How to Design a Bicycle City


Washington, D.C. has moved from the bottom of the rankings to being a top 10 bicycle-friendly city in just ten years. A group of experts, including Jim Sebastian, Washington, D.C. Department of Transportation, Jennifer Toole, ASLA, Toole Design Group, and Shane Farthing, Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) explained how the city did it at an event at the National Building Museum.

The Benefits of Bicycling

“Why invest in bicycle infrastructure?,” asked Jim Sebastian, D.C. Department of Transportation. An eight mile car ride puts 15 pounds of air pollution into the atmosphere while the same bicycle trip creates no emissions. Bicyclists help reduce congestion. They create economic benefits. A district study found the biking industry contributed $24 million to the D.C. economy just through jobs for bike store employees. In addition, bicycle parking spots mean more customers can access storefronts. The health benefits are also well-known. In the district, 55 percent of residents are overweight or obese. “Leisurely bicycling burns 300 calories per hour. You also don’t have to go somewhere to exercise. It can just be part of your routine.”

In 2002, just 2.2 percent of D.C. residents commuted via bicycle. In 2009, that’s up to 3.3 percent, which puts D.C. in eighth place among all U.S. cities. Just in the past few years, with the growth of bike share programs, there’s been explosive growth. From 2007 to 2010, there’s been an 80 percent increase in bicycling riding. Furthermore, while the corresponding growth in bicycle traffic has lead to an increase in traffic accidents, these have occurred at a far lower rate. Sebastian argued that this shows “if you put in bike lanes, they will come.”

Getting to 50 Miles of Bicycle Lanes

In 2000, the city had just three miles of bicycle lanes, no bicycle infrastructure coordinator, and a severely outdated bicycle plan from the late 1970’s. That year, at a National Building Museum event, the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) issued a call to action to then Mayor Anthony Williams, who responded that the city would create 50 miles of bicycle lanes and more than 500 parking spaces and racks. Now, ten years later, said Sebastian, the city has those 50 miles of lanes in place and there are another 10 miles in the works through trails planned throughout the city. More than 100 racks have been added each year, making a total of 1,600 racks since 2000. There’s also a new dedicated bicycle parking station at Union Station (see image above). In addition, in 2008, the city launched a initial exploratory bike sharing program, which was then relaunched as a formalized program in 2010. The program is now the largest in the U.S.


Sebastian added that the district has been experimenting with innovative lanes (15th street and Pennsylvania Avenue), integrating bicycle networks into other plans, and connecting bicycle infrastructure into existing transit networks. As a result, bicycle to metro station connections have increased 60 percent between 2002 and 2007.

Designing the Infrastructure

Jennifer Toole, ASLA, a landscape architect who is the lead designer of D.C.’s bike network, said she started with the “easy stuff first.” In this case, these were the streets that had additional capacity. “We went stealing space all over the city.” Toole said this “worked well for the first 50 miles.” However, it’s now becoming harder because space has become limited.

New dedicated bicycle lanes that are somewhat separated and protected from car traffic have dramatically increased ridership by 18-20 percent and brought many new types of riders on the road. “There are now riders heading to metro stops and more women, older folks.”

The “cycle track contra flow” bicycle lanes set up on 15th street northwest increased the number of bicyclists by 40 percent, the number of sidewalk riders by 12 percent, and the number of people riding the wrong way by 14 percent. Upon further study, Toole said, “intercept surveys showed that people liked these lanes but wanted them to be two-way” so the test site was altered.


Pennsylvania Avenue is another innovative bicycle infrastructure test site. There was a lot of excess available space in the street. “It had eight lanes like a highway.” So Toole and the district decided to remove some car lanes and add a center bicycle lane. “This location caused the least number of conflicts.” In this area, Toole is testing out a “bike box, which positions bicyclists to make turns before cars, giving them a head start.”


Toole said there are still many issues. For example, “the connectivity of the network needs to be the focus in the future.” While Toole said it’s not uncommon for new networks to suffer from connectivity problems given that “networks don’t immediately come connected,” this next phase of expansion and connectivity “won’t be as easy.” She said the city should explore adding colors to lanes like many cities do. “The use of color is more expensive but other cities have used color in interesting ways.” Green, which is the preferred color, should be used in locations where conflicts occur. The district should also invest more in “traffic calming measures,” which can really help in one-way side streets. Lastly, the city should come up with a plan for integrating bicycle and green stormwater management infrastructure together into one system. Other cities like Portland have used curved areas as locations for bioswales. 

Responding to Bicyclists’ Needs 

WABA Executive Director Shane Farthing said D.C. residents were demanding a bike-friendly city and his organization’s job was to get them political support. WABA’s goals was “more people on bikes more safely.” He said the organization grows only as bike infrastructure grow. It’s not “build it and they will come. It’s more like build it and they will come and demand more and more improvements” (and become a WABA member).

Overall, Farthing believes “whether your focus is on decreasing greenhouse gas emissions or not, bicycles need to be an option and a safe one in D.C.” Recently, WABA has focused on membership outreach in areas of the city where new bicycle lanes are being planned, a new bicycle ambassador program, and investing in learning-to-ride programs in inner-city areas. He thinks the new bike share system will only increase ridership because these new bikes and stations make “bicycling more visible. You can look out your car window and see someone on one of those and think I can do that, too.” 

He added that bicycles may even be more predictable than cars or the metro and therefore a greater benefit to low-income workers. “Many hourly workers can’t afford subway problems or the expense of owning a car.” (He didn’t mention what happens if your bicycle has a flat though).

WABA’s members, who were out in force at the event, also want more indoor bicycle parking and showers. The district is already hard at work updating building zoning codes to meet the needs of the district’s growing population of bicyclists.

Image credits: (1) Union Station bicycle station / Beyond D.C., (2) D.C. bike share station / City Parks Blog, (3) 15th street bike lanes / Elvert Barnes. Flickr, (4) Pennsylvania Avenue bike lane / Adam Fagen. Flickr

2 thoughts on “How to Design a Bicycle City

  1. Mike 05/19/2011 / 10:25 am

    As a planner, I wish that this success story was more common in the news. I have participated on a Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Committee for more than two years, and found the support to be very strong. The financing was our downfall. I hope that all people realize the benefits of biking whether on a recreational level or as a primary form of transit. I save so much money by not having to drive a car to work every day. And the fresh air (or somewhat fresh air) gets me ready for work.

  2. John 05/19/2011 / 7:54 pm

    I was originally trained as a landscape architect, but should have known where I’d end up because for my first year project in graduate school, I chose to do a bikeway plan for a major campus expansion. I now do primarily mobility planning, particularly bikeway and pedestrian master planning. I’ve commuted by bike daily for many years, so you might say I do it to “walk the talk,” but I really commute by bike because I can. I own two cars. I just don’t use them any more than I have to. Like Mike said above, I save money and I’m not stressed out when I get to work. I think a lot more people could do the same, if they would only give it a try.

    On the other hand, it’s nice to be in a position to be able to address the most common reasons I hear in my mobility planning work about why people don’t ride, which is the lack of secure bike parking and shower-equipped locker rooms. Installing both of those at our office prompted some of our employees to ride to work. Even so, the real bump in employee riding came when we bought a building in a truly urban neighborhood, completely unlike the suburban office park environment we inhabited previously. In other words, built form may have more to do with getting people to use “alternative” transportation…that and gas prices.

    That said, I do applaud any improvements in bicycle infrastructure because people are more prone to ride when they see that they can, though 50 miles in 10 years in a city the size of DC seems pretty paultry. Even so, every addition further completes a network that all too often has gaps that can cause even seasoned riders to think about grabbing their car keys instead of riding. Having the choice, I would much rather get around by bike than drive, so it takes a lot to make me grab my car keys.

    So celebrate what has been accomplished and ride to work! This is Ride-to-Work Month, after all, and we’ll be handing out beverages, energy bars and encouragement at our office pit stop bright and early tomorrow morning! Join the peloton!

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