Walk/Bike Trails are Nice, but What About the Roads Around Them?

Street Justice Newsletter: Vol 2, Edition 93 (8/12/2020)

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I'm asking for donations to pay my personal bills until Street Justice  -- the nonpartisan news organization I started in 2018 to cover the Washington, DC region -- relaunches as a separate, formal organization delivering community benefits in late 2020/early 2021. The need for funds is immediate to cover mid-August bills and pay September rent.

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Cars are Gods of the Gaps Between Safe-for-All Walk/Bike Routes. And What Benefit Is There to Low-Income &/or BIPOC?

Inform: DC-area Transportation Planners Set Goal to Double Regional Trail Network

Last month, the Transportation Planning Board (TPB) of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG) unanimously adopted a huge goal for the expansion of off-street, safe-for-all users walking and biking infrastructure. The regional body set an objective for 1,500 miles of this non-car infrastructure, a more than doubling on the current 655 miles, based largely on the work of the Capital Trails Coalition. The Coalition is a group of nonprofits, government organizations, and companies led by the Washington Area Bicyclist Association in partnership with the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. A lot of those off-street, all-ages, all-abilities bike/walk facilities are trails using defunct rail corridors (e.g., W&OD Trail) or underutilized right of way parallel to rail tracks (e.g., Metropolitan Branch Trail).

That’s a lot of do-good organizations with acronyms and medium- to long-term time horizons. The planning work they participate in is essential for the projects that get implemented in the near-term basis with capital budgets of DC-area governments. For example, the very busy two miles of the W&OD Trail in Arlington County will be widened soon thanks to funds from several NoVA governmental groups and the long-term advocacy and planning of groups like the Coalition and TPB.

However, there’s some necessary cold water to throw.

Include: What Good Is a Trail if it Doesn’t Go to Walmart?

My parents visited last month, three weeks into retirement. I’ve been lobbying them to buy e-bikes and become more active now that they have the time. During our only argument of the visit, I was frustrated that they didn’t want to try the new electric pedal-assist Capital Bikeshare bikes to go a few miles down the road to the Riggs Park Walmart. They were justifiably hesitant since they’re novice bike riders and my mom is the only able-legged partner until my dad fixes a severe knee problem. My mom can’t get hurt. Even though she’s a Zumba-doing, spin-class-rocking, multi-decade aerobics-instructing lady, she is new to biking on roads. In maybe America’s best biking city, a 2.5-mile trip for basic errands was just too scary, too dangerous, too complicated for bike travel. So, we took their brand new, gas efficient but still incredibly wasteful, two-ton pickup truck.

I got really upset before we left. I raised my voice. My dad asked if these were safe-to-bike roads my mom and I would use to get to Walmart. No, of course not. 12th Street NE is okay, but then there’s South Dakota Avenue and Riggs Road. No trip in America has all safe-to-bike roads — even in dense DC, even immediately next to the Metropolitan Branch Trail, even with an affordable-to-rent pedal-assist bike. I’m an expert bike rider, but I’m their son. Routes I use every day could take my life — the roads they understandably don’t ever want to take even though they genuinely do want to bike more and drive less. I got hit by cars three times in 2019; twice less than a half-mile from my apartment, all three on what DC officials signify with signs and Google Maps data as a bike-friendly route.

Thes gaps in safe-for-all, inviting-for-even-novices walk/bike infrastructure exist all across America, even and especially in the DC area. Counting hundreds of miles of off-street trails won’t fix a damn thing until those trails go directly to the doorsteps of most housing, most jobs, most retail, and most entertainment. These gaps — that anger and frustration I let explode out of me because we had to take an expensive, wasteful car for a short, daily trip — are why these kinds of big announcements about better bike/walk infrastructure don’t get many more people to take up biking for commuting and errands. How will they get to those trails from their houses, their offices? Is it safe for a fixed-income, new and not-yet-confident rider who doesn’t want to get hurt by crazy drivers trying to make a rushed, no-mirror-check zipper merge onto an I-66 ramp?

The College Park, MD Mayor sits on the TPB and is very supportive of the announced bike/walk trails expansion. But, his city and Prince George’s County generally, is extremely unsafe and hostile to ride bikes for transportation. The gentleman of color riding an affordable bike making an obviously non-recreation trip pictured at the top was riding eastbound on University Blvd. He was using the sidewalk because there’s no safe biking infrastructure on the major, high-speed road. He spent several minutes trying to use the crosswalk in a slip lane from University onto Riggs Rd while dozens of drivers didn’t yield for him as the law compels them to. So, I used my white privilege and lack of fear about death to step into the crosswalk and stop that traffic. I stood there and had him cross while I stopped traffic in place of the law and human decency.

That scene is common across the DC region in places where “no one rides a bicycle” or “it would be a death wish to try walking to the store” within a mile or two of what regional groups call a world-class bike/walk facility. The University/Riggs intersection, a nightmare of two state-run roads barely more than a mile from the DC line, plops between the Metropolitan Branch Trail and the Northeast Branch Trail. What the Hell is someone supposed to do if they live more than a stone’s throw East or West of these 1,500 miles of amazing, happy-graphic-rendering map lines?

What hopes does the DC region have to invite people like my parents into biking for errands when the roads around the trails don’t change? Cities like College Park welcome walk/bike trail expansion but don’t build protected bike infrastructure and safe-for-all sidewalks on direct route roads like Route 1, so we couldn’t bike back to my apartment from the College Park Lidl with groceries.

Inform: Most Bike/Walk Trails Designed for High-Income White Peoples’ Recreation

The two elephants of the room in this discussion are that 1. much of the public benefit from these multi-use trails is as a recreation amenity rather than core transportation route; 2. lots of people ride bikes and walk where public commentators say it would be crazy to try; those people tend to be lower-income and people of color riding department store bikes in non-rush hours.

The aforementioned W&OD Arlington widening is justified because that specific section is used for both daily transportation and recreation — so much so that the 10-12-foot trail needs 16-20 feet of width to accommodate the demand (i.e. only 1.5-2 car lanes of width).

Beyond the rare few veteran bike commuters, most people drive cars to access the W&OD trail. How else would you get there when you’d have to bike on freaking Gallows Road? In steps the car as a god of the gaps: how we get to the places we feel safe biking and walking because the places we actually live, work, and shop are connected by dangerous, designed for only cars, roads.

Include: Low-Income, Poor, Even Middle Class in Nice Suburbs Must use Sidewalks or Shoulders Near Trails

My parents live 1.7 miles from an incredible walk/bike trail built on an old rail alignment: the Macomb Orchard Trail. It connects North up to the farms and Cider of Michigan’s Thumb, and West into Oakland County with the Clinton River Trail and the North-South Paint Branch Trail. My parents live less than two miles from River Bends Park, where a series of paved trails could take them 20+ miles to the Huron-Clinton Metropark at Lake Saint Clair. They live four miles from one of the Detroit-area’s best 6-10 mile bike loops at Stony Creek, another Huron-Clinton Metropark.

Despite my parents living so close to perhaps the best of Southeast Michigan’s all-ages, all-abilities bike trails, they still have to drive to them or ride on sidewalks from their house. Because their local Shelby Township, Macomb County, and the State of Michigan design suburban roads — even the ones with only two lanes — to carry dangerous, scary, 45 mph traffic. This is true of surface transportation infrastructure all across America and it’s damn true in the DC area.

Street Justice readers wrote in with the following anecdotes of unsafe roads around our region’s prized walk/bike routes. Also, these are areas where people do ride bikes and walk for commuting/core trips, even though privileged people say it would be crazy to do so.

I definitely see it in PG around W. Hyattsville metro and on NW Branch Trail. Also on University Blvd.”

Sudley Road/234 Business in Prince William County just South of I-66. Trails leading up to I-95 overpasses in Prince William County are missing safe connections but people still cross to get to work and shopping.” … “Ditto for goat trails across I66 ramps.”

Much of adjacent PG County (Annapolis road/450, Landover road/202, Kenilworth ave, Riverdale road/410). Worse, neighborhoods are often designed not to connect with surrounding areas, so to get anywhere you need to be on an arterial road, whether or not you're in a car. My bike ride to work ends near the New Carrollton Metro, and I could shave off probably 4 miles if it was even a little safe to be on those roads. alas.”

Pretty much anywhere in [DC] Ward 8.” … “Contrary to the popular representation working-class/people of color do use bikes here in Ward 8. Though the lack of safe-for-all bike/walk is by design here. Remember the erasing of Alabama Ave bike lane and excluding W8 from slow/safe streets initiatives recently?”

Bike commuter riding from White Oak Apts to [Downtown Silver Spring] enduring the labyrinth across Lockwood, weaving through Traders Joe's hellacious parking lot, up the US-29 Woodmoor Hill sidewalk or worse in the SB US-29. ‘Bicycles may use full lane’ insanity because there isn't a sidewalk Southbound.”

There is a REAL gap in resource allocation from MDSHA [Maryland state highway that runs most of the important Prince George’s roads.] for the unincorporated county region in PGC, for example, Chillum. Working-class people can't pay city (e.g. Art District Cities) staff to lobby the state for grants and CIP [capital budget] finds nor do they have time to engage county as wage earners.”

It's a bit outside DC, but basically of Route 1 in Howard and Prince George's (though once inside the beltway it's not nearly as hostile).”

Lots of folks (many Black) cross Eastern Avenue on foot -- south of Riggs Rd., it's half a mile to the next marked crosswalk, but the grocery store [a nice Giant], church, and barbershop on the other side.”

Check out Queen’s Chapel Road in Prince George’s County between the D.C. line and Hyattsville shopping centers. A ton of people walk and bike on the shoulder where there is little space and no protection from auto traffic.” [Street Justice covered safety upgrades coming to Queens Chapel that do not add all-ages, all-abilities bike/walk facilities.]

Equip: How to Improve On-Street Connections to Trails

Please sign onto the letter to MDSHA to fix the Sligo Creek Trail crossings at MD212 and MD410!”: https://secure.everyaction.com/8JDcSUFQYkeWAE9FJmTz5g2

It goes without saying that those 1,500 miles of bike/walk trails for which TPB set a goal aren’t a fait accompli. There are 3-15 years more of lobbying, environmental study, design planning, and funding to get in capital budgets. That all doesn’t happen without citizen input and support, from long-range planning to capital budgeting like buying the damn Wendy’s.

The best way to improve the on-street connections to these rail trails is to participate in public comment periods and public meetings held by the TPB Citizen Advisory, NoVA Parks, M-NCPPC (think Capital Crescent/Georgetown Branch Trail crossings at Jones Mill, Connecticut, and Little Falls Parkway), the DC-area’s citizens advisories (e.g., Alexandria Bike and Pedestrian Advisory), and lobby your local governments for greater road space for bikes and pedestrians when they do capital budgeting like improving bridges as part of the I-66 Outside the Beltway and Inside the Beltway upgrades (or Quincy St crossings of I-66 and Lee Highway in North Arlington where locals aren’t historically supportive of bike infrastructure).

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News Tidbits

  1. Metro’s Finances Are Headed For A Tough 2021. It’s Calling On Congress To Offer Transit Agencies Relief” by Jordan Pascale (WAMU-FM, NPR DC)

Surveys/Public Comment Periods

Social Media Activity

ICYMI: In the last Street Justice, we explained DC Council's latest moves to better organize and regulate self-driving car tests in DC. Also, there's info on two pilot projects where small, slow, electric shuttles are running on fixed routes using AI tech.

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  • I hope to cover the public events highlighted below in person.

Wed 8/12: Arlington County Pedestrian Advisory Committee via Microsoft Teams [Agenda | Join via Device | Join via Phone: 347-973-6905 with ID 190-502-685#]

Wed 8/19: 2020 Safe Walking Summit, hosted by Northern Virginia Regional Commission [Details | RSVP]

Tues 9/15 - Wed 9/16: 2020 AARP Livable Communities Transportation Workshop [Details]

Upcoming Street Justice Livestream Broadcasts

Wed 9/2: ANC 1C (Adams Morgan) Virtual Meeting via Zoom [Details | Join via Zoom with Password 734886 | Livestream on YouTube]

DISCLAIMER: Street Justice is subjective journalism. We produce factually accurate, thoroughly reported content. We write with a personal and opinionated voice, contrary to “view from nowhere” journalism that produces an unrealistically symmetrical portrayal of matters in dispute. Where there are power dynamics, Street Justice applies greater scrutiny to agents and stakeholders with greater privilege and more questionable motives.

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