Integrating the Metropolitan Branch Trail with Neighborhoods, Starting with R Street NE

Yesterday, Greater Greater Washington and The WashCycle initiated a discussion of the proposed R Street bicycle accommodations in Eckington.  Neighborhood listservs lit up on the topic, with many focusing on the details of the plan.  While the details of such a plan are always important, it is equally important to take a step back, look at the wider view, and recognize that the inclusion of bike facilities on R Street, NE is part of a much-needed effort to integrate the Metropolitan Branch Trail (MBT) into the communities that surround it as well as the regional transportation network. For many years, the train tracks and Metro’s red line presented a significant barrier to east-west travel across the District, and thus the roadway network was designed to filter people out of the local communities that bordered the railroad and onto the major east-west routes.  In the case of Eckington, this means Rhode Island Ave. (often via Lincoln Rd.), Florida Ave. or New York Ave. (often via Eckington Place).  But in all of these neighborhoods, the evolving transportation network did not easily accommodate travel toward the train tracks. Today, after decades of work by DDOT, Rails to Trails, and WABA, significant portions of the completed MBT are open, creating a vibrant recreational and transportation space for residents to enjoy. Consequently, there is much greater demand from pedestrians, joggers, bicyclists and others for easier access to this area–the same area that the local roads are designed to get people away from. It is clear that the existing road network will require tweaks to adjust to these new patterns of demand.  In some cases, one-way streets may no longer be the best means of serving travel.  In others cases, one-way travel for automobiles not seeking access to the trail may remain appropriate, but adjusting roadways to allow opposite-direction travel for cyclists and pedestrians will be needed.  For cyclists, this means contraflow facilities such as the one proposed on R Street NE. As the Metropolitan Branch Trail is completed and the adjacent neighborhoods develop, there will be increased cyclist and pedestrian traffic in these communities, and the roadway network must be adjusted to allow for safe access to the trail.  The failure to provide such facilities will only lead to cyclists taking less safe or illegal routes to get there, and that serves no one. The MBT is a significant development that has the potential to bring numerous transportation, recreation, and economic benefits to the District and the communities that surround it.  But the District cannot simply replace a neighborhood-dividing rail line with a multi-use trail without adapting the surrounding roadway network to the change.  This segment of R Street is the first example of many small but important changes to adjust nearby roads to accommodate the trail itself, to integrate it into the surrounding communities, and to maximize its utility to both local residents and trail users across the District. WABA hopes that the residents and leadership in Eckington will see this as part of a larger, necessary process to bring the benefits of an improved transportation network to these neighborhoods, and that others along the trail will see the benefits of improved trail connectivity for cyclists.  There remains much work to be done to improve wayfinding, signage, and access.  But not all of the changes must be big or difficult. The MBT is there.  That was the big and difficult part.  Now, we simply need communities to work together to make it safely accessible to those it was designed and built to serve.  Eckington, by going first, has the opportunity to lead the way in embracing these minor changes to make the streets safer for everyone, and to demonstrate the community’s readiness for the sorts of significant investments the MBT represents.  That was the focus of the speech by Councilmember Thomas at the “Meet the Met” celebration almost exactly a year ago today.  Now that  Thomas is both the Council’s steward of economic development and representative of Ward 5 residents, we hope to be able to count on his support in maximizing the District’s investment in the MBT by making it safely accessible to as many residents as possible–including cyclists living in and connecting through Eckington.