Saturday was the official opening of the Wilson Bridge active transportation crossing. It’s hard to find a better facility in the region. Beginning at the Mount Vernon Trail on South Washington Street in Alexandria, the path is wide and spacious to accommodate all users, the kiosks along the route are informative and the view north is spectacular. On the Maryland side, the bridge over the Beltway is beautiful and the curving ramps down to ground level, while steep, are not too sharp. Everyone who worked on this project, including engineers, advocates, politicians and planners, should be congratulated for a job well done.
However, the honeymoon comes to a screeching halt upon reaching the pathway that leads to National Harbor. The trail connection is crushed asphalt; after a short distance the trail enters National Harbor property and changes to a crushed clamshell surface trail known as the Harborwalk. Upon reaching the “downtown” of National Harbor, cyclists on Saturday encountered a security guard ordering them to dismount. While the guard was friendly, the presence of a uniformed officer whose sole duty is to tell a cyclist not to ride her bike hardly makes a place bike-friendly.
The security guard and another employee both told me that there were no bike racks in the entire National Harbor facility. In fact, hoop racks have been installed along Waterfront Street, although there are no racks where the trail enters the complex. As a result, cyclists locked wherever space could be found - on lamp and sign posts, along railings and next to trash cans. During the afternoon, crowd control barriers were set up to provide temporary parking near the trailhead. “We were totally unprepared for this,” the guard told me, as if the Wilson Bridge opening was a secret and no one bothered to tell National Harbor. Rocell Viniard, director of marketing for National Harbor, told me later that developer the Peterson Companies was well aware of the Wilson Bridge path opening even if that awareness didn’t travel down the command chain. She also said that National Harbor is looking to install bike racks where the Harborwalk enters the downtown area and that there is a possibility that the Harborwalk would be paved in the future, though she stressed that the pathway was intended for leisure walks and jogs by hotel guests and residents, who appreciate the look and feel of a crushed clamshell surface.
Bicycle advocates are dissatisfied. Jim Hudnall of the Oxon Hill Bicycle and Trail Club said that “more will be done to improve the [National Harbor] connection, but it is not clear who will do what” to improve the section between the Wilson Bridge trail and National Harbor property. Noting that this section was until last Wednesday “mostly mud” and that the crushed asphalt “was a quick fix done at the end of last week,” Hudnall is not sure why the trail was not paved to the National Harbor property line in the first place. Eric Gilliland of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association calls the new Wilson Bridge crossing an “incredible facility” but is also not satisfied with the Maryland side. “The connection into National Harbor needs to be paved and signed and more bike parking is needed at National Harbor itself,” he says. In addition, “the connection from the end of the National Harbor access trail at Oxon Hill Road to Oxon Hill Farm and the Oxon Run Trail needs to be made a priority.” WABA is also calling for the elimination of the 10 mph speed limit on the Wilson Bridge trail and the repeal of rules limiting bridge access to between 5:30 am and midnight.
National Harbor’s approach to cyclists and pedestrians is short-sighted. If the property’s management was caught off-guard by the increased demand for cycling access, shame on them. The Wilson Bridge crossing was years in the works and provides a direct connection to the Mount Vernon Trail, one of the nation’s most popular trails for tourists, commuters and local residents. Perhaps without even intending to, National Harbor is writing off a significant potential customer base. National Harbor’s windshield perspective is evident on its website’s directions page, which has detailed freeway directions and a small link to a Metrobus schedule for the route that serves its facility. There is not a single mention of walking or biking.
Let’s put this in perspective. For car drivers, this would be like driving on a new freeway, only for the off-ramp to the nearby mall to suddenly become a dirt road. Then, after driving down the dirt road to the mall, a posted guard tells drivers to get out of their cars. He then says that the mall’s management had no idea a new freeway was opening, didn’t expect people to drive there, that there isn’t any parking and that they don’t ever plan to pave the dirt road since it looks pretty the way it is. If that’s unacceptable for our automobile infrastructure, this is unacceptable for our active transportation infrastructure.
We already knew that National Harbor was designed and built with minimal consideration for transit access. Now we also know that the same amount of thought was given to those who arrive by bike and on foot. Despite claims by Rocell Viniard of National Harbor that “we are thrilled to welcome the cyclists to National Harbor and are making every effort to make it as convenient as possible,” it seems the only types of customers National Harbor has bothered to accommodate with any level of seriousness are those who arrive by car or boat.