Reflections of a Vienna bicyclist

For various reasons, I’ve been doing a lot of bicycling over the last few months in Vienna. No, not that Vienna (dream on), rather the one in Virginia, not too far from Washington, D.C. This has me thinking about a number of things: transportation, energy, environment, sociology of bicycles, etc.

In this season, bicyclists really stand out. But even in the warmer weather I did not note very many in Vienna. Judging by the car to bike ratio locally, the estimate that 1% of all trips in the US are by bicycle seems high.

Whatever the numbers, there are some particular patterns to where one does and does not see bicycles in Vienna, and what kind of bicyclists. To begin with, I’m tempted to contrast two routes in Vienna. One of these is more affluent, running mainly along the Washington & Old Dominion trail (W&OD), serving mainly recreational and sports cyclists, and probably a few who use bicycles as part of their commute to work (though those would seem to be very healthy commutes judging by where W&OD approaches Metro stations in Dunn Loring and Falls Church to the east or office parks in Reston to the west).

The second route is less affluent, running on the sidewalks of main commercial road, Maple Ave./Chain Bridge Road/Rte.123 (the road itself seems much too risky for bicycles), and serving mainly people who are going to local jobs. (Noting mention of bicycles as “a common mode of transportation” for day laborers elsewhere in northern Virginia, this demographic in Vienna could be researched further.)

The two routes intersect in the center of Vienna town (on the town map these make an X with one thick red leg and one thin green leg). One sees more bicycle helmets and spandex on the W&OD – and more bicycles overall when the weather is good – than on Maple Ave.

There are not a lot of bicycles off of these two routes from what I’ve seen, though some people bike to the  Vienna Metro station which is a couple of miles to the south (the 54 bicycle rack spaces were full on the rare occasions I checked – don’t be impressed as there are 5800 car parking spaces there which fill up quickly each day). I generally take the Maple Avenue corridor, or some quieter sidestreets that roughly parallel it, and encounter only occasional adult or youth cyclists on Maple, and rarely children bicycling on the side streets.

Bicycling in the US is not as common as it is in some other parts of the world, and indeed some of the infrastructure disfavors bicycling. The W&OD trail is a unique resource in this regard (some other urban areas in the US have similar trails on old rail right of ways), privileging Vienna and some neighboring communities. Apart from that there is not much – Virginia apparently ranks 45th among the 50 US states for funding of bicycle and pedestrian projects, so maybe I’m reporting on the low end of the spectrum in the US.

Aside from the classes of bicyclists I discern on the two routes in Vienna, the age dimension is worth noting. One essay puts it this way:

In America, bicycling appears to be an unacceptable activity for adults. It is viewed as a pastime reserved for children (people who are not old enough to drive cars). Adults who sense they are violating this stricture, excuse their bicycling as the pursuit of physical fitness, referring to their bicycling as training rides. … Some also refer to themselves as serious cyclists, a term used to describe riders who, typically, keep track of pedaling cadence and other bicycling statistics, thereby giving proof that their riding is not child’s play. (quote from the FAQ Archives)

It’s hard to tell what the attitudes are in this regard in Vienna, although it’s clear that not a lot of adults are biking – especially off the recreation-friendly W&OD trail. On the other hand I haven’t noticed that many kids on 2 wheels either. Also, from what I’ve experienced, Vienna drivers generally are quite courteous to bicyclists – certainly no behavior one could interpret as a negative judgment on the appropriateness of someone my age on a bicycle. And in one store, a younger cashier asked if I was biking for environmental reasons – for some it may even be a bit cool (although the weather lately has taken that all the way to downright cold!).

On the individual level, one of the big reasons to bike rather than use the car is the savings in gas money. Fitness too is a benefit (why drive to a fitness club where you pay to use an exercycle?). Environment might be a motivation too, but it should be a factor on the macro level on which planners operate.

Bicycling may not be appropriate for all people and in all situations, but more people traveling on bicycles instead of cars (at least for shorter errands) could have benefits both in terms of lower national consumption of fossil fuels, and improved public health.

In all the talk in the new Obama administration of improved environmental policies and of increased expenditures for infrastructure, could bicycles and bicycling be given more attention as an area to develop? Hopefully the advocacy groups in this area like Bikes Belong , the League of American Bicyclists, and the Thunderhead Alliance will make this point. What about a goal to get the US closer to European or Chinese levels of bicycle use (though in China there has been a trend to more use of cars in recent years) – say moving from 1% to 5% of trips on bicycle rather than cars?

Back again to the local level, what would it take to get Vienna, Virginia to use bicycles more?

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3 thoughts on “Reflections of a Vienna bicyclist

  1. I think it’s a combination of infrastructure and awareness, as far as getting Vienna, or any US city or town to use bikes more. By infrastructure, I mean useful, clear bike routes that actually take you where you need to go. Your observations on the W&OD vs. Maple are dead on… yes, some folks do commute using the W&OD, but it’s not very useful for getting around within town. It would take marked bike lanes on Maple, or something like that, to get people to start thinking of bikes as transportation, a way to run errands, shop, etc. And it takes awareness… on the part of drivers, cyclists, and would-be cyclists. Awareness of bikes as a useful transportation mode, awareness of the rights and responsibilities of cyclists and motorists, etc. So simply by getting out there yourself on your bike, and showing it can be done, safely and efficiently, is a step in the right direction. It helps if you also obey traffic laws while you’re at it, since motorists and pedestrians don’t take kindly to scofflaw cyclists.

    Also check out : http://www.bikepptc.org/book/export/html/4314 an upcoming event at the Vienna Community Center. Disclaimer – I work for bikes@vienna, and we’re going to be there.

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    • Hi Tim, Thanks for the feedback and the heads up about the upcoming Bike Info Expo event.

      I’m still rather new to the area so still figuring out some things, but your points re infrastructure and awareness make sense. Re infrastructure – it seems to me that a small increase in bicycle traffic on the roads (and sidewalks) would reveal a lot more about this lacking for those not already aware. Obviously everyone does or does not bicycle for their own reasons, but one question is where would lack of infrastructure rank in terms of disincentives to bicycle in town – relative to questions of convenience, weather, etc.? And how might specific improvements like bike lanes on major thoroughfares like Maple Ave. weigh in such calculations?

      I guess I’m seeing awareness and attitudes as key in discussing other aspects of this topic – physical improvements facilitating bicycling and eventual promotion of changes in local transportation dynamics. Has anyone done any kind of survey of attitudes of people in the area about bicycles and bicycling? I suspect that there is a sizable number of people who would kind of like to take up cycling – a minority but still many more than you see on two wheels now – if certain more favorable conditions obtained. (BTW, today for some reason I encountered more other bicycles than I usually do.)

      Is there any leadership locally for govt. support of cycling (one reads for instance that the new governor of Delaware is committed to improving support (infrastructure, etc.)? I’ll post more on this topic later – perhaps after a visit to the Expo you mention.

      In the meantime, I try to practice courtesy (and of course obey the traffic laws) but the results can sometimes be funny (a left hand turn signal at a 4-way stop was misinterpreted as a wave by someone in an SUV) or confusing (I defer to the car which is bigger and can move along more quickly, but the car driver defers to me as they might a pedestrian)…

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