The National Park Service is a major player in the D.C. region’s transportation system, and in the aftermath of the blizzard, it plowed the parkways, shoveled the steps at the Lincoln Memorial and cleared the sidewalks around scores of tiny parks.
“We cleared almost 300 miles of roads, 155 bridges and shoveled more than 100 miles of sidewalks,” Aaron LaRocca, chief of staff for the George Washington Parkway, said about the park service’s regional response. “It was an all-hands-on-deck effort.”
One thing the park service doesn’t do as a matter of routine: Clear the hiker/biker trails under its jurisdiction.
There was a time when many travelers would have conceded that as a logical thing. With so many commuter routes to worry about after a winter storm, why worry about recreational trails?
Times have changed, and trails in urban areas are commuter routes for many. In recognition of that, the park service in the capital region is considering a change in its policy that would incorporate the trails into the post-storm cleanup plans.
That’s a welcome idea to Gregory Billing, the executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. You may see fewer people out on bikes in the winter, but cold weather doesn’t stop people from commuting via bicycle. Ice and snow on the trail does stop them.
If a cyclist can’t use a bike lane on a city street, the commuter can shift to a regular lane. Commuters who use trails, such as the popular Mount Vernon Trail along the Virginia side of the Potomac River, are in a tougher spot. “Often, there are no safe alternatives for miles,” Billing said.
Certainly, commuters get a health benefit from cycling to work. But for many, it’s more than that. They don’t have cars. They may not have easy access to Metro, or they may find it too expensive. Cycling is their mode of transportation, and when the trails are shut off, some are just as upset as other commuters are about disappearing lanes and big banks of snow across sidewalks.
This isn’t just about winter 2015-2016. It’s about building up a diverse commuting system for the 21st century in which travelers have options — year-round options.
And it is not a plea for special treatment. It’s about recognition that the trails aren’t strictly recreational, any more than the parkways are strictly about getting to parks.
Right now, the park service clears four miles of the Capital Crescent Trail under a pilot program but leaves other trails — such as the Mount Vernon Trail, the trails through Rock Creek Park and part of the Anacostia River Trail — that are under its jurisdiction.
Altering the status quo is more than a matter of the park service reaching out to interested parties and asking if they’d like to have the trails cleared in winter.
Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles, a spokeswoman for the park service, noted that trails represent different challenges. The Capital Crescent is relatively easy to clear, because it’s an old rail bed, with flat stretches and gentle curves designed to accommodate trains.
Other trails have more ups and downs and bends, or include bridges that may require more specialized equipment for snow and ice clearing. For such stretches, “You can’t just send a plow down the trail,” Anzelmo-Sarles said.
So developing and carrying out a new winter-weather plan is going to be complex, but it need not be strictly a park service effort.
“We’re very interested in working with the cycling community about what makes sense moving forward,” Anzelmo-Sarles said.
This outreach effort regarding a new policy for the trails does not signal a shift in the overriding goals. “Our first priority is always going to be employee and visitor safety,” LaRocca said. To the park service officials, that means maintaining access for emergency vehicles after a winter storm and then improving conditions for the general public.
But this outreach effort is a hopeful sign that we’re moving into a new definition of the transportation infrastructure.
“We absolutely recognize the paradigm shift and how recreational trails are being used as a network of bike commuter routes,” Anzelmo-Sarles said.
Billing, like the park service officials, recognized that we’ve just lived through a highly unusual storm. “This was a lot of snow,” Billing said, just for the record. Like so many other commuters, he had to deal with the fitful return to normalcy that extended through many days when roads, bike lanes and trails were passable but not really commutable.
He’s looking for all sorts of governments to improve their winter operations on behalf of all sorts of travelers.
And he’s looking beyond that, too, for transportation planning to include an awareness of trail maintenance needs, so that the trails of the future are built to be maintained through four seasons.
Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1301 K St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.