The Palisades Trolley Trail runs along the Potomac River from the Palisades neighborhood to Georgetown. The only issue? Right now it’s not much of a trail at all. The former Glen Echo Trolley line corridor is overgrown and few people use it, so DC is looking at various options to revitalize it.
While many nearby residents support the project, a few vocal homeowners in the area object to the District Department of Transportation’s (DDOT) plans, saying that paving a trail through the area wouldn’t be good for the environment. Some have put up signs in their yards saying “Save not Pave.”
I love the Palisades Trolley Trail. It’s one of my favorite running trails, despite (or rather, because of) its unmaintained state. Our kids call the section where it crosses the creek the “secret passageway.” Set above lush riparian woods, it has the city’s best views of the Potomac.
But I also think the trail should be paved so that it’s accessible to all. As for those who object to DDOT’s revitalization project for not being “green”? I’d argue their conception of environmental good is narrower than the trail itself. (Thirty feet across, in case you were wondering.)
The current Trail is not “natural,” nor do many enjoy it
Those who oppose the revitalization plan often present the current state of the trail as “natural” and something that should be preserved. But this concept of “natural” seems to be based on the trail’s lack of traffic, minimal maintenance, and abundance of grasses (many of them non-native) that grow patchily along its length.
Remember, this path is a decommissioned rail line that previously connected Georgetown and Glen Echo. DDOT’s plans would simply return this public property back into use for transportation, this time in the form of an community trail for people bicycling, walking, and more.
This argument against making the trail accessible to all seems to hold nature as something something distinct from us, even within our urban environment. The idea is both historically inaccurate and ultimately destructive. When we view nature as separate from us, we become detached from the responsibility we have for it — a tendency that has helped lead us to our current climate crisis.
In contrast, when we weave the nature into our lives (and vice versa), we improve our health and well-being and form bonds with the natural world that last a lifetime. As researchers like Peter Kahn have pointed out, mental illness and mood disorders are more prevalent in cities, and reduced access to nature is a contributor. In Kahn’s words:
“There’s an enormous amount of disease largely tied to our removal from the natural environment… People must be able to interact with these elements using more of their senses in order to experience physical and psychological benefits of nature. Cities designed well, with nature in mind and at hand, can be understood as natural, supportive of both ecosystem integrity and public health.””
The Trolley Trail has the potential to bring this powerful “nature effect” into the lives of thousands of District residents. I have run its length three times over the last two months — each time in the early evening and in beautiful weather — and did not see a single other human being. That’s a shame, and it doesn’t have to be this way. A maintained trail would enable many people enjoy this stunning piece of public land.
Paving the trail would be the least environmentally destructive option
A few critics contend that maintaining the trail would be damaging to local flora and fauna. However, these concerns miss the forest for the trees (or more literally, miss the forest for some unruly grass).
Upgrading and maintaining the trail would result in minimal habitat loss. For most of its length, the trolley trail was up to 30 feet across, which is already so wide that no trees would need to be cut down. DDOT has also thought carefully — and solicited much input — on the plans, in particular, the material it would use.
The decomposed granite it plans to lay down is formed from the natural weathering and erosion of rock. It is inert and benign enough to be used as mulch. In fact, you can use the same stuff in your flower beds and tree boxes just as you would wood mulch. It is both stable and permeable, meaning that it will actually mitigate the trail’s current issues with erosion, run-off, and stagnant puddles after rain.
There is a bigger picture here
If you are concerned about the state of the environment and threats to wildlife, there is no bigger issue than climate change. This is true at a global level — the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change warning us of the potential loss of a million species worldwide — and it’s also true if you’re only concerned with the impact in our backyard. Warming temperatures are expanding the range of invasive species that outcompete and prey upon our native plants and animals, carry disease, and can fundamentally alter the entire food web, not to mention a host of other issues like flooding and extreme heat.
If we want to mitigate damage to our local ecosystems, we need to be engaged in the fight against global warming. This means doing everything we can to lower our carbon emissions, as well as creating a generation of environmental stewards. A more accessible, usable Trolley Trail would help achieve both of those aims.
Transportation accounts for the largest share of America’s emissions, and the second largest share of DC’s emissions (after buildings). If we want to achieve the District’s goal of being carbon neutral by 2050, we need to get people out of their personal vehicles and onto public transit, bikes, and their own two feet. As Brett Young pointed out in his article on this subject:
“There are currently zero bike lanes [in the Palisades], and the roads are dangerous for cyclists. There are four schools along this trail, and as DC pursues Vision Zero, it is important that children have a quality option to cycle to school. The Trolley Trail… could provide a safe option for students to commute.”
Communities along MacArthur Boulevard have limited transit options, with only periodic service from the D5 and D6 buses. At the same time, parking and traffic are continual problems in Georgetown. The trail could offer a sustainable transportation option to Palisades residents and visitors, while improving connectivity to Georgetown.”
In addition to the direct emissions reduction from having more people walk and bike, the Trolley Trail revitalization will have important secondary effects by normalizing car-free commuting and helping create a generation of kids better connected to nature for whom walking and biking is the norm. As Kahn’s research has shown, “Each generation creates its new idea of what’s environmentally normal based on experiences in childhood.”
Let’s make the Trolley Trail usable for everyone!
If you care about the environment, revitalizing the Trolley Trail is a no-brainer. It will give more people access to some of District’s most beautiful public land. It will help address — in a modest but meaningful way — our biggest environmental challenge by directly reducing transportation emissions. And it will help us raise a generation of local children with stronger connections to nature and the right environmental habits.
We are fortunate to live in a city that has committed itself to being the “healthiest, greenest, and most livable city in the United States.” Rehabilitating the Palisades Trolley Trail is an essential step in the right direction. You can learn more about efforts to rehabilitate the Palisades Trolley Trail at palisadesfamily.network, and can sign a petition to support our efforts here.