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Bike Lanes Controversy in Dupont Settled for Now; Battles Over Transportation Infrastructure Still Loom

Accompanying images can be viewed starting on page 1 of the February 2019 issue pdf

By William G. Schulz

Just a short bike ride away from President Trump’s State of the Union Address on the evening of February 5th, Dupont Circle residents and business owners packed a special meeting held by Dupont Circle’s Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC 2B) to hear the commissioners deliberate and vote on two highly controversial motions regarding bike lanes and traffic flow along 20th and 21st Streets in Dupont West and 17th Street in Dupont East.

With news cameras rolling — a rare sight at ANC meetings — commissioners voted unanimously on a motion to support a two-way “ protected bicycle lane in western Dupont with further study focused on the 20th Street alternative within ANC 2B.” They further agreed to work with the District’s Department of Transportation (DDOT) to connect a 20th Street bike lane with protected bike lanes to Columbia Road in Adams Morgan.

Likewise, the commissioners pledged to work with Fresh Farm farmer’s market on bike lane workarounds so as not to disrupt the popular Sunday market or endanger shoppers and bicyclists. The motion also stipulates a request to DDOT to expedite the project so that the bike lanes are installed by the end of the year.

The vote came after nearly an hour of public comments, which ANC 2B Chair Daniel Warwick said he welcomed but requested that commenters stick to a 90-second time limit. From the start of the meeting, however, he set a tone of openness and willingness to listen that played well to a crowd in which emotions ran high on both sides.

What began as an unpopular proposal from DDOT to create two-way dedicated bike lanes on 21st Street, starting at Florida Avenue on the northern end, and continuing south to the National Mall at the other, ended up with the ANC supporting a compromise that seemed to please almost everyone.

The exception, perhaps, was Julia Feeder, executive director of Fresh Farm. She made clear in her public remarks the feared impact of a continuous 20th Street bike lane routed through the farmer’s market which occupies the street’s traffic from Hillyer Place just south of R Street to Massachusetts Avenue every Sunday.

“ANC needs to find an alternative route,” Feeder stated, and further noting that “a protected bike lane would make the market unsafe.”

The commissioners and many audience members did agree that work-arounds were possible so as to avoiding the market on Sundays but also making reasonable connections to protected bike lanes farther north to Adams Morgan and, at the southern end, through Foggy Bottom to the National Mall.

ANC 2B05 Commissioner Randy Downs, a bicycling advocate who heads the ANC’s Public Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, just before the vote expressed full support for the 20th Street alternative — and many of the bicyclists who attended the meeting supported that alternative.

Likewise, residents and business owners who depend on parking and motor vehicle access along 21st Street left the meeting pleased that the commissioners were willing to abandon that route and urge DDOT to focus on the 20th Street alternative.

Following having successfully resolved the Dupont West bike lanes matter, the commissioners turned their attention to Dupont East and voted eight to one to support a DDOT notice of intent (NOI) to remove one-way southbound only morning traffic on 17th Street from Massachusetts Avenue to I Street at Farragut Square. Presented as a safety issue to prevent unaware drivers from turning into oncoming traffic, the motion was expected to have passed without controversy.

But a bullet point included in the NOI mentioned that restoration of two-way traffic on that southern portion of 17th Street “allows for bi-directional bicycle traffic and the consideration of bike lanes along the corridor.”

Former ANC Commissioner Nick DelleDonne jumped on those words and accused commissioners — Warwick in particular — of slipping a “Trojan Horse” into the NOI in order to get two-way protected bike lanes installed on 17th Street all the way north to Florida Avenue. His many supporters agreed.

Warwick denied the accusation, but the exchange underscored ongoing hostility between him and DelleDonne who frequently butted heads when he was a commissioner. He remains a thorn in Warwick’s side with his “HearUsNow” listserv that has amplified many voices in Dupont Circle which are distrustful of Warwick and many of his fellow commissioners.

This special meeting, held at the Johns Hopkins University building on Massachusetts Avenue was a continuation of the ANC’s regular monthly meeting held back on January 9th, and because of the heated discussion over the proposed bike lanes (and insufficient time to continue past the building’s closing hour), postponement was necessary. At that January meeting, a resolution put forward in favor of the DDOT proposal for two-way bike lanes on 21st Street surprised and angered many residents who said they were not informed of the ANC’s support and vowed to fight.

Ensuing four weeks only hardened the battle lines. The DDOT proposal to install two-way bike lanes on 21st Street from Florida Ave., NW, to the National Mall lit a match to the tinder-box of resentment that had been building among long-time residents, members of the DC bicycling community, and the newbie scooter fans for more than a year.

The bicyclists and scooterati want safer streets and a “green” European-style city center mostly devoid of auto traffic. Longtime residents and homeowners say they feel threatened by a potential loss of street parking and motor vehicle access to their neighborhoods. They resent what some have characterized as an authoritarian social engineering experiment in which street parking is removed in hopes of encouraging people to hop on bikes and scooters.

The elderly and disabled likewise bristle at the idea that they should somehow be forced to bicycle or ride scooters. Many simply cannot. Commenters at the February 5th meeting once again voiced their fear of scooters and bicycles on city sidewalks, saying they cannot hear those from behind and that the speed of riders is an ongoing safety threat.

At times, the debate has seemed more like “Millennials vs. Everyone Else” as alternative modes of transportation continue to be introduced to the city, shaking up notions, particularly along generational lines, of what transportation infrastructure in DC ultimately should look like. That’s particularly true concerning the anger and frustration that has erupted over the glut of rental scooters that are now everywhere in the neighborhood.

For some Dupont Circle residents, the scooters are a cool, convenient form of transportation for which dedicated bike lanes would mean better safety for riders. Many older residents and disabled people see a glaring safety hazard for scooter riders and pedestrians alike, as well as visual pollution and physical roadblocks caused by unsightly scooters strewn randomly about.

The compromise motion adopted by the ANC on the 5th was a promising sign to many who attended the meeting. But a break in the clouds over stormy issues of how to get around town doesn’t subtract from the reality of a long path ahead as changing notions of what DC and Dupont Circle should look like with respect to transportation.

Copyright © 2019 InTowner Publishing Corp. & William G. Schulz. All rights reserved.