The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Rock Creek Park’s Beach Drive was closed for covid. Should it reopen?

Cars on Beach Drive in Rock Creek Park on Sept. 23, 2019, in D.C. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Amid all the devastating impacts of the pandemic, there have been some rare, unexpected bright spots: The flexibility afforded by telework; the convenience of ordering groceries online; the advantages of telehealth medical visits. To that list, Washingtonians can add the enhanced recreational opportunities created when a section of Beach Drive running through Rock Creek Park was closed to traffic. And just as it seems online work, doctor visits and grocery shopping will continue to be a part of the post-pandemic world, so, too, there must be a way for this car-free park oasis to continue. But the exact contours of that status are subject of a fierce debate.

The National Park Service closed the roughly four-mile upper stretch of Beach Drive in Northwest Washington to the Maryland line in April 2020 as the covid-19 pandemic tightened its grip on daily life. Washington area residents were in desperate need of open space and with few people going to work, the road, used by commuters headed downtown, sat idle. The park service planned to reopen the road to traffic in June 2021, but pressure from residents and officials made it reconsider.

The closure of the road seven days a week — before the pandemic, it was closed to cars only on weekends and holidays — has passionate fans. The People’s Alliance for Rock Creek and the Washington Area Bicyclist Association have collected more than 6,000 signatures to keep the road closed. Both the D.C. Council and the Montgomery County Council, along with D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), have urged the park service to make the seven-day closure permanent. Pushing back, The Post’s Luz Lazo reported, have been some park neighbors and commuters who say the prolonged shutdown has resulted in more cars cutting — and speeding — through their neighborhoods and has worsened traffic congestion on parallel routes. Critics of a permanent shutdown wonder why the federal government completed in 2019 a $35.3 million rehabilitation of Beach Drive — including $11 million for this upper section — if it wasn’t going to be used.

The park service came up with a compromise — keep the road car-free in summer when there is less traffic and open it to vehicles the rest of the year, except for weekends and holidays — but that made few people happy. No doubt that was because of the park service’s convoluted reasoning that more cars would actually improve forest health and help threatened species thrive by deterring visitors from cutting through the park on unofficial trails. “Just to make sure I understand, you want less people using the park, so you’re trying to make the park worse so less people will come,” said one resident who participated in a spirited virtual meeting last month. Surely, there are better ways to safeguard the health of the park than whizzing cars that discourage park users.

That said, there might be some merit to a compromise that tries to balance the desire for a safe recreation area with the interests of park neighbors. More information is needed, particularly on traffic impacts that take into account what the workweek will look like with many companies opting for telework. The public can still weigh in with the park service accepting comments through Thursday.

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