I’m biking on the Suitland Parkway Trail to work, swerving around broken glass and under low-hanging tree branches. Highway traffic roars past just inches away. Suddenly, the trail ends.
Friday is the official Bike to Work Day, so on Monday, I did a test-run of a new route from my home in Trinidad to work in Suitland. What I found is that DC, Prince George’s County, and the National Park Service, which maintains Suitland Parkway, still have a long way to go to make cycling a viable option for many communities east of the Anacostia River.
Suitland Parkway is a near-freeway connecting neighborhoods like Anacostia, Barry Farm, and Shipley Terrace to employment centers at Suitland and Andrews Air Force Base. Next to it is the Suitland Parkway Trail, a bike highway similar to the Mount Vernon Trail in Northern Virginia, but it doesn’t make it out of the District. It appears to be DDOT’s responsibility to maintain the trail, but judging from the lack of maintenance, it’s clearly not a priority for them.
After a pleasant ride southbound against the commute rush on Martin Luther King Avenue, I turn onto Sheridan Road SE. This on-street section is the western extension of the Suitland Parkway Trail. It could certainly use sharrows or even a bike lane/cycle track, as the travel lanes are very wide.
Construction debris from the unfinished Sheridan Station development litters the sidewalk adjacent to the road. I swerve around something that was burned to the curb cut and a pile of mulch that sprawls onto the trail. There’s no clear signage for the trailhead, but this is where it starts.
This is the nicest part of the trail in the city, though. There’s separation from the parkway, and weeds and garbage haven’t colonized the path yet.
It quickly gets worse, though. In some areas, there’s so much underbrush, weeds, plant debris, garbage, and broken glass on the far side of the trail that there’s just one passable “lane.” I’m now limited to a space 3 feet wide, keenly aware that cars traveling over 50 miles per hour are just inches away.
The trail separates from the parkway for a short distance, where it’s quickly overtaken by nature.
Grass grows through cracks in the pavement, reaching the point where the trail needs to be completely rebuilt. The surface is completely broken here.
When I get back to the parkway, the lane farthest from the road is still blocked, whether by trash and dead leaves or by low-hanging tree branches. I either have to get off my bike or move into oncoming traffic to pass it.
There’s a speed limit sign placed not next to the trail, but in it. There’s plenty of room 4 feet to the right.
Here’s an uncharacteristically clear section of the trail. It’s right in front of the speed limit sign, though, so I get the feeling it was kept that way so drivers could see the sign.
East of Stanton Road, the garbage littering the path makes me think I’ve found a mobile automobile repair shop.
A stream culvert passes under the trail and road here. Unfortunately, it narrows the trail.
This is the steepest climb on the trail, though thankfully it’s much less steep than taking parallel streets like Good Hope Road or Pennsylvania Avenue. Here, you reach two places where the trail is collapsing due to erosion of the ground below.
After crossing two exit ramps, the trail continues under the Alabama Avenue bridge. The trail is very overgrown here, and I can pick out mulberries, Ailanthus (Tree of Heaven), Virginia creeper, and other weedy plants overrunning the pavement.
Under the bridge, the trail is barely 3 feet wide, making it impossible for two cyclists to pass each other here. The lanes of the parkway must be at least 12 feet wide, and they should be narrowed to give enough space for the trail.
If you haven’t noticed by now, the parkway itself has a brand-new layer of asphalt, while the adjacent trail has not seen the same level of care or investment.
At Southern Avenue, the boundary between DC and Prince George’s County, the trail abruptly ends.
I trudge up the hill through waist-high weeds to get to Southern Avenue. To add insult to injury, there’s no gap in the guard rail, so you have to lift your bike over the rail to get to the sidewalk.
Improving the Suitland Parkway Trail is a chicken-and-egg argument: no one uses it because it goes nowhere, so it isn’t used, which means it isn’t maintained. But if the District and Prince George’s County are serious about making cycling a viable option for communities east of the Anacostia River, they have to do a better job of creating trails and other infrastructure, and they have to actually maintain them. If our leaders are serious about all their claims about “One City” and working with our neighbors, they’d sit down together and find a way to make this a priority.
There are rumors that the trail will one day extend to at least the Branch Avenue Metro station, if not farther south to Andrews. In 1994, the National Park Service did a feasibility study of extending the trail, but nearly 20 years later, nothing has happened.
It’s also unclear who would be in charge of this construction, the National Park Service or Prince George’s County. I’ll believe that the local governments actually see some level of priority here when I see shovels in the ground.
In the meantime, DDOT and Mayor Gray should at least send a crew to pick up debris and clear the underbrush so what’s there can be used by District cyclists and pedestrians. It’s literally the least they could do.