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Part of Beach Drive will stay closed to cars while National Park Service studies permanent closure

The Park Service said it will continue to limit daily traffic on the road at least into the fall.

Cyclists enjoy a stretch of Beach Drive that is closed to vehicle traffic on June 2. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

The National Park Service will keep part of Beach Drive car-free through Rock Creek Park while it analyzes what would happen if it made the restriction permanent, the agency said Friday.

The northern section of Beach Drive was closed to vehicles in April 2020 as the coronavirus raged, creating a popular weekday recreation area for people on foot and bikes. Before the pandemic, commuters used the route to make their way downtown from Northwest D.C. and Maryland. It was closed to cars only on weekends and holidays.

The Park Service said it will continue to restrict cars on the road at least into the fall, when it will present its analysis and options — shaped by public feedback — for the future.

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“We recognize that making any long-term change to the way we manage this part of Beach Drive would affect people who use, enjoy and care about Rock Creek Park — the oldest urban park in the National Park System,” Rock Creek Park Superintendent Julia Washburn said in a statement.

The Park Service will host an online public meeting July 8 to lay out possibilities and to seek public feedback. In the fall, it will present “refined alternatives, along with an analysis of the impacts in the environmental assessment,” then take a new round of public comments, the agency said.

The D.C. Council passed a resolution earlier this month asking the Park Service, which controls the road, to make the change permanent, an idea backed by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D). District Department of Transportation Director Everett Lott said closing it to vehicles has been “a successful example of repurposing public spaces for the benefit of people.”

House Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D. C.) had given the Park Service’s acting director, Shawn Benge, until Friday to respond to her May 26 request to keep the road closed permanently.

“Thousands of people have used Beach Drive over the last year to walk, run, bike and play,” she wrote to Benge, arguing the sections of road should stay closed “to prioritize health, outdoor recreation and other forms of transportation.”

Norton said Friday she subsequently heard from constituents who opposed the closure, raising concerns about cars pouring into their neighborhoods or possible difficulties getting to work.

“I decided — when I received so many letters and phone calls on opposite sides of this situation — that the best thing to do is to hear from the community,” Norton said. She said she had also sought the virtual public meeting and plans to participate. “There are genuine differences here.”

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Whether a long-term closure might create unintended downsides for neighboring communities has been a source of public debate.

D.C. Council member Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4), who voted against asking the Park Service for the permanent closure, argued that “the neighborhoods around Rock Creek Park have experienced a surge in traffic, speeding, and crashes while Upper Beach Drive has been closed.”

But council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who also represents neighborhoods near Rock Creek Park and advocates for a permanent closure, said there is no evidence the temporary shutdown has caused safety issues nearby. She noted there has been a rise in speeding citywide during the pandemic, which mirrors a national trend.

In addition to safety, other issues that could inform the Park Service analysis are how recreation and commuter patterns might look after the region settles into a post-pandemic routine.

Options include reopening to cars during weekdays as before the pandemic, maintaining restrictions that look like those in effect now or other possibilities in between, the Park Service said, although the agency did not release other details.

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The Park Service said that before the pandemic, traffic along the northern part of Beach Drive ranged from about 5,500 to 8,000 vehicles on weekdays. The Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway to the south averaged about 50,000 vehicles each weekday, the Park Service said.

The People’s Alliance for Rock Creek, which launched a petition to keep the northern section of Beach Drive closed to cars, said its volunteers counted 28,741 recreational users over a 56-hour period last year.