This year’s warm, dry winter and early spring may have been a sign of climate change that we ought to worry about, but most of us enjoyed it too much to get upset. If it seems like you’re seeing more people out on bicycles this year than ever before, though, it’s not just the weather. Recent changes have made it easier for even casual bike riders like me to run errands without a car. Bike lanes and signs are appearing on more roads. Arlington has been especially good at doing this; Fairfax is behind but seems to be making an effort, thanks to more awareness among county staff and the work of advocacy groups like Fairfax Advocates for Better Biking.
Meanwhile, some road repaving and repair projects have added space for bikes. In McLean, the repaving of Route 123 between the downtown area and Kirby Road means we now have paved shoulders on both sides so bicyclists don’t have to ride in the travel lanes. It’s an enormous improvement, and one I’m making use of at least once a week. Unfortunately, it won’t be safe for children until there’s a dedicated bike lane or separate bike/walking path. There’s plenty of room to build one, but I haven’t heard of any plans to do it.
Another new help for bicyclists is the Google Maps feature on the internet that gives directions by bike, in addition to its options for cars, walking and mass transit. Often it turns out there are routes for bicyclists that you don’t know about if you only drive. They include dedicated bike paths and quiet back roads that avoid traffic hazards. Google Maps has given me the confidence to bicycle to places I would never have thought to try to go without a car, including Bethesda, Alexandria and downtown Washington. (It turns out that if you park at Chain Bridge and bike from there, you can get to these places without ever having to bike on a road!)
We all know the benefits of biking over driving: burning calories, saving gas, and lowering your carbon footprint. And you don’t need to be an athlete with a high-end racing bike and spandex shorts. Riding a clunker in jeans and sneakers gets you there just fine, and the benefits add up. If your grocery store is three miles away and you bike there twice a week instead of driving, at the end of the year you will have burned off 7 pounds (40 calories per mile!) and saved about 100 dollars in gas. It also turns the drudgery of a car trip in traffic into a pleasant way to run an errand or get to an appointment, with a side benefit that by the time you get home, you’ve had some exercise.
We still have a long way to go before most adults will feel comfortable running errands by bicycle and letting their children bike to soccer practice. Those should be our goals, to give ourselves alternatives to choking in traffic. But we have to start somewhere. So get your bikes out of the garage, put some air in the tires, and see where you can go. Even now, it’s a great way to get around McLean.