Plus, with the Capital Bikeshare scheme offering up thousands of bicycles, there really is no excuse not to practice some peddle power in the capital.
Get yourself some wheels
For short jaunts around town, check out a bike from one of 350 stations offered by Capital Bikeshare. Locations are found all around DC, as well as in Arlington and Alexandria, in Northern Virginia, just across the Potomac. To use it, just go to any Bikeshare kiosk, select usage (24 hours for $8, or three days for $17), swipe your credit card, pick a bike, and off you go. The first 30 minutes are free; after that rates rise substantially. You can take as many trips as you like during your membership period.
If you plan on a long leisurely ride, however, head to a traditional rental outfit like Bike & Roll, which offers a range of bikes (road bikes, mountain bikes, hybrids) as well as gear (tandems, trailers), at competitive prices. These rentals include helmets and locks. If you're using Capital Bikeshare, you'll either have to ride without a helmet (not recommended) or purchase one at a shop. (See the list on capitalbikeshare.com).
Learn the rules of the road
Bicyclists are required to observe the rules of the road – stopping at red lights and stop signs, yielding to pedestrians and traveling with the flow of traffic. One added cycling advantage, fairly unique to DC, is that bicyclists are allowed to ride on sidewalks outside of the Central Business District (though again, cyclists must give right of way to pedestrians). Helmet use is required for riders under the age of 16, and is strongly encouraged for other users. Front and rear lights are mandatory when riding at night.
Cruise the mall
If you haven't ridden in DC (or in other urban environments for that matter), you may want to start off small. Pick an off-time to bike the streets (not during rush hour obviously) – weekends are best. And choose a traffic-free area to get underway. The National Mall is a great place to start. It stretches for two miles from end to end and is packed with great museums and hallowed memorials. You'll find smooth paths (for bikers and pedestrians) and bicycle parking at all of the major sights. And the mall is a fine destination to gain confidence before taking to the streets.
Discover the city by bike
After taking in the mall, head out to DC's neighborhoods for a pedal along tree-lined streets, stopping at cafes and parks along the way. Good places for a cycle include the bricked backstreets of Georgetown, the quiet lanes of Woodley Park, the historic stretches of Capitol Hill, and the newly developed riverside near southeast DC. For a big dose of greenery, hire a mountain bike and take to the expansive trails of Rock Creek Park, which you can access on a short ride from Georgetown or Adams-Morgan. For bike lanes across the city, check the maps on ddot.dc.gov.
Bike to Mount Vernon
Once you've gotten the hang of cycling in the capital, you can plan a full day outing. A favorite is the trip along the Mount Vernon Trail. A multi-use path runs for 18.5 miles from Theodore Roosevelt Island to George Washington's estate at Mount Vernon. The route follows the Virginia shoreline and affords excellent views of the city skyline. There are several metro stations along the way, if you need to end earlier than expected (note that bikes aren't allowed on the metro at peak times). And if you want to make the trip just one way, you can sign up for a package trip to bike one way and return by boat with Bike & Roll (bikeandrolldc.com). These trips start and end in Alexandria, Virginia, a quick metro journey from the city center.
Bike like a local
There's nothing quite as liberating as gliding around town on two wheels, stopping at your leisure along the way. It's also the local experience par excellence, allowing you to visit neighborhood markets, have a picnic in a little visited park and ride through often overlooked corners of the city. There's a reason DC is becoming such a bike-friendly city. It's one of the most enjoyable ways to experience the city.