Many people don't put a lot of thought into how they handle a bike.
Mostly, they just get on and go, riding wherever they feel it is safest and/or most convenient for them. Unfortunately, this approach - often a carryover from childhood - can be dangerous. While better cycling education can help address this, the near-term reality is that the physical infrastructure they ride on will have a greater effect on cycling behavior than education. Even the best education programs won't reach everyone, but everyone needs to use the transportation network.
So, it makes sense to focus on how to design and use that infrastructure.
And that's where we come in for a bit of conflict, even among cyclists. Some subscribe to the theory that cyclists fare best when they act and are treated like drivers of vehicles. In Arlington, that approach - also known as vehicular cycling - can work out pretty well. We don't have too many high-speed roads, and for the most part, drivers are at least tolerant (if not always accommodating). One of the biggest benefits of this approach is that a cyclist can get anywhere a road will take him or her.
That said, most occasional cyclists simply aren't comfortable asserting their right to the road, and prefer to avoid mixing with other traffic as much as possible. This is where it gets a bit tricky, and it presents real challenges to those trying to design a transportation network that accommodates not only all kinds of traffic, but all kinds of cyclists.
Arlington, as compared to most of the United States, has an expansive network of bicycle infrastructure. That is, it has multi-use paths like the Custis Trail, bike lanes on many of its roads, and even a contraflow bike lane or two.
This kind of infrastructure - one that separates bikes from other road traffic - appeals to a diverse array of cyclists. If you want to test that claim, go watch who's riding on the Washington & Old Dominion Trail and compare that to who's riding down Glebe Road.
Vehicular cyclists often claim that bicycle infrastructure is, at best, unnecessary. We already have a system of roads that will take us most anywhere we want to go. At worst, they say, bicycle infrastructure is dangerous and creates the opportunity to push cyclists off of the roads and into a substandard transportation network. These claims have some element of truth.
As a vehicular cyclist, you're not limited to using your bike on Arlington's trails, and can ride between any two points in the county. Further, poorly designed bicycling infrastructure certainly can be dangerous - see any one of the many bike lanes that are striped too close to parked cars. And in Maryland, for instance, already push cyclists off the road when a simple shoulder exists.
But there's room for both vehicular cycling and bicycle infrastructure in Arlington. You have to learn to walk before you can run, and I'm convinced that bicycle infrastructure like bike lanes and cycle tracks (physically separated bike lanes) help encourage new cyclists.
Frankly, I want Arlington's cycling population to look more like what we see on the trails than what we see on Glebe Road. But I certainly don't want them to be limited to the trails.
If Arlington County can introduce additional bicycle infrastructure while also ensuring that its roads are maintained in a condition safe for cyclists, I am convinced we will see more people on bikes. By providing the added comfort and safety of well-designed bicycle infrastructure, Arlington County would help more of its residents discover the ease and convenience of cycling here.
Some will eventually leave the bike lanes, and others will remain.That's OK. Everyone deserves a transportation space that's safe and useful.
Mark Blacknell is chair of the Arlington Bicycle Advisory Committee, president of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, and a League Cycling Instructor.