Last week I had a chance to sit down with a local government agency that has a lot of responsibility for maintaining some of the area's busiest paths. The agency occasionally had trouble finding out, in a timely way, about the latest trail blockages. As they put it to me — if they don't know about it, they can't fix it. And sometimes it takes days. While that makes sense, and no institution is omniscient, I was a bit surprised by this. Every day, I get timely and reliable reports on cycling trouble spots, be they crashes, bad signals or flooded trails.
I'm not special — anyone can get them.
Over the past few years, as both cycling and Twitter use have increased, an organic online community of Washington-area cyclists has grown into something of a real-time news service. Another crash at Lee Highway and Lynn Street? Gravel washed over the Mount Vernon Trail near National? The lights along the Shirlington Connector out again? I'd bet that every one of these things will be reported online almost immediately.
These reports aren't the work of any single person, but rather an ever growing collection of commuters who care enough to contribute their observations to the community. Twitter is the most timely source, with the hashtag #BikeDC having come to be the generally accepted way to mark tweets of interested to the DC cycling community as a whole. The Washington Area Bike Forum is often quick, too. Since posters there aren't constrained by Twitter's 140 character limit, they often yield more detail and follow-up. Those who don't need immediate information and would like a little more editorial curation in their news can get it from WashCycle, which generally posts once or twice a day.
One of the reasons that Twitter has become so popular amongst area cyclists is the responsiveness of some local agencies. Have an issue involving DC's streets? @DDOTDC may not be able to fix it right away, but they won't ignore you. Arlington's @ArlingtonDES account is also generally on top of requests directed at their account. @BikeArlington is especially active, often helping direct users with #BikeDC concerns to the right place. If you want to know why some particular challenge is in place — say, the newly-stripped Pennsylvania Avenue— @WABADC is a great account to follow.
It's not all traffic and news reports under #BikeDC, of course. You want a local who's raising the Instagram'ing of #BikeDC to a fine art? @CycleBoredom's your man. Interesting data analysis involving cycling infrastructure? Check out @BikePedantic. There's also the welcoming folks behind #FridayCoffeeClub — which is exactly what it sounds like, meeting at M.E. Swing's every Friday morning. Of course, if you're just looking for entertainment, there's always @SharrowsDC, because truly what could be more interesting than one man's daily commutes through the hard streets of DC?
Community. Cyclists are good at it. Join in.
Does that all sound a bit overwhelming? I follow all this passively, using a desktop Twitter client that creates a column that automatically collects every tweet with the #bikeDC hashtags. I also create a separate "DC Cycling" column that follows all of the accounts above (and a good many more). After set up, it's no more work than glancing at your inbox.
Mark Blacknell is a member of the Arlington Bicycle Advisory Committee, a member of the board of directors of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, and a League Cycling Instructor.