Washington Navy Yard Riverwalk. All photos by the author.

“Once complete,” the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative boasts, the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail “will provide seamless, scenic travel for pedestrians and bicyclists along the river.” But not exactly, and not for everyone.

Needless prohibitions at Yards Park and along the Washington Navy Yard Riverwalk ban bicycling along the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail from nearly the 11th Street Bridge to almost the Douglass Bridge.

That means riders trying to go to “the Fish Market, Nationals Park, Historic Anacostia, RFK Stadium, the National Arboretum and 16 communities between the National Mall at the Tidal Basin and Bladensburg Marina Park in Maryland” instead encounter something very different than the “seamless” connection they’re promised.

Yards Park unnecessarily bans bicycles

Rules and regulations for the Yards Park are unequivocal. They list “bike riding,” along with drug and alcohol use, smoking and “using more than one seat on a bench designed for sharing” among those activities prohibited by park guidelines.

The rules list no reason, but this most likely derives from a presumed conflict between cyclists and other users of the park, as is common on mixed-use paths. However, inside the park itself, that conflict doesn’t arise.

Boardwalk in Yards Park.

The path through the park, including the bridges from Diamond Teague Park and the boardwalk that runs to the entrance of the Washington Navy Yard, is quite wide (upwards of 30 feet in parts) and has plenty of space for many different kinds of users to mix.

Rather than contribute to conflicts, this vast amount of space gives ample room for cyclists to pass safely while still letting people on foot casually stroll or enjoy the view. Though the path does narrow at certain points, it still remains wide enough for mixed bicycle and pedestrian traffic.

This award-winning park is quite a lovely one. It could become an activity center in the Near Southeast neighborhood, as the home of restaurants and shops that will be genuine amenities for the nearby community. Yards Park has also hosted many community events, including last year’s celebration of bicycling, the Tour de Fat, hosted by New Belgium Brewery, which sought to “spread… the good word about the positive societal offerings of the bicycle.” The event raised over $20,000 for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association.

Banning bicycles seems contradictory to the goal of becoming a welcoming gathering place for an increasingly multi-modal neighborhood.

A Yards Park promotional sign prominently features bicycles.

Navy Yard Riverwalk unnecessarily bans bicycles

The Washington Navy Yard Riverwalk has, in the past few years, gone from completely prohibiting public access to limited public access on workdays, to expanded daytime access on weekdays, to daytime access seven days a week, to unlimited 24/7 public access, with the exception of closures for official events. Each successive increase in accessibility has been a step in the correct direction.

However, this increase is access does not extend to bicyclists. The Navy Yard Riverwalk rules prohibit bicycling, along with rollerblading and skateboarding. Child strollers and wheelchairs are still permitted. Much like the path through Yards Park, this section of the trail does not lack for space to accommodate of cyclists and pedestrians.

There is plenty of space on this part of the Navy Yard Riverwalk.

The Navy justifies the ban among the Frequently Asked Questions:

Q: Can I ride my bike or roller blade on the Riverwalk?

A: No. Bike riding, rollerblading, skateboarding, or scooter use is not permitted. The pedestrian bridge that makes up part of the Navy Yard’s Riverwalk is narrow, and cannot support intermingled pedestrian and any type of vehicular traffic. Child strollers and wheelchairs are allowed.

Employees exiting through turnstiles onto the Riverwalk will not have immediate situational awareness of their surroundings, and may not see oncoming vehicular traffic in time to avoid a collision. The reverse would be true for someone who is on a bicycle, skateboard, rollerblades or scooter who would suddenly be confronted with a pedestrian that emerged from a turnstile. This is an obvious safety concern as collisions would be unavoidable.

The pedestrian bridge mentioned above is about 60 feet long and approximately 5 feet across. It seems sensible to think that this is too narrow to be effectively and safely shared by pedestrians and cyclists.

The narrow, but short, bridge in the Navy Yard Riverwalk.

However, given that the bridge is only a very small section of the trail, it does not seem to justify banning bicycling throughout. The Navy could place a “Dismount Bikes When Pedestrians Present” sign here and permit bicycling in the other, wider sections that make up the overwhelming majority of the Navy Yard Riverwalk.

Perhaps more curious is the reference to the security-controlled turnstiles that sporadically provide access from the trail to the facilty and vice versa.

Turnstiles to enter or exit the Navy Yard along the Riverwalk.

On the other side of the 3 of 4 turnstiles are parking lots. Presumably, the lack of situational awareness that accompanies the use of a turnstile proves to be no problem when heading the other direction, and while collisions with bicyclists, rollerbladers, skateboarders and scooter users are unavoidable, collisions with automobiles are not.

Unless a cyclist were riding within a few feet nearest to the turnstile and fence that separate the facility from the Riverwalk (and given the width of the trail, this seems unlikely), there is no good reason to believe that a collision would obviously occur.

There are far less burdensome ways to keep pedestrians safe

In both the case of the Navy Yard and Yards Park, the outright bans are clumsy approaches to the commendable goal of pedestrian safety. As the pictures above show, both facilities have more than enough room for users on foot and on bicycles to share them effectively. Each is even vastly wider than the region’s shared mixed-use paths, like the Capital Crescent Trail and the Mount Vernon Trail.

To better help different users share the trail, there could be elements as simple as signs asking pedestrians and bicyclists to be mindful or each other, or painted sharrows, pointing out the preferred path for bicyclists through the area. Efforts to keep pedestrians safe need not come at the cost of removing Yards Park and the Navy Yard Riverwalk as destinations for people arriving by bicycle.

If Yards Park and the Navy Yard Riverwalk continue to ban bicycling, the alternative options for cyclists traveling along the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail from areas such as Hill East, Kingman Park, the Southwest Waterfront or East Potomac Park include crossing the Anacostia River on the 11th Street Bridge and then recrossing on the Douglass Bridge, bicycling along the 6-lane M Street SE/SW, or diverting to L Street SE, a quiet neighborhood street that is amenable to biking, but not in any way along the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail.

“The rules against biking in Yards Park and on the Navy Yard Riverwalk are frustrating for a few reasons — first and foremost being that no one would naturally assume that bikes aren’t allowed in these attractive, convenient, and spacious waterfront areas,” writes David Garber, neighborhood commissioner in ANC 6D.

“If we are 100% about encouraging biking in DC, especially in a neighborhood often touted by District officials as being multi-modal, our rules about biking have to match our talk.” Garber plans to introduce resolutions encouraging a closer look at these rules at a future ANC meeting.

The Anacostia Riverwalk Trail provides a genuine alternative to bicycling along city streets. For families, beginner cyclists and those who wish to enjoy a quiet ride in a natural environment, this link will prove vital to Washington’s transportation and recreation system. However, bicycle bans jeopardize these seamless, off-street connections.

Mayor Gray, DDOT and local stakeholders must work with Yards Park and the Washington Navy Yard to balance the needs of pedestrian safety with the the need for a continuous bicycling corridor in this part of the District. People on bicycles and on foot can coexist, and our trails and public spaces must demonstrate this fact.