Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

A calmer, prettier Met Branch Trail looks toward fall

September 8, 2011 - 11:35 AM
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The trail around New York Ave. (Photo: Courtesy of the Met Branch Trail)

Every Wednesday this July, children and adults came together alongside the Metropolitan Branch Trail to offer simple, healthy food and enjoy their time with one another out in the open air. The Met Branch Trail has been officially open for little more than a year now and stretches eight miles, from Silver Spring to Union Station, and the community-oriented spirit of these Fresh Eats events was a natural extension of how the trail is shaping into the neighborhoods around it. Its pathway attracts countless District travelers, from pedestrians to joggers to bicyclists, for both commuting and recreational purposes. These Wednesdays in July provided a reprieve on summer afternoons and were held in association with the non-profit Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and the school D.C. Prep. A few hundred people ultimately enjoyed these Fresh Eats afternoons near the Rhode Island Metro station and tasted a menu of no-cook healthy items.

One virtue of these events, according to Rails-to-Trails' director of trail development Kelly Pack, is "to have some presence there." She likes the notion of creating a life and sense of recreation around the path beyond just commuting. The neighborhood should be involved — and at that Rhode Island location, the trail wasn't always visible from the road. Events like Fresh Eats help draw attention to it. "We would get people walking over from the [nearby] shopping center," Pack told me.

The trail has hosted a variety of similar events — children painted and had fun with arts and crafts, for instance. Shade trees have been planted. New trail art has appeared. Bike clinics happened. And this Saturday morning, Rails-to-Trails will hold a Day of Service. The focus will be on cleaning up the Met Branch Trail, which will include picking up trash as well as weeding, and the service is scheduled from 9 a.m. to noon. You can register here. Pack and her associates have planned the event for the last month and a half, and Pack's enthusiasm was apparent. The recent rainy days actually create "good conditions," she told me — weeding is always easier when the soil is soft.

These community events comprise a fundamental dimension of what the Met Branch Trail has evolved into in Washington, D.C. — and what's stunning is how calm it's all seemed lately. When the summer began, patrols of volunteers and Guardian Angels had begun to walk the trail to discourage crime. Multiple high-profile thefts had received attention and inspired great community concern. I joined one of the patrols myself about two months ago to get a sense for the trail and the patrols' deterrent goals. Yet those incidents have not stopped a vibrant community life from developing around the trail — and the District department of transportation has plans to make Met Branch even safer and more open.

DDOT has stayed especially engaged with the community around the Met Branch Trail, particularly through Heather Deutsch, its bike program specialist and trail planner. Her messages are hardly unfamiliar to anyone who glances at the trail's listserv or Facebook page. She has offered a ready presence at various trail events as well as regular updates on different trail improvements that DDOT has planned.

What's to come? Department spokesman John Lisle told me about some specific improvement plans around the Rhode Island and New York Ave Metro stations, where some past incidents have occurred and along the same mile-and-half stretch that the grassroots security patrols walked earlier this summer. DDOT plans to add more lighting around the New York Ave Metro station once the abutment work is complete in April 2012. The New York Ave Bridge will also receive a permanent camera to increase its safety.

The city plans to coordinate and help build a pedestrian bridge connecting the Rhode Island Metro station with the trail entrance. Currently the bridge's design is complete, and the department hopes to bid on construction soon. When I first patrolled in early July, Rails-to-Trails' Stephen Miller emphasized to me how important such an addition would be. Many people in that neighborhood don't, after all, even realize that a trail is there. Pack referred to the entrance as "the back backyard" when talking about the Rhode Island accessibility. The entrance is virtually hidden and only accessible up a hill and up around a shopping center parking lot. Lisle told me that the pedestrian bridge here should also, hopefully, decrease the number of broken fence links along the trail since people break the fence to get to the Metro station.

Perhaps the best development of all is unofficial — no major reported incidents have recurred on the trail at all since those early-summer robberies. DDOT is not aware of any incidents, nor was Sergeant Jon Dorrough when I spoke with him. "I do think we were successful in breaking the cycle of crimes that were occurring in May and June," Dorrough wrote on the Met Branch listserv on July 16 when reporting the last major robbery. Only one attempted robbery has been reported on the listserv since — a cyclist was biking along the trail on August 13 and got off at R and 2nd Street NE when "a kid ran out and punched me, produced a knife, and tried to steal my bike."

But those incidents are few and far between, at least lately, and Pack and others I spoke to attributed this in large part due to the presence that community members have developed around the trail. Rails-to-Trails' big goal, Pack told me, is to encourage people from the neighborhoods to step up and lead and create that life and that space, and at the Met Branch Trail, this process already seems well on the way. About 20 people have joined to form the Friends of the Met Branch Trail, an evolving new group of people who love the trail and will be celebrating their first real event this Saturday at the Day of Service. The Brookland Neighborhood Civic Association will be holding fall bike rides on the trail on Saturday mornings, starting September 17 and continuing through October 29. Other events are evolving. Pack told me that Rails-to-Trails is considering a Halloween event, a trick or treat on the trail.

"I don't think the people who use the trail see it as an unsafe place," Pack said.

Given the response of organizations like Rails-to-Trails, grassroots citizens who care about the trail, the Guardian Angels, DDOT, and an increased police presence in recent months, I can't say I disagree. The Met Branch is as strong as it ever was as we're about to begin the fall season.

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