2019 | Opinion

Opinion: Shifting Bethesda’s Bike Lanes into Higher Gear

Bike-To-Work Day provides a reminder of decades-old cyclist route plans that continue to take shape

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Twenty-five years after it was planned on paper, downtown Bethesda is slated to see completion of its first permanent protected on-street bike lane by the end of this year. And there will be more to follow. To appreciate the significance of this, we need to backpedal.

Bikeways through downtown Bethesda were originally discussed in the 1976 Bethesda Central Business District Plan, which stated “bike travel during peak hours is not substantial; but as a mode of travel, bicycling has become important enough to justify planning and programming for what appears to be a significantly growing trend.”

But it wasn’t until the 1994 Bethesda Central Business District Sector Plan that several specific bikeways were included as part of the staging plan for downtown Bethesda, meaning they were considered critical enough to the transportation network that they were required to be provided in order for development to move forward.

Included on this staging list, among other bikeway and pedestrian improvements, were a few key protected routes leading to the Capital Crescent Trail and the Bethesda Metro.

In 2004, a county capital improvement program budget document stressed that these bike network improvements were supposed to be implemented to allow further downtown development. The document listed their status as being in the “design and construction stage.” The development came. The protected bike lanes didn’t.

Then in 2016, Montgomery County launched the bicycle stress map. It was meant to “help the public make decisions about where to bicycle in the county so they feel safe and comfortable…and help planners understand the impediments to bicycling and where changes are most needed as they develop the Bicycle Master Plan.”

Showing a grid of mostly red high-stress lines, the map indicated very few low-stress routes through the core of Bethesda that could be considered appropriate for most adults and even fewer routes considered appropriate for most children.

When the Georgetown Branch Trail was closed in 2017 for Purple Line light rail construction, bicyclists were left with no alternative protected options, which brings us to the present time.

Instead of having at least some of the planned bike lanes in place, users of the interim trail are required to navigate a maze of unprotected roadways, busy construction sites, and often narrow or closed sidewalks (bicyclists are legally allowed to ride on the sidewalk in Montgomery County but must yield to pedestrians).

The online bicycle stress map has a feature that allows users to map their routes. In a bit of digital wishful thinking, it still advises bicyclists wanting a route between certain points in the area to take the (currently closed) trail. The recent fatality of a longtime bike advocate in the District of Columbia serves as a sad reminder that a plan on paper – or paint on pavement – doesn’t protect.

When it is finally built at an estimated cost of $2.5 million, Bethesda’s first protected bike lane will run approximately a quarter mile along Bethesda Avenue and Willow Lane  between the Capital Crescent Trail and 47th Street. It will serve as the surface trail route through Bethesda, at a cost  one-tenth of the estimated price of ultimately constructing the tunnel route.

The project will include significant intersection improvements, including at what is considered one of the area’s most vexing intersections where Woodmont Avenue meets Bethesda Avenue in an unruly expanse of pavement.

Retrofitting bikeways through urban areas often requires more than just paint and posts. Costs include design, right of way acquisition, utility relocation, stormwater considerations, signaling and resurfacing the roadway.

Considering the cost of constructing permanent protected bike lanes, it makes sense to build them where they will offer the best bang for the biking buck. This means where the most people will use them and where they will provide the most needed protection, such as in urban areas where they provide safe connections to trails and transit.

The Capital Crescent Trail is already one of the most popular and recreational and commuter trails in the region, and pedestrian and cyclist counts through the intersection of Woodmont and Bethesda avenues often exceed vehicle counts. The total 6-year budget of about $4.4 million to complete the first few segments of long-promised protected bikeways through downtown Bethesda may sound like a lot, until one considers that this amount is a minuscule fraction of the total county’s capital improvement budget.

(Note: Friday, May 17 is Bike-To-Work Day. The route through Bethesda will again feature a temporary pop-up bike lane. Drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists – please be safe! More information is available online.

Amanda Farber has written about the impact of planning, zoning and development issues on the quality of life in Bethesda, where she has lived for almost 20 years with her husband, two sons and several four-legged family members. She serves on the East Bethesda Citizens Association, Coalition of Bethesda Area Residents Board, Conservation Montgomery Board and the Bethesda Implementation Advisory Committee.