Rhonda Whitaker and Waldon Adams were taking a typical weekend stroll around Hains Point on April 24th. The two of them had overcome chronic homelessness and were fierce advocates working to help others emerge from a similar situation. They volunteered at Miriam’s Kitchen, helping feed and assist those with the most urgent needs. They were truly good people.
The Point was alive with recreation that morning. Hundreds of people were riding bicycles, rollerblading, running, jogging, walking, picnicking, fishing, holding the usual family cookouts. It was a happy scene on a gorgeous spring day.
However, around 10:30am that day Whitaker and Adams met their untimely death at the hands of an out-of-control driver on the northbound side of Hains Point. The driver hit them with an extremely violent outcome. Witnesses describe the scene as especially grisly. The driver hit with such force that their vehicle’s front license plate was left at the scene. This happened to be the way that the U.S. Park Police (with help from DC’s Metropolitan Police Department) found the driver, who had fled from the destruction he had wrought.
I was riding there not 15 minutes before they died – I’m sure I saw them during my bicycling laps. Most people at Hains Point that day were respectful of each other’s presence and were obeying the law. But given the history of Hains Point in terms of road violence, scenes like this are increasingly commonplace. As I said in an interview with ABC 7’s Nick Minock: this was shocking but not surprising.
Upon hearing the news #bikeDC Twitter erupted in a collective “not again” reaction. Over the previous fortnight there were multiple injuries and deaths due to traffic violence on DC’s roads. These two deaths happened just as Ward 2 Councilmember Brooke Pinto started a road safety fact finding bike tour (and Hains Point is in Ward 2, albeit under National Park Service control), and this fact was not lost in the tweets:
Immediately there were calls for changes at Hains Point to more safely accommodate the various needs and desires of its patrons. As is the norm, there were folks aiming for both extremes: either banning motor vehicles outright or keeping things as is due to traditions.
There was a lot of back-and-forth discussion, and the following is a distillation of the arguments I made for a workable compromise for Hains Point (and possibly other NPS jurisdiction roads in the District, such as Anacostia Park and Fort Circle Park) going forward.
Basically: there are a lot of safe drivers using Ohio Drive on Hains Point. But there are also a lot of bad actor drivers who treat it like a drag strip.
Whatever the case: the current setup doesn’t work.
So what are alternatives?
There are ways to make access work and still make the park an ideal place for nonviolent recreation.
As suggested by Keya Chatterjee, there could be electric powered shuttle carts like 8th Street SE businesses use to bring patrons to baseball and soccer games. These would be better for the environment and if the 8th Street shuttles are any indication, they can carry a lot of people and cargo at a reasonable speed (most top out at 28 mph and can be speed limited to 25mph).
Alternately, there could be driving access permits for picnic areas, fishing, and south point access (i.e., where the big playground is located and tour buses tend to linger during non-pandemic times). This would require NPS to delineate parking and picnic areas as it does in Rock Creek Park. Permits could be issued for free or for a nominal cost for the largest areas.
There could be an even day/odd day opening schedule for the Hains Point loop, where on odd numbered calendar days the loop road south of the golf course would only be open to non-motorized access, while on even days and holidays the road will be open to all users.
I’ve seen variations of this plan work in other parks around the country and it’s effective. One great example is City Creek Canyon in Salt Lake City, Utah (my hometown).
Until the late 1980s City Creek Canyon Road was open to all traffic, 7 days a week during non-winter months – basically Memorial Day to the end of September. The road is narrow and winding, and there were frequent conflicts between drivers, people on bikes, runners, hikers, and walkers. Although this was before the era of cell phones, people still drove distracted due to passengers in their cars and, more often than not, the scenery of the canyon.
People were injured and killed with alarming frequency. Something had to be done.
Eventually city government and the local parks department, after months of deliberation, opted to go with an odd day/even day access plan during months when the canyon was fully open. Only motor vehicles and pedestrians can access the canyon and its picnic areas on even numbered days, with non-motorized allowed on odd days. In addition, the road to access the canyon mouth was converted into a one-way street (east to west), with the former eastbound lane converted to a multi-use path for pedestrians and people on bicycles.
City Creek Canyon is similar to Hains Point as a venue for large family picnics and BBQs in the summer, so there was some initial grousing by those who enjoyed the tradition of having open access to these things. Over time, though, people adjusted and the user conflicts mostly went away.
Another park in Salt Lake City – Liberty Park, which is even more similar than City Creek Canyon in terms of its being a place where local bicyclists, skaters, and runners turn flat laps – addressed their user conflict problem by making all traffic in the park be one-way, created a wide jogging path beside the road, removed the ability to drive cars in complete laps around the park, and added speed tables to the road to organically slow down motorists (these speed tables are not drastic enough to adversely affect people on bicycles from maintaining speed). This system has been successful for over 30 years in reducing crashes, injuries, and fatalities and the park is almost always alive with activity.
When I posted these arguments to Twitter, there were responses from some who argued that closing down Hains Point to cars at all would be inequity in action, especially for those with mobility problems, children, and the elderly. For two of those groups the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) would have them covered (as far as kids are concerned it’s not as simple). The ADA is a primary reason that Beach Drive reopened to cars between Military Road and the gates just north of Blagden: the picnic areas along that stretch require ADA access for those who can’t walk, ride a bike, or use another micromobility solution.
Still, there was criticism:
The reality is there are a variety of people who ride bicycles in the DMV. Some love riding in bike lanes and paths, but they’re not conducive to faster fitness riding. Of over 1,000 miles of roads in the District of Columbia there are fewer than 100 miles of bike lanes, both protected and painted.
Hains Point is an attractive place to ride a bicycle because it’s flat (for those who dislike hills), the road is wide to accommodate different users at the same time with minimal conflict, and it’s accessible. This accessibility makes it convenient for groups to ride: on April 24 members of Black Women Do Bike were turning laps on the loop, as were multi-generational families. Walking, running, and rollerblading groups also frequent the Hains Point loop as it is a smooth surface where it’s often safe to roll.
Another reality about Hains Point is that it’s slowly eroding into the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers. Flooding is more severe now than ever and will get worse. The perimeter sidewalk has fallen into extreme disrepair as the point is washed away, with long stretches now fenced off as the sidewalk has become too unstable to use. The slow death of the sidewalk means people walk in the road more often than not because there’s no other safe option.
First and foremost, though: Hains Point is a park, East Potomac Park to be specific. Parks are for recreation and enjoyment by people.
Do I want the big family picnics, BBQs, and fishing outings to go away? Hardly. However, as things stand Hains Point and East Potomac Park are a free-for-all that encourages conflict between users. This is not sustainable at all.
Still, some would not be satisfied and cried out “gentrification.” I completely understand this but it’s a misplaced claim.
To this naysayer I suggested looking at my suggestion of odd and even day access. It accommodates all in an equitable manner for all users. Gentrification implies displacement, while I’m suggesting inclusion.
Also: people who are sportive bicycle riders should have a good place to ride fast and safely. There are organized weekday group rides at Hains Point that turn fast laps for approximately one hour, first thing in the morning and at lunch. Should these riders also adhere to the law that pedestrians have absolute right-of-way? Yes.
Similarly, there are running groups who create large packs running in the road, and pacelines of rollerbladers that turn quick laps. Should they also be law abiding? Of course. I don’t suggest otherwise – and for the most part they do.
Are there bad actors in the bike, running, and walking communities that make frequent use of the park? Of course. To wit: all of these groups get called out very publicly when they don’t work to abide by the law and be neighborly to others. But when these groups make mistakes it’s seldom fatal. When a driver makes a mistake the tons of metal surrounding them inflicts serious and sometimes mortal damage.
There are speed limits at Hains Point (25mph for much of it, 15mph at the southern end) but this speed is seldom ever enforced. When U.S. Park Police enforce traffic laws at Hains Point, the ones who get pegged 90 percent of the time are people on bicycles for not stopping at one particular stop sign by the tennis center at the intersection of Buckeye and Ohio Drives SW.
Most people on bicycles roll through the stop because there’s zero cross traffic, be it car, bike, or pedestrian, as well as a very clear line of sight to crossing traffic. But the police perform this “stepped up enforcement” whenever there is a major incident between two mode uses (typically drivers and people on bikes). However, during these enforcement surges drivers often do a so-called “rolling stop” without any mind from USPP – not in the many times I’ve seen this increased enforcement practiced in the nearly 20 years I’ve lived in DC.
Furthermore, when drivers get on the Ohio Drive loop there’s often unpredictable lane changing, turning, parking, even straddling of the lanes because these people are driving distracted. Granted, Hains Point is a scenic place with a lot of natural visual distraction. Add in non-driving people on the road and the side-effects of distracted driving are far worse.
In the end, any rethinking of road access and use policies at Hains Point should be about protecting all PEOPLE who use the park – and on a typical day it’s not just families picnicking or fishing or washing their cars, but a huge mix of people recreating, both actively and passively. For every 10 people having a cookout there are another 20 riding bicycles, another 30 running, and another 40 walking, with most of them sharing the two lanes of Ohio Drive. They all deserve safety and peace when at the park.
Above all, change of how the road at Hains Point is managed needs to happen. It’s not safe or sustainable if left in its current state of affairs.
But if a sensible solution – and it can’t be “keep it the same,” it just can’t – will ensure that even Hains Point adheres to the #VisionZero tenet that “while mistakes on the road will happen, nobody needs to die because of them,” then it must not only be considered but must be enacted as soon as possible. There is no other truly equitable outcome.