Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

A group of young men tried to push a cyclist off his bike on the Metropolitan Branch Trail yesterday. When he called 911 to report the incident, the dispatcher seemed unable to enter the incident into the database because the trail isn’t a “street”.

Brookland resident Laura reported on the MPD 5th District community listserv,

My husband has started riding his bike on the Metropolitan Branch Trail between Brookland and downtown. Yesterday evening around 6:30pm a group of 6-8 young men were gathered along the trail in the area between the NY Ave Metro and Rhode Island Ave Metro, and attempted to push him off his bike. He was riding fast, so they weren’t able to do it, and fortunately nothing else happened.

However, he called MPD to report it, and felt like they weren’t aware of the trail or where it was. At one point he was transferred to Park Police, presumably because of the “trail” part, and then back to MPD, who didn’t seem sure what part of town he was talking about.

I thought I’d post this incident here, to make sure there’s awareness of the trail, and also the probable need for more police presence on it so bikers, walkers and commuters can feel safe using the trail.

A long-standing weakness in DC’s 911 service is its reliance on having a precise address to enter incidents in the database. In 2001, confusion over the address of the FDR memorial delayed emergency responders by 30 minutes. Residents of residential alleys also report having trouble getting police service.

DDOT’s Heather Deutsch said that DDOT is looking into ways to get the trail into the 911 database, perhaps even by coding it as a “street” not open to motor vehicles. The trail has solar-powered lighting (which isn’t the oxymoron it sounds like at first), but until the trail develops a heavier usage, it would help for MPD to patrol it and, most of all, to ensure that any problems reported can be quickly located and passed along to officers.

Update: MPD’s Lamar Greene followed up to say:

The Fifth District officers are aware of the trail and have begun patrolling the trail as a part of our normal duties, unfortunately the trail is secluded and I recommend utilizing a buddy system when traveling through the area. Unfortunately, we have made several arrests on the trail already for various disorderly issues that have been observed.

And Lieutenant Christopher Micciche wrote, “If the need to call 911 arises, please refer to the nearest cross-street and the railroad tracks.” In the past, at least, some have reported problems getting crime reports filed without precise addresses. If the system now supports more general locations, terrific.

Wayne Phyllaier suggests that DDOT post signs listing the cross streets. That would tell the trail user what information to give MPD if they have to report a problem. He says the Custis Trail uses this technique.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.