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Two-Way Street Between D.C. and the Dutch
A new bike signal in Washington, DC. Photo by M.V. Jantzen.

A new bike signal in Washington, DC. Photo by M.V. Jantzen.

The Royal Netherlands Embassy hosted a two-day series of workshops, known as ThinkBike, in Washington, D.C. last week, bringing together Dutch bicycling experts, local transportation planners, engineers, advocates and cyclists to plan and discuss how to improve biking in the nation’s capital. The event was supported by the District Department of Transportation and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. The opening session featured Dutch Ambassador Renée Jones-Bos. In addition to the workshop, teams of experts spent and a day and a half surveying the many improvements in the city ,as well as how streets, intersections and whole neighborhoods can support optimal bike use.

Lydia DePillis of the local newspaper Washington City Paper wrote an excellent piece on the viability of the city’s 80 miles of proposed cycling lanes and other planned pedestrian infrastructure. She addressed a broad issue: economic development and density in D.C. as a barrier to biking. In a reversal of the common trend of European countries schooling the United States in urban planning and people-friendly cities, DePillis states:

Although the Dutch could brag about their capacious bike parking facilities and dedicated cycle tracks, it wasn’t wholly an instructor-student dynamic. In many instances, the foreigners ended up praising D.C.’s bicycling infrastructure, from signage to new bike lanes to high usage of helmets.

DDOT Director Gabe Klein has helped spur many bike-friendly advancements in the District, namely Capital Bikeshare, new bike lanes, a bike traffic signal, traffic calming measures, a Barnes Dance crosswalk in Chinatown (used by about 27,000 pedestrians), the expansion of DDOT’s online presence, and support for open data and mobile applications, like Spotcycle.

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One the District's bike lanes. Photo by Eric Gilliland.

Of the event, DePillis says Klein delivered a “stirring encomium to bold action for a bike-centric city,” praising his community-based approach and online representation.

Yet there’s a real barrier to the changes Klein has in mind, according to DePillis:

Assuming he stays on, the biggest obstacle to the development of a walkable, bikeable city is, in many parts of the city, a dearth of places to walk and bike to. There’s not much point in putting down a bike lane that runs for miles before getting to a grocery store, after all, or putting in stoplights when there aren’t enough pedestrians to use them.

The District is divided into eight wards. Outside of Wards 1 and 2, D.C. is somewhat low-density with freestanding homes, less commercial nodes and more single use areas, and Metro is more spaced out in certain sections of the city.  According to one city community liaison, “You need destinations to make the bicycling worthwhile.”

The fact that DDOT is moving one step ahead of development in the District may not be so bad. Its pilot projects are certainly something a planner in any city can look to spur a modal shift from cars to walking and biking. DePillis highlights a number of them in her article. Too often, U.S. transportation and infrastructure is lagging behind actual use and needs.

The District’s partnership with the Dutch to share best practices has produced some useful recommendations. (You can view some of them in the slideshow below.) Major recommendations include bikeway designs for specific streets downtown, intersection improvements, incentives to encourage biking as opposed to driving, one-way, color-differentiated cycle tracks, and a network of lanes that are well-connected.  Streetsblog reported one Dutch planner’s takeaway: “I think most of the bikers from Holland, when they will cycle in your country, will think, ‘well, there are no facilities.’” But he also said he found some impressive bike innovations in D.C.: “We learned a few things which we can take back to Holland.”

Streetsblog says next year the Dutch embassy plans to hold workshops in Miami and San Francisco and possibly Baltimore and Memphis.