Posted by: jdantos | November 6, 2011

The Emerging Anacostia Trail

The Anacostia Riverwalk Trail, near Water St. SE - one part of an emerging regional trail system.

There was  big splash the other day at a ribbon-cutting of a new section of the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail.  It’s great to see so many celebrating a new bike and pedestrian trail!

Yesterday’s event highlights the alluring promise and importance of the Anacostia Trail system.  The Anacostia trail is 80% of the way to being a major regional trail, and is poised to open up a a dramatically large new area on the northeastern side of Washington to serious bicycle access.  All the pieces are emerging to bring to eastern DC and Prince George’s County the same level of bicycle mobility as “the biggies” on the west side of town (Capital Crescent, Custis, W&OD, and Mt. Vernon Trails).  But, a few “missing links” are holding it back.

Anacostia Riverwalk Trail

Arlington, Northwestern DC, and other nearby Virginia have always been home to some of the best bike trails in the region, which helps them achieve impressive levels of bicycle and pedestrian activity.  These trail help bike commuters from 5, 10, even 15 miles reach the downtown by bicycle.  Bicycling on the west side of town is a real joy, and the numbers show it – automatic counters along the Custis trail, for example, show strongly peaked commuter-oriented use, and the trail can see a bike every 20 seconds during rush hour.  But truly regional, long-distance bike trails east of our region’s east-west divide (roughly 16th St. NW) have not kept up.

All that could change with the Anacostia Trail system.  Already, the system and its feeder trails (map) connect all kinds of communities to the northeast in Maryland: Greenbelt, College Park, the Hyattsvilles, Takoma, Langley Park, and Silver Spring.  The mainline trails are the Northwest and Northeast Branches, but countless side trails lead away from these trunk lines into residential neighborhoods – the Trolley, Paint Branch, Sligo Creek, etc.  And in DC, the trail network touches, but frustratingly doesn’t always connect, from Benning Road, past RFK Stadium, all the way down past Yards Park to Nationals Park, the Potomac River, and to the intersection of Maine Ave. and 15th St. SW/Raul Wallenberg, where it’s an easy hop to the 14th St. Bridge and Mt. Vernon Trail.

The Anacostia trail system provides great access today, but a few "missing links" hold it back.

The Anacostia Trail in Riverdale, Maryland

The connections are there today.  Right now, it’s possible to ride via bike trails from Greenbelt to Mt. Rainier, from Langley Park to Mt. Rainier, and from College Park to Bladensburg Park.  By next year, once two new pedestrian bridges open and the Maine Ave. project completes,  it’ll be possible to bike entirely on trails from Benning Road NE to Nationals Park.  With a short jaunt on P St. SW, you’ll be able to ride comfortably and safely from Benning Road NE all the way to Arlington.

We are so close to stitching together all of these component parts, it’s like a jigsaw puzzle where a bunch of people have all been working individually, and now it’s time to join everyone’s pieces together.  The trails are great in Prince George’s County, and they’re coming together in D.C. But they don’t link together!

Three big “missing links” hold us back, in order of importance:

  1. A connection from the Met Branch Trail to the Northwest Branch Trail.  Currently, if you live in Maryland and can pick up the Anacostia system, there is no off-road connection to the Met Branch Trail, which can bring you coasting into Union Station and downtown DC.  Currently, you must bike through Brookland and Mt. Rainier on roads (directions and video), through basically one of the only bike-friendly crossings of South Dakota Ave NE. A long-term solution is to create the Prince George’s Connector Trail, or some connection between West Hyattsville metro to the Met Branch Trail in the Fort Totten area.  This will connect the entire Anacostia trail system in Maryland to Union Station and downtown.
  2. A connection from the Northeast Branch Trail at Bladensburg Park to the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail at Benning Road.  This would create a continuous path along the entire length of the Anacostia river, from downtown D.C. all the way to Greenbelt and Montgomery County. A small piece of this connection opened yesterday.  Like the missing piece above, this could connect the entire Anacostia system in Maryland to the Arboretum, RFK, Capitol Hill, Nationals Park, Yards Park, and to Maine Ave. and even Virginia.
  3. The Washington Navy Yard Riverwalk section, which is sunny, beautiful, and provides critical continuity between 11th St. SE andYards Park, is gated off at dark, and closes unpredictably and inconsistently for security reasons.  This makes the D.C. section of the trail nearly un-usable for commuters for nearly half the year, when it’s dark around commuting times.

The Washington Navy Yard Riverwalk section. Pictured here, it is closed at 8:45am in September. The unpredictability of closures limits serious use of the trail.

We are on the brink of combining all the basic ingredients to make this a truly great, regional trail.  The purpose of this post is not to advocate for who should do what, but to point out how close we are to a major breakthrough in bicycle mobility in the east and northeast sides of town!

The trails today are not perfect.  Narrow spots, tough intersections, sharp turns, and maintenance issues abound. But the trails are there.  And as more and more pieces fall into place, the trail will begin to connect people to more and more places they want to go. As a result, more people will use it, and a constituency for the improvement of the trail will take hold, and safety will increase with more “eyes on the street.”  Arlington and the National Park Service often improve or at least pay attention to their bike trails because so many people use the trails and communicate about problems.

As the Anacostia trail begins to emerge as a real, regional bike trail, pressure will only mount to complete the missing parts, fix the problems, and treat it well. And that’s good for us all.

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