Jul 19, 2022 - News

The future of Beach Drive and D.C. traffic

People ride bikes on along Beach Drive in Rock Creek Park.
People bike along Beach Drive. Photo: Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The battle for Beach Drive continued last night as Washingtonians shared their thoughts at a public hearing on whether the stretch of Rock Creek Park should belong to drivers or parkgoers.

Driving the news: After closing it in April 2020, the National Park Service wants to keep the roughly four-mile stretch of Beach Drive closed to cars during the summer months, holidays, and weekends. 

  • A plan released by the Park Service earlier this month called this solution a compromise for commuters and those who visit the park for recreational purposes.
  • Before the pandemic, Beach Drive was closed on weekends and holidays.

Why it matters: Washington area residents are passionate about the short stretch of road connecting Maryland to the District. The Park Service says it received 4,100 individual comments during the previous comment period, and last night roughly 200 people attended the meeting.

Details: Before the pandemic, the road carried 5,500 to 8,000 drivers daily — that’s compared to 50,000 drivers a day on the park’s main thoroughfares, according to NPS. Assessments determined that the road closure would only create minor traffic delays and impacts.

During Beach Drive's pandemic closure, the park has seen an increase in visitors. But, more recreational access to the park could lead to the creation of more unauthorized trails, which can harm animal and plant habitats.

  • NPS officials say it's harder to make these types of trails during summer when foliage is at its thickest. That's part of the reason why the agency wants to allow cars during fall, winter, and spring, since vehicles make unauthorized areas more difficult for pedestrians to access.

What they’re saying: Ahead of yesterday’s meeting, the People’s Alliance for Rock Creek released a statement saying the summertime closure plan doesn’t go far enough. Instead, the group wants the road to be car-free year-round.  

Attendees weren't able to speak during the virtual meeting last night, but they could leave questions and comments in the chat. The majority of those who commented were in favor of closing the road year-round.

Park superintendent Julia Washburn says the agency takes all comments into consideration but, "this is not a vote."

  • Flashback: The D.C. Council, the Montgomery County Council, and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton all asked that NPS keep the area closed to traffic.

During the meeting, many commenters voiced concerns about people with disabilities being able to access the park when Beach Drive is open to cars. Others said the plan should at least be 50/50, with Beach Drive open six months of the year and closed for the remaining six. Some argued that cars have a number of alternate routes but pedestrians and cyclists do not.

  • Climate was also a concern. "It just seems to me that anyone serious about the climate crisis recognizes that we cannot continue to prioritize cars — among our greatest polluters and most dangerous to all users — above cycling and public transit," one commenter said.
  • "What is the purpose of a park? A place for commuters to pass through or a place to hike, bike, run, and enjoy?" another commenter asked.

But, some attendees were in favor of opening the road to cars, especially those who live nearby and want to avoid having commuters detour through residential side streets:

  • "I live in a community adjacent to the park and walk Beach Drive during rush hour," a commenter said. "I don't want thousands of extra cars coming through my neighborhood ... bringing pollution and endangering the children and the elderly."
  • Others argued that some members of the disability community can only access the park via car and were also in favor of keeping it open.

The Park Service made it clear that the Beach Drive closure plan could change in the future based on the needs of the park. The final decision likely won't be made until fall, as the Park Service has to first go through all public comments.

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