His remarks were admittedly blunt, but the resident was hardly alone in his apparent skepticism of the Capital Bikeshare program during a citizens advisory board meeting on Monday.
“I’m a senior citizen. Bicycles on the sidewalk are absurd. It’s incompatible,” said the man, who spoke after a County Department of Transportation official presented plans for implementing the system in downtown Bethesda. “Bicycles are stealth things. They creep up on you without making a sound.”
Others questioned whether Montgomery County would be held liable for accidents, why many Bikeshare users in Washington, D.C., and Arlington, Va., don’t use helmets, if there would be enough room on sidewalks for pedestrians and if drunk bar patrons might steal the bikes from docking stations after a night on the town.
Despite huge popularity in Washington and Arlington and a recent expansion into Alexandria, Va., the Monday night meeting of the Western Montgomery County Citizens Advisory Board showed Bikeshare has a long way to go before winning over some of Bethesda’s most civic-minded residents.
There are legitimate safety issues, which County Executive Isiah Leggett and a number of county council members say must be addressed before 29 downcounty Bikeshare stations (11 of which are planned for Bethesda) are installed sometime next spring.
A Capital Bikeshare station needs 12 feet — six feet for the width of the docking station and six feet for enough clearance to pull a bike out of the dock — according to MCDOT’s Sande Brecher.
The average width of a sidewalk in Bethesda is 12 feet. That could force MCDOT and a consultant to change where they put the Bikeshare stations once the contracts are signed with contractor Alta Bicycle Share and the siting process begins, Brecher said.
Most of the questions after Brecher’s presentation stemmed from safety concerns, but there were other factors at play.
A 2011 Capital Bikeshare member survey showed the vast majority of riders (65 percent in Arlington and 70 percent in Washington) were younger than 35, a demographic barely, if at all, represented in Monday night’s meeting.
Perhaps more important is the ongoing struggle by cyclists for recognition on the roads.
“You have to make drivers aware that yes, if you see a cyclist in a bike lane be careful, but also if you see a cyclist in a car lane that’s OK. They’re allowed to do that,” said Mike Bleakley, manager of Bethesda’s FreshBikes Cycling store (7926 Old Georgetown Rd.). “Because as it gets more popular, which it will with Bikeshare, there’s going to be more and more motorist-cyclist incidents unless driver awareness increases.”
Brecher said county officials will work to pick Bikeshare station locations that provide safe and accessible routes to other locations or activity centers.
Planned locations now include the Bethesda and Medical Center Metro stations, a number of Woodmont Triangle sidewalks, Bethesda Row posts, a NIH/Suburban Hospital docking station and a stop at Woodmont Avenue and Bethesda Avenue for Capital Crescent Trail access.
An August report by CountyStat showed eight reported bicycle collisions in 2011 in downtown Bethesda, the majority of which involved crossing vehicles and crosswalks and sidewalks.
CountyStat conducted a nationwide analysis of bikesharing programs that it said showed Bikeshare was not a large driver of cycling crashes or fatalities, though total collisions increased by 24 percent in Washington, D.C., and 33 percent in Arlington in the first year those jurisdictions had the program.
Cycling activist and Bethesda resident Jack Cochrane told the advisory board there are a number of bike lane improvements or lane marking changes that could provide for safer cycling and less riding on sidewalks.
He suggested changing four-lane Arlington Road into three lanes for vehicles with a center turn lane and bike-dedicated lane near the curb. But he also said he’s well aware that getting local transportation officials and residents to back such plans is always difficult.
And he said bike activists must toe a careful line when it comes to pushing for Bikeshare-inspired improvements.
“I guess there’s a fine line saying, ‘Look, if you want Bikeshare here you have to add lanes.’ But on the other hand, you’re not gonna say, ‘Keep Bikeshare out until we get enough lanes,’” Cochrane said. “I think people need to know not to try to bully cyclists out of the way or pretend like they’re not here.”
Bleakley hopes Montgomery County pursues a dedicated cycling awareness campaign.
“You can throw in all the bike lanes in the world,” Bleakley said, “but if you don’t explain why you’re doing it and what goes along with that, a lot of motorists are just going to see that as, ‘Oh, great, they’re taking away my lane,’ and there’s just gonna be more anger toward cyclists.”
Capital Bikeshare Flickr photo by kaszeta; Woodmont Avenue bike lane Flickr photo by Robert Dyer