Greater Greater Washington

Bicycling


Suitland Parkway Trail is a mess. Will leaders seek change?

I'm biking on the Suitland Parkway Trail to work, swerving around broken glass and under low-hanging tree branches. Highway traffic roars past just inches away. Suddenly, the trail ends.


All photos by the author.

Friday is the official Bike to Work Day, so on Monday, I did a test-run of a new route from my home in Trinidad to work in Suitland. What I found is that DC, Prince George's County, and the National Park Service, which maintains Suitland Parkway, still have a long way to go to make cycling a viable option for many communities east of the Anacostia River.

Suitland Parkway is a near-freeway connecting neighborhoods like Anacostia, Barry Farm, and Shipley Terrace to employment centers at Suitland and Andrews Air Force Base. Next to it is the Suitland Parkway Trail, a bike highway similar to the Mount Vernon Trail in Northern Virginia, but it doesn't make it out of the District. It appears to be DDOT's responsibility to maintain the trail, but judging from the lack of maintenance, it's clearly not a priority for them.


After a pleasant ride southbound against the commute rush on Martin Luther King Avenue, I turn onto Sheridan Road SE. This on-street section is the western extension of the Suitland Parkway Trail. It could certainly use sharrows or even a bike lane/cycle track, as the travel lanes are very wide.

Construction debris from the unfinished Sheridan Station development litters the sidewalk adjacent to the road. I swerve around something that was burned to the curb cut and a pile of mulch that sprawls onto the trail. There's no clear signage for the trailhead, but this is where it starts.


This is the nicest part of the trail in the city, though. There's separation from the parkway, and weeds and garbage haven't colonized the path yet.


It quickly gets worse, though. In some areas, there's so much underbrush, weeds, plant debris, garbage, and broken glass on the far side of the trail that there's just one passable "lane." I'm now limited to a space 3 feet wide, keenly aware that cars traveling over 50 miles per hour are just inches away.


The trail separates from the parkway for a short distance, where it's quickly overtaken by nature.


Grass grows through cracks in the pavement, reaching the point where the trail needs to be completely rebuilt. The surface is completely broken here.


When I get back to the parkway, the lane farthest from the road is still blocked, whether by trash and dead leaves or by low-hanging tree branches. I either have to get off my bike or move into oncoming traffic to pass it.


There's a speed limit sign placed not next to the trail, but in it. There's plenty of room 4 feet to the right.


Here's an uncharacteristically clear section of the trail. It's right in front of the speed limit sign, though, so I get the feeling it was kept that way so drivers could see the sign.


East of Stanton Road, the garbage littering the path makes me think I've found a mobile automobile repair shop.


A stream culvert passes under the trail and road here. Unfortunately, it narrows the trail.


This is the steepest climb on the trail, though thankfully it's much less steep than taking parallel streets like Good Hope Road or Pennsylvania Avenue. Here, you reach two places where the trail is collapsing due to erosion of the ground below.


After crossing two exit ramps, the trail continues under the Alabama Avenue bridge. The trail is very overgrown here, and I can pick out mulberries, Ailanthus (Tree of Heaven), Virginia creeper, and other weedy plants overrunning the pavement.


Under the bridge, the trail is barely 3 feet wide, making it impossible for two cyclists to pass each other here. The lanes of the parkway must be at least 12 feet wide, and they should be narrowed to give enough space for the trail.


If you haven't noticed by now, the parkway itself has a brand-new layer of asphalt, while the adjacent trail has not seen the same level of care or investment.


At Southern Avenue, the boundary between DC and Prince George's County, the trail abruptly ends.


I trudge up the hill through waist-high weeds to get to Southern Avenue. To add insult to injury, there's no gap in the guard rail, so you have to lift your bike over the rail to get to the sidewalk.




Improving the Suitland Parkway Trail is a chicken-and-egg argument: no one uses it because it goes nowhere, so it isn't used, which means it isn't maintained. But if the District and Prince George's County are serious about making cycling a viable option for communities east of the Anacostia River, they have to do a better job of creating trails and other infrastructure, and they have to actually maintain them. If our leaders are serious about all their claims about "One City" and working with our neighbors, they'd sit down together and find a way to make this a priority.

There are rumors that the trail will one day extend to at least the Branch Avenue Metro station, if not farther south to Andrews. In 1994, the National Park Service did a feasibility study of extending the trail, but nearly 20 years later, nothing has happened.

It's also unclear who would be in charge of this construction, the National Park Service or Prince George's County. I'll believe that the local governments actually see some level of priority here when I see shovels in the ground.

In the meantime, DDOT and Mayor Gray should at least send a crew to pick up debris and clear the underbrush so what's there can be used by District cyclists and pedestrians. It's literally the least they could do.

Geoff Hatchard lived in DC's Trinidad neighborhood. The opinions and views expressed in Geoff's writing on this blog are his, and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer. 

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Cutting back the brush and clearing the debris could be done cheaply and easily. Due to very light use, it would probably need to be done 3 times a year though to keep it up.

Cutting that guard rail would be very easy, adding a switch back to climb the hill is a more complicated issue but could be done by amateurs.

by Richard Bourne on May 14, 2013 10:54 am • linkreport

Thanks for highlighting how badly maintained and designed this trail is.

Is it any wonder that people don't bike EotR when there's next to no bike infrastructure that connects any points A to B that people want to go? I think you could count the number of bike lanes on one hand.

by MLD on May 14, 2013 11:02 am • linkreport

I have been tempted to use this trail as the last quarter of a Grand Biking DC Loop I have putting together. On aerial photo I noticed its lack of purpose and connectivity so I was concerned about using it. Now, having read your article I may just bypass this trail. Sounds like more trouble than its worth.

Thanks for writing this. Super informative.

by Ryan Sigworth on May 14, 2013 11:13 am • linkreport

For what it's worth, Prince George's County may have some of the best trails in the region. I was initially a bit confused when attempting to figure out where poorly maintained trails in Prince George's County are.

Unfortunately when multiple jurisdictions are involved at different stages, trail building can be put off for years. I understand incomplete trails to nowhere can be frustrating though.

View Larger Map

by selxic on May 14, 2013 11:13 am • linkreport

@selxic
Where are these trails? There are some in the greater College Park area but other than that I am at a loss as to where these great trails are in PGC.

by MLD on May 14, 2013 11:19 am • linkreport

selxic and MLD:

An earlier draft of this story had a mention of the Anacostia River Tributary Trail system. Click on the map link on the right-hand side of that page. You'll get a PDF of the fantastic (and well-maintained) system that Prince George's County has in the northern part of the county.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on May 14, 2013 11:22 am • linkreport

Nice documentation. And a definite illustration of the need to have a real regional bikeways plan that is cross-jurisdictional. One of my complaints about the Bike Master Plan is that it is very hermetic, and focused on intra-city biking, rather than on serving various audiences, including people biking into the city, and people, including residents, biking out of the city.

As I make the point in other contexts, if the various DC plans don't represent resident interests with regard to these issues as they relate to the federal government and/or the adjacent jurisdictions, who will?

2. I like how the Bethesda Trolley Trail signage does show "regional trails" that link to that trail. We need more of this kind of signage elsewhere in the region.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/rllayman/4815455189/

by Richard Layman on May 14, 2013 11:24 am • linkreport

ah, but your mentioning of the ART trail system illustrates the problem. Suitland Parkway is an NPS issue. The other trail is part of the normal PG County planning system. I wonder what their bike plan, if anything, says about NPS trails in their jurisdiction?

by Richard Layman on May 14, 2013 11:26 am • linkreport

Agree that the ART is nice, but the county is bereft of infrastructure that connects those high-quality arteries to actual activity centers. So they're great if you want to take a Saturday ride around, but less nice once, like in the example, you actually want to go somewhere.

by MLD on May 14, 2013 11:30 am • linkreport

Read a lot about unemployment in DC . These jobs would not be high paying but they would be work. DDOT should be hiring DC residents not contractors to do this work.

by danmac on May 14, 2013 11:33 am • linkreport

MLD:

The Anacostia Tributary Trail network, though is about to be very connected to more activity centers. Ongoing work on the Cafritz parcel in Riverdale Park will create more connections to the trail network, and when the feds and DC get the connection done from Bladensburg down through Kenilworth to River Terrace, there will be a solid off-street trail from Greenbelt all the way to downtown DC. That's real progress, and it's visible on the horizon.

Richard:

The jurisdictional problems here are legion, and the root of why this is all such a mess, I reckon. A friend has pointed out that an MPD officer told him that Suitland Parkway is the only regional NPS parkway where MPD has primary police jurisdiction.

I bet all the agencies that have a potential say here (police, maintenance, ownership, construction) have a foggy understanding of who is in charge. It's a shame, but that'll probably continue until the city decides to put it's foot down and take control, because I'd wager NPS never will.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on May 14, 2013 11:36 am • linkreport

Excellent to bring this to light. You're a brave one too Geoff; until one's tried that trail it's difficult to imagine just how horrendous it is. I worked at Census four years ago and would bike from Eastern Market fairly regularly. After the Sousa Bridge my usual route was 22nd to Q to 28th to Hillcrest to W to Alabama to Suitland Rd. Then one day I got the wild idea I'd finally ride the parkway trail. Needless to say it was a similar experience to yours. Thanks for sharing your story and images to expose this wasted resource.

by PJM on May 14, 2013 11:42 am • linkreport

Does DC have a pedestrian or cyclist advisory committee? As in a group of private citizens that meet periodically to look into issues like this, review plans by DDOT, advise the council, etc?

by Michael Perkins on May 14, 2013 11:44 am • linkreport

I wonder if there is a way to latch onto federal building siting decisions based on bike trail access. Gives various parties more on an incentive to build and work together? Or not?

by charlie on May 14, 2013 11:51 am • linkreport

Michael P -- yes DC has a ped and a bike advisory committee. I don't go to the meetings. I've never tried to get appointed. I can't imagine that the people on the committee push the planning agenda in the way that I do. (Although I will say that the Bike Advisory Committee "commissioned" the paper that I wrote in 2008 "Ideas for Making Cycling Irresistible in DC" as a way to stoke thinking about their response to a Rails to Trails Conservancy program on trails--I pushed them to consider an urban response.)

and Geoff, as you know, I have been making this point about how DC needs to step up its planning precisely because of these jurisdictional issues, because otherwise, resident needs are not addressed.

When I did my little gig in Balt. County, I learned that cities and counties typically are very much reticent aobut making recommendations to higher entities (with the exception of roads vis-a-vis the SHA) because they have no direct reporting relationship.

So all the recommendations I made in the plan wrt state action were not published in the posted draft (although I did blog them later). The point I made to my boss was that if the localities didn't point out the gaps in planning and local impact that result, no one will, and the problems will not only persist but grow.

Relatedly, in parks planning I now make the point that localities need to be prepared for changes in funding wrt state or federal parks, because that can have local impact and they need to be prepared.

The Suitland Parkway issue is even more different and difficult, because for weird historic reasons (a Depression), a bunch of pre-highways (parkways) were built in the region that are key elements of the regional transportation infrastructure but are run by the Park Service.

And this is an issue with parks departments and shared use paths as transportation-mobility infrastructure elements vs. their intended use as recreational. Parks depts. don't see their role as providing transportation infrastructure.

by Richard Layman on May 14, 2013 11:54 am • linkreport

Every National Park Service bike trail is in attrocious shape, with the possible and only partial exception of the Mt. Vernon trail. Still, I agree the Suitland one is singularly poor. (the rare times I use it, I use Irving street to enter/exit it from the SE end)

And connecting from the South Capitol Street bridge to Sheridan is not as easy as it should be either.

by Kolohe on May 14, 2013 11:57 am • linkreport

Following through this is like watching Harper run into a wall... funny only because it's so painful to watch.

These photos & your descriptions are downright astounding- in many cases it's not for lack of maintenance but some incredibly foolish oversights. I could at least concede an operating agency might refuse to allocate significant maintenance funds if no one uses it (yes, noting the chicken/egg argument), but putting signs and barrier wall in a bikeway??

by Bossi on May 14, 2013 12:04 pm • linkreport

only semi related, in my comments to NPS on the Anacostia Park plan, I made the point that they needed to look farther afield wrt bike trails, although there I was talking about the ART and connections to the trail network in PG county, but also making connections in upper NW from Ft. Totten to the trail connection at West Hyattsville Station, MBT, etc.

by Richard Layman on May 14, 2013 12:14 pm • linkreport

Inside the District the Suitland Parkway and its adjacent trail are owned the DC government and under DDOT's control. It was transferred to DC in 1972 when all of the neighborhood parks and recreation centers were transferred from federal to local control. Outside of DC it's still a National Park Service parkway.

by stitchbones on May 14, 2013 12:25 pm • linkreport

DC does a horrible job dealing with weeds and trash -- both on trails and on roads.

by mch on May 14, 2013 12:54 pm • linkreport

@Michael Perkins

The D.C. Bicycle Advisory Council (Twitter: @DCBAC) has discussed the problems with connectivity to east of the river for several years, with the Suitland Parkway trail and its connection to the Douglass bridge a major problem. What we've found is that NPS does control the trail but there are sporadic 'agreements' to between NPS and DDOT to maintain it. Plans that involve making any structural changes must come through NPS, although there have been some initial discussions regarding expanding or rebuilding the trail.

That said, a year or so ago, DDOT held a Charrette to seek public comment regarding rebuilding the Suitland Parkway and pedestrian access. While the images focused on rebuilding the Anacostia metrorail station, the presenters also discussed accessibility to it from the trail.

http://dcbac.blogspot.com/2012/02/ddot-anacostia-metro-station-charrette.html

by Randall M. on May 14, 2013 1:38 pm • linkreport

As others have pointed out, the Anacostia Tributary Trails system in PG Co is quite nice. Most of the system was recently re-paved, so it's a nice smooth ride. Most trails pass under the major roads, so there is little worry about traffic. One glaring need, IMO, is a connection between the trail at West Hyattsville metro station and the Met Branch trail at Fort Totten. And of course the southern end of the trail is a dead end for now, but the (already onging? Groundbreaking was last fall but I think that was just ceremonial) work to connect it south to Anacostia Park will make it an even better resource.

by John on May 14, 2013 2:09 pm • linkreport

@ John

Regarding the southern portion of the ATT, DC and MD have set aside about $10 million to connect the ATT to the DC Anacostia Riverwalk Trail in NE. Construction will start this summer and hopefully be completed by winter 2014.

http://www.anacostiawaterfront.org/awi-transportation-projects/anacostia-riverwalk-trail/?utm_source=shorturl&utm_medium=shorturl&utm_campaign=shorturl

The MBT connection is more complicated...

by Randall M. on May 14, 2013 2:29 pm • linkreport

@Randall, thanks. I am quite aware of the construction plans for the ATT trail connection but was wondering if they had actually started work. The link you included now indicates that construction will start fall 2013, which I think is pushed back a year from the date that had announced earlier. I think they did have a ground-breaking last fall though.

by John on May 14, 2013 2:39 pm • linkreport

@ John

There was discussion/planning about it last year but funds weren't allocated and agreements signed until late last year/early this year.

I think the construction time table is aggressive (it's a design/build project) and I think the completion date will slip, but it does point to the possibility of cooperation on other streets and trails.

by Randall M. on May 14, 2013 3:07 pm • linkreport

You think that is bad, try the Fort Circle Parks "Hiker-Biker Trail" which at some areas is so overgrown that it is impassable to anyone on foot, let alone bike. So much for an actual usable mountain bike trail in the city. Trail signs are missing and damaged, some sections have basically washed away, and judging from the brands of the beer cans strewn about, trash was last picked up in the late 1970's.

Your National Park Service at work.

by dcdriver on May 14, 2013 6:03 pm • linkreport

DDOT has said that they're willing to rebuild the Suitland Trail once PG County/NPS connects it to the Branch Avenue Metro, but until then it isn't very valuable or useful. I see their point. Without that connection there are bigger fish to fry.

As for the ATT/ART connection, spending is still set for 2013 in the budget. So work should begin this year. The Suitland Parkway Trail is not in the budget at all - and it goes out to 2018.

Richard, the BAC just created a new planning committee.

by David C on May 14, 2013 10:48 pm • linkreport

@DC Driver, I have found that the Fort Circle Trail is in pretty good shape between Fort Davis Dr and Good Hope Road, including the entire section within Fort DuPont Park. The segments north and south of this central segment are, as you note, overgrown and poorly maintained. I have written to the local NPS office about this a couple of times but have never heard a response.

@Randall, thanks for the follow up on the ATT/ART connection. Sounds like you know more about the status/prospects for a connection between Ft Totten and West Hyattsville - I would love to hear more. Particularly about the PC Co section - the connection within DC is pretty straightforward and would be an easy ride even without trail construction.

by John on May 15, 2013 8:34 am • linkreport

"I see their point. Without that connection there are bigger fish to fry."

Except that's one of the few pieces of bike infrastructure EOTR and the only thing in Ward 8 except for the Oxon run trail and 5 ill-connected (and thus ill-used) CaBi stations.

by Kolohe on May 15, 2013 8:36 am • linkreport

One problem here is that Ward 8 politicians likely don't see any political benefit from pressuring to have bike infrastructure created or maintained. In fact, given the oft-heard "bike lanes for who?" political meme, quite the opposite.

by oboe on May 15, 2013 9:59 am • linkreport

The National Park Service does not maintain the portion of the Suitland Parkway within the District of Columbia. They turned over the responsible of maintenance to the District of Columbia back in the 1980s.

Inquiries about the condition of the trail should be directed to the District of Columbia Department of Transportation not the National Park Service.

The portion in Maryland is still the responsible of the National Park Service.

Narrowing traffic lanes to widen the trail is not possible as the minimum lane width for that type of road is 12'.

by Sand Box John on May 15, 2013 10:12 am • linkreport

Thank you for this post. This is the bike trail near our house, and it's the main obstacle preventing us from biking to and from downtown. Please feel free to contact me if you intend to take this matter further -- I'd like to get involved.

by Jamie on May 15, 2013 10:36 am • linkreport

But DDOT is working on a new oxon run trail and a new South Capitol Street Trail, both in Ward 8. Plus there is the ART in SE. Should Suitland take Priority over those? If you're going to say this should be a higher priority, then tell me what you think should be demoted from the bike program. And if you think they need more money in the bike program, tell me where they should get it.

by David C on May 15, 2013 11:37 am • linkreport

@ Sand Box John: Are you sure these are 12-ft lanes? MD SHA has 11' lanes on roads inside the beltway. Suitland Parkway is hardly an interstate highway, and if it was run by anyone other than the National Park Service, bikes would allowed to use the lane.

by JimT on May 15, 2013 12:35 pm • linkreport

Mr. C, as you yourself have documented, DDOT has been 'working on' a South Capitol street trail and Oxon Run trail since 2010.

With absolutely no visible results so far.

(unless one counts what they've done here http://goo.gl/maps/JoDRx)

Furthermore, allowing the Suitland trail to just completely fall apart like the DDOT has* does not instill me with confidence that DDOT has the chops to *maintain* over the long haul all the recent buildout (and capital spending) in bike infrastructure all across the city. (heck, look at what poor shape the 15th street cycle track is already in) (look at there's still no bollards on Penn Ave)

*and I had thought until this post that is was NPS fault, who have long shown themselves inadequate to the task of building and maintaining non-car related transportation infrastructure in the DC area. Or is the Rock creek trail between Penn Ave and Connecticut/Calvert also run by the city?

by Kolohe on May 15, 2013 12:38 pm • linkreport

Geoff (or someone else) could make a difference in those areas of "low-hanging tree branches" by riding the trail again with a good set of pruning shears in his back pocket.

But some of that overgrowth needs heavier equipment to clear.

by Matt C on May 15, 2013 1:17 pm • linkreport

as you yourself have documented, DDOT has been 'working on' a South Capitol street trail and Oxon Run trail since 2010.

Yep, there is a lot of work that goes into these things. South Cap is on the schedule for 2014 and Oxon Run for 2016-18. Should we push those dates back to get Suitland in the mix? Are there some bike trail projects that you're thinking of that have gone from concept to complete in only 3 years?

by David C on May 15, 2013 2:46 pm • linkreport

Matt C beat me to the punch. Once in a blue moon I may have trimmed some of the branches and bushes along the MVT that cut into the path. I really need to do it again. South of OT there is a gigantic branch hanging at 4ft and just south of the airport atop the hill, the bush always sticks out into the pathway (compounded by it being around a turn). Both deserve some tlc from my shears.

by T1 on May 15, 2013 4:45 pm • linkreport

T1, good to hear there's another Vigilante Pruner!

I recommend the Fiskars 7936 pruner -- it is quite durable and, because of its shape, unlikely to cause injury when you're engaged in active sports.

Disclaimer: your mom told you not to run with scissors.

by Matt C on May 15, 2013 5:04 pm • linkreport

Excellent article, Geoff. I feel that we have the potential for some awesome trails in PG County, but it's the little things, like the issues you mention, get me blood pressure raised. Why bother spending money on a trail if it's not meaningful, useful, and SAFE for the users. I really wish the designers would take a ride with us and see our grievances--most of them can be fixed very easily and cheaply, but it requires some "big-picture" thought in the design.

by Bob Smith on May 15, 2013 9:08 pm • linkreport

@JimT,

I never said it was an interstate highway. The road is not a surface arterial either.

by Sand Box John on May 16, 2013 8:12 am • linkreport

Nice post. You captured it to the T and more. I would love to make this a better trail for all. Just need a point in the right direction and others who have my back.

by chuck on May 18, 2013 8:46 am • linkreport

"DDOT has said that they're willing to rebuild the Suitland Trail once PG County/NPS connects it to the Branch Avenue Metro, but until then it isn't very valuable or useful. I see their point. Without that connection there are bigger fish to fry." Exactly.

I emailed the PG county person in charge of this. Anyone know who to talk to in NPS?

"Hello Mr. Watkins,

My name is Don Herring and I am the park planner for the Southern Area of Prince George’s County. First and foremost, thanks for expressing interest in the expansion of our trail network. This past year, the Department of Parks and Recreation completed a functional master planning effort known as Formula 2040, which establishes a framework that will assure the department can meet future parks and recreation programmatic and facility needs. The plan calls for the creation of 400 miles of hard and soft surface trails by the year 2040 to meet the Level Of Service standard of 0.4 miles/1,000 persons for the projected population of 992,701.

Your suggestion regarding the trail along Suitland Parkway is a good one. Most of the property along Suitland Parkway is owned by the National Park Service, who also owns Oxon Hill Farm. The Department of Parks and Recreation’s has two primary trails in the Southern Area that include the Henson Creek Trail, which runs from Oxon Hill Road to Temple Hill Road, and the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Trail that extends from Oxon Hill Road to Washington Street on the Virginia side of the bridge with connections to National Harbor. We also have a host of nature trails, and fitness loop trails at various park facilities.

Thanks for your inquiry. We are always looking for ways to provide the community with greater connectivity, and will make note of your suggestions. As Liz mentioned, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission holds Budget Forums in September and October to allow residents to testify regarding desired park improvements in their areas. Please feel free to contact me via e-mail or at 301-699-2574 if you have any additional questions."

Would love to get NPS and Don to coordinate connections from the Suitland Parkway to the other bike trails there.

Steve

by steve w on May 24, 2014 1:12 pm • linkreport

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