Capital Trails Coalition: Turning Bike Trails into a Transportation Network

Over the past twenty years, the District has made more space for bicycles. Lanes and parking spaces downtown have been reapportioned into dedicated, protected bike lanes. A brand new trail has been constructed along the Anacostia River and a pedestrian/bike bridge will soon connect Kennelworth Park and the National Arboretum. All of this took careful, long-term planning.

But for the region to turn its bike trails into a serious transportation network, much more work needs to be done. Yesterday the Federal City Council hosted Galin Brooks and Katie Harris of the Capital Trails Coalition to talk about their vision for helping the region get there. FC2 Trustee Thomas Fulcher, Vice Chairman of Savills, moderated the discussion.

Compared to most cities, the DC region is starting from a good place since we already have 469 miles of connected trails. But creating a truly regional network on par with, for example, Metro’s network spread—which would allow cyclists to get from one side of the region to the other without leaving a trail—would require roughly twice as many miles of trail. Building this trail network would cost about $1.1 billion. This is small in comparison to gigantic infrastructure projects like rebuilding Frederick Douglass Bridge or widening I-66 or I-270.

The benefits seem obvious. According to one national study, every $1 invested in one-time trail construction generates $1.72 annually from local business revenue, sales tax revenue and benefits related to health and transportation. Bike trails give people a reason to get out, spend money and be active. We know property values nearby generally go up. They make the region a more attractive place to live and work for high-skilled talent. And of course more and better trails for commuting means less traffic congestion for everyone else.

But the exact benefits still need to be quantified. These trail projects compete with other priorities in tight transportation budgets. Local public opinion surveys suggest the public is on board with enhanced bike infrastructure. We need to hammer home to the wider community and policymakers that it’s worth it. The impact study will cost about $100,000 and the Capital Trails Coalition is seeking partners to help fund and carry out the study.

In the meantime, bicycle activists can fight to keep regional planners thinking about and integrating bikes in their larger infrastructure projects. The new Purple Line and the renovated Long Bridge, for example, have each set aside space for a bike path as well. There may also be some easy wins in the long fight for an extensive trail network. Connector segments as short as four miles can unlock 70 miles worth of trail connectivity.

Other battles remain as well. A number of dedicated bike lanes, which have been planned, are way behind schedule in their implementation. A lot more must be done to make roads safer for cyclists. Fast e-bikes and slow scooters are changing what used to be a far simpler trail context. While some motorists complain that cyclists don’t follow the rules, every new bike trail and more bike traffic encourages more rule-following cues and social pressure. Fortunately the District should be relatively friendly ground to settle these growing pains. DC is the only city where every public school student learns how to ride a bike and the Mayor has made a unique commitment to eliminate all pedestrian and cyclist fatalities as part of her Vision Zero campaign.

A recent Washington Post article mused about whether Washington, DC could ever become like famously bike-friendly Copenhagen, with its “cycle highways.” When its roads filled up with cars, Copenhagen made a deliberate decision decades ago to prioritize bike infrastructure. It’s not impossible for the District to make a similar decision.