Photo by TrailVoice on Flickr.

The Metropolitan Police Department still has a little ways to go to get used to dealing with the Metropolitan Branch Trail. They successfully caught some kids trying to attack riders, but gave discouraging messages to riders and dispatchers still are having trouble with locations on the trail.

On Wednesday, a group of kids tried to taser someone riding along the trail. Fortunately, the cyclist avoided the attack and police responded quickly, though to no avail. Unfortunately, one of the officers advised the cyclist not to ride on the trail.

This is not a good message for the police to be spreading. Elizabeth Brooks Lyttleton wrote on the Met Branch Trail listserv,

Why are MPD officers telling people to avoid the MBT — it is completely counter-productive! The more people that use the trail, the more eyes will be on the trail, the less likely that kids will be able to attack people without getting caught!

I’m extremely disappointed in the response from the MPD — the message the officers conveyed was, “Don’t use the MBT, because it is a lawless zone. Sorry, not our problem.”

The good news is that the next day, the police caught the kids, or at least some kids with a taser. Richard Evans was in the area and noticed some kids holding a taser and matching the description from the original letter. He called police, who arrived and arrested the group.

Back in the bad news department, though, Evans had a lot of trouble getting the dispatcher to recognize the trail as a valid location. Evans wrote,

The dispatcher had no idea about the trail and kept asking me for a cross street over and over again. Essentially the trail marker wasn’t good enough. For that matter, even R street and MBT didn’t even satisfy him. I had to give him the nearest intersection before they would send someone out. By the time the I was able to satisfy the dispatcher, the kids were already at the next entrance. This is completely unacceptable.

I wrote about this issue almost a year ago when it similarly arose on the listserv after another failed attack on the trail. The DC 911/311 system, run by the Office of Unified Communications, requires a specific address or intersection to take a report, so dispatchers end up delaying with frustrated callers when incidents take place in areas without obvious addresses or cross streets.

The simple solution is to make the Metropolitan Branch Trail a “road” in the system, so that dispatchers can simply enter it. DDOT officials said a year ago that they had given the necessary geographic data layers to OUC and MPD to incorporate into the system, but it took a long time to load. I emailed DDOT and MPD officials about progress, and bike program head Jim Sebastian passed the question on to OCTO. They replied that the trail is now in the system:

Operators will be able to refer to trails as TRAIL — METROPOLITAN TRAIL AND NEW YORK AVE and obtain a location on the map. There are over 400 locations added to the map. Training the operators on this new functionality is next and that will occur June 14-16. It took too long to get them in there but at last that part is done. 311 map is next.

Meanwhile, members of the MBT listserv have started to organize “biking buddies” where people who regularly ride on the trail after dark can meet up at Union Station or other entry points and ride in groups. If you ride the trail or would like to, consider participating to make the trail safer for all. Join the listserv to find out more.

The trail is still new and doesn’t yet connect to all of the places it eventually will, like extending farther north and bridging to Rhode Island Avenue Metro. The Capital Crescent gets about 500 users an hour during its peak times, while the MBT is still around 500 a day. As the MBT increases its traffic, crime will become far more difficult to track.

Our own Stephen Miller, who works for Rails-to-(and-with)-Trails Conservancy for his day job, is organizing a Safety Open House on June 22, from 4 to 7 pm at 4th and S NE along the trail. They’ve asked neighbors and people from MPD and DDOT to gather and talk about how to improve safety. Hopefully MPD will be able to announce by then that they’ve asked officers to encourage people to ride rather than discourage them, and that 911 dispatchers have been trained to know how to properly enter calls about trail incidents.

David Alpert created Greater Greater Washington in 2008 and was its executive director until 2020. He formerly worked in tech and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco Bay, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle.