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The Park Service wants to fix a dangerous spot near Roosevelt Island

The National Park Service is trying to make the Mount Vernon Trail safer as it passes by the parking lot for Roosevelt Island. The agency devised four alternatives, but has already dismissed two, one of which which would have done more to fix the problem than the more conservative remaining ones.

Location of the parking lot. All images from NPS.

In this area, the trail passes the entrance to the parking lot which drivers use to access Roosevelt Island. There is a lot going on in this area. Pedestrians and cyclists crowd the trail. Cars enter and exit the parking lot. Hikers cross to get to the Potomac Heritage Trail and Roosevelt Island.

To make matters worse, the trail crosses the parking lot with two sharp 90° turns. ADA ramps and at least one tree extend into the trail space, and the trail through the area doesn't even meet NPS' 9-foot trail width standard. As a result, there have been numerous crashes in the area, some involving cars, others between cyclists and pedestrians.

Current layout of the parking lot and trail.

Besides improving safety, NPS wants to install a water fountain, more and better bike racks (since bicycles are not allowed on Roosevelt Island), and better signage.

Alternative 1 keeps the trail separated from the parking lot by a curb and widens it to 9 feet, with a 2-foot grass shoulder on one side and a 2-foot paved shoulder on the other. It also shifts the parking lot crossing to a gentler angle.

Alternative 1.

This makes it easier to navigate, but harder for cyclists to see oncoming traffic. It also elevates the trail crossing on a speed table (a wide speed bump) which forces cars to slow as they cross the trail. It would also remove an existing curb cut from the west end of the trail that cyclists currently use to go from the trail into the parking lot.

Alternative 2 lowers the trail to parking lot level, separating it from the parking lot by only a stripe of paint, similar to a bike lane. It also widens the trail to 9' and provides a separate 3'-wide pedestrian trail. Like Alternative 1, it changes the angle of the crossing but the crossing would be at parking lot level, rather than on a speed table.

Alternative 2.

Alternatives 1 and 2 are the options NPS officials are still considering. They also developed a 3rd and 4th, but discarded them.

Alternative 3 was the most aggressive proposal. It separated cars from cyclists and pedestrians entirely by eliminating the parking lot and trail crossing. It shifted the parking lot closer to the parkway and rerouted the trail to be entirely on one side of the lot. NPS dismissed this option because it would have eliminated 11 parking spaces.

Alternative 3.

Alternative 4 proposed moving the trail to cross the parking lot entrance and then run between the parking lot and the parkway. This would have been less safe due to the speed of traffic entering the parking lot from the parkway, and the bad sight lines at that spot.

What is best?

The reason many cyclists use the parking lot is to avoid congestion between bikes and pedestrians. Alternative 1 largely takes that option away, while providing only 1 foot of additional width to address the problem. The possibility in alternative 2 to separate bikes and pedestrians onto different trails is a nice step.

However, moving the trail to parking lot level could increase conflict between bikes and cars, as cars could back out of parking spaces directly onto the trail. The speed table from Alternative 1 seems to be a better approach.

It's too bad NPS didn't consider widening the trail beyond the agency's 9-foot minimum trail standard, despite the huge amount of bicycle and pedestrian congestion here. Nationwide, a 10' minimum is more common, and Arlington prefers 12 feet.

Also, Alternative 3 was the the only alternative that would fully separate cyclists and pedestrians from car traffic, but it has already been discarded.

To review the full details of the project, or to submit comments, see the project website. You can submit comments through April 22nd.

Chris Slatt is chair of the Arlington County Transportation Commission and of WABA's Arlington Action Committee. His posts are his own opinions. 


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I love it. NPS has still not done anything to make any form of safe crossing of the GWMP from the MVT between Old Town and Alexandria Avenue. They can build fancy flashing light signals for the two crossings by Memorial Bridge, they can redesign a parking lot of all things for the third time, and they can even talk about making it faster at Gravelly Pt, but never can they seem to find their way to the longest stretch of the trail. Instead, people have to cross on their own where the speed limits are the highest (equally high north of Roslyn, but inconsequential as the path doesn't go there).

by Terp Alum on Apr 15, 2014 3:22 pm • linkreport

When I rode through this area, I got into the parking lot and rode through there as a car would rather than staying to the trail.

by Michael Perkins on Apr 15, 2014 3:33 pm • linkreport

Shared-use paths are ONLY appropriate in areas with low-volumes of both bicyclists and pedestrians. They care more about maintaining convenient access for motorists than they do about actually creating safe and comfortable access for everyone else. Sadly, this is an agency-wide problem. NPS has shown over and over that they are terrible are working in urban areas. Let DC and Arlington run these local parks. They'd do a much much better job, especially since most of the users live and work in DC and Arlington, and the parks service could actually be held accountable by local residents. Surely this little parking lot and bike path is not of national significance.

by TransitSnob on Apr 15, 2014 4:06 pm • linkreport

@ Terp Alum

To be fair, the part of the MVT that crosses over the GWMP around Alexandria Avenue has a lot less bike traffic. Generally, only somewhat experienced cyclists make it down to Mt. Vernon and back. The small amount of on-road riding in an area with usually light car traffic isn’t too bad to an experienced cyclist. The MVT between Rosslyn and DCA gets a lot more bike volume, especially among tourists, people riding Capital Bikeshare bikes, or otherwise inexperienced folks. I can totally understand why safety improvements are more important in the areas where people ride the most.

by Jason on Apr 15, 2014 5:47 pm • linkreport

Glad to hear about the water fountains.

Bikers on this section need to learn to chill out and not ride so fast. If you go slowly, the current system works fine.

I'm not sure more bike racks are going to be used. I'd rather have a CABI station there.

by charlie on Apr 15, 2014 6:12 pm • linkreport

It's hard to tell sometimes whether NPS is actively hostile toward non-motorized visitors or just clueless. The entrance fee for a cyclist or pedestrian at Great Falls (MD and VA sides) is $3 each, but the fee for a car is only $5 no matter how many people are in it. Who comes up with ideas like that? And many NPS facilities have no bike racks.

by jimble on Apr 15, 2014 6:43 pm • linkreport

@jimble, Pedestrians and cyclists can get to Great Falls, Maryland without paying an entrance fee at Carderock and at Anchor Inn. There is also a way to hike in on the Virginia side, although it is a longer, but very nice hike, so not as convenient to the scenic overlook. The NPS or PATC trail maps have these entrances well marked, and they are heavily used by hiking clubs.

by OtherMike on Apr 15, 2014 8:07 pm • linkreport

Parking is also free at Carderock and Anchor Inn (the unpaved parking lot on the west side of Canal Road, NOT the restaurant).

by Frank IBC on Apr 15, 2014 10:02 pm • linkreport

I think these alternatives represent a real improvement, and rather than take this opportunity to ding NPS for what they aren't doing, I'd rather praise them for what they are doing on this project.

by David C on Apr 15, 2014 10:22 pm • linkreport

If losing parking is an issue, and parking is in short supply, perhaps they should try adding parking meters and varying prices with demand. Money could help pay for these improvements and other transportation enhancements.

by David C on Apr 15, 2014 10:30 pm • linkreport

I actually agree. This article went through some heavy editing (as I'm still getting used to GGW's voice and style) and I just now realized reading through that my paragraph lauding NPS for attempting improvements got cut along the way.

I'm super glad to see them applying for grants to fix obvious safety issues like this area. I do think they need to get push back from cyclists about making it impossible to bail to the parking lot. While it's generally a terrible idea on weekends, I think it is often the right choice during commute times as there is very little parking lot traffic and lots of peds and bikes all cramming into that narrow trail.

Many folks in NPS seem to see cyclists as a menace to be dealt with rather than visitors to be welcomed and that's gotta change somehow.

by Chris Slatt on Apr 15, 2014 10:31 pm • linkreport

Pedestrians and cyclists can get to Great Falls, Maryland without paying an entrance fee at Carderock and at Anchor Inn. There is also a way to hike in on the Virginia side...

I'm aware of these alternative entrances and have used them myself many times. But they don't excuse the Park Service's counterproductive entrance fee policies. Their fee structure favors automobiles at other parks as well.

by jimble on Apr 15, 2014 11:41 pm • linkreport

I dont understand proposal 2.

Why propose 9 + 3 (with the 3 never being used, because its tiny - and not ADA compliant), instead of one 12' mixed use path?

by JJJJ on Apr 16, 2014 12:01 am • linkreport

If one of the issues to the two rejected proposals is an increase in impervious pavement, why not just pave the car traffic way and use permeable pavers in the parking spaces?

by SteveK on Apr 16, 2014 12:35 am • linkreport

@Michael Perkins: NPS's main stated goal is getting bikes out the parking lot. they show little to no concern for the people using trails, they are focused on car storage. par for the course for NPS.

by Mike on Apr 16, 2014 7:08 am • linkreport


Terp Alum's main point is that, unlike further north in Alexandria and Arlington, there is no safe way for most nearby Fairfax County residents to access the MVT. Especially north of the Alexandria Ave overpass. True, there are fewer cyclists down that way, but not for lack of want. There's just no good way for Belle View/Belle Haven residents to get to the trail...something the MVCCA Transportation Committee (including me when I served on that committee) harped on often.

by Froggie on Apr 16, 2014 8:32 am • linkreport

It is encouraging to see NPS taking an active role in making things better for cylists and pedestrians. The new MVT crossings near the Memorial Bridge are also an improvement, but there is still a lot to be done.

by aaa on Apr 16, 2014 8:44 am • linkreport

When the NPS also runs Cuyahoga Valley National Park that goes most of the way between Cleveland and Akron in Ohio (to cite just one example), there's no reason why they can't be as context sensitive to National Park lands and facilities in urban areas as they are with those in rural areas.

by DaveG on Apr 16, 2014 9:12 am • linkreport

Option 1 is the best. It gives bikes a clear right of way to cross the road, and separates bikers and pedestrians. An undiscussed issue is that bikers come into the parking lot with quite some speed as they descend from the bridge. This creates many conflicts with pedestrians who are not paying attention.

I wish they could do something similar at Haines point. I know they're working on that, but a raised crossing there would solve the conflicts between cars and bikes. And it would confirm the status quo.

by Jasper on Apr 16, 2014 9:58 am • linkreport

@Mike, I don't think that's an accurate characterization of the project goal. From the project website "the project seeks to reduce visitor conflict and improve visitor experience by realigning a segment of the Mount Vernon Trail and reconfiguring the entry area of the Theodore Roosevelt Island pedestrian bridge"

It makes sense for NPS to want to preserve parking at this location. The trails and the island are popular regional destinations and many people arrive by car, especially on weekends when traffic is light. The parking lot is often full on nice weekends, in spite of being difficult to get to.

I don't think it's accurate to say that NPS is "focused on car storage" more broadly either. They have developed bike/ped paths in congested areas of many parks, and operate shuttle bus systems to reduce vehicle traffic in congested parks such as Acadia, Zion, and Yosemite.

by John on Apr 16, 2014 10:02 am • linkreport

@John: what's the first bullet on page 6 of the alternatives powerpoint? "Discourage trail users traveling through parking lot." That seems to suggest that they think that's the most important feature of any of the plans. You're also ignoring (or not aware of) the history with NPS putting up barriers specifically to keep bikes out of the parking lot.

They cloak this all in "safety", but note that there isn't really *any* discussion of what would be safe. Plans are shot down for reasons like "would take away parking" but never is there any discussion of what the kind of minimum standards are suggested by industry standards.

And all of this has a context. NPS quite simply has not shown that it prioritizes people above cars, in numerous examples across all of its area properties. The shuttle buses you mention were forced by environmental concerns. We're so desperate that we'll get excited by any small improvement, but when was the last time NPS did something for pedestrians that would actually impact car users?

by Mike on Apr 16, 2014 11:04 am • linkreport

SteveK, I think that's a fantastic idea, and I hope you submit it to NPS at the link above.

by David C on Apr 16, 2014 11:09 am • linkreport

@ Mike:NPS quite simply has not shown that it prioritizes people above cars, in numerous examples across all of its area properties.

You are right. But that's not going to change the NPS. Take what you can get, not what you want.

by Jasper on Apr 16, 2014 12:57 pm • linkreport

@Jasper: I was just trying to explain why just going through the parking lot isn't an acceptable option. :)

by Mike on Apr 16, 2014 1:02 pm • linkreport

And all of this has a context. NPS quite simply has not shown that it prioritizes people above cars, in numerous examples across all of its area properties. The shuttle buses you mention were forced by environmental concerns. We're so desperate that we'll get excited by any small improvement, but when was the last time NPS did something for pedestrians that would actually impact car users?

Car users are people too, and for the vast majority of those in the area, cars are the only practical way to get to Roosevelt island. There are also quite a few people who drive to get to the bike trail.

Car users and people are not two distinct groups. The NPS is trying to come up with a proposal that balances the needs of drivers, bikers and pedestrians, who are, in that location, usually the same people. It's an awkward location, and they're trying to do what they can with it.

by Zeus on Apr 16, 2014 1:53 pm • linkreport

@Zeus: car users might be people too, but they don't killed and maimed as much as the pedestrians (because NPS already has safety requirements for motorists built into its road standards) so in a safety discussion I think it's ok to call out the two groups.

Maybe they really are trying to do what they can, we don't really know because they never actually documented what was necessary for pedestrian safety--that wasn't an option that was even on the table so we don't know how much it would have cost, how many spots it would have taken, etc.

Don't give me a line about "balance" when the starting position is "you can choose from these options which we decided internally don't alter the status quo too much".

by Mike on Apr 16, 2014 2:23 pm • linkreport

Mike The majority of people driving are trying to be careful not to hit pedestrians and bikers or other vehicles, where there's a really risky area, and people keep getting hurt/killed, often it has something to do with the area's design making it difficult for drivers, pedestrian, or biker to see or respond to how someone's going to be there crossing in front of them. Some crossings are dangerous when it's all cars.
If something can be done to prevent accidents, that's to the good. My balance tips to reasonably trying to prevent accidents.

by asffa on Apr 17, 2014 5:25 pm • linkreport

"The majority of people driving are trying to be careful not to hit pedestrians and bikers or other vehicles"

Your experience differs from mine, having been hit multiple times (both on bike and in a car) by drivers not paying attention. My experience is that the majority of people driving aren't really worried about their own safety and don't have a real stake in driving safely. In my context, what is "reasonable" may differ from that of someone who doesn't see the enormous number of motor vehicle collisions as a big deal. Thus, I'm not as excited by the possibility of small improvements as long as they don't take too many parking spots or slow down traffic.

by Mike on Apr 18, 2014 7:22 am • linkreport

Also differs from my experience just now when a driver made a right-on-red at 17th & I NW without even stopping at all. And instead of hitting is brakes or anything when he saw the group of pedestrians trying to cross (we had the signal mind you), he just put up his hand like "my bad" and kept on going. That doesn't indicate any defensive driving or care whatsoever about whether he hits someone or not. Well, I'm sure he would "feel bad" if he hit someone. But there's no sense that there's anything he could be doing to prevent it in the first place. And that attitude is all too common.

by MLD on Apr 18, 2014 8:19 am • linkreport

I am not sure what Mike and MLD are arguing here, wrt to Roosevelt Island. Do you guys think that TR islands infra is okay, and that whats needed is enforcement vis a vis drivers? I don't, I think the infra is a problem.

Mustnt get diverted.

Zeus - the point is not how many folks visiting the island are going by which mode. You are right, probably the majority go by car and park in that lot. But that location is ALSO a through route for cyclists (and some peds) and needs to function for them as well. The total number of through cyclists and through peds is almost certainly greater than the number of folks who drive there. The ideal solution would be to reroute the MVT trail completely away from the lot, but that appears to be impossible. It is therefore appropriate that NPS focus on through trail users here.

Mike : I am sympathetic to your view of NPS' history, but I have heard good things about particular individuals there from time to time, and I am always willing to allow that an org has changed. I agree with Chris, lets push for improvement, and take a positive attitude.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Apr 18, 2014 8:57 am • linkreport

Driver behavior is bad and it should be fixed/enforced via infrastructure changes. I think Mike is saying the same thing - that "small changes without slowing down traffic" is not the solution.

Also I wanted to rant about being almost run over this morning.

by MLD on Apr 18, 2014 9:02 am • linkreport

slowing down traffic? I've biked through there on weekends, and the principle deterrent to using the lot then is parked cars backing out. Thats always a danger riding through a parking lot, and it would be even if all drivers were concerned about ped safety. Is that less of a problem compared to driver speeds at weekday rush hour?

I forget - isnt there already a speed bump in the lot? What else would you do there - can't really narrow the lane, as room is needed for parked vehicles to pull out. Maybe a speed cam in the parking lot?

Sorry about your near miss. But that wasn't on the MVT, now was it? ;)

by AWalkerInTheCity on Apr 18, 2014 9:10 am • linkreport

@AWalkerInTheCity I'm arguing that maybe a proper fix will cost more than a couple of parking spots. Maybe the parking lot needs to be cut by half, maybe a small lot reserved only for handicapped access. Who knows--the point is that NPS should have had as one of its options a plan which was based on pedestrian & bike trail standards, without regard to impact on automobile use, and allowed the public to weigh the costs and benefits of such a configuration. What I see instead are comments that things need to be "balanced", so NPS doesn't generate such an option because the impact to the status quo would be "too high" based on their priorities rather than the priorities discovered during a public review process. Because, of course, "balance" means that most of the space should be reserved for cars and that's ok because drivers are really trying hard not to hit anybody.

by Mike on Apr 18, 2014 10:06 am • linkreport

Oh, and for clarity, "lose parking spots" is NPS's fear for this particular project. "slow down traffic" is why NPS says it won't reduce speed limits or add stop signs or lights in other high-accident location.

by Mike on Apr 18, 2014 10:09 am • linkreport

1. Roosevelt Island is a major presidential memorial, and I am pretty sure on this at least Zeus is right, most come by car, and few will want to walk from Rosslyn (where parking is, and should be, relatively scarce/price) Eliminating more than half the spots is certainly not going to happen - and I suppose they didnt see a point to putting in an option that they know isnt going to happen. I don't think that is a sign of NPS being autocentric.

2. I am not addressing driver behavior. There are scofflaw drivers, sure - but as in the case of scofflaw cyclists, its inappropriate to use infra decisions to "punish" a mode as a class.

really, the problem here is that we have an NPS destination, and a commuter route running through it. The issue is not NPS prioritizing a mode, but prioritizing the destination over the through route. I don't think its realistic to expect them to sacrifice usage of one of their destinations for through commuters. That doesnt mean they shouldnt improve conditions for cyclists there - but I do not think taking away half or more of the spots is realistic.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Apr 18, 2014 10:17 am • linkreport

The existing lot is tiny. It is nearly empty most of the time, and at peak times is already full. I'd be surprised if cutting the number of spots in half would actually affect the usage numbers much. (A few less people would be able to get in during peak times via car, but maybe with trail improvements the already-significant share of people who arrive by means other than cars would increase.)

As far as prioritizing commuter routes, what, exactly, do you think that NPS is doing on the GW parkway? Another route to a safe outcome would be to slow down and shrink the parkway and expand the space available for the MVT & TR lot, but they've already prioritized a mode--this parking lot configuration is just *further* prioritizing the mode.

I'm curious why taking away a few spots "punishes" drivers, but not letting pedestrians have more space is not a "punishment".

by Mike on Apr 18, 2014 10:44 am • linkreport

Mike, MLD - You dealt with bad drivers. Thankfully most drivers aren't trying to have accidents and kill people.

by asffa on Apr 18, 2014 12:11 pm • linkreport


yes, its already full at peak. So removing half the spots would mean half of those motorists would not use it at peak. And that peak lasts a while on nice weekends, and there is turnover in those spots, so I think its probably a lot of the TR island user, maybe most. And I doubt improvements would lead to more folks biking to get there - if you are biking TO TR as a destination, dismounting a bit earlier isn't that big deal - the hardship is mostly to through cyclists.

I think the problem with narrowing the parkway is the pushback NPS would get from local elected officials. There is a race for congress in this very area - do any of the candidates support narrowing GWP to solve the MVT problem?

And of course I do not think making things less convenient for drivers, for a policy reason, is punishing them. I used the word punish because you were addressing the behavior of some drivers. It sounded to me very much like the rhetoric used by people opposing bike infra because of "scofflaw cyclists". I consider that in general such misbehavior is only policy relevant to the extent that proposed policy changes address its consequnces directly. (And yes, I have had moments as a ped and a cyclist when some motorists behavior leads me to mode vs mode anger - but I try to get over it)

by AWalkerInTheCity on Apr 18, 2014 12:21 pm • linkreport

Well, we'll never know what the impact of reducing the parking would be, since that wasn't presented as an alternative. You can have your theory, I can have mine, and NPS should have actually quantified it as a part of the public decision making process. Which was my original point.

by Mike on Apr 18, 2014 1:27 pm • linkreport

I also can't help what talking about driver inattention "sounded like to you". The point is that drivers aren't really watching out for pedestrians, statistics bear that out, and the infrastructure should be designed to keep people safe without relying on drivers doing the right thing. I'm really not even sure what you're arguing for at this point. You seem to want infrastructure improvements, but not punish drivers, so we shouldn't study how to make things safe, because it's unreasonable to make the arbitrarily-sized parking lot a different arbitrary size because you're certain that the impact to the number of users of TR island would be horrible. Or something. Oh, and we should be grateful that NPS is doing something, so we shouldn't demand more attention to safety and better transparency from our public servants.

by Mike on Apr 18, 2014 1:34 pm • linkreport

@asffa of course they aren't *trying* to kill people, they just don't prioritize the effort of not killing people above other things they want to do

by Mike on Apr 18, 2014 1:39 pm • linkreport

I think that NPS is probably never going to shrink the size of a lot thats regularly full, because they value access to TR island over through commuters (and no, through commuters on the MVT do not have the same amount of clout as motorists on GWP do) and they have a pretty good idea of usage of the island by mode and arent interested in having public meetings question them on that. So that we should focus our efforts on A. Getting the best we can among the proposals that are close to being realistic - including the one that involves eliminating 11 spaces B. We should press NPS for realistic improvements elsewhere C. and yes, we should be thankful for positive things they are doing - including improvements to the connection from the 14th Str bridge to the Jefferson Mem. D. We should continue to grow the numbers of cyclists so we have more clout - maybe enough to make radical changes to GWP someday

If you would like to contact your congressman (or Del Norton if you live in DC) and call for NPS to present an alternative that cuts the lot in half, I would not object. I think it will have less impact on the outcome than if yuo called for say, Alt 3.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Apr 18, 2014 2:00 pm • linkreport

another option

Require payment to use the lot -that would at least tell us how many people use the lot becaues its underpriced. I guess the problem here is that the lots is too small to justify an employee and they dont want to the infra to charge, so we are probably stuck with the lot being free.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Apr 18, 2014 2:04 pm • linkreport

yet another option would be to limit parking (say on half the lot) on weekdays, and leave the full lot on weekends. Its weekdays that have the most through commuter traffic, and and when there fewer visitors to the Island, and the lots is much less utilized (from what I have heard.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Apr 18, 2014 2:12 pm • linkreport

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