The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Leave Rock Creek Park’s upper Beach Drive closed to cars

Cyclists on June 2, 2021, on a stretch of Beach Drive closed to vehicular traffic. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
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Seth Yeazel is a lawyer and avid researcher of Rock Creek Park and its founding.

Nearly 30 years before President Benjamin Harrison established D.C.’s Rock Creek Park as a “pleasure ground for the benefit and enjoyment of all people of the United States” on Sept. 27, 1890, naturalist John Burroughs wrote that “there is perhaps not another city in the Union that has on its very threshold so much natural beauty and grandeur, such as men seek for in remote forests and mountains.” He said, “A few touches of art would convert this whole region into a park unequaled in the world.”

An 1867 congressional assessment of the land noted its “wild and romantic charm” with “every facility [being] offered for laying out and constructing a grand national park.” Some members of Congress, having just established Yellowstone National Park, asserted that the valley of Rock Creek is “upon a par” with it.

This grandiose park represents arguably our nation’s greatest urban retreat. It boasts more than twice the area of New York’s Central Park and occupies nearly 5 percent of the total area of D.C.

This is why it is crucial that the National Park Service reconsider its proposal to reopen upper Beach Drive to vehicle traffic nine months out of the year, rather than continuing to keep it free for pedestrian use, as it has been since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

In 1890, Congress indeed contemplated that this pleasure ground would be laid out and prepared for “roadways … to be used for driving.” However, Congress mandated that these roadways’ purpose was to “provide for the preservation from injury or spoliation of all timber, animals, or curiosities within said park, and their retention in their natural condition, as nearly as possible.” Driving at the time primarily referred to horse-drawn carriage. Restoring Beach Drive as an urban thoroughfare clearly doesn’t align with this purpose.

Of course, in 1890, Congress did not envision that these new roadways, meant for the preservation of nature and its enjoyment, would someday be used for the pleasure of the automobile driven by 21st-century commuting suburbanites. Congress imagined that at the end of the 20th century and after “future generations … develop [Rock Creek Park] into a thing a beauty … a million souls” would live in D.C. and the park would be a place where a child could “pull a leaf or put its foot upon a turf of grass” rather than fear injury from a vehicle speeding on its way to a matter across town.

The people of D.C., who, in the wake of the pandemic, have made a major push to reshape city streets to serve people rather than vehicles, and whose council members and congressional delegate have declared support for permanently closing upper Beach Drive, have an especially important stake in the matter, not least because it is entirely within their own district.

The 51st Congress, known as the Billion Dollar Congress after it passed the first non-war billion-dollar budget, felt ever so sensitive to further spending in 1890 and therefore lodged one-half of the $1.2 million cost of Rock Creek Park’s establishment onto the residents of D.C. In fact, D.C. residents helped build the roadways with their own hands. D.C. residents living in tenant housing along present-day Beach Drive were required to pay rent to the government or contribute to the establishment of this roadway in the form of physical labor. “Chain gangs,” likely all D.C. residents, constructed entire viaducts and bridges with “no machinery or appliances other than a common block and tackle” to accommodate the park’s roadways.

Considering this, it would be especially inequitable for the vehicles of out-of-state residents to bisect this great pleasure ground with their desire for fast and convenient transportation to destinations beyond the park. Thankfully, Maryland residents have largely been supportive of the efforts to refashion upper Beach Drive for permanent pedestrian use, and the Montgomery County Council favors this approach.

If D.C. succeeds in permanently opening safe pedestrian access throughout Beach Drive, it will join Paris, New York and other cities that have done so for many of their roads. NPS, on the other hand, explains it is instead concerned with the fact that vehicles may be delayed “2.5 to 4.5 minutes during peak periods” and may have to slow down as much as “6 mph between the Maryland state line and Broad Branch Road.” NPS balanced this fact against its finding that permanent closure of upper Beach Drive would “greatly reduce” the number and severity of vehicle crashes into pedestrians and determined that 2.5 to 4.5 minutes saved is worth that risk.

Further stretching the bounds of credulity, NPS explains that closing upper Beach Drive to vehicles would threaten wildlife and wildlife habitat rather than mitigate any potential harm, because closure of the road at the start of the pandemic has correlated with increased recreational visitor use. NPS fails to consider that national park visitation and the negative impacts of this visitation skyrocketed nationwide in the wake of the pandemic. NPS spends a significant portion of its proposal describing the negative impacts of social trails and unleashed dogs since the start of the pandemic but fails to adequately connect these developments to the closure of upper Beach Drive and short-shrifts the reduced pollution and vehicular accident risks to Rock Creek Park’s wildlife.

Ironically, while claiming that the closure of upper Beach Drive has led to heavier park use, NPS decries the reduced park access that would allegedly result from the closure of upper Beach Drive. Visitor-use facilities would still be accessible via motor vehicle.

NPS has failed to adequately consider its own proposal, but thankfully we have an opportunity to weigh in on this issue and make our voices heard. NPS is accepting comments on this proposal until Aug. 11 and is hosting a virtual public meeting on July 18 from 6:30 to 8 p.m.