Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Potomac River

Public Spaces


Tour the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers with Google Street View

Want to tour the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, but don't own a boat? Google's Street View tool now includes the view from a small boat traveling along the DC shore line.

To take the tour, just click the picture below. You can also go to the area in Google Maps and drag the orange stick figure onto the blue line that appears.


Memorial Bridge from the Captain John Smith Chesapeak National Historic Trail. Phot from Google Street View.

The tour starts north of Kingman Island near Kenilworth Park on the Anacostia River, stretches south and west around Hains Point, then heads north past Chain Bridge.

The project is part of the Conservation Fund's Google Trekker project, which has created virtual tours of beautiful and historic American places.

In this particular instance, the project has documented the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail. The first entirely water-based trail in the National Trail System, Captain John Smith followed this route over 400 years ago. In addition to helping found Jamestown, Smith became the first English explorer to map the Chesapeake Bay.

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Bicycling


To bike across the Potomac, most use the 14th Street Bridge or Key Bridge

Most cyclists cross the Potomac River on either the 14th Street Bridge or Key Bridge. Even more people might use these bridges if there were more ways to get to them by bike.


Graph by the author.

On the average July weekday this year, each carried around 2,000 riders: it was 2,028 for the 14th Street Bridge, and 1,950 for the Key Bridge. The Roosevelt Bridge saw an average of 474 cyclists per July weekday.

An average of 3,013 cyclists used all three bridges on weekdays during the first seven months of 2015. This equals an average of 1,352 cyclists on the 14th Street Bridge, 1,338 on the Key Bridge and 324 on the Roosevelt Bridge.

This data comes from Arlington County.

Cyclists can also cross the Potomac River on the Chain Bridge, Memorial Bridge and Woodrow Wilson Bridge, but there is little data available on exact use.

Cycling peaks during the summer

Bike commuting across the Potomac is most common during the relatively pleasant late spring and summer months. An average of 4,453 cyclists crossed the river on the three bridges during weekdays in July.

People used the Potomac crossings least during the winter. An average of 973 cyclists used the bridges on weekdays in January—about a fifth of the number that used them in July.

Cyclists face treacherous conditions during the winter months when the 14th Street Bridge path and the Mount Vernon Trail, which connect to all three Potomac crossings, are not plowed.

Interestingly, the annual Cherry Blossom Festival in March and April does not result in a spike in weekday cycling traffic across any the Potomac. This could be because bike commuters prefer to avoid the crowds around the Tidal Basin where they access the 14th Street Bridge in DC. It could also be that many have yet to resume cycling after a winter hiatus.

Better connections to the 14th Street and Key Bridges would serve a lot of cyclists

The 14th Street Bridge connects to the Mount Vernon Trail in Virginia, where cyclists can easily continue on to Crystal City, Ronald Reagan Washington National airport and Old Town Alexandria. Ideas for better connections include ones to the Pentagon and Long Bridge Park, potentially as part of the Long Bridge replacement.

In the District, the bridge drops cyclists just south of the Jefferson Memorial. From there, they have to ride on the sidewalk or with traffic across the Mall to reach the city's protected bikeway network. Ideas to improve the connection include extending the protected bikeway on 15th Street NW to Constitution Avenue, adding signage to the route and widening the off-street path.

The Key Bridge is well connected to the Custis Trail, Mount Vernon Trail and Rosslyn in Virginia. But on the District side cyclists either have to ride with traffic on congested M Street or descend two sets of stairs to reach the Capital Crescent Trail and K Street. The Georgetown Business Improvement District's Georgetown 2028 includes some improvements to the District side, as well as a new crossing to Roosevelt Island.

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Public Spaces


When crossing the Potomac, six train tracks do the work of dozens of highway lanes

Vehicles can only cross the Potomac in 11 places, and the three that are for rail carry 30% of commuters across the river. It takes 57 highway lanes to carry the rest.


Photo by Scott Ableman on Flickr.

Virginia's Department of Transportation recently looked at the current and projected volume at each crossing, then PlanItMetro analyzed the data.


Graphic by PlanItMetro. Click for larger version.

The six rail tracks carry nearly one third of the traffic, yet take up significantly less space.

The big takeaway, according to representatives from both VDOT and WMATA, is that any expansion of our region's bridges should account for and include more than just cars.

One of VDOT's recommendations is to continue the 495 Express Lanes from Virginia into Maryland by expanding the Legion Bridge. Should this happen, the region will be challenged to think proactively about how to integrate transit options; that goes for both what we have today and what we might have in the future. Adding a bus rapid transit route to the bridge, for example, could increase capacity by 14,000 crossings.


Graphic by PlanItMetro. Click for larger version.

Do we need to expand our bridges? Are the capacity improvements realistic, and if they are, are they worth the cost? Are there better solutions to get people across the river quickly and safely?

Correction: The original headline for this post read "Far more people cross the Potomac in trains than in cars," which is inaccurate. What we meant to say was that proportionately, more people cross in trains than in cars.

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Sustainability


Making the Anacostia a place to have fun goes hand in hand with cleaning it up

More and more people are learning how much fun there is to be had on the Anacostia River. That could mean a cleaner future for the local waterway.


A view of the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens from the water. Photo by the author.

On any given weekend, paddlers and rowers are speckled along the water—all in brightly colored watercraft looking like a pack of Skittles that was spilled. The recreationalists are typically spotted around the Georgetown waterfront on the Potomac River. Many are seeking an escape from the city or trying their balancing skills as they attempt yoga on a stand-up paddle board.

However, the Potomac isn't the only river people turn to; the Anacostia is making a comeback.

In the summer of 2013, Ballpark Boathouse opened by Yards Park, the first kayak rental business along the Anacostia River in the District. The Boathouse offers both kayaks and canoes to the adventure seekers.

A little further upriver, the Anacostia Community Boathouse has been around for over two decades. This member-driven facility offers numerous community activities, from learning to paddle a kayak or row a Dragon boat to competitive regattas.

There's lots to see when you paddle up the Anacostia

What's an outdoor recreationalist to do once they find themselves floating on top of the Anacostia River? There are few interesting sites to see via watercraft.

Tucked on the eastern shore of the Anacostia River and on the border between DC and Maryland, sits a 700-acre National Park called the Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens. A maze of coves and inlets steers you through a rich landscape of cattails, water lilies, and other aquatic flora. Calm waters of these wetlands let you linger.

And although the carefully planned and maintained paths around the ponds by foot are exciting, especially when the lotus are in bloom, exploring the Gardens by kayak or canoe is a whole other world.


A blue heron stalks its next meal in the Aquatic Gardens. Photo by the author.

Downstream from the Aquatic Gardens, and a little closer if you are paddling from downtown, is a small dock for landing at the National Arboretum. Here, you can pull your watercraft ashore and explore the 446 acres or just take a break.

Landmarks, like the old columns from the Capitol building that stand erect resembling relics from an ancient civilization, are one of many things to see. Plus the extensive tree canopy keeps the temperatures cooler.

For those who don't have the stamina or the time to venture far upriver, Kingman Island is a nice reprieve that is inhabited with herons and turtles. Or just trolling around Yards Park will provide some interesting sites like the decommissioned Navy ship USS Barry, which will be dismantled and removed by next summer.

A waterfront renaissance is stirring up attention

Revitalization along DC's shoreline is gaining speed. The Georgetown Waterfront Park final phase was completed in 2010, providing a welcome outdoor space along the Potomac. Now a national park, the waterfront serves as a starting point for the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal—a 184-mile landmark that follows the river and serves as a popular biking, running, and hiking destination.

Also, just a few weeks ago the Southwest Waterfront redevelopment project hit a milestone by completing the digging phase. The developers, PN Hoffman and Madison Marquette, have begun building what will be a 25-acre wharf and 3.5-acre waterfront park, when complete.

Development along the Anacostia River is also picking up. The Navy Yard neighborhood has been growing swiftly, with the now completed Yards Park an attractive place to sit on a chaise lounge and stare at the river or wade in the waterfall.

However, there are still areas along the Anacostia waterfront that are overlooked, like RFK stadium and parking lot, or the slow development of the Hill East District Waterfront.


Photo by Tim Evanson on Flickr.

All of this redevelopment along the rivers draws attention to them-and hopefully, their rehabilitation. But redevelopment needs to be done with a focus on equity, sustainability, and reducing environmental impact.

Creating a healthy river for people to enjoy is not easy

District residents realizing how much more they could get out of their shoreline means more opportunities for communities to connect with waterways and take pride in wanting to clean them up.

Trash, a visible pollutant, is still prevalent along the Anacostia. There are local and federal efforts underway to start removing it, like the EPA using the Clean Water Act to establish a total maximum amount of trash that can enter the waterway. To keep trash under the limit, the EPA estimates that 1.2 million pounds of trash needs to be removed annually from the watershed.

In 2009, the 5-cent bag fee was implemented. Since then, the revenue has been spent on tools to clean up the Anacostia such as education, grants to communities to install rain gardens or impermeable surfaces, and trash traps installed in key locations along the Anacostia watershed.

But trash is still quite visible along the river. And whether it's trash or invisible pollutants, the District's rivers still have a ways to go until they are swimmable.

Investments along the waterfront, especially in parks and other multifunctional spaces, bring people to the river's banks. Increasingly, recreationalists are venturing onto the water. And more recreation along the river is a sign that we are on a trajectory to restoring them to a more healthy state.

Correction: A previous version of this post named Ballpark Boathouse as the first kayak rental business along the Anacostia River. Bladensburg Waterfront Park in Maryland has actually been renting boats for longer, so we updated the post to clarify that the nod to Ballpark Boathouse is specific to the District.

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Sustainability


A sunken gas station sculpture sends the wrong message about the Anacostia River

Update: The DC Department of the Environment has decided not to allow the sculpture in the Anacostia due to environmental concerns.

Would a sunken gas station in the Anacostia, a piece of public art, spark discussion around climate change or hinder other environmental restoration in DC? A coalition of Anacostia River advocates is opposing installation of this sculpture in the river.


Watercolor of the proposed Antediluvian. Image from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities.

Antediluvian, by Canadian artist Mia Feuer, would be a replica of a gas station that appears to be partly submerged in the river. Feuer proposes placing the piece near Kingman Island, within view of commuters on the East Capitol Street bridge.

Feuer hopes to stir conversation and action about climate change, but the project has drawn a different kind of controversy. United for a Healthy Anacostia River, a coalition of environmental and recreation groups working on Anacostia River restoration, is asking the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities to withdraw support for the project, saying it will undermine a push to change the public's perception of the river.

We "have been working for years to change the image and the reality of the Anacostia River from a badly polluted eyesore and public heath hazard dividing the District of Columbia to an invaluable 21st Century recreation and economic asset for the region," says the letter. In recent years advocates have been working to undo the notion of the "forgotten river," in hopes of tearing down the proverbial yellow tape and inviting more people to personally experience the river and its restoration.

Stephanie Sherman, the curator who chose Antediluvian to exhibit in DC, said, "We are in support of the ecology and landscape and in no way ever intended to disparage this part of nature."

But others disagree.

Charles Allen, the Democratic nominee for the Ward 6 seat on the DC Council, said, "My concern is about the location in the Anacostia River—not the art project itself. I think the artist is attempting to highlight a very real, and very important, issue regarding the damaging effects of climate change. My concern is that sinking a gas station in the Anacostia sends exactly the wrong message about all of the incredibly hard work over the last few years to begin rebuilding the health of the River."

"As someone who has been using art to try and shift perceptions of the river, this project sends all the wrong messages," said Krista Schlyer, a Mount Rainier photographer. "People already view the Anacostia as a polluted lost cause. It isn't—it's filled with wild creatures, unique plant communities and amazing places of respite and recreation for people.

"The river has challenges, significant ones. But I think part of the reason why we haven't made more progress toward honoring the mandate of the Clean Water Act is because people have given up on the Anacostia--and a half-sunken gas station in the middle of it is not going to help."


Photo of the Anacostia River used with permission from Krista Schlyer.

How about the Potomac?

While it might be logistically easier to place the sculpture in the Anacostia, it could have a much more effective message in the Potomac River.

More people cross that river every day, including more members of Congress and other policymakers. So do more tourists, members of the news media, and other people who should be a greater part of the conversation around climate change.

The Potomac does flow faster, and the federal government is more protective of viewsheds in the Potomac. But for many reasons, the Potomac is more of a national river while the Anacostia is more of a local one, and climate change is a national (and global) issue.

Could the project harm the environment?

Sherman says the project will have "no impact on the environment," but that is not clear. The District Department of the Environment just last week began a months-long project to sample the sediment and water, known to be contaminated with toxic chemicals like PCBs. Results from the sampling will inform a plan to clean up the sediment.

The area of the river proposed for the art installation has never been sampled, says Richard Jackson, Acting Associate Director of the DDOE Environmental Services Administration. While the artwork will be tethered to Kingman Island and will float, Jackson is concerned: "Any disturbance could skew the sampling results."

DDOE has not yet received a permit application from the artist.

In a statement, DCCAH Executive Director Lionell Thomas said the artwork is still under review. "As the DCCAH moved through the process of implementation, we learned from the community that there are environmental concerns," the statement reads. "As responsible stewards, the DCCAH is working to address those concerns to ensure that we do not disturb the Anacostia River's ecosystem."

"I've got nothing against the artist or her message," said Doug Siglin, Executive Director of UHAR. "A lot more people need to get a grip on climate change before it's too late. But people also need to get a grip on what belongs in the Anacostia River and what doesn't. Here are five things that don't belong there: Toxic chemicals. Trash. Excrement of any kind. Oil and gas. And mock gas stations."

I reached out to the artist for input but have not yet heard back.

Disclosure: I previously worked for the Anacostia Watershed Society and created the Rediscover Your Anacostia messaging campaign, which aims to get residents to celebrate and appreciate the Anacostia River.

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Public Spaces


Captain America obliterates Rosslyn and Roosevelt Island

If you're like me, then you're probably pretty excited for the next Captain America movie, The Winter Soldier, coming out in April. Set in a reimagined DC, the film has a very different vision of Arlington's waterfront:


Helicarriers in the Potomac. Screencap by Rob Bricken on i09.

One of the things that piqued my interest was that S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Helicarriers, or flying aircraft carriers, are supposedly manufactured and stored underneath the Potomac right where the Orange and Blue Line tunnels are. That would certainly explain some of the delays on my daily commute!

Science fiction blog io9 screencapped an entire trailer of the film, giving us a better look at what that facility looks like. Above is an overhead shot of the Helicarrier facility.

In the film, the Georgetown side of the Potomac looks much the same, but the Arlington side looks very different. It looks like the Helicarrier facility has replaced part or all of Roosevelt Island, whose worth as a park and nature preserve is apparently less valuable than our need to have flying ships that can be blown up by demi-gods, possessed archers, and Hulks.

The Rosslyn skyline is missing, as well as I-66 and the George Washington Parkway which have been replaced with shorter office buildings. But maybe those were just moved underground. It's clear that at least one high-rise remains in Arlington, as we see Robert Redford's character looking out of his office window towards the National Mall.


Looking out across the Potomac. Screencap by Rob Bricken.

At least fans of DC's height limit can look forward to this film, unlike the disappointment they probably felt at the end of Terminator 2.

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Public Spaces


Besides Metro and a gondola, plan lays out many ways to burnish Georgetown

Georgetown used to be DC's premier shopping district, but development downtown and in other neighborhoods, coupled with the lack of a Metro station, have made it lose some of its luster. A new "Georgetown 2028" plan lays out strategies to spruce up the neighborhood's commercial areas.


All images from Georgetown 2028 plan unless otherwise noted.

The Georgetown Business Improvement District (BID) worked with community groups, residents, the university, and the city to reach consensus on proposals. That gives the plan a lot more chance of becoming reality, but it does also mean that in several key areas it just calls for more studies where there wasn't consensus.

The neighborhood stands solidly behind getting a Metro station, if it can. The plan also suggests studies for an aerial gondola to Rosslyn, an idea that initially seems kind of far-fetched, but is also intriguing. Supporters like BID Executive Director Joe Sternlieb are confident it is a more cost-effective way to move a lot of people; it'll be interesting to see a more detailed analysis when one is ready.

There's also a suggestion to build a pedestrian and bicycle bridge from the waterfront to Roosevelt Island, and then on to Virginia.

Most of the proposals in the plan are smaller aesthetic improvements that can polish up what's already there. If and when a streetcar comes to K Street, that street will need a lot of facelift elements to make it feel more like a gateway to the neighborhood as opposed to a back alley.

To better connect K to the main strip on M, the plan suggests studying a bicycle and pedestrian bridge over the C&O Canal west of 33rd Street, and redesigning the one at 33rd, as well as improving other connections. The idea is to integrate K and M and the blocks in between as an integrated district, says Topher Mathews, a Greater Greater Washington contributor and board member of the Citizens' Association of Georgetown who participated in developing the plan.

More buildings south of M could have ground-floor retail, especially once there will be much more foot traffic along those streets between M and the streetcar on K. Where retail isn't possible, maybe there can be public art and seating:

Improve connections west, east, and south

The plan talks about ways to better connect Georgetown University to the neighborhood. One is a simpler pedestrian connection to M Street, perhaps passing through buildings like the Car Barn or new buildings like one that could replace the gas station at the foot of the Key Bridge.

In the longer term, it calls for a study about how to connect the streetcar to the university. But if the streetcar is down on K/Water Street, that probably means some kind of tunnel under the mountain. If there's a way to get the money for it, that could then bring the streetcar even across the university and up to neighborhoods to the north, but tunnels are not cheap.

On the eastern side of the neighborhood, Rock Creek Parkway and the ramps to and from the Whitehurst create a formidable barrier for anyone not in a car (and sometimes even in one) between Georgetown and Foggy Bottom.

Suggestions in the plan include a clear and comfortable pedestrian route to and from the Foggy Bottom Metro station, and a better bicycle connection between the Capital Crescent Trail and Rock Creek Parkway trail. For drivers, there's a suggestion to let the off-ramp from southbound Rock Creek become a reversible ramp for northbound traffic in the afternoon peak, when Rock Creek Parkway is one-way.

And lots more

The C&O Canal is a real jewel, but limited NPS resources and restrictive rules mean people don't have many chances to enjoy it. One section of the plan talks about enlivening the canal, but at this point there aren't many details. Rather, it calls for a "multi-stakeholder" process to figure out how to better use the canal.

And how about real-time information? The Georgetown BID is working with TransitScreen, the company Matt Caywood founded to commercialize the open source screens Eric Fidler built on a fellowship for Arlington's Mobility Lab. (Disclosure: I was involved in managing the Mobility Lab project as well.)

The plan suggests piloting and then expanding screens in shop windows, as well as real-time signs or screens to give information about parking availability. (That's assuming, of course, the BID can work out something acceptable to the historic review boards.)


Concept for Georgetown transit screen from TransitScreen.

What's not in the plan: better parking management and wider sidewalks

However, also notable is the absence of some of the more significant ways to improve Georgetown, but which are also controversial. As is often the case, it mostly comes down in some way to parking.

The sidewalks on M Street are far too narrow for the volume of pedestrians along there. Yet a lane on each side serves as parking, even though only a very small number of cars can park along M and bring only a very tiny minority of shoppers.


Photo by Christopher Chan on Flickr.

Working groups for the plan explored widening sidewalks, but there wasn't enough consensus among people in the neighborhood to reallocate the tight space among pedestrians, rush hour driving, parking, and more. Some argued that the narrow sidewalks were even a historic feature of the neighborhood that had to be preserved as is.

The plan alludes to this dissent, with statements like, "Proposals for permanent sidewalk widening on principal corridors have raised concerns over the potential impact on Georgetown's already heavy traffic congestion. Any sidewalk widening efforts should focus on creating space where, and when, it is most needed."

Instead of recommending any widenings, the plan more vaguely suggests trying some pilot projects on weekends to temporarily widen sidewalks when traffic is low, and to put "parklets" on some side streets. Perhaps if those succeed and residents see the sky doesn't fall, they can become permanent on weekends, or even permanent at all times.


Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

One reason some fear losing the parking on M is that shoppers headed for M often circle nearby streets to look for free 2-hour (or, on Sundays, all-day) parking. The private lots are fairly expensive, while the streets are free. However, a few spaces on M won't really change this dynamic: the simple fact is that all of those meter spaces are almost always full, and free parking is really appealing compared to pay garages.

I personally have spent 15 minutes or more driving around the blocks near M to find a free space when none of the meters was available and my wife and I needed to do some quick shopping. The problem is that most of the garages, like many around the city, are something like $9 for the first hour and $15 for 2 hours or all day; it's one thing if you're going to stay a long time, but for a 1½ hour shopping trip it seems exorbitant.

Plus, there's always the chance of getting a free space just around the corner. When you first arrive, you might as well drive around to see if there's a space. Once you've been at it a while, it psychologically seems even more silly to give up on spending all that time and go pay the same amount you'd have paid from the start in a garage. Any minute you might find something (and, eventually, you do!)

A simple solution to this is to require drivers who aren't Georgetown residents to pay for curbside parking on residential blocks using the pay-by-phone system. The rate can be lower than the garages for short term parking but high enough to push longer-term parkers to the garages. At the very least it would generate money that could help pay for some of the elements of this plan.

DDOT parking manager Angelo Rao convened some meetings last year to talk about this possibility, which had support from advocates and some ANC commissioners, but they encountered significant opposition from a number of residents. Rao is now no longer at the agency, and many neighborhood leaders have now abandoned efforts to allow paying for parking on residential streets, according to contributor Ken Archer, who participated in the working groups. Mathews notes, however, that other parking ideas might still gain consensus.

A Metro station would be great, but it's a long way off and may never happen. In the meantime, there are ways Georgetown can better use its street space that balance the needs of all road users, but that will mean making some changes that aren't popular with everybody.

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