In capital, we weigh risk of travel to our jobs

Published July 8, 2005

WASHINGTON - I rode my bike to work Thursday because I didn't want to be killed by terrorists.

Many of us in the nation's capital decided to avoid the subway and get to work by other means because we feared a bombing like the one that killed dozens in London. Subway ridership was down slightly compared with a day earlier, and it would have been down even more if there hadn't been an afternoon baseball game.

The risk of terrorism, while very small, often plays a big role in everyday decisions here. Washingtonians are accustomed to these tradeoffs because we experienced the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks - my son's preschool was just a few miles from the Pentagon - and we lived through scares with snipers and anthrax.

We don't live in fear every day, but we get enough reminders that the possibility of an attack is always at the back of our minds.

Metro, our subway system, has long had PA announcements telling us to watch for unattended packages. Secret Service agents are parked on 17th Street a few blocks from my office to look for suspicious trucks heading toward the White House. At Washington Redskins games, security workers frisk each fan, although we suspect team owner Daniel Snyder is more concerned that we might smuggle beer (to avoid paying his exorbitant prices) than he is about bombs.

If you haven't visited Washington in the past five years, you would find it's a much different town than you remember. Barricades have been erected in front of government buildings. E Street NW, a pleasant cut-through road just south of the White House, has been closed. The grounds of the Capitol are patrolled by police officers carrying mean-looking rifles.

On Thursday the Bush administration raised the terror-alert level for the country's mass transit systems in response to the deadly bombings in London. Security was stepped up even more at the Capitol.

Some Washingtonians have complained that the federal government has gone too far with its security precautions. The barricades, although many have been converted into better-looking planters, make the town seem colder and less inviting.

When I visited London last year and again in April, I was struck by how little security the city had compared with Washington. Cars were allowed to drive right beside Parliament and Big Ben.

In the British political campaign this spring, Prime Minister Tony Blair and his challengers rarely mentioned terrorism the way President Bush and John Kerry did. It was not a significant issue. When I asked British voters why, they said they were accustomed to the fear of bombings because of their long experience with the Irish Republican Army. Besides, they said, terrorism should not be a campaign issue.

People in London understood that terrorism posed a small risk. They weren't going to let it disrupt their lives, but they knew it was there.

The same is true for people in Washington. We know our city is a target for a terrorist attack. By choosing to live and work here, we accept the small risk that we could be victims.

My decision to ride my bike was also a decision about risk. But it may have been a miscalculation.

I've become a fanatic about biking, and I don't worry much about the danger. I fell and scraped my leg last year, but otherwise, I've been fortunate.

On Wednesday, I attended a luncheon speech by Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, whose hand was in a cast because of a biking accident. The reporter I sat beside also had his hand in a cast from a biking crash. And the same day, President Bush took a spill while biking in Scotland.

The accidents are reminders that biking carries its own risks. The odds of me getting killed on the subway are probably far less than the odds I will get struck by a taxi on L Street or take a tumble on the Key Bridge.

And yet, I'm glad I rode my bike on Thursday. I got a good workout. And I - like many of my fellow Washingtonians - felt safer.

Washington bureau chief Bill Adair can be reached at 202 463-0575 or adair@sptimes.com