By Joshua Marks
After Nurit Bar-Josef, 40, wakes up at her Bethesda home, she brews a cup of coffee, straps on a helmet and heads toward the Kennedy Center on her bicycle for the 36-minute ride along the Capital Crescent Trail — an unlikely mode of transportation, perhaps, for the National Symphony Orchestra concertmaster and world-class violinist.
But commuting by bicycle is becoming the preferred mode of transit for many Washingtonians.
The nation’s capital has one of the highest percentages in the country of commuters who bike to work, ranking fourth nationally. Since 2000, the percentage of Washington area bike commuters increased from 1.2 percent to 3.9 percent, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.
“I think in general it’s becoming quite popular to do. … When I get on the Capital Crescent Trail in the morning going to work, sometimes I’m just amazed at how many bike commuters there are on the trail. It’s pretty nice to see,” Bar-Josef said.
The biking boom can be seen not only in the number of bicyclists, but in new Capital Bikeshare stations, painted bike lanes and other bicycle infrastructure dotting the landscape.
Still, not everyone has embraced it.
Last year, in a column that sparked protests by bike activists, Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy called area bicyclists “terrorists” with “more nerve than an L.A. biker gang.”
The young Jewish professionals who recently gathered at a park near Sixth & I Historic Synagogue for a group bike ride certainly don’t fit Milloy’s description.
DC Jews on Bikes, a new grassroots initiative aimed at unaffiliated Jews, organized the ride to the Georgetown waterfront for a Rosh Hashanah Tashlich ceremony. The bicyclists cast off their sins by symbolically tossing bread into the Potomac River.
Lisa Kaneff, 33, a freelance copywriter and marketing consultant living in Arlington, came up with the idea for DC Jews on Bikes when she was an Open Door fellow with Gather the Jews, helping young Jews connect to Jewish experiences. The Montgomery County native got into biking to make new friends when she lived in Philadelphia. That experience taught her about the social benefits of biking.
The first DC Jews on Bikes ride took place on the last day of Passover in April, when about 65 people showed up for a ride and Havdalah service. Comparable crowds came for the second and third rides, telling Kaneff that she was on to something sustainable.
“When I started it, I didn’t think it was going to be a movement. I thought it was going to be a couple people on bikes riding around and then grabbing a drink,” said Kaneff. “The community is really asking for more. There’s consistently people saying they want to go every month.”
Despite the success of DC Jews on Bikes, including an email list of nearly 300 Jews who have registered for an event, Kaneff said she is frustrated at the lack of funding from the organized Jewish community.
“We can’t get any grants, which has been a struggle. We’re really on our own,” she said.
However, she said, “It feels like a powerful movement and people keep showing up —and there’s excitement.”
The reality of bicycling in the Washington area is that the activity can still be risky despite safety improvements. District Department of Transportation 2014 crash data found that last year there was a 26.7 percent increase in bicyclist-related injuries. On Sept. 16, D.C. Councilmember Mary M. Cheh (D – Ward 3), chair of the Committee on Transportation and the Environment, introduced the Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety Act of 2015 in an effort to update the city’s approach to motor vehicle, bicycle and pedestrian safety.
But bicycling can be dangerous in the suburbs as well. This past weekend, White House staffer Jake Brewer, 34, was killed in a bicycling accident in Howard County while taking part in a charity bike ride.
Brewer lost control of his bike on a curve and crossed into the path of an oncoming SUV, according to police.
Tiffany Harris, 29, has been biking since she was a child in Seattle. Having biked around the world, including Scandinavia, a region she described as a “friendly bike culture,” Harris, who works at the Peace Corps and lives at Moishe House in Columbia Heights, said that biking in Washington is challenging. She has been hit by a car and also doored, or hit by a car door opening while passing on her bicycle.
Her suggestions for making biking better include adding bike lanes to every street and ensuring the bike lanes are inside of where cars park to separate the bike lanes from vehicular traffic.
Despite her frustrations with biking in Washington, Harris said she is a “huge fan” of DC Jews on Bikes.
“It attracts a lot of young Jewish people who don’t typically participate in Jewish activities,” said Harris.
“Even though I’m someone who’s really involved in the scene here in D.C., I feel I’ve met so many people who I wouldn’t have otherwise who only come out for this biking event.”