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A thaw at the Park Service opens up possibilities in D.C.

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The Cherry Blossom Festival is underway on the Mall, and for the first time, it’s a lot easier to see the trees on a bicycle. In a few years, a low-cost DC Circulator bus will likely add another convenient mode of travel and bring “America’s front yard” closer to our doorstep than ever before.

In July, I criticized the National Park Service’s inflexible regulations, which treat the District’s neighborhood parks, such as Logan Circle or Stanton Square, the same as large wonders like the Grand Canyon and Yosemite. These rules, the Park Service said, prohibited bicycle sharing or low-cost buses to help tourists travel from one memorial to another on the Mall.

Today, however, you can pick up a Capital Bikeshare bicycle in Foggy Bottom, Capitol Hill, Petworth or Crystal City and ride to the Washington Monument or the FDR and MLK memorials. Once there, you can drop off the bike, enjoy the beauty of the cherry blossoms, then grab another bike for a ride home, to the Metro or to a restaurant. It costs just $7 for a day pass and is free with a longer-term membership.

As for buses, the $32-per-ride Tourmobile is gone, and another interpretive bus will soon take its place, at least for three years. Before long, the red DC Circulator buses will likely also ply the Mall, providing quick and convenient transportation among the monuments and over to the attractions of downtown and nearby neighborhoods.

After my July article, several longtime parks advocates contacted me to say that, yes, the same regulations apply to District parks as to the great western lands, but that the Park Service allowed many activities in other urban parkland, such as Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco, that it denied to D.C. residents. The regulations had some flexibility. The problem was that some of the superintendents of D.C.’s parks did not.

Then, a new set of leaders came into the Park Service’s top management and the National Capital Region. Working with some supportive Park Service employees, the agency moved with what had to be record speed for a federal agency to bring the two Capital Bikeshare stations to the Mall; three more are planned. Additionally, unlike the terms of the old Tourmobile contract, the new transportation concessions contracts will allow for Circulator service and potentially other mobility options as well.

Meanwhile, parents living downtown have been pushing to get a playground for their kids. They suddenly found a sympathetic ear at the Park Service, which expressed a willingness to let the District take over one of the many small pocket parks in the Mount Vernon Square area. Unlike every other city in the nation, the District must contend with the fact that a federal agency controls most of its neighborhood parks, right down to some of the smallest triangles.

The BikeDC community ride found that it could use Rock Creek Parkway for its May event, after being turned down in the past. Apparently the new Rock Creek superintendent didn’t get the memo about being hostile toward people recreating in a beautiful valley on weekends. When cyclists gathered in the District last week for the National Bicycle Summit, Park Service head Jon Jarvis agreed that “we haven’t been all that bike-friendly in all our parks over the years” and pledged to change that.

The Park Service deserves a great deal of credit for this refreshing change in attitude, but a long list of tasks remains undone. Capital Bikeshare is a great start, but there are still many more steps to make bicycling safe and convenient on our parkland. Try to bike from the Washington Monument down to the 14th Street bridge, and you either have to use a narrow sidewalk and dodge tourists on foot (who have a greater right to the sidewalk than you) or brave a road designed like an expressway.

The paths alongside the George Washington and Rock Creek parkways are too narrow and winding, and especially on weekends, all the walkers, joggers and bikers have to wrangle over small spaces while light traffic zooms past. Why not make just one of the four lanes on each parkway a bike-pedestrian pathway on weekends?

Pennsylvania Avenue’s sidewalks are barren and desolate while other blocks in the District thrive with sidewalk life, because Park Service rules greatly limit commercial activity. There are some spots where limiting vending makes sense, but a great boulevard should teem with commerce. Plus, wouldn’t it be great if some food trucks could stop on the Mall and serve the many hungry tourists?

Permitting officials have shown more flexibility in dealing with organizations such as Dupont Festival, a Dupont Circle group that hosts movies, organizes outdoor sports-watching events and last month threw a Groundhog Day spoof with its own stuffed woodchuck, “Potomac Phil.” But many events still run into brick walls from the Park Service permit office. And those parents in downtown D.C. deserve their playground before their children are old enough to be asking for one for their own youngsters.

Advocates will have to keep gently prodding the National Park Service to prioritize positive change over sometimes easier inaction, but its current leaders are demonstrating that they want to be real partners with the community.

The writer is the editor of the blog Greater Greater Washington. He participates in The Post’s Local Blog Network.

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