1: Trouble in the Suburbs

IMG_2917Oh, what the hey, accidental biketransitblogger, I swear I’ll get back to talking about philosophy one of these days..

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…


3 thoughts on “1: Trouble in the Suburbs

  1. My commute is almost entirely suburban these days. I put my bike in our adapted van to drive my wife to work and then drive from Rockville down to Bethesda. Oddly, I don’t really run into any of the problems that you mention. Stop lights (and stop signs) are fewer and further between but given the long expanses of road, it doesn’t make all that much difference because most of the traffic is pretty considerate of cyclists. The largest issue I have are the major intersections where I have to come to a stop near the bottom of a long downhill. That’s frustrating but no harm, no foul.

    Well, except for school busses. School bus drivers have always been my main nemesis since I started riding a bike again a few years ago. No single set of drivers consistently has less respect for cyclists than school bus drivers. The school district must award them points for knocking over cyclists or something.

  2. Huh. Interesting to see the points all laid out like this. I have often suspected that I’m spoiled living in the District! As I mentioned to you, I was trying to navigate through North Bethesda yesterday and encountered yet another issue…lights that take forever to change. Understandably, since cars have to turn left, then right, and there’s such a monstrous amount of cars that they take awhile to filter through. But as a cyclist or a pedestrian, especially in 90 degree humid weather, the wait becomes agitating and exhausting, even apart from the ride itself. I tried to take the Bethesda Trolley Trail instead, which was pleasant, but a small child sidewalk chalking on the trail yelled “LOOK OUT!” when he saw me coming at 9 mph. So, yes. Nicely summarized. Now onto your next entry…

    • The Bethesda Trolley trail is okay for commuting. At least north of Tuckerman, it’s mostly clear in the morning and a decent ride. South of Tuckerman, there are far too many places where it dumps cyclists out blind to cross busy streets. And once you reach that special hell that is using the sidewalk on Old Georgetown and the 3 foot wide shared path next to NIH, it’s kind of lame. But it does get me to work.

      On nice days, though, it’s far too crowded in the afternoon and on weekends. Depending on where you’re headed, there’s usually a better route. With a few notable exceptions (Rockville Pike, Old Georgetown, etc.) most of the major roads are pretty cycling friendly in that region. f you’re headed east of Rockville proper paralleling Rock Creek trail on Beech, etc. is usually a better ride. Or if you’re headed to downtown Rockville, go west on Tuckerman to 7 Lockes or Falls Rd and go north on those.

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