Starting Monday, September 24th, The National Park Service (NPS) will close the DC-side entrance to the paved path along the 14th Street Bridge. NPS is shuttering the steep, Southwest-bound ramp for 10-weeks to make long-requested changes to the facility. The entire route along the 14th Street Bridge will close for pedestrians and cyclists from Sunday, October 7th to Saturday, October 13th.
Thanks to $275,000 raised primarily from a Transportation Alternatives Program grant, the ride around the Tidal Basin on East Basin Drive SW will get nicer with a protected bike lane. The climb up to the Bridge will be wider and less steep.
Why Cyclists Use the 14th Street Bridge
If you’re South of the Washington Monument on a bike, your best bet to get over to Virginia is to use the 14th Street Bridge. On the North side of that bridge is a wide, paved path with a high railing separating you from the car commuters following I-395/US-1 across the span. The track is wide enough that two bikes can comfortably pass each other, but not so wide you don’t have to pay attention. Once you get to Virginia, the bridge path nicely rotates clockwise with a moderate descent angle onto the Mt. Vernon Trail, where you can go North or South.
Why the DC-side of the 14th Street Bridge Sucks
Entering the Bridge from DC is not fun. You head South from the Mall along 14th Street SW or 15th Street SW (which becomes Raoul Wallenberg Pl SW) and you merge onto Maine Ave. SW for a few hundred feet. Maine Ave SW turns into Ohio Drive SW as you move clockwise around the Tidal Basin.
Ohio Drive SW, almost exclusively used by tour buses and government vehicles, lacks any bike facilities. You feel like you are riding on a service road. The discomfort is so much that almost everyone I’ve ever seen uses the wide sidewalks immediately to the North that approach the Jefferson Memorial. The problem with sidewalk riding is, and this is always true, it’s hazardous. That’s even more true with the walkways around the Jefferson Memorial because they’re used by tourists walking slowly and very often looking at maps. No shade, but it’s not the best situation to mix with fast, confident cycling commuters.
To get up from Ohio Drive SW to the 14th Street Bridge, cyclists take a left turn onto a narrow, asphalt ramp that isn’t level and makes for perfect blooper-reel crashes when the surface is even a little bit affected by cold or precipitation. Seriously, it’s not safe. It’s too narrow to accommodate the constant flow to bike commuters in both directions. When climbing up it, the gradient is high enough you can’t see oncoming cyclists or runners.
There are also several stupid poles in the middle of the ramp that you have to get around, and I have seen people run into. Those aren’t getting moved (yet).
These 14th Street Bridge Changes are First of Many More
These modifications to the 14th Street Bridge path are per NPS’s Paved Trail Plan for the National Capital Region, finalized in 2016. NPS sought feedback from commuting and recreational users, and plan to make many changes to existing trails with options to create new segments. Bike commuters (and weekend warriors like myself) have complained for years about tricky stretches of trail and NPS is finally getting around to some of them.
Why Bike Path Improvements Matter
Now, reader, you may ask why this is such an important step. Just like you may ask why cyclists aren’t happy with bike lanes painted onto existing roads. You’re giving road space to bikes and cyclists should be grateful. That’s better than nothing, better than it was before. That’s true, to a point.
These bike route improvements are important because they lower the barrier to less-experienced and more casual cyclists. I’m comfortable riding pretty much anywhere, but there’s been a 10-year adjustment. What my experience shows, and what the data show, is that we riding won’t get beyond the white, male, athletic, young, single demographic until cycling facilities are safe and look inviting at first glance. That’s why protected bike lanes and gradual, wide ramps are so important.
Casual riders look at much of existing bike facilities and they don’t feel safe. Which, by the by, is perfectly rational. Those cars are extremely dangerous hunks of metal piloted by people trained for whole lives to *not* watch out for cyclists and *not* to think of roads as shared space.