DC Mythbusting: Bike Myths

Photo courtesy of
courtesy of ‘busybee’

If you didn’t know it from Bike DC or Bike-to-Work Day or the other bike-related events in the city, May is National Bike Month.  And in honor of National Bike Month, we’ve got some bicycling myths to bust.  I’m a recent convert to commuting by bike, and now I love cycling around the city.  But there are lots of myths out there about the safety and legality of cycling in the city.  Is DC a bike-friendly city?  Is it legal to ride on sidewalks in the District?  And how does one go about starting to bike to work?

Photo courtesy of
‘Hell yeah, bike lanes!’
courtesy of ‘jsmjr’

Myth #1: DC isn’t a bike-friendly city/there’s nowhere I can ride safely/it’s scary to bike in the city. We hear so much about bicyclist fatalities in the city, like Alice Swanson and Constance Holden, and it’s easy to assume that the city isn’t bike-friendly.

But in reality, DC is becoming more bike-friendly by the day.  There are 56 miles of bike trails, 44 miles of bike lanes, 64 miles of signed bike routes, and thousands of bike racks in the city.  The District Department of Transportation has made biking a priority, installing new cycle tracks on 15th Street NW and Pennsylvania Avenue NW.  DC has one of the highest percentage of people biking to work among comparable cities (2.3% in 2008), and in some neighborhoods like Logan Circle, over 5% of the population bikes to work.  And it’s true that there’s safety in numbers for cyclists— as more people start biking, drivers look out for them more and numbers of injuries and fatalities decline.

Photo courtesy of
‘Franklin #20’
courtesy of ‘Chris Rief aka Spodie Odie’

Myth #2: It’s illegal to ride on sidewalks in the city. Many beginning cyclists are hesitant to start riding with cars in the road, and some people just prefer riding on sidewalks.  But since bikes are supposed to be treated like cars (stopping at stop signs, obeying all traffic signals, etc), is it legal for cyclists to ride on sidewalks?

In the District, it’s legal to ride on sidewalks everywhere except for the Central Business District (which is essentially Constitution Avenue through Massachusetts Avenue, from 23rd Street NW to 2nd Street NW).  And the good news is that there are lots of bike lanes in the Central Business District, so even though you can’t ride on the sidewalk you don’t necessarily have to bike through traffic.  The laws vary by jurisdiction outside of the District; for example, Montgomery County allows it, but Prince William County doesn’t.

Other bike-related laws in the District: biking while drunk is illegal, you’ve got to have a front light to ride in the city when it’s dark, and bicyclists must obey all signs and traffic lights (yes, that means rolling through stop signs, biking the wrong way on one-way streets, and getting a head start on red lights are all illegal, even though many cyclists forget about those rules).  As for bringing your bike with you on transit, you can take your bike on Metrobuses at any time, but on Metrorail only outside of 7-10 AM and 4-7 PM on weekdays.

Photo courtesy of
‘Metropolitan Branch Trail-7’
courtesy of ‘TrailVoice’

Myth #3: Biking to work sounds like a great idea, but there’s no way I can do it. There are dozens of excuses you can use: there are no safe bike routes, you don’t want to bring a change of clothes and/or can’t shower at work, you’re not comfortable riding during rush hour, there isn’t secure bike parking at your job, the list goes on.  How does one go about starting to ride to work?

Now’s the time to start!  Take part in Bike to Work Day on Friday, May 21st– ride in a commuter convoy, stop off at a pit stop for food and drink, and get into the swing of biking to work.  Then, that weekend you can get used to riding around the city at Bike DC, when roads are closed to traffic.  And if you register with We Love DC’s discount code DCC250 and join the We Love DC/Trail Voice team, you get $5 off the registration fee.

There are a lot of great resources that can help you get started biking to work too.  Ride the City is a great way to find bike routes between two locations (and you can choose whether you’d rather have the most direct route, a safer route, or the safest route), and Google now offers bike directions.  Check out the DC bike maps of the city and of downtown. Make use of the great biking trails in the area.  And take advantage of bike education classes to ride with confidence on city streets.  No bike racks near your office?  Bicycle parking is required in all off-street parking garages, so check with your building manager– or contact DDOT to request a bike rack.  And check out the Commuter Connections guide to biking to work in DC for help on the logistics of riding to work.

Making the change to commuting by bike takes a little research and planning ahead, but I can tell you from personal experience that it’s absolutely worth it.  Biking to work saves me time and money, and it’s a great way to get a little exercise in during the day.  And this is the best time of year to get into the swing of biking to work, with all the bike-focused events in the community.  So dust off your bike, grab a helmet, and get ready for Bike to Work Day– hopefully the first of many days you ride your bike to work!

Shannon grew up in the greater DC area/Maryland suburbs, went to Virginia for college and grad school (go Hoos!), and settled in DC in 2006. She’s an urban planner who loves transit (why yes, that is her dressed as a Metro pylon for Halloween), cities, and all things DC. Email her at Shannon (at) WeLoveDC.com!

28 thoughts on “DC Mythbusting: Bike Myths

  1. We’ll have to come up with something fun for Bike DC…perhaps some after-ride drinks? Not so many drinks that we’ll break any bike laws however.

  2. PHIL – Try lobbying your local gyms to offer “locker room only” or “Shower Memberships.” Crystal City’s Sport+Health recently launched a “Shower Membership” to allow for cycle commuting for folks who do not have showers in their offices.

  3. I soooo wish they would enforce the no sidewalk riding in the business district rule.

    (Also, doesn’t that rule only apply during business hours?)

  4. I’m planning to sell my car this summer and just bought a bike to use around the city. It will take some time to get used to it and to feel “safe” riding around, but this post is definitely encouraging!!

  5. While you do point out the legality of riding on the sidewalk, you might want to discuss the safety of it. With people in cars coming out of blind driveways and parking garages, as well as ipod-wearing pedestrians who don’t know you’re there, it’s rarely advisable to ride on the sidewalk. Regardless, if you’re riding on the sidewalk you shouldn’t be going much faster than a walking pace anyway, so it doesn’t really save you much in the way of time.

  6. @rob — are there any other gyms in the downtown DC area that offer shower only memberships?

  7. I can’t stand bikers. Always swerving in and out of lanes….and getting attitudes when I honk

  8. Great, then after someone gets a shower-only membership a gym in McLean (since that’s where my office is), I still get to bike from the gym to my office, which (even the closest one) is several miles away. At which point I can then bike back to the gym and shower again. And then go to the office, stinky, turn around, and go back to the gym and shower again. And again. And again.

    I love biking, but the real myth here is that it’s possible for everyone to bike to and from work.

  9. Greg, Phil. There are more options than just showers. They include:

    1) Not showering. Crazy as it might sound, you actually don’t get that stinky and you will eventually stop sweating. It doesn’t work for everyone but it can work for some.

    2) Towel bath. If you do get stinky, take a wet towel and some soap into a bathroom stall. Scrub. That should get it.

    3) Baby wipes. One or two of these will probably do the trick and without the weirdness of the soap and towel.

    You do have bathrooms at work, right? I can understand if you don’t WANT to do these, but you absolutely CAN do them.

  10. Purely from a realtor’s perspective, this blog is terrific insight for those homebuyers who love a certain DC/NOVA neighborhood but are wary of the commuting hurdles. Thanks for bringing some perspective as to the reality of biking in the District. Hopefully, it means that some homebuyers can find the best of both worlds…

  11. Purely from a realtor’s perspective, this blog offers terrific insight for those homebuyers who love a certain DC/NOVA neighborhood but are wary of the commuting hurdles. Thanks for bringing some perspective as to the reality of biking in the District. Hopefully, it means that some homebuyers can find the best of both worlds…

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  13. Beagle, I’m glad to hear that it works for you. But I’ve been a runner for ten years. I’m getting ready for my second and third triathlons this spring. I understand the amount at which I sweat and how I am afterwards. I love my bike, and I love being outdoors (when we aren’t in snowpocalypse or 100+ degree days at any rate).

    Please don’t insult us by saying that not showering, or using baby wipes is automatically an option. They are not. You’re starting to sound like the people who tell everyone that using one square of toilet paper a day is possible. I suppose that technically it is, but realistically it is not for most people.

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  15. Greg, I don’t know your personal hygenie needs or body odor issues, but I do the basics of how a shower works. It involves water, soap and (optionally) some sort or scrubbing mechanism. If your work has water, and you can store the items you need there, and you have reasonable privacy – such as a bathroom – I fail to see how you can not acheive all the goals of a shower. While a formal shower stall is nice, it’s a luxury. Perhaps you can let me know what a shower stall does for you that a wet washcloth does not?

    If you have a body odor issue that a sponge bath won’t fix, perhaps it’s time to see a dermatologist.

  16. Hey, it’s not realistic for everyone, or for even most people to do all the time. That’s cool, and not really the point here, I don’t think.

    I bike most days, but there are plenty of days or events when I just can’t for numerous reasons. I think the point is just that there are a lot of perceived obstacles for a lot of people who are on the fence, but that some of them aren’t really that big of a deal if you just give it a chance.

    Of course, it’s not for everyone, just like driving isn’t feasible for everyone. Plenty of folks will still have to train or drive or bus or walk. But for those of you thinking of giving it a try, may you be encouraged by this sunny little post of encouragement! There are lots of lanes, more on the way, and safety to be found in increasing numbers of bikers. So if you’re on the fence, give ‘er a chance and see if you like it.

  17. Yeah, biking isn’t for everyone, and it’s not even an option for some. But my point here was that for those who live and/or work in the city, biking can be a great way to get to work, and it’s easier and safer than you’d think.

    For too long I thought biking to work was too dangerous and too inconvenient for me to consider. But once I gave it a try, I realized it’s the best way to get to work for me. Just hoping to encourage others to give it a try too.

  18. Well, it would be nice to be both close enough to be able to bike to work and not worry about freshening up, especially when typical mid-summer heat descends upon us. For me, while I know it’s safe for me to ride in, it would take me almost two hours to navigate the trails and streets — and I can see DC from my balcony. And biking to the Metro just seems silly when it’s a very short walk to and from the stations. Thus, I’m not going to bike to work just for the sake of Bike to Work Week.

    The bottom line is, if you know you can’t bike in, don’t worry about it. If you can, thanks for getting another car off the streets.

  19. I’d say another myth is simple the necessity of shower facilities for bike commuters. Some people face more strenuous or longer rides — I get that.

    But speaking as someone who’s been commuting to work for eight years and multiple jobs: it’s really not a problem. The airflow makes biking less sweat inducing than walking on DC streets during the summer. And you can keep up a leisurely pace and still get to your destination faster than you would by bus.

    Will you perspire at all? Yeah, probably a little. But no more than if you walked through the sun from a meeting a few blocks away, or if you had spicy food for lunch. You’ll dry out before you get to your desk. Invest in some deodorant — or at least some more plausible excuses.

  20. I’ve been biking to work since I moved to DC six years ago and the only time I really need my job’s shower facilities is parts of July and August. The rest of the year, the deodorant I keep in my desk does the trick.

    When the weather is like it is now, in the low 70s, as long as you ride at a slow, not racing pace, you will not get any sweatier than walking to work. But the key is treating it like a commute, not a workout.

    Also: it’s not either/or. Bike on the days it suits you. There’s no law saying that if you bike to work in May you have to also do so in August.

  21. great article! biking is definitely the best and most fun way to get around DC!

  22. One thing that has not been mentioned is that many folks could begin by cycling to Metro and then taking the train from there. Once you gain some experience and accumulate the gear (clothing, lights, etc.), some can then go for the longer ride all the way to the office. Just about anybody can handle a ride of less than 5 miles to a Metro station, and in many times of the year, you don’t need much more than a decent rain jacket and some cheap rain pants.

    I started biking to Metro to save money on parking and get a little exercise (about 3 miles); now I am hooked and point the upgraded two wheeler all the way downtown (about 13 miles).

  23. I use my amazing bike commute from eastern Mont. County to western PG county, as a workout and complete it at my work gym. Other than when I’m obeying the law I’m not sure I know how to go slow.

    “When the weather is like it is now, in the low 70s, as long as you ride at a slow, not racing pace, you will not get any sweatier than walking to work. But the key is treating it like a commute, not a workout.”

  24. No one has mentioned the growing worldwide shift in biking culture – to make bicycles less of an alternative lifestyle and more of a basic mode of urban transport. ‘Cycle Chic’ is one well-known side of it, though for some that implies an annoying fashionista/hipness or whatever. But really the main idea is to bike as you are, hip or not, in your normal clothes instead of spandex, special gear, etc. Jump on and go.

    Now, yes, of course that doesn’t work for a very long ride, for example, or for people who like to ride fast. It’s best for commutes within the city proper. You may need a bike with a chainguard, fenders, et al, to stay unsplattered. You may want to ride a little slower. I commute by three-speed bike almost everyday, year-round, from Petworth to Woodley Park and joggers occasionally pass me in certain spots ;). I can do it in about 20 minutes, almost entirely via bike lanes, quiet streets, or sidewalks. I wear normal clothes and don’t arrive particularly sweaty, unless it’s a very hot day. It’s great.

    A great advantage to so-called Dutch style bikes is that you sit more upright, getting a better view of your surroundings, and I would think making you less likely to pitch forward if you do crash. Which you probably won’t because you’re going slower. It’s a whole different mentality of biking I guess.

    Copenhagen/Amsterdam bike culture is a great model if you look at it uncynically. Their weather can suck for much of the year but people bike anyway. So much for ‘wimpy Europeans’ :). We may never get the sheer numbers of bicyclists that they have. But I think Cycle Chic or whatever you want to call it is actually quite inclusive and could be appealing to the masses – absolutely essential to getting significant numbers of new people on bikes in our city. It doesn’t have to replace the existing bike culture, they can both exist to suit different types of people.