Friday photo: Canopy street


America’s federal government (unlike governments elsewhere) has historically frowned upon continuous canopies of roadside trees — or, indeed, any roadside trees at all. After all, anything that distracts drivers from the task of racking up lots of miles, at high speeds, is simply inadmissable.

Thus, I was pleasantly surprised to find these few hundred linear feet of bucolic bliss lining a federally maintained road just a few miles from the Beltway. Of course, this road is within the USDA’s Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, and the USDA is probably friendlier to (cultivated) trees than its counterparts in other agencies.

Oops, NPS accidentally fixed the Peters Point trail crossing

Rock Creek trail crossing at Peters Point

Peters Point, which I earlier called the worst trail junction in town, was miraculously fixed for a few days.

All it took was a resurfacing project that sent cars around the useless little loop. Since the drivers were forced to slow down and pay attention, they were much more likely to notice the crosswalk and yield to pedestrians. That’s even though the temporary crosswalk was more difficult to see, and a set of warning signs were taken away.

Now that the main roadway resurfacing is complete, though, everything’s back to “normal” now. The really sharply angled ramp has been regraded, and perhaps the crosswalk will be restriped with a ladder rather than two thin lines, but I don’t expect to see compliance to ever again be quite as high.

Not that the deadly and criminal behavior by car drivers stopped, of course. This guy illegally blew through the crosswalk without stopping, slowing, or even bothering to look for the cross traffic that was inches away.

Rock Creek trail crossing at Peters Point

A few possible bike + train itineraries via Amtrak’s Capitol Limited

Harper's Ferry in October

The Capitol Limited rolls into Harpers Ferry, W.V.

The launch of roll-on/roll-off bicycle service on Amtrak’s Capitol Limited makes it much easier for bicyclists to travel the Great Allegheny Passage and C&O canal towpath. Although the train’s mileage is very similar to the trail’s, a look at the mileage charts will still come in handy when planning an expedition.

For instance, one could complete the trip over two (slightly ambitious) or three (light) weekends, rather than blocking off an entire workweek and hoping for no rain. Starting from DC, this might look like:

Capitol Limited schedule

Capitol Limited, 2015 schedule

C&O Friday
4 PM: Amtrak from DC to Cumberland; overnight. (The late departure makes it possible to get most of a workday in.)
C&O Saturday
Bike 85 miles from Cumberland to Williamsport
C&O Sunday
Bike 68 miles from Williamsport to Reston; Silver Line back

GAP Thursday
4 PM: Amtrak from DC to Pittsburgh; overnight
GAP Friday
Bike 76 miles from Pittsburgh to Ohiopyle
GAP Saturday
Bike 75 miles from Ohiopyle to Cumberland
GAP Sunday
9 AM: Amtrak from Cumberland to DC

The trip’s even easier starting from Pittsburgh, since you can roll off the early-morning Capitol Limited and have a full day of bicycling ahead. Here’s an easy-pace three-weekend schedule, involving just one weekday:

GAP (Part 1) Saturday
5 AM: Amtrak from Pittsburgh to Connellsville
Bike back to Pittsburgh (downhill)

GAP (Part 2) Saturday
5 AM: Amtrak from Pittsburgh to Connellsville
Bike 44 miles to Rockwood
GAP (Part 2) Sunday
Bike 45 miles from Rockwood to Cumberland (mostly a fantastic downhill)
7 PM: Amtrak from Cumberland to Pittsburgh

C&O Friday
5 AM: Amtrak from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, arrive 9:31 AM
Bike 60 miles to Hancock
C&O Saturday
Bike 65 miles to Harpers Ferry
C&O Sunday
Bike 59 miles to Washington DC
4 PM: Amtrak from DC to Pittsburgh

For Washingtonians, Harpers Ferry is also a gateway to a great many weekend road rides in the western hills. Begin with the 4PM ride out on a Friday, and an overnight in the old town. The next day, choose between several loop routes near Harpers Ferry, like around Antietam or South Mountain. After one more overnight (no need to carry everything), take the train back the following morning.

Or take the train out on a Friday evening and begin riding back east along the C&O, perhaps spending a night at a trailside campsite or a cabin (Lockhouse 28 and the Bald Eagle Island campsite are 10 miles downriver, bikeable before sundown during DST). Then, head up out of the valley to explore northern Loudoun or western Montgomery counties. Ultimately, either the W&OD or C&O (or even RideOn on Monday morning from Poolesville) offer a return trip into town.

Another, less complete trail links two other cities along the Capitol Limited — Pittsburgh and Cleveland. Here’s how that trip would work as a one-way.

DC will not become ‘like Amsterdam.’ It’ll be better.

District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser said this week “that the District will not become ‘like Amsterdam,’ as though being ‘like Amsterdam’ would be a bad thing,” says a blog post by the Netherlands Embassy.

The embassy backed up their umbrage with a stylish infographic showing off several metrics where Amsterdam handily surpasses the District — particularly in transportation choices, as Amsterdam offers its current residents more waterways, more bikeways, and more streetcar lines.

For one point, the infographic concedes that the District is bigger and better than Amsterdam: Washingtonians can now legally possess over 11 times as much marijuana as Amsterdammers. But since the Netherlands has more permissive laws regarding the retail sale of marijuana than the United States, many visitors (like, perhaps, Mayor Bowser) instinctively use “Amsterdam” as shorthand for a place with libertine drug laws. (Dutch society has a long history of taking a uniquely hands-off approach to social policy.)

On several other points, though, the infographic shows that although DC isn’t quite there yet, we’re well on our way. DC already has ambitious plans to beat Amsterdam on two points: the Sustainable DC Plan projects another 250,000 Washingtonians, for a total of 868,000 to Amsterdam’s 810,000; and the Move DC plan has plotted out 343 miles of bikeways, including 72 miles of Dutch-style protected bike lanes, which easily beats the mere 250 miles of bikeways in Amsterdam.

DC is also making significant progress in closing the 12-museum gap with Amsterdam. With an evergrowing number of museums here, DC is well on its way to overtaking Amsterdam in this particular metric. (I don’t have statistics handy, but it seems likely that DC has fewer but larger museums, which probably have an edge in terms of collection size and total visitors.)

On two other metrics, though, we have a long way to go. At the current rate of construction, it will be a while until DC manages to build its 16th streetcar line — but note that the Dutch embassy conveniently doesn’t count Metro lines, as DC boasts six to Amsterdam’s five (almost), as construction on their north-south line is almost as delay-prone as our streetcar.

The yawning gap between the two cities’ canal networks is only half as dire as the Dutch say. Yes, Amsterdam has 165, but DC actually has two operating canals, not one: The embassy may have been confused by the name of Washington Channel, which is a brackish waterway built to drain tidal flats and to keep open a shipping channel. In other words, it’s hydrologically far more similar to Amsterdam’s canals than the freshwater C&O.

In any case, I’ll concede that more of Amsterdam is below sea level than Washington. In an era of rising sea levels, though, that’s probably not something worth trumpeting.

Bike overnights from D.C. through Maryland

Harpers Ferry in October

My recent five-day bike tour through the mountains whetted my appetite for quicker escapes into the same countryside. Luckily, the DC region sits astride the fall line, which puts a variety of topographies within reach. This makes it possible to do a bike overnight, or more ambitiously, a sub-24-hour outing (S24O).

On such a short trip, it’s important to ride enough miles to make the trip an accomplishment, but not so many as to be exhausted or to preclude any off-bike adventures. One key to doing so is to strictly limit the mileage spent biking down dangerous streets in traffic-choked suburbs, and to take advantage of trails — particularly easy-grade rail or riverfront trails.

One weekday-only trip that combines these, starting in the District, is a bike trip from Poolesville, Md. to Harpers Ferry, W. Va., returning via the C&O Canal towpath along the Potomac. This takes advantage of Montgomery County’s urban growth boundary, the area’s extensive rush-hour bus system, and the centuries-old Potomac path.

One recent day, I awoke at 5 AM to board a Red Line train at 6 AM, leaving the system at Shady Grove just as the morning bike ban started. From there, I waited a few minutes for RideOn route 76, which on weekday peak hours travels from Shady Grove through Kentlands, then deep into the Ag Reserve, and eventually ends in the rural town of Poolesville. Like all RideOn buses, the buses sport dual bike racks. Interestingly, the largest business in downtown Poolesville is a tractor supply store — the last place I expected to be able to take a city bus to.

The historic center of Poolesville, Maryland, just past the terminus of RideOn route 76.

Poolesville is famous among area cyclists as a jumping-off point for rides on country roads, but I wasn’t aware of any car-free routes to get there until I scrutinized WMATA’s regional bus maps.

From Poolesville, it was a quick 5 1/2 mile, downhill ride down Whites Ferry and Wasche Road to the Dickerson Conservation Park, and then onto the C&O. Harpers Ferry is another 22 miles upriver, not far past the railroad-centric town of Brunswick, Md. Equally charming Shepherdstown, W.Va. is another 13 miles upriver.

The main street of Brunswick, Maryland.

Lodging and camping options along the way are plentiful. Shepherdstown and Harpers Ferry offer numerous B&Bs and hostels, while the C&O has walk-in campgrounds every few miles along the trail plus six historic cabins available for nightly rentals.

The return bike trip is all downhill, and can be accomplished in one day: It’s 61 miles from Harpers Ferry to Georgetown, or 73 miles back from Shepherdstown. 13 miles can be shaved by hopping across the river at White’s Ferry and picking up the W&OD trail in Leesburg, which also has a charming downtown, and ending at the Silver Line. (Even with just Phase 1, Silver extends further than any of Metro’s rail lines.)

Another, 7-day-a-week transit option that I’ve used is Metrobus B30 — yes, the BWI bus. It, too, has bike racks just like every other Metrobus, but unlike other Metrobuses it travels beyond the Patuxent River and into metro Baltimore. (This option takes much longer than MARC, which may soon add a bike car to its Penn Line weekend trains.)

From the BWI light rail station, a cyclist can:

  • Board a Baltimore light rail train into the city, with its fantastic neighborhoods and Olmsted trails — or to Hunt Valley, about half a mile short of the Northern Central Rail Trail north to York;
  • Connect to several other buses, notably MTA’s buses to Annapolis or RTA’s buses through Howard and Anne Arundel counties;
  • Ride up alongside the tracks to the BWI Trail and follow the signs to the B&A Rail-Trail to Annapolis and the Chesapeake shore;
  • Walk through the BWI Amtrak station, then ride north on Ridge Road and through old downtown Elkridge (not much there) to the Patapsco Valley state park’s trails.

(That said, biking all the way to Baltimore or Annapolis is certainly feasible. I’ve used Brock Bridge Road for the former, and Governors Bridge Road for the latter, and enjoyed a relatively low-stress trip. Next up: Metrobus to Olney, then riding via Columbia and Catonsville to Baltimore.)

Someday, urban cyclists in DC will be able to easily slice past the sprawl aboard commuter trains. It’s possible today to bring bikes aboard VRE midday trains, which makes it possible to leave early on Friday and ride back from Manassas or Fredericksburg. Another option to consider is VRE halfway, then a ride through the farms to Charlottesville (from F’burg or Manassas).

The region’s weekday commuter buses might also prove useful, although they’re certainly not geared to weekending cyclists. Loudoun Transit runs to Purcellville, aka the western end of the W&OD Trail, and appears to allow bikes for pre-registered users. Maryland’s commuter buses cover a vast territory from Hagerstown to the Eastern Shore, but have no specific bike policy.

My five days on the GAP + C&O trails

GAP ride

Overlook just east of the continental divide.

Three general observations after a week on the Great Allegheny Passage and C&O Canal towpath:

  • Six days would be perfect; the five-day schedule offered insufficient recovery/slack time and left me feeling rushed, despite good stretches at 15+ MPH. In my case, a rainy morning and the Fallingwater side trip ended up taking up a good chunk of day two, which left me with almost a century to accomplish on day three. Plus, the towns were more interesting than I expected.
  • For the most part, you actually might not want to stay overnight in the most interesting towns (IMO: Ohiopyle, Cumberland, Harpers Ferry). Their attractions are mostly open during the day, whereas for an overnight location you mostly just want to eat dinner and crash. Specifically, I’d recommend stopping at Harpers Ferry during the day when the historic park’s attractions are open, then overnighting at Lockhouse 28, and then a leisurely reintroduction to metropolitan civilization the next day.
  • The C&O’s surface varies tremendously. Some of the sections are, like the parts closest to DC, very rocky and tough to take at speed, but others are much smoother (and often muddier). I did appreciate taking breaks from it, though.

The daily itinerary, as it played out:

  1. Pittsburgh to Ohiopyle, Penna. 77 mi. slightly uphill via McKeesport, West Newton, Connellsville. Stopped at Target in Homestead to buy a $30 tent, which did in fact pay off. Some of the Steel Valley towns would have been worth a side trip, but the main goal was to get out of town. Highlight: Appalachian Juice Company in Connellsville.
  2. Ohiopyle to Meyersdale, Penna. 42 mi. uphill via Confluence, Rockwood. The morning trip to Fallingwater was very steep: it’s 780′ of vertical over less than five miles. By comparison, the GAP’s first hundred miles rise by about the same amount. I’d planned to make it over the divide to Frostburg, but had to stop 15 miles short once night fell — it’s really, truly dark. That said, Fallingwater is truly transcendent.
  3. Meyersdale to Hancock, Md. 93 mi. mostly downhill via eastern continental divide, Cumberland, Paw Paw. Detour onto Western Maryland Rail-Trail. Highlight: dinner at Buddy Lou’s in Hancock.
  4. Hancock to Sandy Hook, Md. (Harpers Ferry) 48 mi. flat via Williamsport, Sharpsburg. Detoured over land from Williamsport through Antietam Battlefield. This cut out about 16 miles by keeping us away from a particularly windy stretch of the Potomac; plus, the main uphill was from the valley up to Williamsport, where we were stopping for lunch anyways. Highlights: lunch at Desert Rose Cafe in Williamsport and Nutter’s Ice Cream in Sharpsburg. However, we did end up bypassing Sheperdstown, W.V., a town that other riders commended.
  5. Sandy Hook to Reston, Va. 45 mi. via Leesburg, switching to W&OD via White’s Ferry. Took the Silver Line to Washington Union Station from there. Highlight: ultra-smooth cold-brewed Hopscotch Coffee. Although this was the only day that passed by any breweries (Crooked Run, Old Ox, Lost Rhino, Mad Fox, Bluejacket, etc.), we were in too much of a hurry for any stops.

Update, 1 June 2015, for benefit of whoever landed here searching for a five-day itinerary: Finished another trip last week. This itinerary was more balanced miles-wise, owing to an evening rather than midday ending on Day 5. Three nights of camping also helped keep the itinerary more flexible:

  1. Pittsburgh > Braddock > West Newton > Connellsville 59 mi. Camped behind a supermarket (24-hour!) at the edge of town in Connellsville, which was convenient if not scenic.
  2. Connellsville > Ohiopyle > Confluence > Rockwood 47 mi. Lunch at Ohiopyle was a perfect “last stop in civilization.” The surroundings get very rural past there, but Rockwood did at least have pizza and campsites.
  3. Rockwood > Frostburg > Cumberland > Lock 62 campsite (past Paw Paw) 72 mi. Frostburg is empty after the college lets out. Stocked up on supplies in Cumberland ahead of the only night of primitive camping.
  4. Lock 62 > Hancock > Williamsport > Sharpsburg > Shepherdstown 74 mi. Shepherdstown was a better overnight stop than HF, with better nightlife even when school’s not in session.
  5. Shepherdstown > Leesburg > Herndon 55 mi. Spent a while lingering around Harpers Ferry during the day. Took the 5A from Herndon-Monroe rather than the Silver Line because it was rush hour, and got a warning from the bus driver about our front racks not fitting — but we were fine.

Shorts: movements


1. Susan Silberberg et al (via Angie at Streetsblog write that placemaking’s true value stems less from physical transformation than social transformation: “The act of advocating for change, questioning regulations, finding funding, and mobilizing others to contribute their voices engages communities.”

In short, it’s not about the bike, or the parklet: it’s about creating social space for a social movement to free now-privatized but publicly-controlled spaces, returning them to public use.

Years ago, this was a key (and under-appreciated) accomplishment of early Critical Mass rides. The event is just a means to an end, a safe space through which a social movement organized; to this day*, many confuse those ends and means.

* it’s arguably lost its urgency now that there are many other organizing venues.

not a maglev

2. There have been a few proposals to build maglev trains in the USA before, including this cross-Maryland proposal ten years ago. So what’s different about the latest version?

In a meeting with President Obama last winter, Mr. Abe offered to provide the maglev guideway and propulsion system free for the first portion of the line, linking Washington and Baltimore via Baltimore-Washington International Airport, a distance of about 40 miles. – Eric Pfanner, NYT

Those previous plans, however, did not feature Abenomics and its tidal wave of printed yen. As much as I’m skeptical of proprietary technologies, a fast and efficient connection between the two cities would certainly be momentous.

3. Thad Hall from the University of Utah (via Washington Monthly & Mischiefs of Faction) graphically shows how the House GOP has marched rightward, using DW-NOMINATE data:

The 50th-percentile average Republican in 1995 (104th Congress) — the red bar — was as conservative as today’s “RINO” moderate. Meanwhile, 1995’s firebrand 90th-percentile revolutionaries (the blue bar) then are *below* average now. The entire bell curve has shifted.