My First Year as a Bike Commuter

Gina Arlotto with Bianchi commuter bike

Gina Arlotto, DC & Regional Safe Routes to School Network Coordinator

When I started working at WABA last January, I was strictly a recreational cyclist. Riding around my neighborhood, Capitol Hill, and down and across the National Mall, or trail rides on weekends and vacations was the limit of my bicycling experience. Becoming a bike commuter was not a requirement for the job at WABA, but almost as soon as I started working here, I knew I wanted to try it. At 43, with three children to see into adulthood, safety was my main concern. Fortunately, Glen Harrison (WABA Education Director) offered to be my commuter mentor the first few times out. He showed me a beautiful, albeit long, route along the Mall and down onto Rock Creek trails. After a few days of that warm up, and wanting to avoid that looong hill up out of the park at Calvert Street NW, I mapped out my own route and, I admit, did not do a very good job.

My first route took me from my home near Lincoln Park to 6th Street NE (bike lane) to K Street NE (no bike lane) and then to New Jersey Ave NW (again no bike lane) then crossing New York Avenue NW and finally, finally, making a left on R Street NW to finish out my ride to WABA (2599 Ontario Rd. NW) exclusively on streets with bike lanes. Looking back on it now, I am surprised I took on that much right away.  (Switching from a car driver’s perspective on route planning to a bicyclist’s perspective takes time).

K Street NE and New Jersey Avenue were some of the scariest rides of my life, with car commuters coming quickly and angrily out of the tunnel from I-395.  Although it was a fast commute, I was very anxious and I had terrible muscle tension in my hands and shoulders from what I called my “white-knuckle ride”. Over the next few months I tried several variations of my route, settling on East Capitol Street (bike lane) to a zig-zag around the Capitol to First Street NW to E Street NW (with a great bike lane in both directions) to 11th street NW to R Street NW, which became my main route. Getting around Union Station is always difficult and wanting to tweak my route a tad would often find me attempting to use Massachusetts Ave. NW to get to 11th street NW, which cut off a corner.  But Massachusetts Ave.  is another major commuter route with fast-moving cars and extremely distracted drivers, who were driving so aggressively that I could only assume they were really late for work.

When the Pennsylvania Avenue NW bike lanes opened up in May, I thought I had died and gone to bike commuter heaven. These protected lanes with clear signage for cyclists and vehicles make for the most relaxed and enjoyable ride every day. I now ride East Capitol, bike down around the Capitol, to the Penn Ave. NW lanes to 11th street NW, which, while not having a bike lane for its entire length, is at least not a heavy vehicle route. The bike lane for 11th street NW does start up at Massachusetts Avenue, NW, and I take that all the way to my turn onto R Street and on to work.

My return route consists of U Street NW to the 15th Street NW cycle track to Q Street NW to 10th Street NW to the Pennsylvania Ave. NW bike lanes. Now, my commute is a great start and end to my workday and I dread the days it is too rainy or too hot to ride. By contrast, riding the Metro takes nearly twice as long and costs almost $5 round trip.

My trusty Bianchi commuter bike (bought for $29 at the Hyattsville MD Salvation Army) has given me an excellent return on my minor investment in good fenders and lights, and a tune-up from City Bikes made it run like a dream. Thanks to WABA’s excellent Traffic Skills 101 course (also taught in a 3-class series called Confident City Cycling), I feel safe, informed and yes, confident as I ride my bike to and from work. Now, my only anxiety comes from watching other cyclists as they blow through lights at intersections and weave in and out of stopped traffic. Following the rules of the road, just as motor vehicles do, is actually a relief to me. I think it defuses a lot of the anger that some motorists have for cyclists, and I think it’s the smartest, safest, most responsible way to ride. And I have recently started seeing more cyclists stop with me at lights, especially in the Pennsylvania Ave. NW lanes, to wait for the light to change.

My family is inordinately proud of me and for my girls especially, I think it’s a great model of strength for them to see. (For Mother’s Day, my family presented me with a Road ID which, after my emergency contact info, reads “Stronger Than I Look” as the final line.) My 11 year old now begs to go on what she calls “road rides” with me and to teach her how to ride in traffic too. We are slowly making our way around Capitol Hill and beyond, using bike lanes when we can, but I have taught her how to signal, control the lane and stop at signs and lights, just like I do. My 14 year old son, now commuting to Wilson High School in upper NW DC via Metro, would love to ride his bike, but the distance (over 10 miles) the hills and a lack of fully connected bike lane infrastructure make that a dicey proposition. We’re not there yet. Soon, maybe.

I am so grateful for WABA’s advocacy and DDOT’s action to create a safe way for me to be able to commute by bike. The more bike lanes that get painted, the more cyclists I see. And not just young hipsters on their fixies or CaBis, but also older moms like me, who have dusted off their bikes and taken to the roads. I cheer them on silently and thank all those who worked to make cycling an option for everyone, not just road racers or spandex-clad, card-carrying, cycling diehards, but regular people like me who just want to get out of their cars or off the Metro and onto a healthier way of commuting.

Gina Arlotto is the District and Regional Safe Routes to School Network Coordinator of WABA