Work to reconstruct a nearly 6.5 mile stretch of Beach Drive, from Rock Creek Parkway to the Maryland line, will start soon. That will mean closing a section of the road that the National Park Service, environmentalists, and cyclists have long wanted to close but that motorists and some neighbors have fought to keep open.
The work, which the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) will oversee, will happen in five phases, with a section of Beach Drive closing for between four and eight months during each phase. The fourth phase will involve the section of Beach that runs from Joyce Road to Broad Branch Road, which officials have considered closing in the past but have not due to strong opposition.
The closures could be a chance for traffic engineers and Park staff to study the impacts of closing parts of Beach Drive to cars.
There was a movement to close Beach Drive in the 60s and 70s
Rock Creek Park has a long history of turning its roads over to cyclists and pedestrians. The first time Beach was limited to bike and pedestrian traffic was in 1966, on the section from Joyce Road to Broad Branch on Sunday mornings only. Over the following years, additional sections of roads eventually closed, and for more of the weekend. There was even an experiment with closing a lane of the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway north of Virginia Avenue for a week.
Efforts to encourage recreation in Rock Creek Park, and to make it more of a park and less of a commuter route, continued through the 1970s. Pointing to how both Central Park and Prospect Park in New York City had seen success with limiting car traffic, NPS announced in 1983 that it would gradually close the section of Beach from Joyce to Broad Branch.
At first, one lane would be reserved for cyclists and joggers during weekday rush hours, and the lane pointed in the direction of the rush hour commute would stay open to cars. Later, once the Red Line was completed beyond Van Ness, the Park Service planned to place a gate near Boulder Bridge and permanently close the section of Beach from there to Joyce.
Political pressure has pushed against efforts for long-term closures
Three months later, however, under pressure from automobile groups, commuters, and the DC Department of Public Works and Transportation, the Park Service backed off from that plan and decided to keep Beach open. Instead they promised to build a 2.5 mile trail on that section of Beach Drive. Later, due to the constrained geography of the area and the objection of the National Parks and Conservation Association, the plans for the trail fell through altogether.
In 1988, a FHWA report concluded that Beach Drive was getting more traffic than it could handle. Since expanding the road wasn’t an option, FHWA recommended adding tolls, instituting HOV requirements, or permanently closing all or part of Beach Drive.
The report, along with the limited impact of a 10-week closure of the Zoo Tunnel in 1990, emboldened both activists and the Park Service to again look at further limiting automobile traffic in the park.
The process of writing Rock Creek Park’s General Management Plan (GMP), which lasted from 1996 to 2006, turned into a showdown between the People’s Alliance for Rock Creek Park (PARC), a coalition of environmental and cycling advocacy organizations in support of closing Beach Drive, and a less-organized coalition of Maryland commuters, Park neighbors, and motorist organizations, like AAA.
The fight over how to use Beach Drive left it open for cars
Several possibilities for closing Beach Drive received consideration, and advocates for limiting automobile traffic finally settled on a compromise to close only the section between Joyce and Broad Branch— the same section as in 1983, where no trail exists and where Ross Drive is an alternative— in the time between rush hours.
But in 2005, the Park Service, again facing opposition from commuters, automobile advocates, and political leaders like Maryland’s congressional delegation, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the majority of the DC Council (Phil Mendelson, Jack Evans and Harold Brazil, all who had supported the closures) and others, chose a different option that was close to the status quo: leave the road open during the entire weekday.
Despite a 2004 traffic study that found midday limits on Beach Drive between Broad Branch and Joyce would have “minimal impact” on travel times and on nearby streets, especially if drivers were encouraged to use Ross Drive and Glover Road, one of the main concerns of the GMP was spillover traffic.
In fact, all of the letters from members of Congress were about the closures, ignoring all other aspects about the GMP. They questioned the utility of the closures, criticized the methodology of the traffic study, expressed fear that diverting traffic onto other roads would be unsafe and inefficient, and promised to find money for a trail in this section.
DC Councilmember Carol Schwartz, for example, feared that closing any part of Beach Drive at any time during the week would have “severe” impacts on Cleveland Park, Crestwood and Mount Pleasant.
Another concern, brought up by Maryland Representative Chris Van Hollen, was that closing this section to through traffic would limit access for those with disabilities. NPS pointed out that “all park facilities, such as picnic areas, parking lots, historical features, and trails, would continue to be available to visitors traveling by automobile. The only limitation would be on driving the length of Beach Drive between these facilities.”
Instead of midday closures, NPS proposed a lower speed limit in this section, down to 20 mph, increased enforcement, and speed bumps or speed tables. But to date, none of those things have actually happened.
NPS also promised to improve the existing trail south of Broad Branch— a process which is, finally, nearly underway— and study expanding the trail north of Broad Branch to Joyce. The upcoming projects will not build a trail north of Broad Branch, nor are there any plans to ever do so. It’s not clear that there was ever money to study the trail in that segment or if a study was performed.
Upcoming work is a chance to test some of these hypotheses
Phase four of the Beach Drive rehabilitation project involves the closure of the very section of Beach Drive, Joyce to Broad Branch, that faced opposition in 1983 and 2005. Will the impact of such closures— during the midday, not rush hour— be “minimal,” as the Park Service concluded, or will it be “severe?” Will neighborhood roads be filled with traffic? Will safety be compromised? Will travel times dramatically increase? Will those with disabilities stay away from the park? And what are the impacts during rush hours?
We’ll now get a chance to study these things in a much more robust way—during a real-world experiment, which is exactly what Norton, Van Hollen, Mikulski and others asked for.
Unfortunately, since the road won’t be open for non-automobile traffic, we won’t be able to determine to what extent its closure would increase recreational use.
With phase four still more than a year away, now is the time for DDOT and FHWA to put a plan to study the impacts into place. There is still no trail on the section of Beach Road between Broad Branch and Joyce. Perhaps such a study will show something two reports have already shown: limiting this section to non-automobile use, for part of the day or permanently, is not that big of a deal.