Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

The Lincoln Park Capital Bikeshare discussion: 'We're not against the bicycles! We're not against the bicycles!'

October 19, 2010 - 01:45 PM
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(Photo: Dave Jamieson)

Last night nearly 50 residents of the Lincoln Park area packed the conference room at the Capitol Hill Towers on G Street NE. It was ostensibly a wider meeting of the local advisory neighborhood commission, but nearly everyone in the room had come out to participate in just one discussion — where in Lincoln Park to put the Capital Bikeshare station. Of the 110 stations already scattered throughout Washington and Arlington, none has been as contentious as this one.

The D.C. Department of Transportation (DDOT), which runs the bikesharing program, was represented by an exceedingly diplomatic gentleman named Chris Holben, the agency’s project manager. Holben was there to explain why they couldn’t put a station in the park itself (the feds own and run it), why they had to scuttle a plan to put the station on a city-owned triangle at the southeast corner (some residents complained about traffic safety issues), and where the next best place for the station might be (they’re exploring a number of options).

Knowing the passions these questions have aroused in some residents, one guy raised his hand merely to thank Holben for “coming into the lion’s den” to discuss it.

“We thought it was an ideal place,” Holben said of the area’s candidacy for a CaBi station: The park is surrounded by bike lanes, major thoroughfares in East Capitol Street and Massachusetts Avenue, and some “young, active neighbors” -- not to mention tourists -- that would avail themselves of the bicycles.

Asked why the agency had to ditch their plans for the triangle, Holben explained that they’d received formal complaints from residents in the immediate vicinity about the location. Asked to list those complaints, Holben first said potential “vandalism” to the bikes. To this, a man in the back of the room pointed at Holben and yelled.

“It was safety!” he shouted.

Holben wisely backtracked, listing “safety” as the top concern, followed by “vandalism.” After vandalism was the possibility that the station could be “an attractive nuisance to children.” And at the very end was the worry about putting such a facility “right in front of a row of houses.”

Though it was listed dead last, the latter concern was a very important one, for there was a suspicion among some of the pro-CaBi folks in attendance -- a few of whom were wearing their American Apparel CaBi t-shirts -- that some of the residents who put the kibosh on the triangle plan were less worried about safety than about neighborhood aesthetics. (A charge of NIMBYism has been hurled at these residents in recent weeks.) Of course, there was no clear evidence of this motive, and yet the suspicion persisted nonetheless....

Those who voiced opposition to the original location often found themselves playing defense. In fact, a common refrain popped up among them: “We’re not against the bicycles! We’re not against the bicycles!” What they were against was the location of the bicycles, and they didn’t like the triangle as a location because cars tend to speed past it. They said people could get hurt walking to and from the triangle, including children. But this argument was complicated by the fact that two speed tables are currently being installed there (replacing speed humps) to further slow cars -- as well as the strong possibility that the placement of a large bike-sharing station there could in fact calm traffic.

One apparently pro-CaBi attendee proffered just that argument, in a very persuasive fashion. He explained that if a driver spotted a large and unfamiliar tableau before him, such as a Capital Bikeshare station with people milling about it, that driver might actually slow down rather than speed up. “If you put something on that island, that site is more likely to contribute to safety than to detract from it,” he said.

This cold, wet blanket of logic hushed the room momentarily, until someone steered the conversation back to more comfortable territory — where else this station might be placed.

From what Holben said, a likely scenario is that DDOT will place the station on a different city-owned triangle, a roomier one on 13th Street off the northeast corner of the park. This possibility has split some Lincoln Parkers into Northeast and Southeast factions. Naturally, many Southeasterners would like to see it placed at the new location, while some Northeasterners are now wondering why it couldn’t have gone in at the original triangle in the Southeast corner. The most vocal advocate for these Northeasterners is advisory neighborhood commissioner Nick Alberti.

Alberti doesn’t actually live on the park; he’s representing his “constituents” who do, he said. Considering DDOT now may want the station on the northeast side, “It really appears you’re imposing on one side of the neighborhood after the other side started complaining,” he told Holben. As for those who would support the new location, “They don’t live on the park,” Alberti added. To that, at least a half-dozen hands shot up -- they all said they live on the park and that they emphatically support it.

Holben said DDOT hopes to have a station within one block of the park, and though the location hasn’t been finalized, they will be moving ahead with a plan soon. Lincoln Park, he said, is an “important” neighborhood in the Capital Bikeshare scheme. Most attendees seemed pleased to hear it. As one man said, echoing the sentiments of the many other reasonable, impartial participants in the room, “We don’t care where it goes as long as it’s within the vicinity of the park.”

Of course, not everyone felt that way, including a Lincoln Park resident named Steve. Steve has strongly opposed the prospect of a station on the southeastern triangle.

In the hallway immediately after the meeting, Steve got in an argument with a man named Tom over the bike station. Steve told Tom, a more formidable-looking man, to “go fuck” himself. Tom, in an act that his wife later said was totally uncharacteristic, got in Steve’s face and shoved him. Then Tom’s wife started crying inconsolably.

For a brief moment, Holben, who appeared to have been bumped slightly in the altercation, had the baffled look of a man wondering what forces in his life had conspired to bring him into this den of wackiness on a Monday night.

Tom’s wife sobbed, “Why is everybody so mad about this? Why is everybody so crazy?”

Tom, who declined to give his last name, sat in a chair in the hallway once he’d calmed down. He said he lives near the southeastern corner of Lincoln Park and would have liked to see the station there. He’s not a bikeshare nut, he just thought it sounded cool.

“We didn’t know about it,” he said of the first proposed location. “They killed it before we knew about it.” He said he tried to apologize to Steve for the shove, even though he’d been provoked, but Steve wouldn’t accept it. (Steve vanished before this reporter could get his comment.)

Tom’s wife said there were rumors circulating that Steve’s roommate had received a death threat over their opposition to the original triangle plan. “It’s crazy,” she said, wiping tears from her face. But as for the messy scene in the hallway, she said not to make a big deal out of it.

“I cry easily,” she said.

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