We’ve pretty well established in previous episodes that, yes indeedly, bike transit is possible in suburbia. It’s where many of us learned how to ride bikes as kids, after all, and where many of us who continue to ride live. So why do so many people look at me like I’m nuts whenever I gush about the transit network out here in suburban Prince George’s, where you absolutely must have a car to get anywhere, right?
Here’s the thing. Suburban bike infrastructure needs to use a different approach than we’d use in an urban core. The built environments are different, approaches to navigation and engineering are different, and, oftentimes, even the terrain and ecosystems are different than what you’d find downtown. While this is by no means an exhaustive list, a few key differences are:
- Distances between stops are longer: This is the big one, at least in my mind. Stoplights are the great equalizer between cars and bikes in urban cores. Looking past the myth of the scofflaw cyclist for a moment, a cyclist can move as fast as a car, given enough closely spaced stoplights holding up both of them. Remember, cyclists (in DC, anyway) can filter through stopped traffic (or use a dedicated cycletrack) and start crossing an intersection on a walk signal a few seconds before a green light—which means that, when I’m riding, I’m going to be one of the first vehicles through every intersection. A car, on the other hand, will be stuck at the back of the line at each stoplight, and will have to wait for every other car in front of it to move before it can cross…which can be a while, especially at short lights. What’s more, the short distances (1-4 blocks) between stops never really lets cars get up to full cruising speed for very long, nor does it mean cyclists get winded between stops. In many cases, when I’m riding in the old L’Enfant city, I’m able to move at least as fast as the cars next to me over the course of several blocks, and, given short light intervals or heavy traffic, faster.
Outside these cores, however, distances are longer, speeds are higher, traffic lighter, and stops less obligatory—seriously, watch cars at neighborhood stop signs some time and see how many actually come to a complete, wheels are locked and not moving, stop. Traffic calming and control methods that rely on frequent stops and keeping cars from ever building up a full head of steam aren’t going to work as well.
- Major arterials stink if you’re not a car…but may be the only way: Many suburban neighborhoods were designed to be cut off, isolated, and secluded. Exclusive, even. The joke is that no two cyclists take the same route passing through Brookland, an older, semi-urban neighborhood on the main commuter route from PG County. Part of this is that everyone has their own approach to navigating the ridge that divides the neighborhood, but some of it is just that we can take different routes across or past the ridge, thanks to the dense, kinda gridlike street network. Passing through Mount Rainer? There’s one way through—Arundel Road. To the north and south are six-lane arterial roads and a whole plethora of small back streets that don’t connect to one another. Connected back streets—calm, safe, and navigable—are the backbone of suburban cycling; without them, it’s the arterials.
Oh Geez. Arterials. Ride on Rhode Island Avenue, even on a calm Sunday morning when there’s not even traffic to be held up, and you will find out about the unwritten rule that you must swear at cyclists when addressing them from a car. People pull out suddenly from side streets, cars are randomly parked in the rightmost lane (doors opening!), busses are…well, busses, and the unshaded, concrete blasted streetscape turns into a griddle on any but the coldest days. Bladensburg Road isn’t much better; at least the Arboretum and Fort Lincoln provide a break in the scenery as the potholes rattle your lock off your rack. However, it’s the way back home; between highways and railroad tracks, other connected streets just don’t exist between me and that part of DC.
- Navigation can be…fun: No street grid to make a single wrong turn “no big deal.” No signposts pointing out where major landmarks are. Long distances. Lots of residential neighborhoods. Streets that don’t connect, and don’t go in straight lines. A cyclist that’s lost will tend to stay lost.
- Jurisdiction Crosspurposes: Yesterday, on my way in to work, I rode on streets and paths controlled by ten different jurisdictions. Each of them, from the City of College Park to the National Park Service, has its own idea about signage, infrastructure, and connectivity. This problem may be most extreme here in the DC metro, but it’s not uncommon in other suburbs, where states, counties, cities, and small towns that have been surrounded by larger cities all have jurisdiction over the transit networks. While urban cores have their own jurisdictional headaches, it’s not quite the “4 agencies in a half mile, all of whom have different ideas on how to plow bike paths” treat some suburbanites get.
- Terrain: Sometimes, downtown was built in a nice, flat river valley, and the suburbs on the hills. Or the only place left to build bike paths is right in the river floodplain…which floods. Or you have only a few ways to cross a major river, and most of those bridges are Right Proper Pains to get across. The list goes on.
- Nobody expect the Cycling Inquisition! It’s not that suburban drivers are out to kill you, it’s just that they don’t expect to see you, much less see you moving at 20 miles an hour. Commuting and transit cyclists aren’t yet part of the average everyday experience for a lot of drivers, and it shows in their behaviors (yes, even the friendly ones).
- Recreational focus: Paths connect parks, and are made for a nice weekend putz…which explains why all the bridge underpasses have blind corners, trails are routed through river bottoms, and generally avoid direct routes. People out for Sunday rides don’t get the same priority or infrastructure those who are trying to get around do, for whatever reason, and if bike infrastructure is thought of as “just for fun…”
So there are 99 problems unique to suburban biking, but I just listed seven. So what? Or “so what can we do about this?” Interesting you should ask…
Next time: some ideas of how this might just work…