the city. At 400 feet across1, it's also one of the widest in the world -- almost twice as wide as the grand 230-foot broad Champs Elysees in Paris.

It was on this stretch of road that my vehicle was recently pulled over by police -- not my automobile, mind you, but my bicycle. After being asked for my driver's license, I was issued a $10 ticket for riding a bicycle on the sidewalk. Having once been forced over the same curb onto the walkway to avoid being struck by a careening public works bus, I knew that $10 was a small price to pay for my life. When the police car was out of sight, I returned to the walkway.

The bicycle was not invented when L'Enfant's sketched out the plan for Pennsylvania Avenue, and no bike lane exists today. Those who wish to bike on the avenue must choose between the walkway and the former carriageway -- risking a $10 ticket on the former, and risking their lives from aggressive bus drivers and inattentive cell phone chatting commuters on the latter.

This is typical of the problems the city of Washington will face as it launches America's largest bike sharing program. Like similar programs in European cities like Paris and Copenhagen, SmartBike DC will initially place 100 bicycles at 10 locations around the city, available for use by all people who sign up and pay a $40 annual fee.2 If successful, the company that runs the system, Clear Channel, and the city's transportation department plan to expand it to the point where it may help reduce road congestion in the city.

Unlike Paris and Copenhagen, Washington's program faces the major challenge of city streets and a police department utterly devoted to the motor vehicle. Traffic lights in Washington are timed to maximize the flow of vehicles into and out of downtown at the expense of cross-town traffic. Traffic cops at key intersections work to smooth this flow, but rarely ticket cars for double parking, blocking intersections, or blowing through crosswalks. Despite all these oversights, the police department regularly finds resources to ticket pedestrians for jaywalking, and at times, bikes on the sidewalk. Clearly, it's all about the automobile.

Nowhere in the city is this dysfunctional obsession with automobiles more apparent than in Washington's historic Georgetown neighborhood. If Georgetown were in a European city, its main commercial street, lined with 18th and 19th century shops and rowhouses, would have been closed to motor vehicles long ago.

But Washington stubbornly keeps the road open to cars, despite the extreme density of pedestrian traffic on evenings and weekends. Over the Halloween holiday, police actually erect metal barriers along the sidewalks to keep bulging crowds of pedestrians from spilling into the street -- despite the fact that automobile traffic is so dense that it hardly moves, rendering the street useless for any practical transportation purpose.

For all its faults, Washington is far from America's most bicycle unfriendly city. In many places in the country, especially cities in America's West and Midwest, biking on city thoroughfares is practically unthinkable. Omaha's newly released bicycle map, for example, includes roads it calls "survivable arterials" where it reminds riders that "there is no shame in walking a bike through an area that seems dangerous."3

Clearly, if bicycle promotion programs are going to have any chance of success in America, cities like Washington are going to have to give up on the idea of streets being all about the automobile. If this ever happens, the city might rethink its inability to spare 10 of the 400 foot wide expanse of Pennsylvania avenue for bike lanes. Until then, bike sharing schemes like SmartBike DC will face a tough road ahead.


1. Fugate, Jefferey, City Study: Washington DC, 2005

2. New York Times, Bicycle Sharing Program to Be First of Kind in US, April 27, 2008

3. Activate Omaha, Omaha Mero Area Bicycle Map, April 2008