Credit: via Montgomery County Planning Department

A diagram of bicycle improvements being considered by planning staff as they work on the Bethesda Downtown Plan. Image from the Planning Board Briefing presentation.

It can be a harrowing experience to be a bicyclist in downtown Bethesda. Traveling from Bethesda Row to Woodmont Triangle often involves navigating Arlington Road—where four lanes of traffic force cyclists to ride on uneven pavement next to the sidewalk—or other busy state roads like Wisconsin Avenue and Old Georgetown Road that don’t have bike lanes.

“When you look at the existing bicycle network in Bethesda—it’s basically non-existent,” said Greg Billing, advocacy coordinator for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, which is working with the county to improve the local bike network

Montgomery County planners are attempting to address the issues as they update the Downtown Bethesda Plan. Concepts released Monday as part of their work include bike lanes on Arlington Road and Norfolk Avenue as well as a cycle track on Woodmont Avenue.

Billing said the proposals show planners are considering effective ways to better connect two major trails that already link neighborhoods and workplaces in Bethesda—the Bethesda Trolley Trail and the Capital Crescent Trail.

Specifically, a cycle track on Woodmont Avenue would create a north-south connection in Bethesda that links the two trails and, perhaps more importantly, the National Institutes of Health—which employs many local residents—with the major commuter trail that is the Capital Crescent Trail.

But Billing said the county should also strongly consider a protected bike lane on Arlington Road, which WABA is already campaigning for. The planning designs released Monday show a bike lane on the road, which is typically a painted section indicating space for bicyclists that does not physically separate them from traffic, whereas protected bike lanes and cycle tracks have some sort of barrier such as plastic bollards to separate bikers from traffic.

An example of a protected bike lane on the left compared to a standard bike lane on the right. (via Wikimedia Commons)

“Studies show that people want to bike, but what stops them is they feel they don’t have a safe space to do so,” Billing said. “Bike lanes only attract a small number of people who would bike.”

WABA plans to push the county to install a cycle track on the road, according to Billing. But he added that the inclusion of a bike lane on the road in planning designs makes it easier for advocates to lobby for some sort of protection for cyclists in the future.

“When we get down to the actual project of designing that bike lane, we can have a discussion about how protection can be included,” Billing said.

The county is currently planning a cycle track for Woodmont Avenue. The plan calls for taking away a parking lane on the one-way portion of the road between Old Georgetown Road and Edgemoor Lane to install the two-way protected cycle track that would extend to the bike lanes already in place on Woodmont near Bethesda Row. County officials said in October that the cycle track could be created in 2015.

However, at the same October meeting with the Montgomery County Council, Emil Wolanin, the county transportation department’s traffic engineering chief, said engineers examined putting bike lanes on Arlington Road, but determined it wouldn’t be possible due to traffic on the road.

At the time, councilmembers urged Wolanin to figure out how to install more bike infrastructure in Bethesda.

Other major urban areas, including Washington, D.C., have bought into making streets safer for bicyclists by continuing to install new bike lanes and protected cycle tracks. This year Montgomery County installed its first-ever cycle track on Woodglen Drive in White Flint, in the newly coined Pike District.

Billing said that as the county continues to get denser, especially in Bethesda, it needs to put a greater focus on bike infrastructure.

“The planning department is planning more density in Bethesda,” Billing said, “which makes sense as a transit rich community. But when you have more people you have to figure out how to move people around downtown more quickly and efficiently. You can’t have everyone driving around downtown, driving creates a lot of internal traffic… walking, biking and transit are really efficient ways of moving people around in dense communities.”