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Cyclists could someday circle the region on their own version of the Capital Beltway

The growing popularity of biking has fueled the need for more bike infrastructure.
The growing popularity of biking has fueled the need for more bike infrastructure. (Justin T. Gellerson/For The Washington Post)

Motorists can circle the Washington region via the Capital Beltway.

In the future, the region’s residents may be able to do the same on a version built for cyclists and pedestrians.

As envisioned by planners, the “Bicycle Beltway,” formally known as the National Capital Trail, would be a 60-mile loop circling the region and crossing through Maryland. Virginia and the District. It would make it possible to bike from Silver Spring in the north to Alexandria in the south and points in between. Another more ambitious plan, endorsed by the Transportation Planning Board this month, expands the concept, connecting that loop with other trails in the region to create a more extensive biking network.

The push for a bike/pedestrian beltway is the latest sign that regional planners and elected officials see bikes as a critical component of managing growth and congestion in a region that is expected to be home to an additional 1.3 million people by 2045.

Other initiatives endorsed by the TPB, include investments in Metro, transit, tolling and highway projects. But with bike-share fueling a cycling boom, building and improving infrastructure for two-wheeled transportation only makes sense, they say.

“We as a region need to expand our investment in building a network for nonmotorized transportation,” said Kanti Srikanth, transportation planning director for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, which has endorsed the Bicycle Beltway concept.

Srikanth said it is not just about bikes. The National Capital Trail would link users to as many as 26 Metro stations and 36 “activity centers” — areas throughout the region that are home to high concentrations of jobs and housing. Planners think it could eliminate the frustration some residents experience when they live close to a Metro station but do not want to use a car or bus to get there.

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Katie Harris, trails coordinator for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, said her organization has long supported the Bicycle Beltway.

“We want our entire region to be connected for people who walk and ride,” she said. “We know that bike infrastructure helps us reach our regional goals.”

It was Jay Fisette, former chairman of the Arlington County Board, who first introduced the concept of a Bicycle Beltway during his tenure on the Transportation Planning Board.

Fisette saw the “Beltway” concept as a way to get jurisdictions to think beyond just the trails and bike paths within their borders. People have come to think of a trip on the Beltway as seamless despite the fact that it is managed by multiple jurisdictions. He hoped the same would hold true for a bicycle version.

“I’ve always been an advocate of cycling both as a legitimate transportation option and for recreation,” said Fisette, now managing partner for DMV Strategic Advisors.

The push to complete the Bicycle Beltway comes as a growing number of people are embracing cycling not just for recreation but also for everyday commuting.

According to a report by the League of American Bicyclists, the number of people who commute by bike has grown exponentially.

Between 2000 and 2016, bike commuting grew 51 percent nationwide. The same report, based on data gathered as part of the American Community Survey, found that bike commuting in D.C. grew 130 percent between 2006 and 2016.

And while the numbers are still small when compared to those who drive, planners say cities can no longer ignore the need for bike infrastructure.

Within the 60-mile Bicycle Beltway loop are four smaller loops that range in distance from 18 to 45 miles. Two-thirds of the 60-mile loop is already complete. Roughly, 21 miles of trail would need to be built or improved to complete the circle.

Those sections include: the Capital Crescent Trail, which will accompany construction of the Purple Line in Maryland; the South Capitol Street Trail; the Pennsylvania Avenue SE protected bike lane; the Arboretum Bridge and Trail Connector and the Anacostia River Trail sections near Buzzard Point.

In 2016, the Bicycle Beltway effort got a boost when the National Park Service included it as part of its Paved Trails Plan, a document that outlines the agency’s priorities. The move was significant since some portions of the yet-to-be-completed trail are controlled by the Park Service.

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NPS’s report called the effort a “compelling concept” and dubbed it the National Capital Trail.

“The National Park Service wants to work with partners to enhance the national capital trail network to meet the needs of tomorrow’s users,” the agency said in a statement. “As part of the effort, we are working to align limited resources with trail projects that implement the vision and goals while maximizing regional benefits.”

It was a critical boost.

“We were very excited, because having [the National Park Service] adopt this meant that where some of those gaps exist, only they can build,” said WABA’s Harris. “By them adopting the plan, it would be on their radar for funding.”

Harris also has led a public-private effort called the Capital Trails Coalition that worked to set priorities for which of the region’s trails should be developed and improved.

“We will achieve this by 2045,” Harris said. “Now we need to think bigger. Our transportation systems are increasingly strained, and the number of people biking and walking is increasing.”