Does Arlington Have One?
Bike culture is a phrase that gets thrown around quite a bit by advocates and devoted cyclists.
To those just entering the conversation, it can seem that "bike culture" means actively focusing on the bike itself – whether as a means of transportation, an object of art, or simply as a common bond. And, indeed, that is part of bike culture.
By that measure, Arlington’s certainly got a healthy – and growing – bike culture. The past couple of years have given us a very visible growth in ridership, which has been encouraged by improved infrastructure. Arlington is home to two successful pro cycling races, and the associated U.S. Air Force Cycling Classic Crystal Ride easily draws thousands of participants every year.
Bikes are part of art installations around Arlington and the subject of sold-out movies. There are definitely a number of local cyclists who have put a lot of work into the aesthetics of their bikes, taking pleasure in the appreciation of others.
Cycling certainly brings people together, too. Earlier this year, more than a hundred residents attended a presentation at Arlington Central Library to learn more about European cycling infrastructure practices. On the other end of things, it’s turned out to be pretty easy to suggest a happy hour on the Bike Arlington forum and end up with a couple dozen attendees from all over the area.
So does that mean Arlington has a strong bike culture?
Sure, in the sense laid out at the beginning of this piece.
But in that sense, it’s probably better labeled as a subculture. There’s another approach to bike culture, and one that I think is equally as important at the first. It’s the acceptance of bikes as a part of the everyday general culture. In this kind of bike culture, bikes are such a regular part of life that they go as unremarked upon as cars and shoes.
Here, Arlington’s making progress, but the bike certainly hasn’t achieved the sort of ubiquity that indicates a clear cultural acceptance. As any person who commutes by bike through the winter will tell you, they’re still regarded as an object of curiosity by their coworkers.
While cyclists are generally treated well on Arlington’s streets, there are still drivers who not only feel entitled to the exclusive use of our roads, but to abuse and even assault cyclists who dare try to share them. Just last week, a driver on 9th Street in Ballston nearly clipped me as he passed, and then yelled at me to “get in the bike lane!” While there’s actually no bike lane on 9th Street, I suppose it could be taken as a sign of progress toward a bike culture that such a driver is even aware of the concept of bike lanes.
Unfortunately, we’re not anywhere near the point where it would be as silly to yell at a cyclist for being on the street as it would be to yell at a motorist for being in front of you on Interstate 66. And that’s where a true bike culture would put us.
Right now, Arlington can boast of a small – but strong – bike subculture. It’s full of people devoted to demonstrating that the bike can be a fun, safe and easy part of life. The challenge, I think, is using that vibrant subculture to help give Arlington a real bike culture.
Capital Bikeshare in Arlington gets some good ink today in this piece about partnering with a developer to sponsor a station in Ballston.
Mark Blacknell is chair of the Arlington Bicycle Advisory Committee, a member of the board of directors of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, and a League Cycling Instructor.