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Meet the two-wheeled ambassadors who patrol D.C.’s bike trails

Trail rangers Ursula Sandstrom, left, and Jasmine Young bike down Pennsylvania Ave on their way to conduct trail maintenance along the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail on June 24. (Amanda Voisard/For the Washington Post)

Jasmine Young’s workday starts not long after sunrise, but she doesn’t mind the early hour. Her office is the great outdoors, and her “desk” is two-wheeled and allows her to spend the day doing something she loves: biking.

Young, 24, is a trail ranger with the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA), a group that promotes bicycling in the D.C. region. As one of five rangers, her job is to patrol the city’s major bike trails, maintain and improve the routes, help cyclists, and work with city agencies to keep the trails safe and in working order.

Think park ranger for bike trails.

The program, which runs from March to September, was launched in 2013 with an annual $100,000 grant from the District Department of Transportation’s Urban Forestry Administration. Its goal is to ensure that the city’s huge investments in expanding the trail network do not go to waste, said Garrett Hennigan, a WABA community organizer.

The D.C. Council “wanted to basically make sure that these investments they had made were kept in great shape, and instead of sitting there, that ridership would grow, that use and understanding of these trails would grow,” Hennigan said.

The rangers, whose salaries come from the grant, are out on the trails in teams of two, six days a week. They "are the city's eyes and ears on the trails," Hennigan said, picking up trash, pruning back vegetation, helping cyclists with flat tires and making note of daily trail conditions.

But the job is about more than trail maintenance. A big part of the rangers’ day is spent interacting with cyclists, working to build a tightknit bike community, one cyclist at a time.

"We're trying to make biking accessible to all those who want to cycle. We have to build a community," Young said.

Making D.C. bikeable

Biking is weaving itself into the fabric of the city. At the turn of the millennium, bike lanes were almost nonexistent in the District — with barely three miles of lanes. Today, there are 74 miles of bike lanes and 55 miles of bike trails, according to DDOT, and there are plans to expand the bicycling network by more than 200 miles over the next 25 years. More cyclists are taking to the roads, with the number of bike commuters almost quadrupling between 2000 and 2013, according to data from the League of American Bicyclists.

The District also has gained a reputation for being a bike-friendly city, clinching a top-10 spot in a ranking of the nation's most bikeable cities.

More than 1 in 5 residents of these D.C. neighborhoods bike to work

But apart from the number of cyclists and the miles of lanes, what exactly makes a city “bikeable”?

“The measurement of how successful cycling culture is its inclusivity,” explained Ruth Oldenziel, a professor at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands and the author of “Cycling Cities: The European Experience.” Are women and immigrants cycling? The young and the old? “Diversity is absolutely key, otherwise it will not last. Kids, the elderly, everybody needs to be part of this,” she said.

“Cities where you only have a cycling community with no policymakers with a vision have a harder time moving forward. Then cities where there are only policymakers with no cycling community also face difficulties,” Oldenziel said. “What we discover in comparing all these cities is that you need all these factors to come together.”

Also important is building a comfortable and safe biking environment, said Anne Lusk, a research scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health. She advocates taking a public health approach to building a bike-friendly city, creating a system in which the factors needed for safe bicycling are built into the environment, rather than trying to change the behavior of individual cyclists and drivers.

“The car now is designed to protect the car occupant,” Lusk said. “Similar to how we structured the car to protect the occupant, I suggest that we do the same thing to protect the bicyclists. . . . We’ll transform those same safety components we’ve given to the car occupant and give it to the bicycle environment.”

Making way for bikes in a suburb where cars have always ruled

For example: Put blinkers on the front fender of cars, so that a bicyclist beside a car can see that it is about to turn. Or have a car’s blinkers turn on if the left-side backseat seat belt is unfastened, signaling to an approaching bicyclist that the car door might open soon.

The trail ranger program seems to reflect the confluence that Oldenziel said is crucial to making a city bikeable. D.C. policymakers’ views on the value of bicycling have been made clear by the city’s investments in bike lanes and the massive Capital Bikeshare program. The trail rangers, in turn, are complementing that by reaching out to cyclists, building on-the-ground relationships and bringing together the cycling community.

On a recent Friday morning during rush hour, Young and trail ranger Ursula Sandstrom, who is also the program’s coordinator, biked down Pennsylvania Avenue SE toward the Eastern Market Metro station, where they were hosting a regular coffee outreach session before heading out to patrol the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail.

Bikes on the ground

Out on the trail, it’s hard to miss the rangers in their green shirts. Each bike hauls a bright yellow cargo trailer full of tools and supplies. The trailers’ small red flags flap in the breeze.

At an intersection, a man riding with his toddler on a bakfiet — a Dutch, wheelbarrow-like box bike — was delighted to see the rangers roll by.

“Yay WABA! Yay trail rangers! Go save the world!” the man yelled. Young and Sandstrom rang their bike bells cheerfully in response.

Interacting with cyclists is one of the best parts of the job, the rangers said, and there’s rarely a dull day out on the trails.

“At the end of the day, you’ve met a lot of people and made a tangible impact on the surrounding community,” Young said.

“Every day kind of ends up having a theme. Some days after storms, there are just branches everywhere. Other days, there’s a lot of glass,” said Sandstrom, 26. “Every trail is different, and every day is different.”

On this particular Friday, Young and Sandstrom worked on trimming vegetation along a trail. As they biked up a bridge that took them over some CSX railroad tracks, they saw plants that had grown over the fence and encroached onto the trail. They parked their bikes, slid on gray and blue work gloves, took some shears from their trailers and began snipping.

They hadn’t biked much farther — just a short distance down from the bridge — when they came across a large overhanging branch in a prime position to whack unsuspecting cyclists. Young and Sandstrom pulled over, and out came the shears again. For the next few minutes, they worked together, one of them reaching up to pull down a branch while the other snipped it off.

Sandstrom has had a close-up look at the growth of biking in the District over the past few years. She came to the city after graduating from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, with a degree in environmental economics, and she was part of the inaugural class of WABA trail rangers. She then spent a year working as a bike checker for Capital Bikeshare, maintaining the program’s fleet of red bikes, before returning to WABA to work full time as the trail ranger program’s coordinator.

“Biking has become more and more normal,” Sandstrom said. “It’s not just a few super committed folks. It’s whoever wants to.” And with the increase in bicycling infrastructure and the expansion of Capital Bikeshare, “barriers to entry have really gone down,” she said.

Why bike lanes make people mad

But the explosion in cycling has not been without opposition. For some, bike lanes have become symbols of gentrification. In October, the United House of Prayer in the city's Shaw neighborhood fought a DDOT plan to build a bike lane that it said would encroach on church parking and make streets more congested.

Congregants argued that many prominent African American churches have had to leave the city because of parking constraints. They noted that proposals for bike lanes came primarily as young, affluent white residents moved into their communities.

To Sandstrom, the trail ranger program’s grass-roots approach to building a diverse, sustainable biking community is key to making D.C. a bikeable city accessible to everyone across class and racial lines.

“It really starts from building on-the-ground relationships so that when these conversations do start happening, it’s not a top-down enforcement,” she said. “For so long, those who have had the loudest voice have been middle-class white people . . . but it’s not just middle class white people that bike. And not building trails and facilities throughout the region is doing a disservice.”