The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.

Posts about Potomac River

Public Spaces


The difference between Maryland and Virginia in one photo

If you've ever flown out of National Airport, you might try to pick out the geographic landmarks you recognize: the Washington Monument, Rock Creek Park, or the Potomac River. Next time you're heading west, keep an eye on the river as it passes through Maryland and Virginia, and you'll notice one big difference between each state.


Virginia sprawl on the left, Maryland farms on the right. Photos by the author.

This is a photo I took Sunday morning when I flew to San Francisco. On the Virginia side, in Fairfax and Loudoun counties, there are all the typical signs of suburban sprawl: subdivisions, freeways, and shopping centers. On the Maryland side, in Montgomery County, there's...not very much.

That's because for over fifty years, Montgomery County has aggressively tried to protect its open space. In 1964, the county's General Plan said that growth should cluster along major highway and rail corridors leading from the District, and that the spaces in between should be preserved.

In 1980, the county made it official with the 93,000-acre Agricultural Reserve, which covers one-third of the county will remain farmland and nature forever. (Combine that with the county's 34,000-acre park system, and nearly half of the county is open space.)

That decision has lasting effects today. Montgomery County residents benefit from an abundance of open space for recreation, enjoying nature, and of course, keeping our air and water clean.

In order to preserve this open space, we have to accommodate growth elsewhere in the county, particularly in our town centers like Silver Spring, Bethesda, and Rockville. People who try to stop development in their close-in communities may not feel they benefit from open space 30 miles away. But the urban and suburban parts of our region benefit from the Ag Reserve too.


Allowing inside-the-Beltway communities like Bethesda and Silver Spring to grow lets us preserve open space.

Maryland has an abundance of green space thanks to dense urban development

By focusing growth and investment in existing communities, we get thriving downtowns that support local businesses and local culture, and less traffic as people who live closer in can drive less or not at all. We also spend less money building public infrastructure, like roads and utility lines, to far-flung areas, while generating tax revenue to support the infrastructure we do need. (And obviously, those places can and will have open space.)

This is the path Maryland, and Montgomery County, chose over 50 years ago. So far, it's working pretty well. And you don't have to get in a plane to see it.

Public Spaces


Thanks to World War II, we love to bike here

Hains Point, which sits at the southern end of DC's East Potomac Park, has long been one of the District's prime destinations for serene river views—especially for cyclists who want a flat, lightly-trafficked, gently curving course for serious exercise. Yet even though it was built in 1917, it only became a popular place to bike after World War II (and car rationing) started.


Photo by Payton Chung on Flickr.

Take Ohio Drive well past the tidal basin and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial and you'll hit East Potomac Park, with groves of cherry trees lining the fringes of its 36-hole golf course, and eventually Hains Point, where a group of picnic tables command a view far down the Potomac River. The roads that encircle the island are popular with DC-area road cyclists, who gather in groups to ride in clockwise laps.

What many might not know is that its track-like drive first gained popularity as a cycling destination during the "Rosie the Riveter" days of World War Two, when the Park Service sought to encourage cycling instead of driving as a way to see the park.


Hains Point, as seen looking south from central DC. Photo by Valerie on Flickr.

According to the National Park Service's Historic American Buildings Survey description of East Potomac Park:

The most popular means of access by far, however, was by automobile. As the number of automobiles in the District increased, the park attracted more and more visitors seeking the cool breezes at Hains Point in the midst of Washington's hot summers. To accommodate the increasing number of motorists, the OPB&G built a shelter with restrooms at the southern tip of the park in 1922.

When the United States entered World War II, NPS closed the tea house at Hains Point since its use as a recreational automotive destination was inconsistent with the national effort to conserve tires and gas... A bicycle-rental facility in the park thrived on the business from the new crowd of wartime workers.

Regional population had increased with the war and subsequently, traffic congestion worsened. The stables closed in 1950 when the mixture of automobiles and equestrians were seen as a safety hazard. Likewise the demand for bicycles decreased and the rental shop closed in 1955.

Although the bike rental shop might be long-gone, East Potomac Park does have a Capital Bikeshare station.

Meanwhile, another historic way of getting to Hains Point is about to make a comeback.

For a brief period between 1919 and 1921, the park was accessible not only by automobile, but also by ferry. A boat called the Bartholdi ferried passengers between the government wharf in Southwest and the tip of West Potomac Park, named Hains Point in 1917.
The Wharf's developers promise that they will re-launch a ferry across the Washington Channel after the development opens next year, docking at a newly built pier behind the fish market. The bike shop that's proposed nearby could prove convenient for flat-tire-stricken cyclists, and visitors to the park's golf course, mini-golf course, tennis courts, swimming pool, picnic areas, and cherry groves could enjoy different dining options besides the golf course's snack bar.

History


Check out hidden transportation gems in our region

Just about everyone knows about the Washington Metro and Beltway, but those well-known structures only scratch the surface of interesting infrastructure in our region. Here is a list of some fascinating, but oft-forgotten, pieces of Washingtonia. Each link provides additional information, including pictures:


Photo by tormol on Flickr.

The Capitol Subway: Metrorail isn't the only subway system in Washington. Under Capitol Hill three subway lines emanate like rays out from the Capitol building, carrying Congresspeople and their staff members to and from the various Congressional office buildings.

The first line, to the Russell Building, opened in 1909, with lines going to the Hart, Dirksen, and Rayburn buildings opening between 1960 and 1982. The secret subway isn't really a secret, and although it's not open to the public, visitors can catch a ride if they arrange one with their Congressperson.

The Aqueduct Bridge: Non sequitur though it may be, there was indeed once a bridge that carried boats over the Potomac.

It opened in 1843 and was called the Aqueduct Bridge. It ran from the C&O Canal in Georgetown across the river to Rosslyn, where it met a canal going from there to Alexandria. Canal boats of the day were too fragile to survive the river, so a bridge was needed.


Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

Although the main span of the aqueduct was torn down when the Key Bridge was built in 1923, the old abutments remain on both the DC and Virginia sides. In fact, visitors to Georgetown can walk right up onto the ruins, to be greeted by some of the city's loveliest views.

The Montgomery/Loudoun ferry: Since 1817 there has been ferry service across the Potomac between Montgomery and Loudoun Counties. White's Ferry, as it is currently known, is a floating slab of concrete that runs along a cable connected to both sides of the river. It carries cars, pedestrians and bicyclists commuting between Maryland and Northern Virginia every day of the week.


Photo by chriggy1 on Flickr.

Trolley remnants: Trolleys were once the bread and butter of urban transportation. As whole towns are now built around cars, whole towns were once built around streetcars. Although it's been 49 years since the last trolley rolled down a Washington street, there remains a plenitude of vintage trolley infrastructure.

The most famous cases are the abandoned trolley subway station under Dupont Circle and the trolley tracks visible on P Street in Georgetown, but those examples aren't alone. There are least four old trolley station depots still standing, at Glen Echo Park in Maryland, on Colorado Avenue, on Calvert Street, and on Connecticut Avenue (though that last may have only served buses).


From left to right, the Connecticut Avenue terminal in Chevy Chase,
the 14th & Colorodo NW terminal, the Calvert Street terminal.

Car barns, where trolley vehicles were stored when not in use, remain standing and converted to other purposes in several neighborhoods across the city. Even the light poles on the Klingle Valley Bridge are remnants of trolleys; they're twice as tall as the lights they hold because decades ago they also strung trolley wires.Washington is a fascinating city a long and diverse history. What other little-known pieces of the city can you name?

This post originally ran in 2011, but since the history hasn't changed, we're sharing it with you again!

Transit


Who needs Metro? Duck Rapid Transit is the answer to the Blue Line crunch

This article was posted as an April Fool's joke.

Metro's total shutdown earlier this month forced many people to travel by other means for the day. But maybe that's just the way things should be. All the time. It would be much cheaper to get around using existing water infrastructure if the region built Duck Rapid Transit (DuRT).


Concept rendering of a possible Washington-area DuRT line from the from the Institute for Tub and Duck Policy (ITDP). Base duck photo by Jonathan Chen.

DuRT would be perfect for the Washington region, especially the overburdened Blue Line. With minimal investment, passengers could ride aboard a high-speed fleet of DC Duck Tours' amphibious boat/bus vehicles, running primarily on the Potomac River but also on dedicated Duck Occupancy/Toll (DOT) lanes in both Virginia and DC. Travel times would be competitive with Metro.

"Why isn't now the time to ask whether we should keep investing in the Metro system?" asked Thomas O. T. B. Fired, a senior fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute. "Any reasonable metric shows it's not a good form of transit compared to other ones."

If Fired had his way, he said he would close Metro. He was previously quoted by the Washington Post's Kendrick Bunkle saying he'd fill in the tunnels with dirt, but we now know Bunkle misheard him and he really meant DuRT.

Here's one possible transit line alignment, with stops at eight existing Metro stations: Franconia-Springfield, Van Dorn Street, Eisenhower Avenue, Pentagon, Rosslyn, Foggy Bottom-GWU, Dupont Circle, and U Street. A future stop could also be added at the Watergate complex.

The idea garners mixed reviews

The Georgetown Business Improvement District, which spearheaded a study of a gondola from Rosslyn, is eager to see an analysis. "I just want a feasibility study of DuRT," said BID director Stone Jerlieb. However, some residents immediately inveigled against the idea on the local listserv. In response to counter-arguments that this is far in the future, local neighborhood curmudgeon, Ima Ghenstytt, said she had to be opposed "just to be sure."

It's also unclear if Georgetown could even get a DuRT stop, but the BID isn't worried. "The line for Georgetown Cupcake starts in Foggy Bottom, anyway," said Bill Footsfield, BID Coordination Coordinator.

In addition to new Duck Loops at each of the stations, the route would require the construction of ramps to connect dedicated lanes along existing roads like I-95, Virginia 110, and New Hampshire Avenue to waterways like Backlick Run, Cameron Run, and the Potomac River, including a funicular ramp near Key Bridge.

Local transportation innovator Gabe Gross also roundly applauded the idea, saying, "This is a bold step towards having fully accountable public-private partnerships operate all of America's transit. Also, having more transportation options improves the region's resilience in the face of imminent disasters, like floods and electrical cable insulation."

DC Ducks could receive the same fares and public subsidy levels that the Blue Line currently receives, but DuRT operating costs would be lower than Metrorail, since the vehicles can be powered primarily by stale bread crumbs.

The DC government actually considered DuRT under former DDOT head Tan "Danger" Lini. That concept would have further extended the line to Columbia Heights by making the Meridian Hill Park fountain into a log flume. But that plan foundered after the National Park Service told DC it would require a public EIS process that would conclude, at the earliest, on April 1, 2036.

Some park advocates also opposed the idea at the time. Referring to the alignment near the Watergate, Ivana Park, co-chair of the Committee to Re-Engineer Extant Plans (CREEP), said, "The 1930 landscape plan for this area does not show the canal being used for boat transportation, so this use would plainly violate the historic nature of the C&O National Historical Park."

Will people ride it?

A major criticism of DuRT nationwide is whether riding on a duck boat carries a stigma as compared to more upscale-seeming vehicles. For that reason, some cities have tried using swan boats instead.

Miami politicians recently asked to replace a duck project, long in planning, to swans. "People don't like to take ducks," said Miami-Dade Commissioner Xavier Suarez, "unless they have no alternative."

But proponents like Yorick Yoffe of Citylab argue that these are myths, and if a good-quality DuRT line were built, people would ride it.

The US has not successfully built a DuRT line without it devolving to a bathtub-sized project through "DuRTy Creep," but proponents hope a Backlick Run/Potomac River line could be the one that finally succeeds.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Support Us
DC Maryland Virginia Arlington Alexandria Montgomery Prince George's Fairfax Charles Prince William Loudoun Howard Anne Arundel Frederick Tysons Corner Baltimore Falls Church Fairfax City
CC BY-NC