The Second Battle of Rock Creek
By Peter Harnik, WABA President

Washington’s Twenty Years’ War-;the war between cars and people in Rock Creek Park -; is entering a new phase, and the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) has an opportunity to score another victory. This time our rallying cry is “Rock Creek Park -; Seven Days a Week!”

For those of you who haven’t been here for 20 years, let me give some history.

The battle lines were set in the mid-’70s when the National Park Service, under Rock Creek Park Superintendent James Redmond, attempted to do something to respond to the burgeoning number of new cyclists and runners who were beginning to transform the recreational scene in the nation’s capital. At the time, there were no bike facilities in town other than a converted former horse trail along Potomac Parkway.

Redmond, the most courageous superintendent in the park’s 100-plus year history, instituted an experimental car-free closure of the central section of Beach Drive-;the “Boulder Bridge section”-;beginning with one Sunday a month from late spring to early autumn.

Bicyclists, runners and other park and nature lovers responded enthusiastically, while complaints from car drivers were muted and rare. Redmond felt he had a mandate to push the envelope, and he expanded the closures to every Sunday during the summer.

In 1979 the WABA board was looking for a way to beef up its efforts for car-free places in Washington. After striking out on F Street downtown and Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown, we decided to take on Beach Drive, and formed a new coalition, the Peoples Alliance for Rock Creek Park (PARC). The timing was opportune since the Park Service was also concerned about the impact of cars in the park.

Through aggressive outreach, rallies, mailings, leafleting and publicity, PARC generated a good deal of impassioned support while at the same time using sophisticated traffic analysis to show why the Boulder Bridge section of Beach Drive should be closed permanently. Here were some of our opponents: the Washington Post, then-Maryland Congressman Michael Barnes, the District Government (which was in the process of rebuilding upper 16th Street and wanted the park to absorb the extra cars), many of the neighborhood groups in Northwest and many daily drivers from Maryland and D.C.-;including 100 or so who happened to be Members of Congress.

The hearings were strident and bitter. The Park Service took all the ideas and came up with nine different traffic flow scenarios, including one-way options and rush/non-rush-hour options. PARC performed admirably, generating volumes of mail and phone calls, and we gained ground but didn’t win. Solomon- like, NPS gave us two-sevenths of the baby: the park would be for people on weekends and for cars on weekdays.

Then, tragically, Jim Redmond developed liver cancer. Six months later he was dead.

I firmly believe that, had Redmond lived, we would have seen the steady evolution of a more bike-friendly Rock Creek Park. As it was, improvements have occurred at a glacial pace. The summer-only closures were extended to year-round and car-free sections were added in the northern parts of Beach Drive. But the two-day/five-day split remain.

Now we’re trying again with a new coalition and with “Alternative Scenario 2 1/2,” our proposed traffic scheme for Rock Creek Park’s General Management Plan. WABA is bigger and stronger than 20 years ago, and bicycling has proven itself over the past two decades-;plus the region has a nearly-complete Metro system which it didn’t have back then. But we’re facing the same long odds and probably the same opposition as last time. It won’t be easy.

If you’re like me, there’s nothing more precious in Washington, D.C. than Rock Creek Park. Making Rock Creek a seven-day-a-week park is up to every single one of us, and this is the time to do it. We need your active support in this Second Battle of Rock Creek so that the war doesn’t drag on for another decade or two.

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