Recreation and conservation advocates today sharply admonished the National Park Service (NPS) for deciding to allow commuting auto traffic on upper Beach Drive in Rock Creek Park for nine months out of the year.
“We thank NPS for the summertime offer of a safe and quiet park, but that’s not good enough,” said Peter Harnik, coordinator of the People’s Alliance for Rock Creek (PARC). “Our goal is an upper Beach Drive that’s free of through-traffic all year—the way it’s been since the beginning of the Covid crisis.”
PARC expressed its dissatisfaction in a nearly 5,000-word letter charging NPS with numerous procedural and substantive errors in reaching its compromise. PARC asked the agency to pull back its ruling and remedy the defects before moving forward.
PARC was critical of NPS for providing almost no numerical data supporting its decision, particularly ignoring the overwhelming popularity and heavy use of the car-free sections of roadway since the onset of the pandemic. When the agency in 2021 asked the public to weigh in on the deliberations, comments in favor of permanent auto restrictions outscored calls to return the traffic by 1,838 to 343.
“We outscored them better than five to one,” said Harnik, “plus we received powerful resolutions of endorsement from the D.C. Council and the Montgomery County Council and support from U.S. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton.”
“This decision was based on a poorly designed traffic study by the D.C. Department of Transportation rather than on what is best for the environment of the nation’s third oldest national park,” said Jim McCarthy, another PARC leader
The DDOT study, according to PARC, used traffic numbers from 2019—before the disruptions of the pandemic—and then made growth projections far into the future, with no adjustments for the decline in downtown office use and related commuter traffic that have occurred in the past 28 months. “The traffic impacts from closing Upper Beach Drive to cars have already happened. You don’t need a model to tell you what they might be,” said McCarthy.
PARC points to studies by Metro, a downtown office company and even a downtown restaurant chain that show the radically reduced number of downtown workers. Downtown office growth is projected to be slow because of telework, and it may never completely rebound.
Since April, 2020, because of the Covid pandemic, upper Beach Drive has been commuter-free full-time. It has been heavily used by thousands of walkers, runners, cyclists, dog-walkers, parents with strollers and people using wheelchairs and walkers.
When volunteers closely studied the use of upper Beach Drive in the fall of 2020, they counted more than 28,000 cyclists, runners and walkers over a 163-hour period on weekdays between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m.
Even though Rock Creek Park is located in Washington, D.C., it is a national park owned and managed by the federal government.
PARC is the coalition which pressed the Park Service to institute the first auto restrictions. That occurred in the early 1980s and was limited to weekends and holidays.
Among the organizations supporting the PARC position are Washington Area Bicyclist Association, Sierra Club, Ward 3 Bicycle Advocates, Greater Greater Washington, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Capital Trails Coalition, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks.
Additional supporting organizations include Adventure Cycling Association, Anacostia Watershed Society, Audubon Naturalist Society, Bethesda BIKE Now, Cleveland Park Smart Growth, Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail, Coalition for Smarter Growth, DC Environmental Network, DC Statehood-Green Party, DC Sustainable Transportation Coalition, District Velocity Racing, E-Bike Lovers, Interfaith Power & Light DMV, Open Streets Montgomery, Potomac Pedalers, Virginia Bicycling Federation, Ward3Vision and Washington Parks and People.