July 23, 2011

Millions of people visit the Mall each year, and this weekend, visitors will struggle with stifling heat and humidity. Wouldn’t it be great if they could pick among several options to get around, including taking a bus or riding a bike?

What’s stopping them? A bureaucratic mentality at the National Park Service that insists on applying the same regulations at the Grand Canyon and Logan Circle, without recognizing the vastly different role that parks play in urban settings.

On issues from bike-sharing to food kiosks to movies, the Park Service throws up obstacles to new ideas rather than work with local communities to find solutions, even when doing so would advance the agency’s mission of preserving national resources for the enjoyment of all.

Both the District and Arlington, and soon Alexandria and Rockville, have placed Capital Bikeshare bicycles throughout the region so that anyone, for $5 a day or $75 a year, can pick up a bike at U Street or Crystal City and drop it off in, say, Foggy Bottom.

What a perfect way to help people traverse the spaces between the Lincoln, Jefferson, FDR and upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. memorials and the Smithsonian museums. It’s green, it’s cheap, and it’s convenient. Unfortunately, the Park Service has oscillated between saying it won’t consider allowing Capital Bikeshare’s public-private partnership to serve the Mall to saying it’ll consider the idea only very, very slowly.

And slow means slow. Since 2004, the District and downtown businesses have wanted to help Mall visitors travel between museums and memorials, and connect to nearby shops and hotels, with a $1 Circulator bus. But the Park Service has refused. The only option is the $32 Tourmobile, which may be great if you’re interested in an all-day hop-on hop-off tour, but doesn’t meet the needs of those who just want a quick lift back from the Jefferson Memorial.

Our national parks, historic sites and battlefields are national treasures. Many of us have traveled to a number of them — to hike at Yosemite, observe the Grand Canyon or learn history at local Civil War battlefields.

In the District, however, the federal parks are more than just self-contained destinations. The Park Service not only runs the Mall and Rock Creek but the circles and squares throughout the District. Pierre L’Enfant, when he designed the city, envisioned these as community gathering places, but the Park Service resists building partnerships with community groups to make better use of these spaces. Washington wants to welcome Americans to our parks and our businesses, not trap them in large, empty spaces with little food and water and few ways to reach the city’s restaurants and cafes.

The Park Service rejected a farmers’ market across from the General Services Administration headquarters in one of the small and almost entirely unused parks along E Street. It refused to allow an ecologically sensitive walkway to the Metro station at Fort Totten. Pershing Park sits abandoned, a haven for rats instead of the oasis on Pennsylvania Avenue it could be. Organizers of the popular viewing of the World Cup in Dupont Circle last summer ran into innumerable bureaucratic hurdles to bringing together people from all over the world. The list goes on.

Park Service officials justify these decisions based on concession contracts and inflexible nationwide policies. Instead of providing multiple options for something like transportation, it signs a single exclusive contract. On the Mall, that’s why the Tourmobile is the only form of transportation available.

Worse yet, the small parks around the District west of the Anacostia, from Stanton Park on Capitol Hill to Dupont Circle and Meridian Hill/Malcolm X Park, count as part of the same “park” as the Mall. Since one company has the exclusive contract to provide food and beverages on the Mall, there can’t be small sandwich kiosks where appropriate in these other locations to create active public spaces like New York’s Bryant Park.

The Park Service justifies much of this inflexibility by declaring that it’s essential to apply an identical set of rules to every park, from Yellowstone to the tiniest triangle on Pennsylvania Avenue. But federal agencies and regulations differentiate between small businesses and large ones, or urban construction and rural. The standard response, that we have to treat all parks the same nationwide regardless of size or context, is an excuse, not a reason.

The GSA, itself often a slow-moving organization, created a special office to handle its urban properties in a way sensitive to context and communities. If the Park Service won’t devise sensible rules for urban parks that facilitate competition instead of monopoly, or work with local communities that want to help improve our public spaces, the Obama administration and Congress should intervene to remedy this prime example of government failure in its own back yard.

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