Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

The National Park Service leaves the District's bicyclists 'concerned'

August 30, 2011 - 03:18 PM
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Do cyclists have a place on the GW Parkway? (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The National Park Service recently issued a statement from the superintendent of the George Washington Memorial Parkway declaring that bikes don't belong on the GW Parkway or the Clara Barton Parkway. Why? Well, "the roadways of the Parkways are too narrow and unsafe to allow both bicyclists and motorists utilize the same roadway lanes," NPS says. The statement plays up the risks — narrow lanes, storm inlets that could catch bicyclists, the millions of vehicles that visit the parkways. NPS suggests that bicyclists take advantage of nearby alternative routes, such as on the Mount Vernon Trail.

Washington Area Bicyclist Association director Shane Farthing has objected to how NPS frames the issue. He calls the logic "deeply flawed" and says it "leads to a conclusion that unfairly prevents cyclists from accessing a portion of the National Park that is made accessible to other transportation 'visitors.'" He says this move "furthers concerns" about how the NPS gets along with the region's bicyclists.

The question of how to balance the different vehicles on the GW Parkway has been ongoing. Remember the three-car crash that happened in late July when a car tried to let a bicyclist cross the road? At the time, Stephen Miller suggested HAWK signals: "HAWK signals are activated by the crosswalk user and installed at locations where a traditional stop light would not meet traffic engineering standards," Miller wrote. "Research has shown that HAWK signals are not only more effective than other traffic signals at getting motorists to safely stop at the crosswalk, they reduce traffic delay compared to traditional signalized mid-block pedestrian signals." Park Police have created their own issues on the GW Parkway, such as at the beginning of this month. My colleague Andrew Beaujon reported that, when a driver slowed to let him bike across at a GW Parkway crossing, an officer threatened to ticket the driver. Then there was the whole issue of the NPS saying Capital Bikeshare stations don't belong on the National Mall.

On some level, I can understand the NPS's concern about biking on the George Washington Memorial Parkway. There are a lot of crazy turns on the GW Parkway, and idea of biking along it seems a little hectic. Have any of you done so before? I wonder about the experience. But the NPS shouldn't have dismissed the idea of bikes on the road, just as it shouldn't have shut down the idea of bikeshare stations on the Mall and should be open to meeting with Farthing on these issues now.

What's NPS's problem in all these instances? The organization doesn't get the new language of transit.

The new language of transit incorporates all these biking, driving, and pedestrian dimensions in a meaningful way not always apparent to traditional transportation and parks officials. It's one of the same mistakes that Rep. Eric Cantor committed in discussing bikeshare programs — he indicated that they don't constitute a form of transit, and in doing so, revealed biases strongly in favor of the car and a sprawling highway and road system that has come to define the American landscape. 

The rhetorical crimes are better illustrated by looking at Farthing's response.

Consider some of the words and phrases the WABA executive director uses: "Separate facilities do exist, but they are far from equal ... determination here fails to withstand either legal or logical scrutiny ... The making of this discriminatory determination, without the input of the public or the burdened community, is wholly inappropriate."

Calm, collected, and persistent, Farthing uses the language of civil rights and equal access to make the case for why bicycles need to be considered among the cars and pedestrians that traditional transit authorities know to recognize. I'm reminded of the way the Equal Rights Center talks about WMATA and the access issues of people with disabilities. If NPS doesn't maintain these trails, Farthing contends, then the issue becomes one of access and discrimination against bicycles in favor of cars. Word choice is critical in these discussions, and many cycling advocates are keen to point to violations, instances in which rhetoric inflames or does injustice to these battles and virtues and a sense of rights, access, and a broader meaning to the phrase "share the road." Underneath all these layers is a bristled sense of righteousness and justice.

Once you appreciate the frame through which Farthing and fellow cycling advocates see the debate, it's easier to see where the NPS falls short. They speak of the millions of cars, not the bikes. They speak of the dangers of inlet drain gates, not of their right to maintain and secure them. Park Police punish drivers who attempt to allow for pedestrian and bicyclist safety. The issues surrounding bikes and the Parkways are, of course, just one dimension of what the NPS deals with, but the lens used is not always the most appropriate one.

On the other hand, NPS is putting together this year's Feet in the Street celebration, slated for October 15 in Fort Dupont Park. Many officials at NPS do recognize the way to talk about transit — and they do attempt to address the biking concerns about the Parkways in their statement. But what they've demonstrated still falls short of what Farthing and WABA want as well as the greater vision of what bicycling can be in the District and beyond.

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