This spring, as the presidential candidates were busy arguing over the advisability of lifting the gas tax for the summer months, I bought a bike. It was something I had been meaning to do since I first moved from Rhode Island to Washington, D.C., two years ago, when I sold the bumper sticker–clad Ford Escort that had taken me from my junior year of high school through college. I had real affection for that car, but selling it wasn’t a difficult decision. Insurance payments would have taken a huge bite out of my entry-level paycheck, and I didn’t relish the hassle of on-street parking. Ditching the Escort helped me feel fully committed to a new, urban lifestyle.
But as I quickly learned, car ownership remains the norm in D.C. Although a full 12 percent of District residents walk to work—the second highest rate in the nation after Boston—over two-thirds of Washington households own a car. Car-ownership rates have even risen in low-income communities, in part because they are less served by public transportation and taxis. Entire D.C. neighborhoods, such as Georgetown, are inaccessible via Metro, an otherwise excellent subway system. As a result, chores ranging from food shopping to furniture buying are more difficult here for the carless.
So one sunny day, I stopped by the local bike shop after work and walked out with a 24-gear hybrid, perfect for both commuting and recreation. In the weeks since, I’ve saved over $100 on bus and Metro fares; in just a few months, I’ll recoup the entire cost of the bike. Even better, I’ve joined a tight-knit but growing group of bike-commuting enthusiasts. Fewer than half of 1 percent of American commuters bike to work; after all, many parents have to drop kids off at school, some folks have physical handicaps that make it impossible, and the explosion of outer-ring exurbs means many commutes are far too long to bike. But the average American commute remains just 25 minutes in length—bike-able for sure, given accessible streets.
In Washington, D.C., since 2000, the number of cycling commuters has risen by 50 percent to encompass 5 percent of all workers. Indeed, the city is becoming a national leader in decreasing traffic and pollution by encouraging cycling. In mid-May, the city rolled out a bike-sharing program called SmartBike, in partnership with, of all companies, Clear Channel Outdoor, the division of the radio giant dedicated to open-air advertising. For a $40 annual membership fee, SmartBike members can rent bikes at 10 kiosks throughout the city for up to the three hours at a time. Since 2000, the District has installed 700 bike racks and spent $10 million on paved bike trails. Public buses here even feature bike racks for fatigued riders looking to avoid the hills.
But Washington and other American cities can do a lot more for cyclists, starting with making roads safer by decreasing gridlock. In New York state, Albany lawmakers thumbed their noses at city bikers (and the global warming crisis) when in April they rejected Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plan for congestion pricing in New York City. The policy would have taxed drivers for bringing their cars into midtown and downtown Manhattan on weekdays, clearing valuable street space and providing much-needed funds for public transportation. Cities should also do much more to ensure that safe bike paths and bike-sharing opportunities are available in every neighborhood, not just where the well-heeled live and work.
In addition to the health and environmental benefits, traversing city streets on a bike offers unique insight into the peculiar pathology of American automotive culture. Insulated from the wind, rain, sun, and every other aspect of the public space, many drivers are not just impatient with pedestrians and cyclists—they’re angry. Beginning urban cyclists quickly learn the trick of "owning the lane"; if you’re riding alongside the curb and don’t want overeager cars to sideswipe you while attempting to pass, you simply shift toward the middle of the right lane, which also decreases the risk of being hit by the carelessly opened door of a parked car. This move, though a crucial safety measure and perfectly legal, can enrage motorists who get no pleasure out of their daily commutes. "Asshole!" one suited, middle-aged man screamed out his window as he swerved around me.
A few minutes later, I smirked as he and I found ourselves backed up behind the same red light. Passing a cyclist in rush hour traffic simply isn’t going to save you that much time. But you know what will? Trading some of those gym hours and therapy sessions for stress-relieving, calorie-burning, good karma–earning bike rides.