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D.C. Looks to Dutch to Keep Up Bike Progress

Fun fact: There are more bicycles than people in the Netherlands. 

To the Dutch, riding a bike is more than just a recreational activity. It’s a major facet of their culture and essential to getting around. In fact, in Holland, almost 30 percent of trips of less than five miles are traveled by bike.

So it should come as no surprise that when Washington wanted to find new ways to make the District more bike-friendly, it turned to the Royal Netherlands Embassy for guidance. A team of Dutch bicycle infrastructure experts was in town this week, working with the District Department of Transportation and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, to evaluate and critique the state of cycling in D.C. as part of the ThinkBike Workshops.

The Washington workshops are the third of their kind to be held in North America. Toronto and Chicago also sought advice from the Netherlands earlier this year.

And there’s plenty to learn from the Dutch. Washington is already a national leader in sustainable transportation, but DDOT Director Gabe Klein said there’s still a lot more the city can do. 

“We’ve got to make it safe and easy to encourage people to bike as a primary mode of transportation, not a secondary or tertiary,” he said.

D.C. is already sixth in the United States for biking to work and second for walking to work, Klein said. A third of D.C. residents don’t own a car, but like most of the country, motor vehicles are still overwhelmingly dominant in transportation.

Klein said events such as Sunday’s Tweed Ride, where hundreds of Washingtonians met to ride bikes through the city clad in dandy finery, are encouraging residents to hop on their bikes more regularly. 

Cor van der Klaauw, senior adviser of the Gronigen province for the Dutch bicycle council, is a member of the evaluating team. He thinks D.C. is off to a great start for becoming bike-friendly but still has room for improvement. 

Washington has more than 40 miles of bike lanes throughout the District, but that’s not much compared with other major American cities and is just a tiny fraction of what the Netherlands has. The entire country boasts thousands of miles of areas designated for bicycle traffic. DDOT’s goal is to have 80 miles of bike lanes in place throughout the District by 2012. 

According to Klein, the recently launched Capital Bikeshare program has far exceeded its membership goals. More than 4,700 people have joined since the Sept. 20 launch. DDOT hopes to reach 6,800 members by August, he said.

Capital Bikeshare has also been popular with tourists. The day of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, more than 2,500 people opted to buy one-day memberships and bike to the rally, rather than endure overcrowded Metro trains and buses. 

The bike-share concept is something that sets D.C. apart from the Netherlands. Van der Klaauw said that because everyone in the Netherlands already owns one or more bikes, a bicycle-sharing program would simply never take off. But because Capital Bikeshare is so inexpensive and accessible — $5 for a one-day membership or $75 for a year, and 1,100 bikes at 110 stations to choose from — it could significantly increase the number of cyclists in the city.

“We have the potential to one-up the Dutch in bike-sharing,” Klein said. “If we can provide as many options for people to utilize transportation without having to buy it, they can use their money for other things.”

If D.C. has anything over Holland, it’s space to expand. Many older cities in the Netherlands simply don’t have room to set up bike-sharing stations, Van der Klaauw said, but in Washington, “space is not a problem.”

Rep. Earl Blumenauer said he is pleased with the progress Washington has made in bike-friendliness in recent years. The Oregon Democrat’s home city of Portland has been named the best cycling city in America many times over, but the well-known bike aficionado said it’s especially important for Washington to catch up.

“I want more Senators and Congressmen to see cycling,” he said. If Washington is bike-friendly, it might encourage Representatives to take that idea home.

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