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Bike group's chief seeks roadway camaraderie

The Washington Post: Bike group's chief seeks roadway camaraderie

By Ashley Halsey III
Thursday, June 3, 2010

Shane Farthing will leave his post at the Office of Green Economy in the District's Department of the Environment to become executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association on Thursday. We asked Farthing, a bicycle commuter during the week and recreational cyclist on weekends, what his goals are in taking over the regional organization, as well as for tips for cyclists.

What are your goals and priorities in taking over the regional organization?

Obviously, I think that safety is of paramount importance to cyclists. So WABA will continue, and hopefully expand, its work to ensure bicycle-friendly infrastructure that allows motorists, cyclists and pedestrians to share the public right-of-way with minimal conflict. And WABA will also work to ensure that laws are properly applied to cyclists. In some cases, that may mean tweaking laws that may have been written from a car-centric viewpoint so that they can be safely and sensibly applied to bicycles. And in all cases, it means proper and fair enforcement of those laws for all parties sharing the public right-of-way.

But in addition to the overarching goal of safety, my primary organizational goal is to expand WABA's outreach and influence -- both geographically and demographically -- to ensure that the organization truly represents the needs of the region's larger cycling community, from occasional recreational riders, to daily commuters, to weekend racers. The cycling community is a diverse one, and I want to ensure that WABA's membership and advocacy reflect that diversity.
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Can you describe how the region's cycling landscape has evolved in the time you've been biking here?

When I came to the District in 2002, I rarely saw cyclists other than messengers and the occasional commuter. Today, cyclists are everywhere. The bike racks are filled at grocery stores and restaurants. Bike-sharing has gotten off to such a solid start that it is ready to expand. We have miles of on-street bike lanes, the bike station at Union Station, and now a significant portion of the Metropolitan Branch Trail is complete, allowing cyclists to avoid some of the city's most difficult intersections. All of that progress shows that an enormous amount of thought and planning has gone into enabling a lifestyle in which cycling is a primary mode of transportation. It is likely a bit of a perfect storm of high gas prices, a tough economy, the raising of environmental consciousness, the presence of good public transit, the option for car-sharing, as well as the significant improvements in the bike infrastructure. But whatever the reason, people are now choosing that lifestyle.

Where are the best places to ride in the District, Virginia and Maryland?

For a long, recreational ride, my personal favorite is the loop from Georgetown to White's Ferry on the C&O Canal Towpath, across the Potomac [River] on the ferry, then from Leesburg back to D.C. on the Washington and Old Dominion Trail. So that one actually hits the District, Maryland and Virginia.

For commuting, I am a huge fan of the Metropolitan Branch Trail. Putting such a high-quality, well-engineered trail through an urban area is an enormous exercise in project management and design. I've been riding it for a few weeks since it opened (and even a few weeks before that) since my daily commute takes me along that route. The added level of safety and comfort that comes from having a separated trail and not having to negotiate some of the trickier intersections is really wonderful.

What bad habits would you like to see cyclists change? What are the most important things drivers need to know when interacting with a cyclist on city streets or suburban roadways?

I think that attentiveness and courtesy among all roadway users would be a big step. I also believe that predictability is key, and one component of predictability is following the rules of the road. Neither drivers nor cyclists should be forced to guess what the other is going to do in a given situation. To minimize conflict, the rules should be clear and appropriate for each mode of transportation, and they should be followed and enforced fairly.

As for what drivers should know, just remember the size and power difference between a car and a bicycle, and try to understand the vulnerability that comes with such a difference. When bicycling in the city, a cyclist must be hyper-alert to so many potential obstacles, from a passing vehicle, to a pothole, to a jaywalker, to a thrown-open door. Basic safe-driving techniques, like allowing three feet of passing distance, being patient when a cyclist must use the full lane to avoid obstacles or maintain safety and checking for cyclists before pulling into traffic or making a turn are truly appreciated.

But one thing I'd really like to see changed is the level of antagonism among users of different transportation types. I'm often amazed at the level of anger flowing in all directions among drivers, pedestrians and cyclists. It seems that often the conversations among these groups tend to quickly devolve into shouting matches that communicate little and reinforce a zero-sum mentality. Ideally, I would like to see more opportunities to approach the allocation of space and rights within the public right-of-way as a puzzle to be solved rather than as a battle to be won by any given side. And with WABA, I hope to assist in facilitating that change in approach.