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Winter? HA!

Helmet-cam video by Takoma Park bike commuter Joe Edgell.

BY ALEX HOLT

It takes more than a little thing like “winter” to get Washington D.C.’s commuters off their bikes.

According to census data from 2010, the District of Columbia has over 9,000 bike commuters, a higher proportion than in all 50 states, many coming from or through Takoma Park. Some of them keep biking through snow, ice and sub-zero temperatures.

One commuter who’s stayed on his bike through the winter months is Paul Deustachio, who makes the about 25-mile round trip ride from Takoma Park to Crystal City in Virginia every day. In the morning, he usually rides down the Metropolitan Branch Trail, past Union Station, across the Mall and the 14th Street Bridge, then down the Mount Vernon Trail to Crystal City. In the evenings, he comes back up the Mount Vernon Trail, through downtown and then back into Takoma Park via 11th Street, Kansas Avenue and 5th Street.

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Taken during the polar vortex by bike commuter Patty Fulton. Her commute is from Silver Spring through Chevy Chase and Bethesda to the Capital Crescent Trail down to the Southwest Waterfront in DC.

“The cold has not been too bad but ice has been a significant problem this winter,” Deustachio said. He explained that while the District Department of Transportation has done a good job of plowing the Metropolitan Branch Trail, the National Park Service hasn’t done nearly as good a job clearing the Mount Vernon Trail, calling it typically impassable for days after a snowstorm.

Another of those commuters is Takoma Park native Jason Jones, who makes the eight to nine mile trip from Takoma Park to Judiciary Square every day. Jones said preparing for the weather is “a bit of a bear” but he still likes biking to work anyway because it allows him to get in a workout without having to go to the gym.

“Biking in the winter is all about a state of mind,” Jones said. “When it is dark and cold, getting on the bike is the last thing you want to do. However, ten minutes after getting on that bike, the initial dread is over and by the time you get to work flush with the energy of your ride, it is all worth it.”

Patty Fulton makes the commute every day from Silver Spring through Chevy Chase and Bethesda to the Capital Crescent Trail and then finally down to the Southwest Waterfront in Washington. When the CCT is covered with snow and ice, she usually takes Wisconsin Avenue to and from work instead.

“It’s a blast riding in rush hour traffic”, Fulton said. “A completely different experience from the CCT.”

Fulton said her friends say she’s crazy but she doesn’t mind.

“I really don’t change a thing when the weather is bad,” she said.

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Another bike-commuting “polar vortex” photo from Patty Fulton showing Potomac ice and the Kennedy Center.

Joe Edgell, an attorney for the Environmental Protection Agency, makes the seven-mile trip from Takoma Park to Federal Triangle in Washington – and back again – every day.

“If you have a stressful day, typically all that stress ebbs away,” said Edgell, who also said he likes cycling because he usually finds it faster than taking Metro or Montgomery County’s Ride On buses.

There’s also the issue of parking, according to Arlington resident Leslie Tierstein, who prefers to run most of her errands on bike and frequently rides up to Takoma Park.

“You don’t have to worry about finding a parking spot most of the time,” said Tierstein, “except thankfully some areas in D.C. are so crowded with bikes it’s hard to find a parking spot.”

That wasn’t the case when Edgell began working at the EPA in 2004 but he said he’s seen enormous growth in the amount of bike commuting in the area over the past decade, largely because of Washington’s decision to install bicycle lanes.

“I know a lot of drivers are frustrated with the bike lanes but that’s really made people feel safe or safer so that they feel comfortable riding,” Edgell said.

Edgell does not have studded tires which he said means he usually can’t ride around for the first day or two after a massive snowstorm. His greatest concern is improving the clearing of the roads so that it’s safe for bicyclists as well as drivers.

“A few icy patches for a car is no big deal,” said Edgell, who also serves as the chairman of the Takoma Park Safe Roadways Committee. “Icy patches for a bike can be extremely dangerous.”

Another helmet-cam video from Takoma Park bike commuter Joe Edgell.

Some residents like to use bicycles as their main mode of transport even when they work from home, such as Arlington resident Leslie Tierstein, who prefers to run most of her errands on bike and frequently rides up to Takoma Park. She estimated that she’s rode her bike all but 10 days of this year so far.

“You don’t have to worry about finding a parking spot most of the time,” said Tierstein, “except thankfully some areas in D.C. are so crowded with bikes it’s hard to find a parking spot.”

Tierstein said that the area’s trails have been “impassable and impossible” this winter because they don’t get plowed but that the worst roads are the ones with fast-moving traffic in a single lane in each direction.

“For Pete’s sake, you really have to take that lane because otherwise you get sideswiped”, she said. “The tendency when you’re on a bike is ‘oh let me go towards the side but you’re not safe because I can’t count the number of times cars are coming within inches of me.”

Tierstein said she’s been able to get around the area even in the aftermath of this past winter’s massive snowstorms because her bicycle has a studded tire with an extra wheel so she can just switch wheels when it snows.

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Leslie Tierstein snapped this picture of her bike parked at the Arlington, VA public library.

Finally, one of the other ways winter can affect bike commuting is through the types of bicycles that customers buy. Jo Reyes owns The Green Commuter, a bike shop in Takoma Park, and estimates that around 60-70% of his customers use their bicycles for commuting. During the winter, he tends to see an increase in sales for cargo bikes better suited for commuting purposes. He also said year-round commuters tend to require more maintenance.

“With the year-round commuters, when we get their bikes in for service, the bikes need a lot more routine maintenance,” Reyes said. “Usually you’re almost overhauling the bikes because they come in once a year after commuting all year long. With the cargo bike commuters, a third of them will opt to have electric assist put on so they can carry heavy loads and shuffle the kids as well.”

 

About the author: Alex Holt

Alex Holt is a first-year graduate student in the Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland and a recent graduate of Ithaca College. When not at school, he lives in Baltimore, Maryland and he hopes to eventually pursue a career in sports journalism.

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