The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Part of Rock Creek Park’s Beach Drive will stay closed to cars year-round

The National Park Service initially proposed seasonal closures but changed course after public input

People walk, jog and cycle through Rock Creek Park. The National Park Service said much of Beach Drive will stay closed to vehicles year-round. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
4 min

The National Park Service said Wednesday it will keep much of Beach Drive through Rock Creek Park closed to cars year-round after weighing public opinion on the future of what has become a popular destination for walkers, runners and cyclists during the pandemic.

When the agency initially released its plan in July for the five-mile stretch, it proposed a system of seasonal closures, expressing concern that keeping cars out full-time would draw more visitors than the natural landscape could support.

That view baffled many supporters of preserving the road for people on foot and bikes. After reviewing comments on its plans, the Park Service announced Wednesday its view had changed. In a statement, the agency said it was safer to keep pedestrians and vehicles separated and that closing the road to cars would create more opportunities for people with disabilities to visit the park.

The debate over Beach Drive mirrors others happening around the country in the pandemic’s third year, as communities weigh what to do with streets that were closed to provide space for recreation or partly turned over to restaurants and cafes for outdoor dining.

“Opening this section of Beach Drive to pedestrians and cyclists has provided our community with increased opportunities for healthy recreation, greater access to nature and outdoor enjoyment,” Rock Creek Park superintendent Julia Washburn said in a statement. “We hope to continue seeing you all on Beach Drive and ask for your help as we work to protect sensitive habitat surrounding the road.”

NPS had weighed making Beach Drive car-free every summer

While keeping the road closed had many supporters — including D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and members of the D.C. Council — some residents said it would worsen traffic on nearby residential streets. The Park Service said it worked with the District Department of Transportation and concluded that traffic effects would be minimal.

The road was a relatively minor route for cars before the pandemic, the Park Service has said, carrying between 5,500 and 8,000 vehicles per day. That compares with 50,000 daily vehicles on the nearby Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway.

The Park Service said it is still concerned about the effects more visitors could have on natural resources, but that it would address them by monitoring for unofficial trails and encouraging visitors to stick to marked paths.

Jared Davis, who lives in the Crestwood neighborhood east of the park, said the closure of Beach Drive has compounded traffic problems in the area. He said he was disappointed by Wednesday’s decision.

“I feel that at the very least, a compromise of having it open during rush hour was the path of least resistance,” Davis said.

The five miles of road that will remain closed include Bingham Drive and Sherrill Drive, in addition to three sections of Beach Drive. A middle section of Beach Drive will remain open for vehicles to access parking lots and picnic areas, the Park Service said.

The decision caps a four-decade campaign by the People’s Alliance for Rock Creek, which has pushed for expanded pedestrian and bike access to the park while gathering thousands of signatures in support of year-round closures.

“We’re ecstatic and gratified that this has finally come about,” said Peter Harnik, one of the alliance’s leaders.

Colin Browne, a spokesman for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, said the closed sections will connect into a broader network of trails and bike lanes that “really connect big parts of the city to each other and connect communities to each other.”

The onset of the pandemic reinvigorated a debate about the role of cars in cities around the country as urban leaders rushed to close streets to make space for socially distanced recreation. Many of those hastily arranged approaches proved unpopular or flawed and were rolled back, but others endured.

Another section of Beach Drive in Montgomery County is similarly closed to cars between Friday mornings and Sunday afternoons, along with parts of the county’s Sligo Creek Parkway. On Monday, Montgomery Parks announced the next phase in a pilot program that involves closing two of four lanes on Little Falls Parkway to cars and reserving them for recreation.