The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A car-free Rock Creek Park could become the Central Park of D.C.

Cyclists travel on a stretch of Beach Drive closed to vehicular traffic in June. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Michelle Harburg is a D.C. resident.

Could a car-free Rock Creek Park become D.C.'s version of New York’s Central Park? Yes — or an even better version. At 1,754 acres, Rock Creek is more than twice the size of Central Park’s 843 acres. But even with its smaller footprint, Central Park is one of the most visited urban parks in the United States, and one of the most filmed locations in the world.

In 2018, after years of debate, New York City reallocated Central Park to pedestrians and closed it permanently to automobile traffic. Investments were diverted to community-oriented infrastructure. Today, more than 42 million people visit Central Park each year and contribute to New York City’s economy. In 2019, 24 million people visited all of D.C.

In 2021, Rock Creek Park is at the same pivotal turning point. The National Park Service is accepting comments through Aug. 22 on whether to close upper Beach Drive to traffic permanently. It should implement “Concept 2, Full Closure for Recreation.” This creates an extraordinary opportunity to transform Rock Creek Park from a thruway for cars to a park that can rival the famed Central Park, bringing along the economic opportunities that come with being a destination spot.

When considering closing upper Beach Drive to vehicle traffic permanently, the Park Service and other stakeholders should look to New York City for valuable lessons learned over the past three years. It is the perfect urban case study. What effects did the city feel from the reallocation of Central Park to pedestrians?

A car-free Rock Creek Park has the potential to bring countless benefits to D.C. residents. Visitors to the park would bring economic value to the surrounding communities in the form of existing and new hospitality businesses. Rock Creek Park could become a destination for schools, camps, outdoor workplace retreats, fitness groups, guided nature tours, theater and music performances, ecotourism programs and more.

Central Park also faced pressure to use the park for nonrecreational uses, which threatened its purpose as a retreat from urban life. However, New York City chose to remove vehicle traffic and partnered with the Central Park Conservancy to restore the park. As a result, it is now a thriving contributor to the city’s economy and a beloved escape for residents.

Jeanne Braha, executive director of the Rock Creek Conservancy and an advocate for a car-free Rock Creek Park, said: “Rock Creek Park is truly the heart, lungs and soul of Washington, D.C. Closing upper Beach Drive to through traffic would increase accessibility of the park’s recreational resources, increase visitor safety and benefit the park’s natural resources, thus advancing climate resilience in the region.”

It is not the responsibility of the Park Service to balance the needs of motorists commuting into D.C. with its mission to “preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources” as it applies to the oldest urban park in its system.

When Congress created Rock Creek Park in 1890, it mandated that its resources be preserved “in their natural condition, as nearly as possible.” The act that created the park also called for regulations to “provide for the preservation from injury or spoliation of all timber, animals, or curiosities within said park.”

Pre-pandemic, up to 8,000 cars per weekday turned upper Beach Drive into a highway for commuting into D.C., emitting air pollution and limiting recreational usage of the park. None of that aligns with Congress’s original vision for Rock Creek.

We have an opportunity to protect the natural resources of the park by creating an exhaust-free habitat for its wildlife and thousands of visitors.

Other major cities across the United States will face their own decisions about vehicles in parks. The Park Service and the District would stand as shining examples of prioritizing parks by keeping upper Beach Drive closed to motor vehicles.

Let’s vote to dedicate upper Rock Creek Park specifically for pedestrian use, cementing D.C.'s legacy in favor of a healthier and more sustainable planet.

Like New York City three years ago, we are at a critical juncture for demonstrating that parks are for people, not cars.